Five Questions: Houston Astrosby Joe Dimino
April 06, 2004
The Astros have been one of the most consistent teams in baseball for a decade. Unfortunately, they always seem to end the season on a sour note -- either just missing the playoffs or being eliminated quickly once they get there. Their losses in the post-season haven't even been the dramatic extra-inning losses like those suffered in 1980 and 1986. I would think those type of losses, while devastating in their own way, aren't as hard to take as getting swept out of the playoffs because you had a bad week or losing the division title to a team that only won 87 games.
When you lose a classic you can say you gave it your all and you just came up a little short. When you get swept or lose a division because your best pitcher gets hurt you feel somehow like you wasted a rare opportunity. Most teams don't get many chances to win a pennant; squandering one is devastating. I don't know which feeling is worse... I guess we could ask Larry Dierker, who has seen it all as a player, announcer and manager.
Let's move on to the questions I can answer . . .
1) Was moving Craig Biggio to center field a mistake?
This is an interesting question, especially when you look at it from two perspectives. Win Shares shows Biggio as the 2nd most valuable defensive outfielder in baseball last year. Per defensive inning, he was 7th among OFs with more than 300 innings.
Unfortunately, when you turn to the play-by-play data (Michael Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating), the results are the opposite (search for "Biggio" and look for the entry preceded by the 8 -- don't worry, you'll see when you go there...). Biggio cost the Astros 21 runs with his glove in 2003. When rating centerfielders over the last 4 years combined (on a per game basis), this is the sixth-worst figure.
Diamond Mind, who I believe is as strong as anyone in after-the-fact fielding analysis, gave Biggio a poor rating (they use a system that is largely based on Ultimate Zone Rating as well). This is not a rating they give lightly -- I would guess 80-85% of all players are in the "fair" to "very good" class. There are very few "poor" or "excellent" rated fielders -- the people at Diamond Mind tend act conservatively and give players extreme ratings only when there is no other choice.
Without getting into the potential reasons for the divergence (which is an entire article itself), I love Win Shares. They are clearly the best guess for fielding evaluation for years where we don't have play-by-play data. But if forced to make a choice, when play-by-play data is available, I have to go with that.
I'm not a scout (though I'd love to become one!) but I saw Biggio play two games in PNC Park last May, and he looked lost out there. He was fine on the routine plays, but anything not hit right at him seemed to be an adventure. It's quite possible he improved as the season went along, but those UZR numbers didn't surprise me.
Here's another thing that makes me think it was a terrible choice to put Biggio in centerfield: Richard Hidalgo is clearly the better outfielder. Hidalgo, playing right field, racked up more WS per inning (4.20 vs. 4.15) than Biggio! On a typical team the CF will get about 1.5 times the Win Shares of the RF. I would assume that whatever unaccounted-for biases/flaws that apply to Biggio vs. other players wouldn't impact a comparative rating of players on the same team. In terms of UZR, Hidalgo is rated as the 5th-best center fielder in baseball over the last 4 years. He's also the #3 right fielder. The man just covers a ton of ground out there.
Lance Berkman's arm has been rated at +3 runs per 162 games. Overall he's basically an average left fielder, +4 runs per 162 games. Biggio's arm was rated at -1 run/162 games last season. To me, the logical defensive alignment for the Astros would be to put Biggio in left field, Hidalgo in center and Berkman in right.
Unfortunately, this "ideal" alignment begs the question, does Craig Biggio's OPS+ of 95 justify a job as a regular LF? The answer an obvious "no way in hell." The Astros have had Jason Lane rotting away in New Orleans for two years now.
New Orleans is a great pitcher's environment, and I strongly believe this causes the Astros to underrate their AAA hitters. Round Rock, their AA affiliate, is a great hitter's environment, so hitters in the Houston system that move from AA to AAA tend to see a big drop in their unadjusted stats. Lane was no exception -- he slugged .608 for Round Rock in 2001, and saw that dip to .472 in his 2002 campaign for New Orleans.
When you combine the fact that New Orleans is a great pitchers environment and Minute Maid Park is a great hitters park, you'll find that most Astro hitters suffer very little drop-off in their unadjusted stats when they are promoted, despite facing better pitching at the major-league level. In Lane's case, he's hit .292/.355/.615 with 8 HR in two cups of coffee (107 PA) for Houston. Baseball Primer's ZiPS projection system projects him to bat .296/.367/.541 for 2004; Biggio projects to .244/.330/.386.
I'm not a big-league GM, so I don't have to deal with the personalities involved. I don't have to "justify" an enormous contract to an aging star by playing him. What I am is someone who graduated college with a business degree, with an Economics concentration. Because of this, I understand a concept called "sunk costs." This concept is simple: you are paying Craig Biggio $9.75 million in 2003, whether he plays or not. Jason Lane is clearly a better player than Craig Biggio -- so he should play.
