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April 3, 2005

Batter up! Stros 2005 Review: Stros 2005 Preview

MLB_Houston_Astros.jpgWith Spring Training concluded and Opening Day on Tuesday approaching, it's time for my preview of the Stros and the upcoming Major League season.

My first year of blogging coincided with last year's magical Stros season in which the club came within a game of its first World Series. Just to see how it would go, I decided to blog a post on each Stros game and, as it turned out, I'm glad I did. I'm not going to blog each game this season, but the Stros will continue to be a common blog topic throughout the season, and I will continue to analyze the club's performance periodically using sabermetric-based statistics.

Last season was truly one for the ages. After falling to a season-worst 56-60 record on August 14th, the Stros won 36 out of their next 46 games, a run that included 12 and seven game winning streaks. During the last two weeks of the season, the Stros pulled out the NL Wildcard Playoff spot in a tight race with the Giants and Cubs by winning nine out of their last 10 games and their final seven straight. Then, after beating the Braves in the Divisional Series, the Stros lost to the Cards in the seventh game of a memorable National League Championship Series, coming within an eyelash of the Stros' first World Series appearance. Regardless of that ending, the Stros' closing kick was one of the greatest finishes in Major League Baseball history.

MinuteMaid Park2.jpgComing into the 2005 season and as noted in this earlier post, it has been fashionable for baseball experts to predict that this will be the season that the Stros will finally fall from the lofty perch that they have occupied among the top teams in the National League Central Division over the past decade. The experts at Baseball Prospectus have been particularly pessimistic about the Stros.

Baseball Prospectus' theory is that the Stros have lost two of their best hitters from last season's club (Beltran and Kent) and will not have their best hitter (Berkman) for the first month of the season. Meanwhile, the club continues to accomodate the aging Bidg, who is blocking the development of promising rookie Chris Burke at second base. Also, the club is forced for contract reasons to continue playing the declining Bags at first base rather than placing Berkman there, which is his natural position. Throw in the Stros' continued inexplicable reliance on the consistently unproductive Ausmus at catcher, plus doubts about whether Andy Pettitte can rebound from elbow surgery, and skepticism that the Rocket can repeat last season's incredible performance at the age of 43, and you have a decent argument that the Stros are cruising toward a big downturn. Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan -- one of the most insightful baseball writers around today -- is so down on the Stros that he projects the Stros to finish 77-85, or 14 games worse than their record last season and above only the woeful Pirates in the NL Central standings.

Could it really get that bad so quickly?

Bidg2.jpgWell, yes it could, but my sense is that such a dramatic downfall is unlikely. Although the Stros are coming to the end of the Bidg-Bags era, the club has an interesting mix of veteran players and youthful prospects that can still contend for a playoff spot.

In evaluating the Stros on this blog last season, I introduced two handy statistics that baseball sabermetrician Lee Sinins developed for evaluating hitters and pitchers. "Runs created against average" (RCAA) is the hitters' statistic. RCAA measures the two most important things from a hitter's perspective in winning baseball games ?- that is, creating runs and avoiding making outs. Thus, RCAA computes the number of outs that a particular player uses in creating runs for his team. RCAA then compares that number to the amount of runs that an average player in the league would create while using an equivalent number of outs. Inasmuch as the hypothetical average player's RCAA is always zero, a player can have either a positive RCAA -- which indicates he is an above average hitter (i.e., Barry Bonds, who had a +152 RCAA last season) -- or a negative RCAA, which means he is performing below average (i.e., Ausmus, who had a -26 RCAA).

Clemens2.jpg"Runs saved againt average" (RSAA) is the parallel statistic for pitchers. RSAA measures the number of runs that a pitcher saves for his team relative to the number of runs that an average pitcher in the league would give up while obtaining an equivalent number of outs for his team (as with RCAA, RSAA is park-adjusted). As with RCAA, a hypothetical average pitcher in the league always has an RSAA of exactly zero. Thus, a pitcher can have either a positive RSAA, which indicates he is an above average pitcher (i.e., Randy Johnson had a +50 RSAA last season) or a negative RSAA, which means he is performing below average (i.e., Tim Redding had a -15 RSAA last season).

