June 12, 2012
Ten Reasons the Astros Aren't Historically Terrible
Last season, the Twins won 63 games and were widely acknowledged to be a total disaster. But the Twins were baseball’s second-worst team. The Astros were on another level of awful. They won only 56 games, the lowest total of any team since the 2005 Royals. They were the NL’s worst pitching team and the NL’s worst defensive team, and they weren’t much good at offense, either.
That level of futility wasn’t foreseeable. In order to be as awful as they were last season, the Astros had to decline by a whopping 20 wins. In the 1982 Abstract, Bill James observed that a team that declines in one year is likely to improve the next. He called it the Plexiglas Principle.* In most cases, we’d expect a team that fell off by as much as the Astros to bounce back the following year. But the Astros weren’t most cases, and they weren’t supposed to bounce. They were supposed to break through the glass and fall even further.
*In the 1983 Abstract, he called it the Whirlpool Principle. Bill James was such a prolific author of principles that he sometimes came up with the same one twice.
There were good reasons to think that the Astros would have trouble holding what little ground they had. For one thing, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, who were traded at the 2011 deadline, still finished with two of the team’s three top WARP totals. That was depressing for two reasons: first, that the Astros had so few good players that two of them could miss months of the season and still be among their most valuable, and second, that they wouldn’t have them at all in 2012. The Astros would also be without Jeff Keppinger, another player who’d been traded after a hot first half. Their fourth-best player, Clint Barmes—and if you’ve seen a sadder beginning to a sentence than that, don’t send it to me—had signed with the Pirates. And there wasn’t much immediate help on the way from the minor-league system, which Kevin Goldstein ranked baseball’s fifth-worst.
Subtracting wins from the previous year’s team isn’t a sophisticated way to project performance. But the sophisticated ways painted a similarly pessimistic picture. PECOTA projected the Astros to go 61-101, which is one of the meanest things you’ll ever see PECOTA say. That was six wins fewer than the system had foreseen for the 2011 team. The worst PECOTA had forecasted any team to finish since 2004 was 66-96. At Baseball Nation, Jeff Sullivan wondered, with good reason, whether the Astros were the worst projected team of all time. Elsewhere on the internet, writers flexed their fingers and blew compressed air at their keyboards, preparing to unleash a perfect storm of snark.
It didn’t matter much that the Astros spent the offseason hiring smart people: in December, Jeff Luhnow, and in January, Sig Mejdal, Mike Fast, and Stephanie Wilka. That improved the team’s long-term outlook, and maybe it made the snark a little less fun, since the heads responsible had already rolled. But even though Ed Wade was gone, his handiwork wasn’t. Things were supposed to get worse before they got better.