Difficult to figure what Astros are doing, but GM has answers

Bo Porter's fiery managing style is on display during Houston's series with Oakland.

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Brian Kenny, MLB Network’s leading sabermetric crusader, calls the Astros the "team of the future." Maybe Kenny’s prophecy will come to pass, maybe not. But as the Astros wait for their prospects to develop, it’s always something with them, isn’t it?

In the past week alone, the Astros sucked the Athletics into a bean-ball war, sent their top pitching prospect to extended spring training and experienced repeated failures with a bullpen that they actually spent money to fix last offseason.

Meanwhile, opponents continued to question the large (excessive?) number of defensive shifts employed by the Astros. The Angels, for example, were baffled that the Astros shifted on Mike Trout, a right-handed hitter who uses the whole field.

Through Saturday’s games, the Astros had used 325 shifts, an average of 13 per game, according to STATS LLC. The Yankees were next at 202, followed by the Indians with 148, the Red Sox with 123 and the Orioles with 122.

In any case, given all the commotion surrounding these Astros, I figured it was again time to go to the source, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, for some explanations. Luhnow, as always, tackled the questions head-on.

Shifts: Some think the "team of the future" is making frequent use of shifts merely to gather information for the future.

Not so, Luhnow said.

HIGH FASHION WITH A PURPOSE

"I do think that any time you set up defense differently, part of what you’re learning is how the offense is going to react, if they’re even going to attempt to react or not," Luhnow said.

"We do want to learn as much as we can every time we do something differently out there. But are we doing things just to learn? No. We’re doing things for reasons that we have. We believe we’€™re going to get more outs that way."

Why shift on someone like Trout? Well, Trout’s spray charts show that he hits more grounders to the left side than the right. His line drive and fly-ball distribution is more even but not relevant when shifting infielders.

"When we’re talking about our infielders, we focus on the ground-ball distribution," Luhnow said. "In general, we’ve been aligning ourselves as an industry (in a way) that covers real estate proportionally. That may not be the best way to do it. It’s not the best way to do it. I think we’re proving that."

Manager Bo Porter: The Astros’ trouble with the Athletics began when Porter grew upset with shortstop Jed Lowrie’s bunt attempt against a shift with the A’s leading 7-0 in the first inning.

Porter’s reaction raised the obvious question: If the Astros no longer considered the game competitive, then why were they shifting?

At times, Porter appears to be an odd fit for the Astros — an emotional field leader for a team that is decidedly unemotional in its front-office decision-making.

Luhnow, however, said that he relishes Porter’s fiery side.

"That’s part of what makes him exciting and intrigues all of us about him — the emotion and the passion and the desire to win, that kind of football mentality," Luhnow said.

AROUND THE HORN

"He believes in everything he’s doing. I talk to him after (games), and he’s typically very rational and convicted in what he does. He makes a lot of sense. At this point, I don’t see any issue."

Right-hander Mark Appel: The initial reports about the Astros sending last year’s No. 1 overall pick from Class-A Lancaster in California to extended spring training in Florida indicated that Appel had struggled to adjust to the team’s tandem setup for starters.

Under the tandem system, eight pitchers work in pairs in a four-game rotation, enabling minor-league starters to "piggyback" on one another. Luhnow, though, said Appel’s early struggles this season were more related to his overall adjustment to professional baseball.

Appel pitched once a week at Stanford. He threw only 38 minor-league innings after signing last season, and the Astros spaced those out, so he still essentially was pitching once a week. Then, just as he was starting to build up his arm in the offseason, he underwent an emergency appendectomy, forcing him to miss the first three weeks of spring training.

The Astros exercised caution bringing Appel back, but again he was unable to get into a pitcher’s normal professional routine. Luhnow said that the decision to send him to Lancaster was a mistake — the GM’s own mistake.

"It was really my fault," Luhnow said. "I made a decision to send him out to Lancaster to have him try and build up there, to try to catch up for the time he missed in Florida. He ended up pitching twice on a four-day cycle and then he skipped a start and pitched on an eight-day cycle. It wasn’t like he was in the tandem for a month and couldn’t handle it.

"I happened to be there last week. I watched his start. I talked to him afterward. You could just tell he was not in the flow of pro ball, irrespective of five-day, four-day, six-day. He hasn’t gotten conditioned to throwing and resting, throwing and resting, the way you need to get conditioned in order to be in a five-man rotation, much less a four-man."

So, Luhnow said, he decided to take Appel "off the grid," away from the media, away from the hitter-friendly Lancaster environment.

"I don’t expect this to be more than a couple of weeks," Luhnow said. "Really, it’s just to make up for spring training. It’s my fault for sending him to Lancaster. I thought he could do it there. But once I started to think back on the history of what happened, I realized that he just didn’t have a proper spring training."

The bullpen: The Astros committed $13.8 million last offseason to four free-agent relievers — right-handers Matt Albers, Jesse Crain, Jerome Williams and Chad Qualls.

A lot of good it did them.

The team’s bullpen has the highest opponents’ OPS in the majors — a trend that could reverse, Luhnow said, if the team gets more starts like the one it did Sunday, when right-hander Collin McHugh came within one out of a complete game against the A’s.

Part of the problem is that Albers is on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis and Crain has yet to pitch for the team after undergoing surgery on his right biceps.

"I do think with the quality of arms we have out there — Qualls, Albers, (Josh) Fields and potentially Crain, when he comes back — we do have an improved bullpen. But it’s been frustrating so far," Luhnow said.

"It’s definitely a concern. We’re underperforming relative to what I was hoping we would do. But I don’t think it’s time to press the panic button. We’ve got good, experienced major-league arms. And I think they will perform."

They had better if the Astros want to avoid their fourth straight 100-loss season. The team, even after rallying to split four games with the A’s, is an American League-worst 9-17.