I don’t know about you, but it sure seems to me that the first 20% of the Major League Baseball season flew by quicker than a Roger Clemens fastball. Now, if we could only see a Clemens fastball.
As predicted in my first Stros review for this season, the Stros (19-13) as a team have cooled off, going 8-8 in their second 16 game segment of the season after their sterling 11-5 start, which is still good enough to keep the Stros in the thick of the Central Division race with the Cardinals (20-13), the surprising Reds (21-11), the Brewers (16-16) and the Cubs (14-17). But despite several members of the club enjoying All-Star caliber seasons to date, there are enough warning signs about the Stros that it’s still not clear to me — absent a comeback from Clemens, that is — that the Stros can remain in playoff contention throughout the season in the strong NL Central.
Through the first 20% of the season, the Stros have generally hit better than expected (at least until this past weekend’s series in Denver, that is) and pitched not quite as well as expected. The club’s hitting and pitching statistics to date are set forth below, and pdf’s of the hitting stats are here and the pitching stats are here, courtesy of Lee Sinins‘ sabermetric Complete Baseball Encyclopedia:
The abbreviations for the hitting stats are defined here and the same is done for the pitching stats here.
Even after melting down in Denver over the past weekend, the Stros remain one of the better hitting clubs in the National League to date. 1B Berkman (14 RCAA/.396 OBA/.669 SLG/1.065 OPS) and 3B Ensberg (14/.415/.631/1.045) are two of the top half-dozen hitters in the National League so far this season, although Ensberg has tailed off somewhat after a torrid first 10% of the season. Although he hasn’t started hitting yet, RF Lane (0/.341/.411/.752) continues to be productive and the ageless 2B Bidg (1/.341/.484/.825) is set up to have another solid season, while CF Taveras (-6/.336/.339/.674) and SS Everett (-4/.306/.364/.669 ) — although both hitting below National League average — have both shown considerable improvement at the plate over last season. Even C Brad Ausmus — one of the worst hitters among regular National League players over the past decade — has a positively robust hitting line of (6/.451/.417/.868).
On the other hand, LF Preston Wilson (-5/.286/.412/.697), an off-season acquisition that was intended to bolster the club’s lackluster hitting, has been a disappointment, and the Stros’ bench — with the exception of the recently-injured Chris Burke (5/.425/.622/1.047) — has been a disappointment to date. Nevertheless, if Taveras, Everett and Ausmus can continue their above-career average hitting — and neither Berkman nor Ensberg is injured for any prolonged period — then this Stros team appears to have the potential to finish as an average or slightly above-average National League hitting club.
Unfortunately, that hitting performance may not be good enough to contend because the Stros pitching has taken a serious downturn from last season’s stellar performance. Through the first 20% of the season, the Stros pitching staff is smack dab in the middle of the 16 National League teams in runs saved against average (RSAA, explained here) and are just an average NL pitching staff so far this season.
Despite last night’s poor outing in San Francisco, Roy O (3.62 ERA/4 RSAA) continues to be one of the National League’s best pitchers and young starters Buchholz (2.16 ERA/ 8 RSAA) and Rodriguez (3.27 ERA/5 RSAA) have been pleasant surprises. However, the rest of the pitching staff has been pitched nearly as well as last season. Pettitte (5.06 ERA/-4 RSAA) got lit up early and, although better recently, still has not come close to his dominating 2005 level of performance and rookie Nieve (5.55 ERA/-4 RSAA) has been nothing more than a stopgap as a starter. Other than Wheeler (3.21 ERA/2 RSAA), journeyman Borkowski (0.00 ERA/4 RSAA) and Springer (3.72 ERA/1 RSAA), the bullpen has been inconsistent, including stalwarts Lidge (6.19 ERA/-3 RSAA) and Qualls (5.74 ERA/-3 RSAA), and the backend of the staff — Gallo (8.59 ERA/-4 RSAA), Astacio (13.50 ERA/-4 RSAA), and Trevor Miller (12.27 ERA/-3 RSAA) — is a disaster waiting to happen. Consequently, absent a considerable overall improvement from the staff and the return of Clemens as a solid starter, the Stros simply are not a strong enough hitting club to carry an average National League pitching staff.
Speaking of Lidge, his troubles so far this season are easy to identify — lack of control. He has walked 13 batters in 16 innings (compared with 23 in 70.2 innings last season), and his lack of command has also contributed to the 16 hits (3 HR’s) that he has surrendered. The book on Lidge is clearly for hitters to lay off his devastating slider until there are two strikes, and Lidge has not been able to throw the slider for strikes with sufficient consistency to stay ahead in the count to hitters. Consequently, the hitters are sitting on Lidge’s fastball while ahead in the count, which is why Lidge’s nickname is currently “Lit-up” rather than “Lights Out.”
My sense is that Lidge will turn it around, but some perspective is also needed in regard to him. A late bloomer primarily because of injuries while in the minors, Lidge had a solid season (3.60 ERA/8 RSAA) for the first time in 2003 as a relatively old 26 year old. In 2004, Lidge took over as the closer and developed into the second-best pitcher (behind only Clemens) on the Stros’ staff and one of the best relievers in the National League (1.90 ERA/26 RSAA). In 2005, Lidge was still quite good (2.29 ERA/14 RSAA), but was only the fifth best pitcher (behind Clemens, Pettitte, Oswalt, and Wheeler) on a strong Stros staff.
The point of all this is that Lidge appears to be a grizzled veteran, but he only seems that way because he is 29. He still has just over three seasons of experience and — while he has performed well in each of those seasons — he has been truly dominant in only one. Thus, even though the expectation is for Lidge to be as good as he was during the 2004 season, there is a much better chance that he will not reach that level again and will settle into being a 15 RSAA-per-season-type pitcher. There is certainly nothing wrong with that and he will continue to make a valuable contribution to the club if he performs at that level. However, even that very good level of performance will not fulfill the unrealistic expectations that many Stros fans have of Lidge based on his dominant 2004 season. That would be unfortunate because he is probably neither that good a pitcher nor as bad as he is right now. My sense is that his performance last season is about what we can expect on average from Lidge and, frankly, that’s plenty good enough.
The schedule is favorable for the Stros over the next 16 game segment, with nine of the games taking place at Minute Maid Park where the club has a 14-4 record so far this season. After those games, it’s time for the Stros to face the their NL Central rivals the Cardinals, Reds and Cubs over a two week period at the end of May and the beginning of June. Thus, by mid-June, we should have a pretty good idea of whether this Stros team has sufficient firepower to contend for a National League playoff spot.
Roger Clemens is probably waiting to see the same thing.