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April 1, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The Astros' Best-Case Scenario vs. The Angels' Worst-Case Scenario

by Sam Miller

Last year around this time I had plans to compare the Astros’ teamwide PECOTA projections to those of a variety of lower-level squads: the best Triple-A roster, the best Double-A roster, an All-Star High-A team, etc. I didn’t get to it, and then the season started, and I still didn’t get to it, because the Astros started off hot and it would have been weird to have run that piece about a team that was 22-23 in mid-May. I was sort of glad I didn’t run it, because the longer I lived with the idea the more it started to feel mean.

So this year, I have a similar idea, and I’m rushing it out before the guilt kicks in. Again I’m going to be exploring just how bad the worst team in baseball is. Or just how good the worst team in baseball is. That’s the point of it, after all. It’s not to prove that the Astros are as bad as, say, a team of High-A All-Stars. It’s to see if the Astros are as bad as a team of High-A All-Stars, and if they’re significantly better (as I suspect they would have been), then we’ve learned a little something about baseball.

This year’s idea is more about the gap between the best and the worst teams in a division. The Astros have a 0.2 percent chance of winning the AL West (or did, before their Game One victory over Texas). The Angels have a 42.7 percent chance of winning the AL West. But what if the Astros’ catcher performs at his 90th percentile projection, and the Angels’ catcher performs at his 10th percentile projection? And what if that happens at every position on the field, and to every pitcher in the rotation, and to every reliever in the bullpen? Are the Astros, at their very best, better than the Angels, at their very worst? So that’s what we’re doing.

And we’re doing it with love.

***

Catcher

Angels World: 2.5 WARP Angels, 0.9 WARP Astros

Astros World: -0.3 WARP Angels, 3.7 WARP Astros

Angels World is a world in which all the Angels are good and all the Astros are bad, which is a world that looks remarkably similar to the one you’re sitting in right now, and which is defined by PECOTA as the most likely (i.e. 50th percentile) world. Astros World is the world where the Angels all play at 10th-percentile levels and the Astros all play at 90th-percentile levels.

So this gives you a sense of what we’re talking about. At the 50th-percentile level, the Angels’ third-string catcher Chris Snyder is worth more (around 1.4 WARP in 500 PAs) than the Astros’ starting catcher, Jason Castro (1.2 WARP). But in their worst iterations, Snyder and Hank Conger are well below replacement, starter Chris Iannetta is below-average, and Castro has a .374 OBP and 3.5 WARP. He’s got a .382 career OBP in the minors and a top-prospect pedigree, so you’d bet on Castro before you’d have bet on pre-2012 Jonathan Lucroy.

A note about methodology here: We're using the playing-time projections on our depth charts to apportion value. So, for instance, at catcher the Angels give the bulk of the playing time to Iannetta and smaller portions to Snyder and Conger; the Astros mostly play Jason Castro and have Carlos Corporan as a reserve. For this exercise, all the Angels—even the bench guys—hit their 10th-percentile projections and all the Astros hit their 90th. 

Totals: Astros 3.7, Angels -0.3

First Base

Angels World: 6.6 WARP Angels, 0.7 WARP Astros

Astros World: 4.1 WARP Angels, 3.5 WARP Astros

This exercise has a lot of trouble staying grounded in reality, of course. The Astros have three first basemen, among whom our depth charts basically divide the plate appearances evenly. But if one of these players hit to his 90th-percentile projection, he would likely get all the plate appearances from that point on. You see the problem: the playing time is apportioned with the assumption that the Astros’ players suck and the Angels’ players don’t, while in Astros world neither statement is true.

The upshot is that it complicates any back-of-the-envelope odds we might like to attach to these scenarios. The Astros World projection above, for instance, assumes that five players perform at levels we consider 10 percent likely—or, roughly, a 1-in-100,000 chance of it happening. But, in fact, the Astros just need one of their three first baseman to hit at that level and hold down the everyday job to get that sort of production. And Pujols is going to get the bulk of the plate appearances at first base no matter how badly he hits, barring injury. So it’s more like a 3-in-100 chance of happening.

Regardless, PECOTA doesn’t see any avenue for the Astros to top the Angels at first base. Albert Pujols’ practical floor, PECOTA has decided, is 27 homers and an .846 OPS and the second- or third-best season by an AL first baseman. Of the Astros’ three first basemen, only Chris Carter (3.6 WARP in a full season) can get close to that..

Totals: Astros 7.2, Angels 3.8

Second Base

Angels World: 2.9 WARP Angels, 2.4 WARP Astros

Astros World: 0.7 WARP Angels, 4.8 WARP Astros

Relative to the Angels, this is the Astros’ best position at the 50th percentile, and it’s still worse than the Angels equivalent. Jose Altuve’s spread of outcomes is fairly low, though, so even their best position in the best-case scenario fails to reach five wins.

