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March 17, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

DisAstros in the Making

by Jay Jaffe

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Despite its lack of star power, the Astros' rotation is relatively solid for a team projected to lose 94 games in 2011. While Brett Myers is nobody's favorite personality, but he's coming off a surprisingly strong 2010 in which he tossed at least six innings in all but his final start. Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris both rebounded from awful beginnings to live up to their reputations as power pitchers who can miss bats. Even J.A. Happ posted a career-best strikeout rate after coming over from the Phillies in the Roy Oswalt trade. Unfortunately, the unit is backed by such a disastropiece of an offense that PECOTA has ticketed the team for a last-place finish in the NL Central, three games behind the Pirates.

Last year, the Astros scored just 611 runs, fewer than any other NL team save for the woeful Bucs. They hit a combined .247/.303/.362, with those last two figures representing league lows; once you adjust for their ballpark, their .246 True Average ranked as the league's worst. Having made no upgrades over the winter, they're projected to score a league-low 630 runs. Houston, we have several problems.

The 2010 Astros finished with 18 fewer homers than any other NL club, and 48 fewer walks, standings which owed plenty to the absence of Lance Berkman, who'd averaged 32 dingers and 101 free passes over the previous nine seasons. Slowed by injuries early in the year and then traded to the Yankees in late July, Berkman played in just 85 games, and his departure left the team without a single high-upside hitter.

According to our forecasts, no Astros position player is projected to have an on-base percentage higher than Hunter Pence's .323, a figure one point lower than last year's NL average. Pair that with a modest .451 slugging percentage, and you've got a right fielder who projects for a .280 True Average, three points lower than last year's major league average at the position—and this is for a 28-year-old, a player in the midst of his supposed peak years. Meanwhile, 35-year-old left fielder Carlos Lee, who hit a dreadful .246/.291/.417 last year, is projected for only a meager rebound (.269/.316/.444), with a .273 TAv, two points below last year's average for left fielders. It gets worse: the corpulent "slugger" is expected to be 13 runs below average on defense, and shoulder soreness is affecting Lee's throwing this spring. Good thing the Astros owe him only $37 million over the next two years.

Beyond Lee and Pence, the picture gets even more bleak. Center fielder and leadoff man Michael Bourn may rank among the game's fastest players, but his .252/.316/.330 projection tags him as a Juan Pierre clone with more walks but a lower batting average and contact woes. First baseman Brett Wallace, who hit just .222/.296/.319 upon being promoted from the minors to replace the departed Berkman, is forecast for a lowly .249/.310/.401 line. A former five-star prospect who has been traded three times since being drafted by the Cardinals in 2008, Wallace posted a hacktastic 50/5 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio as a rookie, confirming fears that the selectivity he showed at Arizona State had abandoned him.

Even one of the rare bright spots for the 2010 Astros offense is expected to plummet back to earth. Third baseman Chris Johnson hit .308/.337/.481 in 362 plate appearances as a 25-year-old rookie, light years beyond his .282/.321/.459 line in 682 Triple-A plate appearances from 2008-2010. His NL-best .387 BABIP is guaranteed to regress, and with a 91/13 K/UIBB ratio, he lacks the plate discipline to compensate. PECOTA foretells a grim .266/.299/.420 line.

Frighteningly enough, three other regulars also project to post sub-.300 OBPs: shortstop Clint Barmes, second baseman Bill Hall, and catcher Humberto Quintero. Barmes was acquired from the Rockies over the winter for live arm Felix Paulino, and the 32-year-old is still best known for breaking his collarbone while carrying a package of venison during his 2005 rookie season. Playing half his games at Coors Field, he's compiled a career line of .254/.300/.404. Coming down from altitude wil be quite a comedown; he's forecast for a .241/.289/.377 line. The free-swinging 31-year-old righty Hall snapped a three-year slump against righties last year, only to shift his ineptitude to southpaws; as bad as his .223/.289/.389 forecast looks, it's a dead ringer for his combined 2008-2010 line.

The 31-year-old Quintero is the presumptive starter behind the plate now that Jason Castro is out for the year with a torn ACL. A card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers, he's never gotten more than 276 plate appearances in a season for good reason: he's an abomination at the plate, with a career .232/.271/.322 line. In that light, his .235/.269/.331 forecast is the height of optimism. The true hope is that 27-year-old J.R. Towles, who faceplanted three years ago as a rookie (.137/.250/.253 in 171 PA), can seize the job. His .224/.309/.364 forecast would be a step up—and that's just pathetic.

It's not as though the Disastros can wait for the minor league cavalry to ride to the rescue, as none of their top hitting prospects have played above High-A ball. Just recently, Kevin Goldstein ranked the team's perpetually floundering minor-league system the majors' third worst, dismissing them in haiku form:

That's all you can get?
For Roy Oswalt and Berkman?
Old, bad, no help soon.

Ouch. No matter how good that rotation is, it's going to be a rough, low-scoring year for Astros fans.


A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who

14 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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CRP13

Somebody had to guess I'd weigh in on this.

Before I jump in on what I disagree with and why, I'll say that I do agree with most of what's here, so I don't sound like a negative person. :)

Moving on, I have a problem with statements like, "Wallace...confirm[ed] fears that the selectivity he showed at Arizona State had abandoned him." Wallace has 144 AB in the majors, all coming immediately after he was traded to his third organization in a one-year span. Baseball Prospectus writers are usually the first to warn against assumptions based on sample size and situation. Do his minor-league numbers (even with a generous discount for playing in the PCL) of 304/375/487 count for nothing?

