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May 7, 2013

Punk Hits

The Record the Houston Astros Won't Break

by Ian Miller

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I’m legitimately excited to be going to Houston this weekend to attend the Baseball Prospectus event at Minute Maid Park. It won’t be my first BP event, but it’ll be my first event as a BP staff member. I hope no one asks me any tough questions about baseball, because I don’t really know anything about the game. Luckily Jason Collette and Jason Cole and lots of other smart people will be there to field the tough questions. What should I wear? I don’t have any golf shirts or polos, so I hope the attendees don’t mind hoodies and cutoff jean shorts. 

I also hope the Astros have a better week this week than last. I mean, I don’t wanna necessarily hang around with a bunch of bummed-out front-office types and personnel. Let’s be frank here: Saying the Astros had a bad week is an understatement of the highest order. It started out with them beating Andy Pettitte, and went completely off the rails after that. They ended up losing six straight and suffered a four-game sweep, at home, at the hands of the Tigers.

You kind of expect them to get beaten by Hiroki Kuroda and Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, but they also lost games to Boone Logan, Drew Smyly, and Luke Putkonen. Is that last guy even a real baseball player? I’m not convinced. Sounds made up. 

The Tigers outscored them 37-8 over the course of a four-game sweep, pushing the Astros’ run differential to -2.35 per game, worst in all of baseball. The sweep, and the near-no-hitter by Verlander on Sunday, were enough for the Astros to convene a closed-door, players-only meeting to get the team fired up and back on track. This is the low ebb so far, but almost certainly not the nadir in a long year.

This is a bad team by any measure. If you want to play the “on-pace game,” Houston is on pace for a 41-121 season. Joe Posnanski thinks they might lose 120, or maybe he doesn’t; I can’t quite tease out his conclusions from the musings about the terrible Tigers and Mets teams of yore.

I submit that, while they are terrible, the Astros aren’t 120-loss terrible. PECOTA backs me up on this: our Playoff Odds Report has them going 62-100 this season. They have a solid core of young talent, at least among position players: their team .259 True Average puts them dead in the middle of the pack for offense (15th of 30) and they’ve scored 123 runs, good enough for 10th in the American League.

Contrasting this with the Marlins, the only other team who might conceivably challenge Houston for the top draft pick in 2014, is edifying: Miami is dead last in baseball in True Average, ISO, and VORP for position players. It’s Miami’s middling pitching that has led them to a 10-22 record, whereas Houston’s pitching is the reason its run differential is so ghastly.

Thing is, that ain’t gon’ happen.

Yes, the Astros staff is godawful. They’re last in baseball in ERA, and by almost a full run: 5.75 vs. the next-worst Angels’ 4.78. The starters have been especially bad: Houston’s starters own a 6.53 ERA and have pitched 4.8 innings per start, both worst in baseball by plenty.

But lo, even now there is reason for optimism. There’s some evidence that Houston’s pitchers have been unlucky. Houston’s staff owns the highest BABIP in baseball at .328, and their starters’ is higher still, at .348. It’s impossible to tease out how much of those figures is luck and how much is ineffectiveness or bad defense, but we should expect to see those numbers regress heavily toward .300. (The worst non-Colorado BABIP of the last five seasons was the 2008 Rangers at .315, and the Astros posted BABIPs of .301 and .306 in 2011 and 2012, both 100-loss seasons.)

Houston’s Fair Run Average (FRA) also suggests that their arms are a little better than their performance so far. The Astros aggregate FRA is “only” 5.27, a half-run better than their ERA. The staff’s FIP is in that same ballpark (5.20), and their xFIP – which regresses HR/FB rates -- is lower still, at 4.82. (That’s still worst in baseball though, so don’t get too excited.)

The Astros’ farm is stocked with talent -- we ranked them ninth this year, and they’ll continuing to improve through draft position -- but don’t expect the cavalry to come over the hill in 2013. Houston needs guys who can eat innings, and those guys just don’t exist right now. Like I said way back there, this is a bad team, and they’ll likely lose 100 games and become the first team to select first overall three years in a row.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter if the Astros lose 100 or 120 or 154. (Actually, losing 130 straight would be pretty amazing, so I take that last one back.) Luhnow and company have made it clear they are attempting to build a sustainable, competitive organization. He’s asked his employers, his employees, and his fans to trust the process. If you believe in Luhnow and his team and have a very active imagination, you can project out a few years and visualize a team that can compete with Texas and Oakland in the AL West and maybe even go deep into the playoffs. Veteran and batting champion Jose Altuve anchors a lineup that features Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa. Matt Dominguez is winning Gold Gloves, and Justin Maxwell is making All-Star games. Jason Castro catches Mark Appel every fifth day, Jarred Cosart is closing, and Carlos Rodon is knocking on the door.

Now try that exercise with the Marlins organization.

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:  Houston Astros,  Jose Altuve

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

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jonathanaustin

I'm an Astros' fan, but you forgot one key piece of the puzzle - the Astros front office is trading anyone of any value, helping stock the minor league system and improve our draft position. I could see Maxwell, Pena, Carter, and Norris on other teams by the end of the season.

May 07, 2013 03:13 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

Although I didn't mention it, I didn't forget it either.

