What a difference a week makes

Yeesh. 7 games, 7 days, 7 losses – and that chatter about positive run differential, getting back to .500, all of that? Yeah, that’s gone now, or at least pushed to the back burner for a while. The warnings about “young teams can be streaky”? Well, there you go.

Houston opponents have finally outscored the Astros on the year, 226-213, so their run differential is now on the same side of even as their record. Even still, Houston has under-performed their X_WL by three games (25-27, versus actual WL of 22-30), and they’ve still got the third best X_WL in the division (behind St. Louis and Cincinnati) in spite of being fifth place now in the standings. If they can snap this streak and get back to playing as they were before, I believe they’ve still got a shot at .500 on the year and third place in the division. But honestly, lowered expectations after this past week are more realistic for a rebuilding franchise coming off their worst season ever.

All of that said, Astros fans do at least have a few positives to take away from an otherwise brutal week. In five of these seven losses, Houston has shown a lot of fight, rather than just rolling over and taking it as they might have a year ago. Last night’s loss not withstanding, the sputtering offense looked significantly better during the four-game series in Denver (though maybe we can blame that on a defective Humidor and an equally defective Colorado pitching staff). The team is back home now, where their play has been in stark contrast to their road allergies this season. And looking long-term – Jeff Luhnow had mentioned that this team might be buyers at the trade deadline. Frankly, no one likes losing, but I don’t believe that the time for buying is yet, as exciting as that might have been. If it takes a nasty seven-game stretch to protect that long-term vision, then so be it. As surprisingly gratifying as the Big Four Contracts (Lee, Lyon, Wandy, Myers) have been in 2012, I’d still rather bid farewell to any or all of those guys than to any of our youngsters or prospects down on the farm.

We heard this morning that Fernando Martinez is getting the call from AAA, which is exciting. Of course the even bigger news for Astros fans is the looming MLB draft on Monday, the most important for the franchise in 20 years. I am not a scout or an amateur baseball expert, so I won’t pretend to know who the Astros should pick 1-1, or thereafter. I have my preferences, but I’ll trust Luhnow, Heck & Co. on this one, and I expect I’ll be excited with their selections regardless. I’m still encouraged by the direction this team is headed, and it’s still a great time to be an Astros fan.

Photos from Wednesday’s Hooks/Travs Game

The Corpus Christi Hooks, members of the Texas League’s South Division, play four series each year against the local Arkansas Travelers, members of the Texas League North. Two of these series are played in Corpus and two in Little Rock, but for the last several seasons, the first Little Rock series has always fallen during dates when my wife and I were out of town. When the 2012 schedules were released, I was immediately excited to see that wouldn’t be the case this year, so last night’s game was the first chance I’ve ever had to catch the Hooks in early season action. What follows is a sampling of the photos I took during the game:

Hooks CF Austin Wates leads off the game against Travs righty Matt Oye. He would single and come around to score the game’s first run.

Just back off the DL, Hooks C Chris Wallace bats in the 2nd.

And just in from Extended Spring Training, 3B Brandon Wikoff follows with a single.

Kody Hinze DH’d and hit 8th this night. After a solid 2011, he’s struggled so far this year.

Hooks starter Ross Seaton attempts a pickoff to first in the 5th. The batter is Travs SS Jean Segura, one of the Angels’ top prospects this year.

Not the best photo, but RF Andy Simunic was the star of this game. He gunned a runner down at the plate moments before this to end the 5th, then later made a heads-up steal of third that led to the winning run.

Hooks SS Jonathan Villar awaits his turn at the plate. He looked overmatched when I saw him last August, but he’s looking much better now.

Hooks 2B Jose Martinez readies for the pitch.

This, ladies & gentlemen, is the back of Brett Oberholtzer’s head. On the left in plaid is Jose Cisnero. Brett was really nice and chatted with us periodically throughout the game, but they were there to track the Hooks’ pitches, so I tried not to bother him too much.

