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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us.” -Heinrich Heine
These are sad days to be an Astros fan. The first domino has fallen with the trade of Jeff Keppinger this week, and over the next 10 days we expect to hear of several more. I’m on board with that; our Astros, in their 50th season, appear to be worse in 2011 than they’ve ever been before. I feel like it will be a huge upset if they don’t end up beating the 1991 squad for the worst record in Houston history, if they don’t end up over 100 losses and last in the big leagues this year. Admittedly, nothing that happens the remainder of this month will likely be quite as depressing as the weekend before July 31 last year, when we learned how it would have felt to see Bagwell and Biggio in opposing uniforms. But as we wait for news about who else is leaving town, and as we wait to face nemesis Carlos Zambrano this afternoon, my mind turns to thoughts of the ways that Brad Mills & Co. can make the remainder of 2011 more exciting than a race for the #1 draft pick.
Catcher: We love Humberto Quintero. He’s not Brad Ausmus, and he’s not Tony Eusebio, but we love him nonetheless. Q paired with any available backup on hand is fine; there’s not much wrong you can do here, other than rushing Jason Castro back from his knee surgery. If Castro is legitimately ready to go by September, then I’d love to see him, as Q really shouldn’t be more than a backup. But as long as Jason gets the lion’s share of the starts in 2012, then I’ll be happy.
First Base: Brett Wallace. All the way. Let’s start seeing Brick every day regardless, and quit with this Carlos-Lee-at-1B-versus-lefties nonsense. Whether Astros management manages to trade El Caballo, releases him, benches him or just lets him play out his contract, it’s certain that Lee won’t be here beyond September 2012. Brett Wallace will. You’re not gonna win this season, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you won’t win next season either, and Brick is one of the few young talents that Houston has, so let him play and prove for himself whether he’s an everyday guy or only a platoon player.
Second Base: Jose Altuve is the brightest spot in the 2011 season so far. I certainly didn’t expect to see him before September at the soonest, or 2012, but I’m all about running him out there every day now that he’s here. I like Matt Downs a lot, but giving him or Angel Sanchez even 1/4 of the starts here would be infuriating. Let’s go, Mighty Mouse!!
Third Base: I’m a Chris Johnson kinda guy. Sure, I know that his defense is less than great, and his bat has dropped off even more than expected from last year, but his bat has also been a lot better the last several weeks than it was during a dismal start to the season, so his overall numbers are misleading. I know that Matt Downs deserves more time, too, but CJ has not (IMO) played himself out of this job yet. Let him keep it for the rest of 2011, unless he gets awful again, then let him and Downs duke it out in Kissimmee next Spring.
Shortstop: This is a tough one. As long as Clint Barmes is here, the job should be his, but I don’t see Clint in our long-term plans. He may not even be in our plans at all (hello, Milwaukee) after the next 10 days. But if/when he’s gone? Angel Sanchez is great off the bench, and I know that Matt Downs is more of a 2B/3B guy than SS, but this is where I’d be inclined to give Downs more time. If you want to give Angel the majority of the starts, that’s fine, but don’t let him take time away from Altuve and CJ. And don’t go back to Tommy Manzella. This is a stop-gap position until one of our middle infield prospects (Paredes? Villar? Mier? …Sutil?) is ready for the Show.
Outfield: No one knows what to expect here. I strongly doubt that Ed Wade will be able to send Carlos Lee anywhere, so as long as he’s here, leave him in LF. Michael Bourn is (or should be) serious trade bait, but Hunter Pence’s name is drawing a lot more attention than Michael’s, so who knows if he’ll be moved at all. I really… don’t want the Astros to trade Hunter, but reality is that he’ll likely hit free agency by the time that Houston is a legitimate contender again, and he should fetch better prospects than anyone else on the current Astros roster. So moving him might be the smartest thing that they could do, and I kind of expect now that it will happen. I’d really like to see Bourn traded, too; he’ll hit free agency – under Scott Boras – a year before Hunter, so you’ll probably get more for him now than next year, when he would be a “rental.” Jason Bourgeois is back from the DL today, so assuming that Pence and Bourn move and Lee doesn’t, I’d like to see a Lee-Bourgeois-Bogusevic outfield to finish out 2011. Though I know we’re more likely to see Jason Michaels than Bogey, but I don’t see Jason here beyond this year either, so I’ll be frustrated if they don’t give Bogey the shot. Unless they get somebody back in trade that can play outfield immediately, too. Or they put J.D. Martinez on the Altuve Express and don’t make him wait for a call until El Caballo rides off into the sunset. Summary: Whatever. But just not Michaels.
Pitching: Jordan Lyles is the other brightest spot for the 2011 Astros, and I’m thrilled to hear that he’s on an innings limit. If that means we get a month of Nelson Figueroa or Ryan Rowland-Smith in September, so be it; Jordan Lyles is VERY much a part of Houston’s future plans, so he needs to be protected more than the 2011 squad needs to win one or two more games. Bud Norris has been another big bright spot, better than I thought he’d be, so he should be a part of the grander plan as well. J.A. Happ has been mostly a black hole this season, but he is still young, so there’s no harm in continuing to run him out there and hope that he figures it out. Really though, we might see a lot more of Figgy or Hyphen before September, because I don’t expect Wandy or Brett Myers to be wearing Houston pinstripes after next week either. So let’s move Aneury Rodriguez back to the rotation and see what he’s got. Old or not, I’d love to see Andy Van Hekken get a shot. Then if you need a starter after those two guys, give Figgy or Hyphen a call. Of course trade acquisitions are the wild card here, too, but based on who we know we’ve got, I’ll be happy to finish the year with Aneury and Andy at the back end of the rotation.
I know that I haven’t touched on the bullpen, but that’s been so fluid for the last few years that I hesitate to name names. I like Mark Melancon a lot, and Wilton Lopez. We know that Brandon Lyon is under contract for next season – fine. He’s good when healthy. But the fundamental point of this whole exercise is to say: Give the young guys a chance. Angel Sanchez is not your savior for the future, nor is Jason Michaels. Nor is Carlos Lee at first base. If we can see more Castro, and Wallace, and Altuve, and CJ, more Bogey and Bourgeois and maybe some J.D. next year, then I’ll be excited even if we lose 100 games again. I know that even all of those guys aren’t likely the long-term answers, but they’re all a step in the right direction until the pipeline on the farm starts a steady flow again. If “these are our Astros,” then let’s make that so and stop giving time to guys that won’t be here when our future Astros arrive.