Totals: Astros 12.0, Angels 4.5

Shortstop

Angels World: 2.1 WARP Angels, 0.7 WARP Astros

Astros World: -0.3 WARP Angels, 3.4 WARP Astros

Until last week, this was, in Astros World, the Astros’ best position, and Tyler Greene was, in Astros World, at 4.8 wins, the Astros’ best player. In Astros World, Tyler Greene puts up the same hitting line that Jose Reyes did in 2012, steals 28 bags, slugs 20 home runs. Greene is a career .224/.292/.356 hitter, so, you know, yeah, okay. Greene did hit .323/.422/.579 for Triple-A Memphis in 2011. And, over the course of his major- and minor-league careers, 15 HRs and 25 SBs per 600 PA have been about typical for him.

Except the Astros cut Greene last week and replaced him with Ronny Cedeno, whose projections (as you see above) aren't as rosy. They're not incredibly worse. But they're worse. 

Totals: Astros 15.4, Angels 4.2

Third Base

Angels World: 1.5 WARP Angels, 0.3 WARP Astros

Astros World: -0.7 WARP Angels, 2.4 WARP Astros

The Angels have lost a half-win at each of the infield positions by relying on Andrew Romine for ~100 PA as the backup. This is a good lesson for teams: If you’re going to get 10th-percentile performance out of all of your players, depth is going to be important.

Totals: Astros 17.8, Angels 3.5. I’m not surprised that the Astros are beating the Angels. But I wasn’t expecting them to dominate like this.

Left Field

Angels World: 4.4 WARP Angels, 0.7 WARP Astros

Astros World: 1.5 WARP Angels, 3.1 WARP Astros

Well, I give. If the Angels can’t even make it close with Mike Trout in left field, they’re not going to make it close. Let’s race through to get to the pitchers. 

Totals: Astros 20.9, Angels 5.0

Center Field

Angels World: 2.8 WARP Angels, 1.3 WARP Astros

Astros World: 0.4 WARP Angels, 4.0 WARP Astros

Totals: Astros 24.9, Angels 5.4

Right Field

Angels World: 3.3 WARP Angels, 1.0 WARP Astros

Astros World: 1.1 WARP Angels, 3.9 WARP Astros

So I’m learning that baseball players can really do almost anything in a season. At the 90th percentile, Rick Ankiel is as good as Josh Hamilton normally is; at the 10th percentile, Josh Hamilton is as good as Justin Maxwell usually is.

Totals: Astros 28.8, Angels 6.5

Designated Hitter

Angels World: 2.9 WARP Angels, 1.5 WARP Astros

Astros World: 0.6 WARP Angels, 3.6 WARP Astros

Totals: Astros 32.4, Angels 7.1

Pitching

To give you a general sense of what happens when you force everybody to the extremes:

  • The Angels have just four pitchers (Weaver, Wilson, Hanson, Madson) above replacement level; Weaver, at just about average, would still be good enough to deserve the fifth spot in the Astros rotation.
  • The Astros have no pitchers below replacement level, though Rhiner Cruz, at 0.2 WARP, just makes it into the safe zone. Still, the best Astros pitcher is Bud Norris, at 3.3 WARP, probably not good enough to make an All-Star team. 
  • The Astros' team ERA would be 3.63, which is at least a run better than you'd bet on in Angels World but also not good enough to lead the American League. The Angels' team ERA would be  4.82, which is terrible but ... well, yeah, quite possibly high enough to lead the league.

I assigned innings like this: 220 for the no. 1 starter, and 20 fewer for each rotation member after that; 100 innings for a swingman/sixth starter, and 80 for a swingman/seventh starter; 60 innings for the top five relievers, and 25 for each of the next five. The team totals:

Measure Angels*10 Astros*90
ERA 4.82 3.63
HR/9 1.2 1.0
WHIP 1.49 1.22
BABIP 0.328 0.257
WARP -9.3 21.2

Meanwhile, the hitter totals:

Measure Angels*10 Astros*90
Average 0.230 0.275
OBP 0.284 0.349
SLG 0.372 0.396
HR 168 194
Tav 0.243 0.289
WARP 7.1 32.4

The home runs appear closer than they would really be. Each team started with about the same number of plate appearances, even though, as we see, the Astros make far fewer outs and should therefore have a lot more plate appearances. If we adjust for that, the Astros now project to hit about 205 homers, the Angels 155. 

But the upshot of the whole thing is this: 56 more wins for the Astros. Again, this is, besides being unrealistic on its face, unrealistic in its execution. No matter how bad the team, there's no way the manager wouldn't replace some of these players before they could accumulate so much negative WARP. Eventually, they would find a guy who wasn't performing at 10th-percentile levels. But, also, 56 more wins. Imagine.

When I was in high school, I took golf pretty seriously. I wasn’t anywhere near the best golfer in town, but on any given shot I could hit the best shot in town; could stick a 120 approach shot within two feet of the pin, or sink a 25-foot putt. I wasn’t a great player; but I had the possibility of a great player in me, and rather than focusing on the limits of the whole, I celebrated the discrete successes. What kept me hopeful was the knowledge that, if I could do it once, I could do it twice; and if I could do it twice, I could—theoretically, at least—do it 56 times in a row and shoot the best round ever. The odds weren’t good. But it was possible.

The odds aren’t good, Astros. But

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

Related Content:  Angels,  PECOTA,  Projections,  Percentiles,  Astros

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