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April 2, 2013

Punk Hits

Accidentally Making a Case for Astros Fandom

by Ian Miller

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I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the 2013 Major League Baseball season is underway. It actually began on Sunday night in a contest that pitted the Texas Rangers against their newly minted division rivals, the Houston Astros. The game was broadcast on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball and logged a 1.5 Nielsen rating. That’s down pretty substantially from Opening Night 2012, when the Cardinals and the Marlins pulled a 1.8 rating. You can thank the Best Fans in Baseball for those extra .3 percent.

I saw quite a few people on Twitter and elsewhere complaining about Opening Night and claiming that only Opening Day is real. I call shenanigans on that. Highlighting one game on the night before Opening Day focuses national attention on a single matchup, making it feel special, like the single present your parents let you open on Christmas Eve.

As a brand-new Astros fan, I was especially excited about the game. I decided to adopt Houston as my designated AL team shortly after Kevin Goldstein signed on. I knew they’d probably be terrible this year, but 1. I really admire what Luhnow and company are doing over there, and 2. the best time to adopt a new team is when they’re at their nadir. That way, once they’ve built a dynasty and amassed multiple championships, you can feel superior to the bandwagon fans who didn’t suffer through the lean times with you.

By agreeing to move the Astros to the American League, Astros owner Jim Crane got a substantial break on the purchase price. I imagine MLB also threw him a bone by slotting them in on Opening Night. (They did the same thing with the Marlins last year, perhaps as an opportunity to introduce the viewing public to the monstrosity that is Marlins Park and the soul-devouring Home Run Machine.) Houston would face perennial AL West powerhouse Texas, and the Rangers were a heavy favorite at -170 at game time. Sideline reporter Buster Olney called the Astros “the purest experiment of statistical use in baseball,” which I’m not sure is true, but was interesting nonetheless.

There wasn’t a lot of traditional pomp or circumstance at Minute Maid Park on Sunday night; I don’t recall seeing a lot of red, white, and blue bunting. There was, however, smoke and pyrotechnics as the Astros players were announced. There was a moment of silence for the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings, and a lovely rendition of the National Anthem by Lyle Lovett, accompanied by a fiddler. Or is it a violinist? I’m not sure what the distinction is there, except that, in country context, they’re usually called fiddles, so I’m gonna go with fiddle. 

The first pitch was thrown out by one J.J. Watt, who is apparently a handegg player of some renown. The pitch was about 18 inches outside, but he made it from the rubber to the plate on a line. ESPN also had footage of him going deep during batting practice, not once, but twice. Pretty impressive.

You should also know that the game was presented by Burger King.

There’s also the matter of the new Sunday Night Baseball booth: Terry Francona is out and John Kruk is in. This is going to be a disaster, right? I think Shulman is one of the best play-by-play guys working today, and I mostly like Orel Hershiser: he’s got excellent insights about pitching, but can over-talk and over-explain at times. But Kruk. Krukky. Isn’t he the enemy? One of those willfully ignorant people who oppose any efforts to evolve our understanding of the game? Thing is, he was actually pretty good.

It will take a little while for the booth to find its personality, if you will, but Kruk nowhere near as bad as I had expected him to be. He contributed some interesting observations about hitting and even an amusing anecdote or two about his playing days. I’m not a huge fan of the three-man booth -- they generally leave very little room for, well, room, or silence. That said, it’s probably the best setting for Kruk, who can’t carry the entire color analyst job, but can act as a foil -- personality- and role-wise -- to Bulldog.

In and amongst all the pyrotechnics and singing and announcing, a baseball game also occurred (presented by Burger King). The experimental Astros played their first game as an American League franchise, after spending 51 seasons in the NL. Their entire 2013 payroll is under $20 million, which many pundits delight in telling you is less than many individual players will make this year! Other pundits will claim that Houston’s minuscule payroll is somehow an affront to baseball, or that the Astros are “cheating the game.” Or the fans. Or something.