This is Arkansas fan favorite Darwin Perez, the Travs’ own diminutive 2B. He’s listed at 5′ 10″, but that’s generous.

Astros 1B of the future Jonathan Singleton launches one deep to left center for a game-tying solo shot in the 7th. This was his first HR against a lefty in 2012.

Ultimately the Hooks won 3-2, and it was a great night. If circumstances allow, we’re hoping to make it out again for the series conclusion Friday night, with Oberholtzer on the mound.

The Legend of Dickie Thon

With a rare mid-series off-day today, we have an opportunity for reflection. Of course, reflecting on the Astros’ just-passed Memorial Day weekend performance is likely to induce too much gnashing of teeth, so instead we’ll look a little farther back.

Everyone knows by now that this is Houston’s 50th anniversary season. In celebration, the Astros are doing what franchises often do to celebrate such milestones, and allowing fan voting throughout the year to help determine the club’s official All-Time Team. Voting in April was for the starting position players; voting this month is for the next five best positional guys, to fill out the bench. If there was an announcement of the winners for the starting 8, I missed it, but we can deduce from the names left on this month’s ballot that the lucky 8 are:

C: Alan Ashby
1B: Jeff Bagwell (duh)
2B: Craig Biggio (also duh)
SS: Craig Reynolds
3B: Doug Rader
OF: Jose Cruz
OF: Cesar Cedeno
OF: Lance Berkman

I more or less agree with those choices; I voted Brad Ausmus for catcher and Ken Caminiti for third base, but I’ll concede that those arguments could go either way. The biggest trouble spot for Astros fans whenever assembling a list like this, however, always comes down to the man standing left of second base. You’d expect, in 50+ years of history, that a club would feature at least one standout performer at each position. But it seems that shortstop has almost always been a sinkhole for the Houston lineup.

I get the Craig Reynolds choice. I do. He’s the club’s #2 all-time in games played at the position with 926 (behind only Roger Metzger’s 1007), and popularly regarded as their best long-term two-way player there. He’s a Houston native, a member of the Astros’ first three playoff teams, and by all accounts, a super nice guy. You could argue for Metzger and his Gold Glove, or for Adam Everett and the Gold Gloves that should have been his; Everett even has better career offensive averages than Reynolds, though over 4 fewer seasons. I believe Astros fans swung and missed on this one, though, as Houston does have a historical standout at short. My vote indisputably goes to Dickie Thon.

Astros die-hards are no strangers to Thon’s story – promising youngster in 1982, caught fire in 1983, then had his path to stardom tragically jerked from beneath his feet by a fastball to the face five games into 1984. At least Houston’s other great “what if?” tragedy, J.R. Richard, had more time to write himself into the record books before his career reached a too-early end. Thon only had two full seasons as Houston’s SS1 before his career-altering injury, and that is no doubt the core of the argument against his place on the Astros’ All-Time team. But Astros fans adore J.R. Richard not just for what he was, but also for what he could/would/should have been. Dickie Thon deserves the same kind of recognition.

Even in spite of his tragic circumstances, Thon still ranks #5 on Houston’s list of career games played at shortshop with 505. Here’s a side-by-side statistical comparison of those top five:

Roger Metzger (1007 G, .229/.291/.291, 3.1 WAR)
Craig Reynolds (926 G, .252/.286/.345, 8.3 WAR)
Adam Everett (632 G, .248/.299/.357, 11.4 WAR)
Rafael Ramirez (534 G, .257/.290/.335, -1.9 WAR)
Dickie Thon (505 G, .270/.329/.395, 15.3 WAR)

It’s pretty obvious from those numbers that Reynolds, Everett, and Thon are your three best candidates. Of those three, it’s obvious that Thon has the best numbers, too – even with three post-injury seasons dragging his averages down. From ’81-’84, he posted an even more robust .282/.336/.424 line. Reynolds ONLY advantage is that he played in almost twice as many games as Thon, but Thon still managed to post almost double the career WAR in only half the time.

