A Stros snapshot

Houston_Astros2Through only 34 games, it’s premature to characterize this season’s Astros team (13-21) as one of the worst in club history. There are actually some hopeful signs. However, a main trend line is not looking good.

As regular readers of this blog know, I like to use the RCAA ("runs created against average") and RSAA ("runs saved against average") statistics — developed by Lee Sinins for his Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia — to provide a simple but revealing picture of how an MLB club or player is performing relative to other teams or players in a particular league.

RCAA reflects how many more (or fewer) runs that a team (or player) generates relative to a league-average team (or player). An exactly league-average team’s (or player’s) RCAA is zero. Thus, an above-average hitter has a positive RCAA and a below-average hitter has a negative RCAA.

Similarly, RSAA measures how many more (or fewer) runs that a pitching staff (or an individual pitcher) saves relative to a league-average pitching staff (or pitcher). As with RCAA, an exactly league-average pitcher’s (or team’s) RSAA is zero, an above-average pitcher has a positive RSAA, and a below-average pitcher has a negative RSAA.

RCAA and RSAA are particularly useful because they provide a useful benchmark comparison across eras because it shows how much better (or worse) a team’s hitters and pitchers stacked up against an average team of hitters or pitcher staff during a season. That’s really the best way to compare teams from different eras because comparing other hitting and pitching statistics — such as on-base average, slugging percentage, OPS, earned run average, wins and hitting statistics against — is often skewed between teams of hitter-friendly eras (i.e., up until this season, the past 20 seasons or so) versus pitchers of pitcher-friendly eras (i.e., such as the late 1960’s and early 70’s).

As regular readers of this blog know, the Stros have not had an above-average team RCAA in any season since 2004, bottoming out with last season’s abysmal hitting club that generated 86 fewer runs than an average National League club would have produced using the same number of outs. That was the fifth worst performance in club history.

However, even without Lance Berkman this season, the Stros have a team 13 RCAA – a slightly-above average team relative to other NL clubs. Inasmuch as the Cardinals (and particularly Berkman) are the only club really hitting well so far this season, the Stros team RCAA ranks fifth in the NL. Here are the individual RCAA of the Stros hitters:

T1   Brett Wallace             9  
T1   Jason Bourgeois         9  
T3   Hunter Pence             6  
T3   J.R. Towles                 6  
5     Michael Bourn            3  
6     Matt Downs                1  
7     Brian Bogusevic          0  
T8   Clint Barmes              -2  
T8   Joe Inglett                  -2  
T8   Jason Michaels            -2   
T11 Humberto Quintero    -3   
T11 Carlos Lee                   -3   
13   Bill Hall                       -4  
14   Chris Johnson              -5  

So, no on is striping the ball as well as Berkman (23 RCAA), but Wallace, Bourgeois, Pence and Towles are off to good starts and most everyone else has managed either to be about or modestly-below league-average. The question is whether this group can keep up that kind of production.

But the ominous signs are coming from the pitching staff, which has given up an astounding 51 more runs than an average NL pitching staff 34 games into this season. That level of ineptitude has real consequences.

This club’s pitching staff’s performance to date is already tied for the 14th worst performance in club history and is 28 more runs given up than the next worst staff (the Dodgers) this season. Here are the individual RSAA:

1     Mark Melancon              3  
T2   Bud Norris                   1  
T2   Jeff Fulchino                1  
T4   Aneury Rodriguez       -1  
T4   Wilton Lopez              -1  
T6   Enerio Del Rosario      -3  
T6   Wandy Rodriguez        -3  
T8   Fernando Abad            -5  
T8   Brett Myers                   -5  
T8   Brandon Lyon               -5  
11   Jose Valdez                    -6  
12   J.A. Happ                      -10  
13   Nelson Figueroa            -17   

In short, only three Stros pitchers have been above-National League average so far this season and then only barely so. Happ and Figueroa – at least until the latter was banished to the bullpen – have been among the worst starting pitchers in the NL so far this season.

Is it likely that the staff will turn it around? Over the past several seasons, Rodriguez has pitched better as the season has worn on, so there is hope there. And Myers and Happ are certainly capable of improving their RSAA over the balance of the season, although both have been inconsistent from season to season throughout their career. So, don’t be surprised if they have a bad season this year.

What’s my prediction at this point?

It looks as if this club is similar to the 2007 team, which finished 73-89 with a precisely league-average hitting team, but a pitching staff that posted a horrifying -79 RSAA (Woody Williams, Matt Albers and Jason Jennings all posted over -20 RSAA that season). Frankly, based on the club’s performance to date, 73 wins is looking pretty good.

But even that awful 2007 club had Roy Oswalt with a 24 RSAA and Chad Qualls with an 11 RSAA and I don’t see any sure bets on the 2011 club’s pitching staff who can rival those performances. So, there is real chance that this club’s pitching staff will get worse than it has already been.

Folks, if that happens, then this season could get very ugly.

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