The people who write these columns are usually older writers from the mainstream media, i.e. newspapers. I understand that these guys (they’re always guys) are under tremendous pressure to produce content and that they have to write about something. And that there is an audience for material like this; a certain segment of the population is happy to read articles that demonize athletes or franchises. But the fundamental problem is that the premise is simply not true.

Jeff Luhnow knows his Astros won’t compete this year, and likely not for the next two or three. Should he spend millions of Jim Crane’s money and potentially hamstring his ability to field a winning team in the future simply because he owes it to the fans or the game or some writers? Of course not. This isn’t frugality for its own sake; it’s decidedly NOT the Marlins. This is Luhnow establishing the groundwork for a future contender. You might not agree with his premises and you might not believe it will work, and that opinion is certainly valid. But claiming the Astros “should” or “need to” spend a bunch of money to meet some arbitrary rules you made up is just horseshit. Look: if Luhnow is wrong, you’ll be able to look back and point and laugh and gloat. But what if he’s right? If the Astros win it all in 2017, it’ll be, in part, because Carlos Peña was his priciest free agent in 2013 at $2.9 million.

Old lamestream media guys aren’t the only ones who are taking aim at the Astros, though. Professional jerk Darren Rovell tweeted that the only reason to attend an Astros game would be to get a sad-looking hamburger. I guess Rovell doesn’t enjoy watching Jose Altuve hit RBI singles off of pitches up around his eyes. Or see Matt Dominguez make great plays look routine. Or see Justin Maxwell hit two triples in a game. Or see Rick Ankiel, one of the greatest comeback stories in baseball, hit a pinch-hit three-run bomb to put the game on ice for the home team. He probably hates the three-inning save, too.

Look, I get it. Not everyone is crazy for baseball like I am, and like I assume you are. That’s fine; I don’t require you to value the things I value. But saying a hamburger is more exciting than Justin Maxwell? That just makes you look dumb, dude. This is an exciting young team. Or if it’s not, it’s a young team with some exciting players on it. They might actually lose 100 games -- our projections have them losing 94 -- but I really do admire the guts Luhnow and his staff is showing.

Baseball and baseball people are inherently conservative. People aren’t generally willing to go out on limbs, and Luhnow is. He went all-in on this plan, and is weathering a goodly amount of criticism for it. I appreciate that. As I’m writing this, the Astros in in a three-way tie for first in the AL West, and a 15-way tie for the best record in baseball. In fact, it’s the first time Houston has been in first since 2007. But it definitely won’t be the last.

When I started out 1,400 words ago, I was thinking I would write a kind of an Opening Night game story, but apparently I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up here. I intended to write about Bud Norris, the Astros starter, and how his fastball command deserted him. He ended up throwing a ton of sliders and, while they were mostly good, there were too many of ‘em for my liking. Catcher Jason Castro’s game-calling needs work, but he’s a phenomenal catch-and-throw guy. I meant to mention his clean footwork and a lightning-quick release. There are the aforementioned Dominguez and Maxwell, and I haven’t even mentioned Chris Carter, my personal white whale. If you like baseball, there’s lots to like all over that roster. All you have to do is look for it.

 

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

Related Content:  Justin Maxwell,  Jose Altuve

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

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jj0501

Or Ronny Cedeno, who goes from getting cut by the Cardinals to a starting MLB job overnight. And should put up some decent results that will have other teams nosing around
the 'Stros with prospects in hand later this summer.

Apr 02, 2013 07:19 AM
rating: 2
 
jhardman

Amen. I'm a tried and true Rangers fan, and I've seen Rangers caps in places that they had never been spotted before the past couple of years. I'll watch the Astros carefully as I always have, but any true baseball fan has to like what they are doing. I admire the approach, and wish them luck. I don't want them infringing on "Ranger territory", but I do know that two great baseball teams in Texas would make both stronger. Best of luck to them, and moreso to my Astro fan friends who have suffered equally for 40 years cheering their team.

Apr 02, 2013 07:23 AM
rating: 5
 
rileybreck

A-freaking-men.