Thon is also the only Astros shortstop to rank in their top 50 for single-season WAR, and he did it twice – 5.9 in ’82, and a monster 7.2 in ’83. Only Messrs. Bagwell, Biggio, and Cedeno have ever had higher single-season WAR totals among ALL Astros position players. In comparison, Reynolds best two seasons were 2.8 in ’84 and 2.3 in ’79; Everett posted 3.2 in ’06 and 3.0 in ’04. Metzger never topped 1.4 for a season, Ramirez peaked at 1.2. Even Miguel Tejada, by far the biggest name ever to man shortstop for Houston, only managed a WAR of 1.7 and 1.6 in his two years here, as his career was already in decline before he ever arrived.

Jed Lowrie’s hot .280/.354/.484, 1.7 WAR to start this season has him on pace to post by far the best overall season by any Houston shortstop since ’83, which has brought Dickie Thon back to mind. Many Houston fans – myself included – will argue that J.R. Richard’s #50 and Cesar Cedeno’s #28 deserve a place in the Minute Maid Park rafters alongside the other Astros elite; I wouldn’t take the argument for Thon (and his #10) that far. But absolutely, unquestionably, as the Astros are honoring their greats throughout this year, Dickie Thon deserves his place among them.

Tombstone Milestone, or not quite

So we’re not quite to Memorial Day, not quite to 45 games, and not quite to the 7th anniversary of the June 1, 2005 tombstone that will forever live in Astros infamy. But yesterday’s off-day after 44 games offers a good chance to take a step back and look at where these 2012 Houston Astros find themselves about a quarter of the way through their 50th anniversary season.

First, the raw numbers: 21-23, 3rd in the NL Central, 4.0 games back of 1st. That’s already a huge improvement over the 15-29, 6th in the NL Central, 10.5 games back that the team found themselves facing at this point a year ago. That’s Houston’s best mark through 44 games since they were 24-20 back in 2008, their last winning season. A deeper look at the stats, however, shows that they’re doing historically even better than that.

My last post, 25 games in, highlighted the Astros’ positive run differential in spite of their losing record, and their fifth place rank in that category in the NL. Now three weeks further along, Houston has maintained that ranking, and trends carried to Memorial Day tend to carry much more weight than trends through only April. Houston has outscored their opponents 182-170 so far, for an average run differential of 0.3 per game. That may not sound like much, but consider that Atlanta only missed the playoffs last year by a Hunter Pence 13th-inning single, with a 0.2 run differential per game. St. Louis stole Atlanta’s playoff spot and won the World Series with a 0.4 run differential. Given the new playoff format for 2012, both of those teams would have made the playoffs this year.

If these Astros manage to finish May keeping that run differential in the positive, it will be the first time they’ve done so through the first two months of a season since 2004. They’ve gone 12-9 for a .571 winning percentage so far this month, following an unlucky 9-14 April in which they still outscored their opponents 104-100. Based on Pythagorean (or Expected) won-loss, the Astros should be tied with current 1st-place Cincinnati at 23-21, but Cincinnati has outperformed their X_WL to 25-19 mark on the strength of their current 6-game winning streak.

This is a team that, of course, traded away their two best players each of the last two years (Bourn & Pence in 2011, Oswalt & Berkman in 2010). Last year they were FAR worse than they had ever been in their previous 49-year history. Even with the losing record to date, nobody but nobody expected these Astros to be this good, this soon. So what’s made the difference?

First of all, Houston’s four big contracts – Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, and Brandon Lyon – have all provided significant value. The 2012 edition of Chris Johnson looks like the 2010 edition again, rather than the 2011 version that got demoted to AAA. Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie might be the Astros’ best middle infield combo since Billy Doran and Dickie Thon in 1983. And while the outfield is ugly, led by J.D. Martinez’ .698 OPS, at least Martinez and Jordan Schafer are getting on base above league average, and even Brian Bogusevic has provided a positive WAR (0.2) so far.