Clearly, the biggest problem for this Stros club is going to be hitting, which was also the biggest problem of last season's club. The excitement of the Stros' extraordinary play during the final quarter of last season tends to make people forget that the Stros meandered around 10th among the 16 National League teams in RCAA for the first three quarters of the season. Even after their hitting picked up during their closing drive, the Stros still ended up just seventh in RCAA among the National League teams. Given that the Stros' collective +50 RCAA included substantial contributions from the now departed Beltran (28) and Kent (12), it is certainly reasonable to question whether the Stros' hitting this season will be sufficient to sustain a playoff caliber performance.

Berkman2.jpgPart of the reason that I think the Stros will be good enough to contend for a playoff spot this season is that I expect big improvement from three players who did not contribute much hitting-wise last season -- Jason Lane, Morgan Ensberg, and Adam Everett. Last season, Lane in limited play had only a +3 RCAA, while Ensberg (-12) and Everett (-11) actually reduced the Stros' team RCAA by 23 runs. With Lane finally getting a long overdue full-time spot in the lineup, with Ensberg returning to his 2003 form (+20 RCAA), and Everett improving to become an average Major League hitter (0), I expect those three to contribute at least +40 to the Stros' team RCAA this season, which would make up for the loss of Beltran and Kent.

Although Berkman's 69 RCAA from last season (5th in the National League) will almost assuredly go down a bit this season coming off his injury, I do not expect a big drop off from any of the Stros' other primary players this season. Moreover, given a chance to play, Burke is a good bet to be at least as productive as Bidg (8 RCAA) or Kent (12) at second base. Consequently, given all of the above, my sense is that that this Stros team could develop into being at least as productive hitting-wise as last season's club.

JeffBagwell_P39.jpgWhich leads me to make a comment about Kent. Many pundits have criticized the Stros for not picking up their $7 million option on Kent for this season, but I don't agree. Kent is on the downside of his career and has declined in production for the past three seasons, a problem that the Stros are already dealing with in regard to aging stars Bidg and Bags. For most of last season, Kent was barely above average hitting-wise, and only a late flurry over the club's last two weeks allowed him to achieve a reasonably decent +12 RCAA for the season. Moreover, Kent was clearly below average fielding-wise last season as his declining speed resulted in a frustrating lack of range in the field. Throw in the increasing injury risk with Kent and either Burke (my preference) or Bidg is likely to be just as productive as Kent this season and certainly far cheaper.

However, where I think Baseball Prospectus is going wrong on the Stros this season is by not recognizing a markedly improved pitching staff. That's not to suggest that the Stros' pitchers were all that bad last season -- in fact, the staff ended the season with a +45 runs RSAA, which was 4th among the 16 National League pitching staffs. Nevertheless, even though Clemens, Lidge and Oswalt were among the best pitchers in the National League, the rest of the Stros' staff struggled, including an aggregate -41 RSAA from the quartet of Carlos Hernandez, Brandon Duckworth and the now departed Pete Munro and Redding. Those four generally ineffective pitchers were manning at least one of the starting pitching spots throughout all of last season.

Brad-Lidge2.jpgThis season, the Stros' pitching staff appears to be substantially stronger. Brandon Backe, Chad Qualls, and Dan Wheeler all stepped up big time during the playoff run last season and appear to be primed to become solid Major League pitchers this season. Pettitte's recovery from surgery has been smooth and he appears ready to take his spot with Clemens, Oswalt and Backe as solid starters. Finally, one of the pleasant surprises of Spring Training has been the dominating performance of Ezequiel Astacio, one of the Stros' fine young pitching prospects who appears ready to take over the fifth spot in the pitching rotation. The Stros optioned Astacio to triple A affiliate Round Rock to begin the season to allow him to make a couple of starts before the Major League club's schedule requires a fifth starter, but there is little doubt that he will be back with the Stros soon. Accordingly, barring injury, this Stros' staff could improve by 10-15 runs in total RSAA over last season's staff, which would likely place this group in the top three staffs in the National League.

