Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Monday, March 29, 2004
Know Your Enemy - Part V B - The Astros
It's later than I had hoped, but here's the second part of the Astros piece, and the final part of the Know Your Enemy series. I've enjoyed writing and learning about the teams the Cubs will be primarily competing against this season, and I hope it's been fun and useful for you as well. So, without further ado, enjoy!
The Houston front office correctly identified that the team's biggest issue in 2003 was depth in the starting rotation. It wasn't difficult to see. Having to give 31 starts to Jeriome (think "Favre") Robertson and 19 starts to Ron Villone should force any General Manager into action (this means you, Dan O'Brien!).
Luckily, the Astros had someone in mind who could help. Having already expressed an interest in coming home, Andy Pettitte was wooed with thoughts of more family time, sleeping in his own bed, and great, heaping gobs of cash. The Yankees eventually offered more of the latter, but it was too little too late, and Pettitte signed a three-year deal with Houston for $31.5M. It may be a bit too much money, and I'm certainly wary of the structure, but the upgrade was necessary and the PR is great. The question is, what will the club be getting for their money?
That's a whole bunch 'o numbers, so let me highlight some of my favorite points:
I'm floored by how consistent Pettitte's hit rates are.
His walk rates have been very solid and consistent since 2001.
I don't have an explanation for this, so if anyone can think of why this would be, let me know: The more groundballs Pettitte gives up, the higher his home run rate and the higher his ERA. Wha?!?
One can't look at this chart and not see that Pettitte is a very consistent, solid performer. He should give the Astros 200 innings of above league average work, but I don't know what to make of the relationship to his GB/FB ratio and his HR/9. There is a chapter in the Great Baseball Book of Lore that says left-handed hitters adore pitches down in the zone. If there is any truth to this, pitches that might induce grounders for most hitters could give port-sided batters the opportunity to use Yankee Stadium's short right field porch. It's an interesting theory, and there's an easy way to check it out by looking at some three-year splits from 2001-2003.
Pardon the mixing of rate stats for the homers, but I couldn't find them in matching sets. In any case, it shows pretty clearly that the theory isn't viable. There is a very slight advantage in AB/HR for lefties in general, but since the theory is that they take advantage of Pettitte in Yankee Stadium, his extra low dinger rates at home put the kibosh on that idea.
In fact, while I still have no explanation for the relationship between Pettitte's GB/FB and HR/9, the above table adds validity to the idea that the benefits derived from having Houston's far better defense behind him will be sufficiently countered by increased home run rates (made potentially more daunting by the Crawford Boxes in left) as to cause them to cancel each other out, thus giving Houston about the same pitcher the Yankees have had since 1995. Considering who he's replacing, that's not bad at all.
There were rumors all along of a possible side effect to the Pettitte signing, and the speculation quickly became reality when Roger Clemens decided to end his multi-week retirement and join his friend for one last season.
This was a coup for the Astros on many levels. As a PR move, it never hurts to bring in a first ballot Hall of Famer whom many regard to be the best pitcher of his generation. Whether he's replacing Robertson or Villone, you can bet he'll perform better than them, even at 41. And while his fellow ex-Yankee might be slightly overcompensated, there's no doubt that the Rocket's $5M, mostly deferred, salary is well below what he would fetch on the open market, even in today's down cycle.
It's fairly easy to overstate the positives of this deal, but it's not stretching things to say Clemens makes this rotation substantially better. He can still pitch, and while he's not the same fearsome fireballer he was in his younger days, you won't find hitters anxiously lining up to get a crack at him. Like the Cubs' later acquisition of Greg Maddux, this move pays dividends all over the place. But the heftiest payout will come in the win column.
Not that it makes a difference over the course of a season, but it's refreshing to see Roy Oswalt get the opening day nod despite the fervor over the acquisition of his rotation mates. It would have been very easy to hand the ball to Pettitte or Clemens, and no one would have argued. Whether conscious or not, it's an acknowledgement of the fact that Oswalt is the only irreplaceable member of the starting staff.
Of course, that status makes his fragility all the more worrisome. He says he's healthy, he says he's strong, but until he gets out there for 30+ starts again, folks will keep asking questions about his groin, and in my book, there's no such thing as a good groin question.