This is still a very young team, so how they’ll hold up over the long haul of 162 games together remains to be seen; I wouldn’t advise any more than cautious optimism at this juncture. But these 2012 Astros actually have a legitimate shot of posting Houston’s first winning record since 2008. And given the holes in St. Louis and Cincinnati, maybe – just maybe – more than that.

X_WL

Runs Scored^1.82/((Runs Scored^1.82)+(Runs Allowed^1.82))

That’s the formula for “Expected Won-Loss” (X_WL), a stat that looks at a team’s run differential and determines what their won-loss record should be. There’s always some discrepancy between this expectancy and a team’s actual results, but generally only by a handful of games over the course of a long season. If you outscore your opponents, you should have a winning record. If they outscore you, you’ll lose more than you win. If they’re about equal, then your record will be around .500 too.

With the new playoff format for 2012, the three division winners and the top two non-division winners will now make the post-season. Don’t look now, but 25 games into the year, guess who those five teams in the NL would be based on X_WL?

East Division Champ: Washington (14-10)
Central Division Champ: St. Louis (18-6)
West Division Champ: Los Angeles (14-11)
Wild Card #1: Atlanta (14-11)
Wild Card #2: Houston (14-11)

Hello, Astros.

Now of course, X_WL does NOT equal actual WL, and Houston’s real record is flipped from the expected (11-14). It’s also WAY too early in the season to start paying much attention to the standings, and WAY too early to be talking about the playoffs. But the fact is that the Astros have outscored their opponents 118-104 thus far this year. Even before their just-completed sweep of the Mets, they had a positive run differential, and they’ve maintained that stat pretty much all year.

Statistics have a way of normalizing themselves over the long haul, so if the Astros continue outscoring their opponents all year, they’ll eventually start winning more games than they lose. They won’t stay below .500 for long. And while it’s admittedly ridiculous to start making plans for purchasing playoff tickets at this juncture, your 2012 Astros have a legitimate chance of, at worst, finishing the year a heck of a lot higher in the standings than anybody though they would coming off 106 losses last year.

Even .500 would be a huge accomplishment and an exciting improvement for this squad. Remember how much fun it was to watch the young kids in 1992 finish .500 after 97 losses the year before? No one else in the NL Central has particularly distinguished themselves yet this year, besides the Cardinals, so a second-place finish might not be out of reach. I hesitate to aim that high, but it has happened before. And remember, no team had ever gone worst-to-first before 1991, but the Braves and the Twins both did it that season, en route to the most improbable of World Series matchups.

Regardless, this 2012 team has been a ton of fun to watch so far on the young season. Young teams can slump just as quickly as they can streak. But what if… just what if? What a 50th anniversary gift that would be, and what a sendoff to the National League, to add one more banner to the Minute Maid Park rafters.

#DefendHouston! #MinuteMaidMarch!

So ever since Peter Gammons posted this Tweet yesterday, the entire Astros online fanbase has been in an uproar. No, nothing has been confirmed yet, but this is not a time to take chances and stay silent. Houston fans, if you don’t want to see your team in the American League by 2013, the time to act is NOW.

Two online petitions have been created already to fight this change. Go here and sign:

http://www.saveourstros.org/

http://www.change.org/petitions/bud-selig-leave-the-houston-astros-in-the-national-league

I’d also encourage sending letters directly. Following in What the Heck, Bobby?‘s footsteps, here is the letter that I mailed to Drayton McLane, Bud Selig and Jim Crane today. Please feel free to copy and use any or all of this in letters of your own:

 

October 12, 2011

 

Mr. Drayton McLane

Houston Astros

501 Crawford Street

Houston, TX  77002

 

Mr. Allen H. Selig, Commissioner

Major League Baseball

245 Park Avenue, 31st Floor

New York, New York  10167

 

Mr. James R. Crane, CEO

Crane Capital Advisors

4409 Montrose Blvd., Ste. 200

Houston, TX 77006-5859

 

Dear Sirs:

It has been reported via MLB.com and numerous other news outlets recently that a proposal is being discussed to move the Houston Astros to the American League. I am writing to express my extreme displeasure about this possibility.