I understand that you want to send the message that you are loyal to the players that got you where you are. But isn't the message, "the best players will play," the more important one to send? The 49ers of the 1980s and most of the 1990s were one of the best organizations in the history of professional sports. The thing that separated them from the other very good organizations was that they always knew when to get rid of a player before it was too late. Even Joe Montana was sent packing when it became apparent that Steve Young was better.
Unfortunately Biggio's contract and status as a leader on the team make it impossible to trade him. I want to be clear that I don't wish injury on anyone, but the best thing that could happen for this team would be for Biggio to suffer a minor injury that allows Lane to play every day for 3 or 4 weeks. By the time Biggio is ready to come back, it will be obvious who the 4th outfielder should be.
2) What will the impact of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens be?
The Dynamic Duo replace Jeriome Robertson (5.10 ERA), Ron Villone (4.13), Scott Linebrink (4.26) and Jared Fernandez (3.99) in the rotation. Pettitte (4.02) and Clemens (3.91) would normally see .25 lopped of their ERAs just by moving to the NL. But Yankee Stadium is much better for pitchers (especially a lefties like Pettitte), so basically the two environments were the same in 2003. A league-average pitcher for the Astros would post a 4.41 ERA; in Yankee Stadium 2003 it would be 4.39.
This makes Pettitte and Clemens a significant improvement over Robertson (25-30 runs), but not so much over Villone and company, who actually pitched fairly well last year. This simple eyeball evaluation doesn't account for defense. Pettitte is an extreme ground-ball pitcher, and defensively, Adam Everett (+19 r/162 games) is miles ahead of Derek Jeter (-28). This will help Pettitte enormously, since 80% of the batters he faces are right-handed and batters tend pull the majority of the ground balls they hit.
On the other hand, Clemens is more of a fly-ball pitcher and Biggio won't help him at all. But Clemens is really a strikeout pitcher (he's been no worse than 5th in the league in K/9 since 1995), and as such the defense doesn't impact him nearly as much. But it is something to watch for.
Overall I'm estimating that Pettitte/Clemens will save the Astros 40 runs over their 2003 counterparts. For a team that lost the division by one game, this could be the difference in whether or not the Astros play past October 3.
3) How much have Bagwell, Biggio and Kent lost?
We've already touched on Biggio -- he should not hold a starting job in the major leagues as an outfielder. I still think he's good enough offensively to warrant a position at 2B, though at age 38 his defense would obviously not be what it once was. At this point, he's basically Ruben Sierra -- both had a 95 OPS+ in 2003 and neither should be in center field.
Jeff Bagwell has seen his OPS+ steadily decline from 169 in 1999 to 127 in 2003, losing 4-17 points per year. He'll turn 36 next month, and his days as an elite 1B are over. But he's still very good, in the same general class as Nick Johnson and a notch below Richie Sexon and Derrek Lee. Bagwell is the 6th or 7th best 1B in the NL now, but he's still a productive player.
Jeff Kent suffered a serious decline in 2003, posting his worst OPS+ (118) since 1997. He also failed to play 150 games (he played 130) for the first time since 1999. He's still one the best 2B in the game, but he's no longer on an MVP-level player. Like Bagwell, Kent is 36, and he's unlikely to return to the level that earned him the big contract in December 2002. The contract wasn't exorbitant (2 years, $18.2 million, with an option for 2005 at $9 million or a $700K buyout) and he's still a reasonable buy for the money. If I could expect him to perform like he did last year in 2005, I'd pick up the option.
4) Was it a good idea to trade Billy Wagner? How will everyone moving up a spot on the depth chart affect the bullpen?
If you read the papers, it's been said ad nausem that one of the biggest gambles in Houston was moving Billy Wagner for Brandon Duckworth and Taylor Buchholz. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Duckworth, 28, is unlikely to ever develop into much of a pitcher, but it wouldn't be impossible. In 325 innings, his ERA+ is 82, but he's whiffed 7.6 batters per 9 innings.
But Buchholz looks as good as a minor league pitcher (we all know "pitching prospect" is an oxymoron) can look. He's just 22 and he's already handled AA well. He has great command (33 walks in 145 IP) and a curveball that some consider the best in the minors.
For this, Gerry Hunsicker gave up an $8 million pitcher that throws 75-85 innings a year. When you consider that they have an equivalent pitcher ready to go in Octavio Dotel, as well as a pretty good pitcher (Brad Lidge) to step into Dotel's spot, this completely justifies the move from a baseball perspective, forgetting the salary. I realize the Astros are a current contender and need to do everything possilbe to win now. But if you don't want to become the 2002 Indians when Bagwell and Kent grow old, you need to keep one eye on the future too.