Excellent work, Ian.

Apr 02, 2013 08:18 AM
rating: 3
 
rwp9843

To borrow from Michael Lewis:

"Anyone who wanders into Major League Baseball can't help but notice the stark contrast between the field of play and the uneasy space just off it, where the executives and the scouts make their livings. The game itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you're very good, you don't survive in it. But in the space just off the field, there really is no level of incompetence that won't be tolerated. There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that baseball has structured itself less as a business than as a social club. The Club includes not only the people who manage the team but also, in a kind of Women's Auxiliary, many of the writers and the commentators who follow it, and purport to explain it. The Club is selective, but the criteria for admission and retention are nebulous. There are many ways to embarrass the Club, but being bad at your job is not one of them." (An excerpt from the Afterword to Moneyball, and a fitting tribute to Ed Wade)

I'm rooting for the Astros and their front office to stick it to The Club. And like Ian, I believe that the Astros and their "experiment" is a fascinating and exciting baseball story. Certainly more so than many that will be dredged up and supplied to the less discriminating masses.

Apr 02, 2013 08:20 AM
rating: 8
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

Fantastic quote, and so very apt. Thanks for sharing it.

Apr 02, 2013 08:52 AM
 
jfribley

I think the most important part of all this is the Burger King sponsorship, which has informed me they now sell a veggie burger. On the one hand, roadtrip food just got easier. On the other hand, eww.

Apr 02, 2013 08:38 AM
rating: 4
 
Danny Baseball

Ian, you forgot the new look too!! How freaking sweet are those unis? I'm onboard with the "new" Astros as well. I'm interested to see how this grand experiment plays out.

Apr 02, 2013 09:05 AM
rating: 1
 
Eusebio

Word!!

Apr 02, 2013 09:06 AM
rating: 0
 
Vicmill1

Love your tone...once defined as the author's attitude towards his/her material as evidenced in any given piece. John Simon made a career out of hating new plays on Broadway and finding horrific ways to insult the players, unless he had a secret yen for a particular actress. He ended up being the star of each piece and I wound up not learning much about dramaturgy.
I love your wide-eyed attitude towards the elements of the game...I wind up learning a lot more through your reporting and, often, your optimistic view through the old knot-hole as they used to say before stadia made peeking through the outfield fence as difficult as shoving a camel through the eye of a needle.

Apr 02, 2013 09:13 AM
rating: 4
 
Bryant

Hopefully, more baseball fans become engaged in Luhnow's great experiment - and, at the VERY least, I hope it drowns out the crowd erroneously equating Luhnow to Loria. Pieces like this are an excellent first step. Bravo.

Apr 02, 2013 09:16 AM
rating: 2
 
SChandler

I'm a Tiger fan but I find the Astros a very intriguing organization and I'm rooting for them, and I'm sure they will succeed. Excellent article Ian.

Apr 02, 2013 09:34 AM
rating: 0
 
hmarxnd

Excellent points. Spot on.

I too am fascinated by what the Astros have done in the front office. This is going to be a fun division to watch going forward with 4 of the 5 front offices seemingly in good hands.

Apr 02, 2013 09:52 AM
rating: 0
 
John Geer
(44)

Great stuff, Ian.
And great point about one of Sunday's heroes: Rick Ankiel blows my mind, every time I see him play the field or hit. You want to talk about great athletes, he is definitely on the list. What a sad, but incredible comeback story.

Apr 02, 2013 10:02 AM
rating: 5
 
nyyfaninlaaland

Clearly there's not much equation between the approach the 'Stros are taking and the gyrations the Marlins have gone through of late.

Luhnow is faced with a daunting task - the cupboard was quite bare on arrival, worse so in the system than at the top. The restruturing of the draft spending pool and the analogous model finding it's way into the international market (perhaps soon to be replaced with a draft there) provides Houston with a significant financial advantage, but rebuilding through these methods alone takes time.

Many clubs clearly need to go through such rebuilds periodically.

