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August 9, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

The Astros vs. the Peanuts Gang

by Larry Granillo

The Houston Astros awoke on Opening Day this year knowing they were the worst team in the National League Central. Even with some quality players in Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, and Wandy Rodriguez, the Houston squad was never going to match up against the Ryan Brauns or Albert Pujolses or Joey Vottos of the division. A hundred games later, as the July 31 trade deadline approached, General Manager Ed Wade and the rest of the front office acknowledged that weakness, trading away the club's two best players in Bourn and Pence for a handful of prospects from the Phillies and Braves. Fans already knew that the 35-73 club was out of contention for 2011, but the trades showed them beyond the shadow of a doubt that the team probably wouldn't be good in 2012 (or even 2013) either.

That's all well and good, but it doesn't wash away the fact that, with a .325 winning percentage heading into Monday, the Astros were on pace for the franchise’s worst record and a 110-loss season. Even before Pence and Bourn were traded, Houston was near the bottom of the league in runs per game, but remarkably, the team's offense was actually better than the team's pitching, as the staff sat dead last in runs allowed per game.

This raises the question, then: with a historically bad team now stripped of its two best players, would the 2011 Astros (as of Monday) be able to beat baseball's most notorious losers, the Peanuts gang? In fifty years of baseball strips, Charlie Brown's baseball team won 15 games (almost all through forfeit) and lost at least 65. If you count the seasons where Charlie Brown states that they lost "every game that season," that won-loss record falls to 15-274. Despite featuring one of the greatest home run hitters ever in Snoopy, Charlie Brown could never find a way to win. Would that matter in a head-to-head matchup with the 2011 Houston Astros, though?

Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the two clubs that could help us find the answer.

Pitcher—Charlie Brown (152.00 ERA, 245.00 WHIP) vs. Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, Brett Myers, et al.
Houston's strongest asset in this comparison. Charlie Brown, as much as he tries, is a terrible, terrible pitcher, giving up line drives, base hits, and home runs with disturbing regularity. The top of the Astros rotation, on the other hand, is actually quite good. All three pitchers have maintained K/9 ratios of 6.7 or better while holding their K:BB ratios in the 2.5 to 2.6 range. Norris and Rodriguez have a 1.1 HR/9 so far this year, while Myers, the worst of the three, checks in at 1.6. Even their ERAs tell a similar story, ranging from 3.69 to 4.76. Houston's bullpen (and the 22 starts given to J.A. Happ and his 6.26 ERA) is mostly responsible for the league's second-worst ERA of 4.61.

Catcher—Schroeder vs. Humberto Quintero
Schroeder is a capable backstop. He held the position for nearly 50 years and never seemed to cause Charlie Brown grief with passed balls and wild pitches. He didn't call a good game, though, and at one point admitted to being unable to throw the ball back to the mound. Quintero is also one of the club's veterans, but, in his nine-year career, he's rarely seen this much playing time. Quintero's offense is microscopic, but he appears to be a decent defender, allowing few passed balls and posting average-or-better caught-stealing percentages and range factors. This is probably a push between the two catchers, though I might lean a tad to Schroeder's side.

First Base—Shermy vs. Carlos Lee
Shermy is the forgotten character, featuring prominently in the strip's early run (and the team's early play) but all but disappearing five or so years in. Carlos Lee is the forgotten man, featuring prominently in the team's play early in his tenure but all but disappearing five or so years into his contract. Come to think of it, Lee might be more easily forgotten if he weren't still owed nearly $30 million.

Second Base—Linus vs. Jose Altuve
It's going to be hard for the Astros to win this matchup. Linus may be a deep-thinking blanket-hugger, but he has shown some surprisingly great moves throughout the years, although his blanket might be classified as a performance-enhancing drug in the current climate. Linus was also the team's statistician for a while, so he understands advanced stats. Altuve has been in the majors for all of 17 games, so he hasn't had much time to make an impression (other than "he's short!"). He's more than held his own in the minor leagues, though, constantly surpassing expectations. We may have to wait a little while longer before declaring this matchup for either club.

Third Base—Pig Pen vs. Jimmy Paredes
Like first base, this position has changed hands a bit in the Peanuts world, though we have seen extended third-base work from Pig Pen. There isn't much to be said about Pig Pen, though: other than that cloud of dust, he's always been considered reliable, and while he shares the left side of the diamond with a dog, that's never seemed to be a problem. Paredes has been the regular third baseman only for about a week, since Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace were sent back down to Triple-A. Paredes was a key prospect in the Berkman trade and could do good things for the Astros if given a chance.

Shortstop—Snoopy vs. Clint Barmes
Snoopy is by far the best player on Charlie Brown's team. He can make all kinds of acrobatic plays in the field (usually with his teeth), and he can hit like nobody's business. In 1973, Snoopy had a brief flirtation with Babe Ruth's record. Barmes may be Houston's best remaining position player since Bourn and Pence were traded. His fielding is solid at a prime defensive position, while his bat isn't exactly anemic. It doesn't say much for your team, though, when Clint Barmes has a legitimate case as the best position player.

Outfield—Lucy/Violet/Frieda/et al. vs. J.D. Martinez/Jason Bourgeois/Bran Bogusevic/Jason Michaels/et al.
The other major hole in Charlie Brown's club. There's not a single character who played in Charlie Brown's outfield who didn't desperately want to be somewhere else. On the field, this manifested in disinterested fielders and horrible defense. When Charlie Brown was able to coax an easy pop-up, one could never know if Lucy or the rest of the girls would even see it, let alone stick their glove out at it. When Pence and Bourn were traded, they left a huge hole in Houston's outfield. Jason Bourgeois has taken over the normal role of the center fielder, and J.D. Martinez has settled in left, but no one can make up their minds about right field. Bourgeois is a speedy slap-hitter who’s spent his 10-year career bouncing around the minor leagues. Martinez, who has been one of Houston's top offensive prospects, has made the jump to the big leagues seamlessly (though it has been only a week). Bogusevic, Michaels, and Jack Shuck have shared the right-field duties. It may be victory by default, but Martinez's quick start is plenty to give the outfield faceoff to Houston.

Scoring the categories, it looks like the Astros take the head-to-head matchup, but only just barely. Snoopy and Linus give the Peanuts crowd a fighting chance, but it's the glaring weaknesses at pitcher and in the outfield that give the Astros the most support. The Astros aren't really trotting out many truly atrocious players on a day-to-day basis, but until some of these prospects get some more playing time, much of their lineup is inexperienced and mediocre. That kind of talent might carry the day in a tongue-in-cheek matchup with Charlie Brown, but unfortunately, it's the likes of Prince Fielder and the Brewers and Albert Pujols and the Cardinals that the team must contend with.

Related Content:  Houston Astros,  The Who,  Charlie Brown,  Clint Barmes

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