Oswalt has a career ERA of 2.92, and I challenge anyone to find a legitimate reason to believe anyone else on this staff will approach that number in 2004. He's the real deal, but until he's able to stay healthy for an extended period of time, baseball fans on the Gulf Coast will be kept awake at night by more than oppressive humidity.
When you can legitimately say Wade Miller is your fourth starter, you've got a nice rotation put together. He had a rough first half in 2003, but figured things out after the All-Star Break, improving his ERA from the 4.66 he posted through mid-July, to 3.28 in the season's final weeks.
For some reason, over the last three years Miller has been significantly better at the end of the season. Below are his monthly splits from 2001-2003.
That's just a crazy split. The only aspect of his game that doesn't significantly improve during the final two months is his walk rate, but complaining about that is like whining about the size of the cherry on your hot fudge sundae. If Miller ever figures out how to throw like that over an entire season, he'll be a monster.
Bringing up the rear of the rotation will be Tim Redding, and while he might not be mentioned in the "best fifth starter in baseball" discussion with the likes of Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, he's certainly no slouch. In his first full season of starting in the Majors, he performed admirably with 176 IP, 179 H, 16 HR, 65 BB, 116 SO, and a 3.68 ERA. The only thing that truly troubles me is the strikeout rate, which is low compared to the rest of his career (his minor league rate was 11 SO/9, and up until last year he had a rate of 8.2 SO/9 in the Majors). I think Redding should do well, but be wary of that K rate. It could be a silent alarm.
The Astros will be taking 12 pitchers to Houston, and while I would normally deride such roster construction, with Jimy Williams' quick hook it's not such a bad idea. The Astros threw more innings out of the bullpen in 2003 than any team but the Rangers, and in 2002 were only outpaced by the Reds. His last three years at the Red Sox helm, his teams came in second, first, and third in bullpen innings respectively. So while his starting staff is better this year, with Jimy's past usage patterns it may be better to be safe than sorry.
Octavio Dotel has been one of the most dominating relievers in the majors since 2001, and with the offseason trade of Billy Wagner, he'll now be the team's closer. This is excellent news for the National League. Not because of Octavio's previous poor showing in the job in 2000, but because he'll no longer be shutting down opposing offenses in the game critical situations he's excelled in for the last three years. Of course, I wouldn't advocate retaining Wagner, he was expensive, and losing his salary allowed for the moves they made to shore up the starting staff. But there will be consequences, and one of those will be using less effective pitchers in the seventh and eighth innings. If it were left to me, someone like Brad Lidge would be throwing in the ninth with a lead, while Dotel would be used for multiple innings late in tight games. But I'm not affiliated with the Astros, so I'm thrilled to see Dotel closing.
Speaking of Brad Lidge, he had a very nice 2003, striking out more than a man an inning with a solid 3.60 ERA in 85 innings. Other than a super rough August - where he gave up four of his six home runs allowed, and sported a 10.03 ERA over 11.2 innings - and a mediocre June, he was on top of things all year. He should continue to be a force for Houston in 2004, and if he's more consistent, he has a chance to be the Astros most valuable reliever.
Although he'll probably be used as a bridge to Lidge and Dotel, there's reason to be concerned about Ricky Stone. His ERA remained nearly identical between 2002 and 2003 (3.61 vs. 3.69), but his strikeout rates plummeted last year from 7.34 per 9 innings to 5.10 per 9 innings. Granted, this could be a sample size blip, but if you see him getting lit this season, don't say I didn't warn you.
Dan Miceli should get an endorsement contract with Bekins. That's the least you can wish for a guy who spent time with four different teams in 2003. Once he settled in Houston, though, he had a nice little third of a season. However, he's been just a smidge below league average over his career, and at 33 in a good hitter's park, I wouldn't expect a repeat of his 2.10 ERA in 30 innings with the Astros. He should probably be in the back half of the bullpen.
While he's yet to turn his minor league promise into Major League success, the chance to work out his kinks in the bullpen may be just what Brandon Duckworth needs. His biggest issue appears to be an extreme propensity for giving up the longball, and in the change in his GB/FB ratios over the years, one can see a significant impact on his success.