I am a lifelong Houston Astros fan, having been born in Houston and having lived there for the first 20 years of my life. Even though I now live out of state, I still follow the Astros passionately and look forward to traveling every year to attend games whenever I can. Baseball is my first love, and I love to explore baseball history as much as I love to follow the modern game. Baseball is unique among American sports in this way, for the deep, abiding ties it holds to the history of the sport and the legends of the past.

Is it for this reason that moving the Astros to the American League is an extraordinarily bad idea – Houston is a National League city, and always has been. The Astros/Colt .45s franchise just completed its 50th season in the National League, but even dating back to the days of the Houston Buffs/Buffaloes, Houston was a Cardinals or Cubs – National League – affiliate. Houston has never been an American League market, and Houston fans are National League fans. A move to the American League will alienate a great many of these fans, and many of my fellow Astros fans have already said so.

The last Major League team to switch leagues was the Milwaukee Brewers after the 1997 season, from the American League to the National League, but a large part of the argument then was that “Milwaukee used to be a National League city.” The same argument does not at all apply in this case. This time the largest argument in favor of moving has been to “support a natural rivalry between the Astros and the Texas Rangers” – but no significant such rivalry currently exists. The Astros have much more significant current rivalries with the Cardinals, Cubs, Braves, Mets, Giants and Dodgers, all of which would be lost in a move to the American League.

Furthermore, Major League Baseball has a historical precedent of placing pairs of teams from the same city or region in opposite leagues. Consider the following:

New York Yankees (AL) / New York Mets (NL)

Baltimore Orioles (AL) / Washington Nationals (NL)

Tampa Bay Rays (AL) / Florida Marlins (NL)

Chicago White Sox (AL) / Chicago Cubs (NL)

Cleveland Indians (AL) / Cincinnati Reds (NL)

Kansas City Royals (AL) / St. Louis Cardinals (NL)

Texas Rangers (AL) / Houston Astros (NL)

Los Angeles Angels (AL) / Los Angeles Dodgers (NL)

Oakland Athletics (AL) / San Francisco Giants (NL)

The only exceptions to this rule are the Phillies and Pirates, both in Pennsylvania but both among the National League’s oldest teams, and the two Mountain Time Zone teams, Colorado and Arizona. Moving the Astros to the American League would violate this rule and kill the National League market in Texas and surrounding states.

A seemingly much more sensible solution would be to move Arizona to the American League. The Diamondbacks are one of Major League Baseball’s youngest franchises, and as such they do not have nearly the history in the National League that Houston does. Furthermore, Phoenix has played host to AL-affiliated teams as recently as 2007 (the Arizona League Royals, A’s and Rangers), not to mention the long history of the Cactus League with teams from both leagues in the state every March. These are all American League ties that the city of Houston has never had. Moving Arizona – or even Colorado – to the American League would give Major League Baseball an American League team in the Mountain region for the first time, and either Mountain team would be a geographically natural fit for the American League West. Such a move would not be nearly as upsetting to the fans in that region as a similar move would be to Houston baseball fans.

I understand the desire to have equal leagues of 15 teams each, and I understand that even moving Arizona or Colorado to the American League would almost certainly result in Houston being moved to the National League West. But Houston was historically a member of the National League West for 25 seasons until the three-division format was introduced in 1994, so I have no problem with such a move, and I doubt that most other Astros fans would either. The outcry was immediate and heartfelt when Peter Gammons reported today that the Astros would likely be moving to the American League, and the fan backlash will be far greater if such a move is in fact completed. Please do not make this a reality.