Pundits rated him a 5-star prospect for a reason, even while hedging over his below-average power for the position.
KG in 2010: "Wallace is an offensive powerhouse with a quick, compact swing that should lead to .300 batting averages in the big leagues and the strength to hit 40 doubles annually with 20-25 home runs."
So what's changed that everybody thinks he'll be a complete zero in the majors? It seems like perception of him did a 180 when he joined the Astros. Not his fault his new team sucks.

Questions:
Any insight on why JR Towles is lighting up AAA and Spring ball for the third year in a row, but seems to fall apart in the majors?

Do the arrival of Lyles and the addition of Barmes' underrated defense at short impact the pitching projections much?

My God, does Ed Wade understand the concept of OBP?

Mar 17, 2011 10:17 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

144 AB (or more correctly, 159 PA) is admittedly a small sample size, but Wallace's strikeout and walk rates in that span are so extreme that they have to rate a serious cause for concern, particularly given the accompanying lack of power. Consider this quick and dirty study:

* Among rookies under 25 with at least 150 PA since 1995, only Josh Bell (2010) and Felix Escalona (2002) have posted worse K/UIBB rates.

* Only six players - Brad Eldred, Bell, Jordan Schafer, Kyle Blanks and Matt Kemp - posted higher K percentages, with Kimera Bartee, Mark Reynolds, Mike Standon, Pedro Alvarez and John Buck within one percentage point below him. Among that group Bell, Schafer, and Bartee were the only ones with lower slugging percentages than Wallace, and the rest were all at least 100 points higher.

* Among the 26 players with unintentional walk rates under 3.5 percent in those rookie seasons, the only ones with lower slugging percentages were Escalona, Jack Wilson, Bell
Rey Ordonez, Alejandro de Aza, Deivi Cruz, and Mark Grudzielanek. Some of those guys wound up having careers, but they also had gloves that worked in their favor, while Wallace deos not.

In short, you can find guys with low walk rates or high strikeout rates or a lack of power who recovered from a lousy debut to have substantial careers, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a player in the recent past who failed so spectacularly on all three fronts and went onto become a complete hitter.

I agree it's too early to dismiss Wallace based upon the high regard in which his hitting was once held, and the fact that Houston really has nothing better to do than to see if he pans out. But the numbers suggest there's a whole lot less to be optimistic about regarding his future than before.

As for Towles, he's hardly the first guy to fail to translate good Triple-A stats to the majors; colleague Steven Goldman has been doing a whole series on such flops.

As for Barmes, the PECOTAs for the pitching staff do take the team's defense into account, but Barmes is forecast to be only a couple runs above average, and he more than gives that back with the bat.

As for Lyles, he's forecast for a 4.99 ERA but not factored into the depth chart. Given that forecast, adding him to it wouldn't help.

As for Wade and OBP, I'll answer that one after I stop rolling around on the floor...

Mar 17, 2011 11:19 AM
 
bowerpower

Thanks for such a detailed response. It's this interactivity that I love about this site.

Mar 17, 2011 23:32 PM
rating: 1
 
CRP13

Thanks for destroying my only glimmer of hope that there will be something worth watching this season.

Kidding. Thanks for the detailed reply.

Mar 18, 2011 05:35 AM
rating: 2
 
CRP13

WAIT! Breaking news! This from Alden Gonzalez at mlb.com today:

"Wallace, in case you haven't noticed, seems to be rounding into form at Osceola County Stadium, where he came into camp in the best shape of his life and in competition for a starting first-base job in the Major Leagues."

See Jay, if you had known that Wallace was in the best shape of his life, you probably would have a little more faith.

*rolling eyes*

Mar 18, 2011 08:28 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

That made me chuckle, particularly given Wallace's bad-body reputation.

Mar 18, 2011 09:50 AM
 
dpbuckle
(867)

Doubt Ed Wade can understand or spell OBP. But he is really good at identifying, capturing and retaining mediocre players.

Mar 17, 2011 11:17 AM
rating: 1
 
mshopoff
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

DisAstros?

Seriously?

What, you couldn't work in "Houston, we have a problem"?

Mar 17, 2011 12:15 PM
rating: -7
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Clearly, you couldn't actually read the article to find out.

Mar 17, 2011 12:58 PM
 
carlbrownson

My Merriam-Webster word of the day in my email a few months ago was 'disaster'. Why? Etymology: 'disaster' is a misalignment of the stars (dis + astro). I thought the headline was so, so appropriate.

Mar 17, 2011 19:48 PM
rating: 2
 
JosephC

One of a fun list of words derived from superstition/scientific misunderstanding. Other candidates: oxygen, atom, melancholy, hysteria...

Mar 17, 2011 20:20 PM
rating: 1
 
Eusebio

A buddy once asked me in t a text message, before Quintero had gotten significant playing time in the majors, what kind of hitter I thought Quintero would turn out to be.

What could I say, but "Slap and dash, without the slap, without the dash."

Mar 18, 2011 05:51 AM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

I guess I'll just have to cling to the dingleberry of a fact that the Astros have outperformed their win/loss projections every year for the last 3 or 4.

Mar 18, 2011 07:04 AM
rating: 0
 
leites

LOL @ " J.R. Towles, who faceplanted three years ago as a rookie . . ."

Mar 18, 2011 08:45 AM
rating: 0
 
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