By golly, if I didn't know any better, I'd say he needs to throw more ground balls. Some pitchers can be flyball types and do well, Barry Zito being an excellent example of the breed, but it's obvious to me that Duckworth is not one of those guys. If he can learn to get the grounders he got early in his career, Houston will have a nice young pitcher on their hands.
There's not a lot to recommend him except for his age and his ERA, but Mike Gallo will be this season's sole left-handed member of the Astro bullpen. Other than a very good 88.1 innings in the Sally League in 2002, he's never been particularly impressive, and even that year can be explained away by the fact that he was a 25 year-old in A-ball. Yet, he managed to keep his ERA at an even 3.00 over 30 innings with the big club last year, so without any other left-handers of interest around, he'll be getting the gig.
The battle for the last bullpen spot will be waged between Jared Fernandez, Jeriome Robertson, Kirk Saarloos, and Brandon Backe. All have spent time in the majors - the first three with Houston and the last with the Devil Rays - but none have done much to distinguish themselves. The favorites look to be Backe and Fernandez, but if the choice of your twelfth pitcher becomes a significant story in your season, your team has plenty of other issues to deal with.
Anyone for a "Free Jason Lane" movement? The kid has decent plate discipline, good power, and some speed. He's 27, plays a solid center field, and he's done nothing but hit everywhere he's been. Yet standing in his way is the sad, floating apparition of Craig Biggio, desperately clinging to his baseball existence. Perhaps it's best to think of this as a movement to free both players, allowing one his just deserts on earth, and releasing the other to his eternal hardball reward.
Nothing so maudlin for Orlando Palmeiro, the Astro's fifth outfielder. He's a solid choice for the role, and while he certainly brings no power to the equation - having five of nine seasons with OBP's higher than his SLG - he does get on base and provide good defense throughout the outfield. As long as he doesn't pinch hit in situations that require some pop, he'll be an asset.
This is not that case with Jose Vizcaino, a man the Astros should learn to live without. He's no longer young, and he was never particularly good, so continuing to hang on to him makes little sense, particularly at the ridiculous price of $1.2M. At least the first two years of the love affair with Orlando Merced were reasonably productive, but there's no such history here. I can only hope that Vizcaino bakes a mean cheesecake, because I can't think of a good baseball reason to keep him around.
Not happy with candidates like John Valentin and Eric Bruntlett, the Astros struck a deal with the Yankees to bring Mike Lamb over to fill that last backup infield spot. There are worse choices, but if there's a danger that comes with his signing, it's the fact that he hits from the left side and plays third base. He's a decent choice to come off the bench, but if Jimy William's develops a Blumian fascination with a platoon at the hot corner, this deal could turn into subtraction by addition.
Yet another former denizen of a remote Chilean island, Raul Chavez will perform the backup catcher duties as one of the rare deviations from the original formula. He was part of a small batch of switch hitters the good doctor cooked up after seeing a couple of outings by Damon Berryhill. Since the results didn't vary, and the trouble in concocting was considerable, I understand the recipe was abandoned.
This is a good team. There are five hitters capable of having seasons ranging from good to great, the bullpen is solid, and the starting staff will be formidable. There are holes in the lineup, a couple stiffs on the bench, and not all the relievers are world-beaters, but as has been said here repeatedly and in other spaces as well, there is no team in this division without significant flaws.
I've become convinced that whoever does win this division - and to be fair, the conversation only includes the Cardinals, Astros, and Cubs - it will not be the team with the fewest weaknesses, but the team whose strengths remain most intact. On that score, the Astros points of concern reside in the decline processes of some offensive stars, and the fragility of their best pitcher. If Bagwell or Kent fall off a cliff, or Oswalt misses significant time, Houston's chances will be severely damaged.
Assuming no setbacks, this is the most balanced team in the NL Central. The remaining question is whether that balance will win out over the offensive advantage held by the Cardinals and the pitching advantage held by the Cubs. And that, folks, is why they play the games, and why we watch them. Happy Opening Day!