But there may be 1 area of concern with their spending levels. They may well become a revenue sharing recipient for the short run (they are limited by the CBA large market exclusions phasing in over the next few years). Is it the responsibility of the other clubs to help finance tear down efforts in this manner? It has always seemed to me a formula to ding low payroll clubs (with some accounting for development spending as well) on their revenue sharing receipts is only fair. The balance could be redistributed to clubs meeting the thresholds in some equitable manner, not simply back to payers.

I accept a teardown strategy as a legitimate approach in the sport - the question is whether club owners should enjoy enhanced (and subsidized) profits as a byproduct of such. It seems clear this may be the line Loria has crossed in Miami over the years. Nothing against owners making money in the game, but there are incentives in the current structure for owners to "game the system".

Apr 02, 2013 10:16 AM
rating: 2
 
Leg4206

A well-written antidote to the typical mindless ones. And this from a reader who doesn't totally buy into the Luhnow plan.

btw, Norris' command will often disappear somewhere in the middle innings and he will then lean hard on his slider. That will never change.

Apr 02, 2013 10:26 AM
rating: 0
 
Eric C. Johnson

I was sold just on the unis and hats.

Apr 02, 2013 10:31 AM
rating: 1
 
gdragon1977

Something else that I hope is noticed about the Astros is that their ticket and concession prices haven't dropped to miniscule numbers, putting the lie to the idea that player salaries drive the prices that fans pay. I know that there probably aren't a lot of BP readers that believe this concept but a lot of fans still do and a lot of owners still push it.

Apr 02, 2013 11:16 AM
rating: 3
 
Mike Smith

Houston may just be the perfect place to try new things. This is a generalization, but fans here seem to be a lot more forgiving of failure than in other places.

So if the Astros try something a little different, they likely won't be shouted down by the Baseball Media Gods. Or even if they are, the fans are more likely to let them get away with here than just about anywhere else.

Small sample size warning, but I really like what I've seen and heard from Luhnow and Porter thus far.

Looking forward to having front row seats to what could be a very interesting team to watch over the next few years.

Apr 02, 2013 11:32 AM
rating: 1
 
digiderek

Actually, that hamburger looks pretty tasty!

Apr 02, 2013 14:31 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

Thanks for all the kind words, folks. I really do appreciate it.

Apr 02, 2013 15:59 PM
 
Marco Lepe

One of your best pieces yet, Ian. Super best job!

Apr 02, 2013 16:18 PM
rating: 0
 
gjhardy

Great article, but you damaged your credibility when you mentioned that you got to open one gift on Christmas Eve. The waiting is the hardest part -- as Tom Petty says -- but it's also the key to the whole deal. Also, you kids stay off of my lawn!

Apr 03, 2013 08:23 AM
rating: -1
 
Oldwell89

That is actually so very convincing, and I was an Astros (Nolan Ryan) fan growing up although Atlanta was my home team.

If they weren't in the NL East actually being a Marlins fan would be the ultimate non conformist move. They are dislikeable on a fairly high level, don't really have as clear a plan, and will be very bad, thus you would really have to grit your teeth to get behind them. Safe to say you would be driving that bandwagon around fairly empty for years to come and unlike the Lastros 'Feel Good' story, I suppose it would be sort of a 'Feel Bad' story, as I would envision future success for the Marlins would be some sort of sell your soul/Hire Biogenesis as team consultant story! Maybe they can hire Jim Tracy and sell 20% of the team to Marge Schott's trust while they're at it!

Apr 03, 2013 09:21 AM
rating: 0
 
BayCityM

I feel like I owe it to Kevin to support the 'Stros.

Apr 03, 2013 13:57 PM
rating: 0
 
hessshaun

This wasn't about anything you mentioned up top. Payback for moving, etc..., all that mumbo jumbo.

This was in tribute to Up and In. Jason's team vs. Kevin's team. Nothing more or less.

Apr 04, 2013 10:07 AM
rating: 0
 
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