Even though this was a rough year on the field for Astros fans, I am already looking forward to next year and I am excited about the future. Just please consider the weight of history and the reaction of the fans – your customers – and keep that future in the National League. I appreciate your time and consideration in this matter.

Sincerely,

Cockroach

Nostalgia & Random Stats about Astros History

First of all, there’s this, courtesy of Astros County and Sully Baseball:

The Astros are now nearing the end of their 5oth season, and that’s inspired a fit of nostalgia. My first clear memories of following the Astros date back to when I was 7 years old, in 1987. That led to the obvious realization that after this year, for the first time I’ll have witnessed more seasons of Astros baseball myself than I’ve read about in the history books.

The first of those memories from 1987 was my mom taking us on a tour of the Astrodome a few weeks before the season began. At the end of the tour, we stopped in the gift shop, and my mom bought two things: an ’87 Topps Houston Astros team set for me, and A Silver Odyssey: 25 Years of Houston Astros Baseball on VHS for herself. I have no idea now what happened to that tape, and the documentary has never made it to a DVD release – unsurprising – but Google helped me turn up the majority of the clips on AstrosDaily.com. It’s a must-watch for any die-hard Astros fan, but the film ends on a bittersweet note, with Houston’s defeat in the legendary ’86 NLCS Game 6. Now with 25 years further history between us and that game, and still no World Series title to show, the memory is rather like a Greek tragedy for Houston fans. But it’s a memory that we cherish nonetheless.

So that led me to indulge some historic curiosity. Of course Cleveland has been waiting for a new World Series title 13 years longer than the Astros/Colt .45s have existed. Of course Cubs fans have been waiting 40 years longer than that. And of course 7 other franchises have likewise never won a Series; 2 have never been there at all. But as most Astros fans already know, Houston now has the dubious distinction as the city with the most current seasons of MLB history and no title at all to show. That distinction did belong to the Astros’ opponent this weekend, San Francisco, until the Giants finally won last October to cap their 53rd season in California. Likewise did it take Brooklyn until their 53rd season to win – the beloved ’55 Dodgers – after the World Series began in 1903. But Astros fans can take heart, as they’re nowhere close to the record for futility yet: that mark belongs to the Phillies. It’s easy to forget given their recent dominance, but it took the Phillies 78 seasons, from ’03 until ’80, before they finally claimed their first title.

Another historical oddity discovered while digging all that up: to date, 753 different players have worn a Houston MLB uniform. The Astros’ 1962 expansion brethren, the New York Mets, have used 911 different players over the same 50 seasons. Two franchises 7 years younger, the Padres and Expos/Nationals, have also used more – 793 and 815, respectively. The Angels are only one year older, but they’ve used 107 more players than Houston (860 total), and the Senators/Rangers have used 174 more (927 overall). And the other two 1969 expansion teams, Kansas City (740) and Seattle/Milwaukee (736), are only just behind the Astros in 7 years less time. Assuming a starting roster of 25 players, that means that Houston has used an average of 14.56 additional players each season. The Blue Jays are the next closest expansion-era franchise, with an average annual turnover of 15.83 players. I’m not sure what that means, except that it appears the average Astros player spends more seasons in Houston than the average player for any other expansion-era team. It’s interesting, at any rate.

EDIT: Technically Washington has had a longer wait than Houston since their last title, too. Between the Senators/Twins, Senators/Rangers and Expos/Nationals combined, 2011 is Washington’s 54th non-consecutive season to have an MLB team but not win a World Series.

EDIT 2: Other historical notes – Houston has the second lowest franchise ERA of any expansion team at 3.78, only just behind the Mets at 3.77. And in spite of this year’s troubles, the Astros still have the third highest winning percentage of all expansions teams at .495, behind Toronto’s .497 and the Angels’ .499.