When you throw in the fact that the savings were used to add Pettitte and, by extension, Clemens, this move becomes a no-brainer, probably the best series of moves made by any team this winter.
5) Will 2004 be the year that the Astros finally get into the World Series?
Unlike another team in their division, the Astros have a strong plan, and every move they make fits into the plan. After the Braves, they've been the second-most-consistent (and best) team in the NL over the last decade, despite their post-season troubles. Life is sometimes (some would say often) unfair.
Hunsicker, Tim Purpura and company have had the task of trying to build a team around two stars (originally Bagwell and Biggio, later Berkman and Bagwell). They have done an amazing job of consistently providing the stars with quality teammates. Though they tend to wait too long to promote their young hitters (or perhaps because of this; I could certainly be wrong) their player development system has been impeccable, churning out guys like Berkman, Hidalgo, Lane and Morgan Ensberg. Even some of their lesser products -- guys like Everett, Julio Lugo and Daryle Ward -- are decent players.
Then you get to the pitchers. They've produced Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller, Tim Redding and Wagner. Kirk Saarloos looks like he'll be the next one. Wagner was not drafted by this regime, but his last year and a half in the minors was under their tutelage. They plucked Scott Linebrink for Doug Henry during their one bad season, and he looks pretty good too, even though he's now in San Diego (you can only keep so many). Even the pitchers that haven't panned out have had good arms, every team will see a good portion of the pitchers they develop succumb to injury.
Top to bottom, the Astros have had the best player development system in baseball over the last decade. That's why they've been able to consistently reload. Despite my minor criticisms above, this team been on the short list of truly well-run top-to-bottom organizations since the mid-'90s, with Oakland, New York and Atlanta.
Back to the original question: They underperformed their Pythagorean record by 7 games last season. Teams that do this tend to rebound the following season. Sorry Cub fans, but Jimy Williams has the best pitching staff in the National League -- including the second-best rotation -- and their best pitcher isn't guaranteed to miss at least a month.
The offense will be one of the best in the league. It could be the best in the league if they'd let Lane play instead of Biggio and get rid of Bagwell's buddy, a.k.a. the worst offensive player in the National League. Despite suffering a broken hand last year and going through a generally disappointing season, John Buck is a better hitter than Brad Ausmus and is improving defensively. If he starts off well for the New Orleans Zephyrs, I'd hope he'd get a call-up -- once Jimy sees them both hit, he'll have a hard time playing Ausmus and the team will improve.
I know Ausmus is Bagwell's friend and a clubhouse leader (whether he can hit or not). Weren't most of the veterans on the 1941 Yankees angry that this Rizzuto kid was replacing Frank Crosetti at SS? Well Crosetti and Ausmus are the same thing: a veteran leader at a key defensive position with an OPS+ in the 50s. Those players are useful -- as coaches.
If Buck doesn't prove to be ready for a shot maybe they can find a way to free Ramon Castro from Florida's bench -- even with Pudge gone it appears Castro will be splitting time with Mike Redmond, which is a waste and shows me that Florida doesn't think all that much of him. In a full season in Minute Maid Park, he'd hit 30-35 home runs. Maybe he can't handle pitchers as well as Ausmus, but I'd be willing to wager the home runs are more important, and this staff will pitch well with anyone back there.
While the NL is wide open in 2004, I believe the Astros are the best of the bunch, even with Ausmus and Biggio in the lineup. Last year was a near worst-case scenario in Houston. We already touched on the 7 game Pythagorean deficit. In addition, Oswalt lost 2 months and Kent missed a month. Ensberg took two months to win the job from Geoff Blum. Biggio was relatively healthy all year, keeping Lane in the French Quarter. Despite all of this the team lost the division by just a single game.
If the pitching stays healthy, I cannot see this team winning fewer than 95 games. If Biggio or Ausmus lose their jobs, the team will push 100 victories. When they get to the post-season Oswalt-Pettitte-Clemens-Miller can go toe-to-toe with anyone, including Prior-Wood-Zambrano-Clement/Maddux. And when the game gets into the bullpen, Houston will have an edge.
2004 will finally be the year where the Astros get over the hump. Hosting the All-Star Game will just be an appetizer; this October will be the first of 76 combined seasons of Texas baseball that will see a World Series.
Joe Dimino was an author with The Hardball Times who stopped writing several years ago due to real life taking up too much time, as well as the longest case of writer's block on record. He founded the The Hall of Merit. You can contact Joe by clicking here.