Astacio's performance in Spring Training prompts an observation about minor league players becoming Major Leaguers. Generally, it is more common for pitchers to be able to make the jump successfully from Double A ball than hitters. Astacio and the Stros Spring Training camp's other young stars -- CF Willie Taveras and LF Luke Scott -- all played Double A ball last season. All three performed well during Spring Training and have made the Major League club, although Astacio is having a cup of coffee at Round Rock to begin the season.

Roy O3.jpgNonetheless, I would prefer that the Stros have Taveras start the season at Triple A so that he can continue to develop his plate patience and power before taking on Major League pitching (.402 OBP/.386 SLG, but only 38 walks in 409 AB's at AA last season). The Stros probably need Scott's left-handed stick on the Major League roster at least until Berkman returns, so keeping him on the Opening Day roster is a more reasonable move, but we should all remember that -- despite Scott's unconcious hitting performance during Spring Training -- he was playing high A ball at this time last year. Thus, do not be surprised when both Scott and Taveras struggle against Major League pitching.

Another reason for my optimism is the Stros' competition within the division. Although the Cardinals still appear to be the class of the division, the Cards pitching staff's performance last season has a collective "career year" written all over it. Assuming that the Cards' pitching returns to a more typical level this season, look for the Cardinals to lose at least 10-15 wins off of their 105 win season of last year. Mr. Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus predicts that the Cards will have 16 fewer wins this season (89).

The other probable contenders in the division also have problems. Although the Cubs have the best pitching in the division, both Prior and Wood are having arm problems and the staff still has no clear closer. Moreover, the Cubs hitting has declined with the losses of Alou and, to a lesser extent, Sosa, so run production is a concern there, too. Unless Prior and Wood can pitch for most of the season, my sense is that the Cubs will struggle to win 80 games this season (they won 89 last season).

Garner.jpgSimilarly, although the Reds' hitters can flat out tear the cover off the ball, the club's pitching staff still creates an adventure for the club almost every time a member steps on the mound. My sense is that the Reds will improve on their 76 wins from last season, but their pitching will limit that improvement to about 5-10 wins and not the 15 win improvement that the Reds will need to contend for a playoff spot.

Thus, even with the loss of Beltran and Kent, the Stros still appear to me to be an above .500 team. The offense is probably going to slide a bit with Berkman out for the first month of the season. But the starting pitching looks very good, Lidge is currently the best closer in the National League, and the middle relievers look improved over last season's dubious group. If Lane hits as expected, Ensberg rebounds, Bags (+17 RCAA) and Bidg (+8 RCAA) maintain as well as they performed last season, and the young players develop well, then my sense is that the Stros are an 85 to 88 win team with an outside chance to take it over 90 wins if the injury bug does not bite.

90 wins would put the Stros right in the middle of the playoff race in the NL Central, just as they have been for the past decade. Admittedly, I view the Stros somewhat through rose-colored glasses (except for Ausmus), but my sense is that the club's run of competing for a playoff spot is not quite done. And with a couple of key acquisitions a couple of years from now when Bags and Bidg retire, there appears to be no reason why the Stros cannot build around their Berkman-Oswalt-Lidge core and continue their playoff-contending status for years to come.

Posted by Tom at April 3, 2005 7:30 AM |

Comments

Good analysis. I'm hoping for the best this year.

Posted by: Mad Oilman at April 3, 2005 4:53 PM

Two other things I think are worth mentioning:
1.) Defense -- even with Bidg and Bag on the infield the overall team D will prolly improve, especially with Tavares and Lane playing in the outfield. This combined with the pitching should mitigate the lost run production. Timely hitting will be the key.

2.) Scrap Iron -- a full spring and season with Phil Garner will mean a whole differen approach and mind-set to the team. I would be surprised to see a whole bunch of 2-1 and 3-2 games this year.

Can't wait to see it all unfold.

Posted by: Mike at April 3, 2005 10:26 PM

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