HOUSTON - APRIL 08: Third baseman Chris Johnson #23 of the Houston Astros makes a diving stop on a hard hit ball down the third base line at Minute Maid Park on April 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
I always feel weird highlighting a bad aspect of a bad team. The best statistical observations tend to be surprising, and it isn't really surprising that a bad team is made up of bad parts. That's why the bad team is bad. But here I am anyway, and hopefully this isn't a waste of everyone's time.
The 2011 Houston Astros are a pretty bad team. Or at least, they're a team with a bad record and a bad run differential through the first 25 games of the season. This could all be a fluke, and they might actually be a playoff contender, I guess, but all the evidence we've collected points to the same conclusion: this team isn't going places.
Now, that's pretty much what we expected of them, and you can point to any number of contributing factors to the team's 9-16 record. Despite strong starts by Brett Myers and Bud Norris, the pitching staff has the league's worst ERA. Brandon Lyon has been a shaky closer. Carlos Lee hasn't hit. Chris Johnson hasn't hit. And so on. It hasn't been one or two guys blowing it for everyone.
But through those first 25 games, the Astros have had one big problem that's a little harder to notice: the infield has simply been incapable of turning enough ground balls into outs.
At this writing, the league's overall batting average allowed on ground balls is .231. That's right in line with last year's .234. The Angels, Blue Jays, Rays, and Red Sox have been the best at converting grounders into outs. The Orioles and Braves have been about average. The Tigers and Diamondbacks have struggled. But the Astros? The Astros have been miserable.
The Astros, to date, have a batting average against on ground balls of .310. For some perspective, the worst mark a year ago belonged to the Marlins, at .265. Now, presumably, there's some small sample size magic at play here that has made the Astros look a little worse than they really are, but they're still at the bottom, and there's nearly a month in the books.
On the one hand, it makes some sense. The Astros' regular infield has consisted of:
Wallace has never had a good defensive reputation, or even a bad defensive reputation. Wallace has an unspeakable defensive reputation, and a body shape that belongs in an orchard. Johnson's reputation is bad as well. But then, Sanchez is supposed to be all right, and Hall was once an excellent defensive shortstop, so while it makes sense that the infield would have its problems, it's puzzling why it's been so very terrible.
Fortunately for the Astros, things are looking up: the team just this morning activated Clint Barmes from the disabled list, and he'll push Sanchez into a utility role. Barmes has been solid in the field in the past, and there's nothing quite like a competent shortstop to help turn an infield around.
But then, Barmes is only one guy, so we'll see how the Astros perform over the coming months. The early evidence suggests that Wallace, Hall and Johnson have been butchers, and if that keeps up, it's going to be a long, run-filled season.