Like I said toward the end there, it doesn't matter a whit if the Astros lose 95 or 105 or 115 this year. The only impact might be a modest one on ticket sales or TV viewers. But this year's W-L record is irrelevant. If they can flip Chris Carter or Carlos Pena for prospects down the stretch, then they damn well better do it. Their window for winning will start to open in 2-3 years, and (I assume) that's where the Astros' front office attention is focused.

May 07, 2013 08:39 AM
 
boards

Unfortunately, they have already impacted their TV viewership by not making their games available. I'm in San Antonio so I've only been able to watch Opening Day when they played on National TV. I guess the next time they are available here will be when they play the Rangers since they do have regional coverage here. I can't watch them on my MLB.tv subscription since they are blacked out. I haven't check lately but reportedly about half of the greater Houston area couldn't watch their games either.

After careful consideration, maybe they are trying to make it harder to watch this awful team in hopes it won't taint their fanbase come 2015. Or not.

May 07, 2013 10:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

The broadcast rights are a *huge* issue, but not one that the baseball ops folks have any control over. The Padres are in a similar situation with their local sportsnet. It's baffling to me that they can't seem to get these deals done. Both sides are leaving a LOT of money on the table.

May 07, 2013 11:49 AM
 
jonathanaustin

Thanks Ian. I would like to repectfully disagree about it not mattering if the Astros lose 95, 105, or 115 games. If we "only" lose 95 games, we probably get the fourth pick in the draft. If we can put a bad enough team on the field to lose 115 games, we should easily get the top pick in the 2014 draft. With the new draft rules in place, that could make a huge difference down the line. I've officially entered into the "root against my team" zone with the hope that we're competitive again in 3 or 4 years.

May 08, 2013 02:34 AM
rating: 2
 
mrenick

Man, To hear buster olney talk you'd think the Astros have a very good shot at losing the next 130 games.

The DFAing of Ankiel and Martinez tell me the Astros are already separating the wheat from the chaff and looking to create a lineup that is more competitive. Bedard is out of the rotation. It's not like this team isn't in a constant state of roster flux and talent evaluation. In my opinion their success (or lack thereof) is going to be based heavily around somehow stabilizing the rotation.

May 07, 2013 06:08 AM
rating: 2
 
Schere

vs Seattle: 4-2
vs LAA 1-2
vs CLE 1-2


every other game has been vs a first or second place team: BOS (0-4), NYY (1-2), DET (0-4), TEX (1-2), OAK (0-6), Adds up to 2-18.

May 07, 2013 06:24 AM
rating: 7
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

Excellent observation.

May 07, 2013 08:35 AM
 
Ben Solow

On the other hand, how many of those teams are in first or second place because they've already had the opportunity to play the Astros?

I'm not actually claiming that's the reason those teams are succeeding (as a Red Sox fan, I certainly hope it's not), just pointing out that the causality probably flows both ways to some degree.

May 07, 2013 15:42 PM
rating: 5
 
greendrummer

cutoff jean shorts?
those things were out 25 years ago....

May 07, 2013 08:58 AM
rating: 0
 
gweedoh565

just in time to come back in style!

May 07, 2013 09:13 AM
rating: 4
 
Vicmill1

I like any sports article that starts a sentence, "But lo..." where LO isn't an IM for "Laughing Overmuch".

You also made me very curious about watching a team I had dismissed unconsciously...and that is what makes baseball such a fabulous sport-the fact that teams on the short yellow bus can be fascinating.

May 07, 2013 09:03 AM
rating: 2
 
ahemmer

It's sad to think that if you combined the Astros hitting and the Marlins pitching, the team would be no more than mediocre.

Say hello to your 2014 Houami Marstros.

May 07, 2013 11:13 AM
rating: 6
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

100% serious, the original draft of this article attempted to do exactly that. I couldn't come up with a satisfying result, though. Closest I came was figuring out a combined run differential and concluding that the combined team would be roughly equivalent to the White Sox.

May 07, 2013 11:51 AM
 
terryspen

Ian -- How bad/unlucky would a team have to be to break the 1962 Mets' record? Their Pythagorean record was actually 50-110, 10 games better than their result. The 2003 Tigers had a Pythagorean record of 49-113, six games better than their result. To be so bad to actually earn a 39-123 record -- can that even be done using bad but qualified major league players without horrible luck, too?

May 07, 2013 13:33 PM
rating: 0
 
DetroitDale

Yes, Putkonen is a player, and the reason he and Smyly got wins off the Astros is that they got shut down by Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, but the Astros starters matched them pitch for pitch.

Which brings me to the real point. Watching the 14 inning game of the series, after it was tied, virtually every Astros hitter was trying to win the game with one swing of the bat, which resulted in over-swinging and swinging at bat pitches, rather than work for walks, get base hits, get guys over, etc. Then after they lost the first two games by very close margins, they looked very lackadaisical in the field, taking extra time to get to balls that resulted in the Tigers runners getting a lot of extra bases. (something they're really not known for)

Now I realize judging a team by four games is a bad idea, but if this approach is typical this shows a deficiency in coaching that is going to impair the transition of these players from talented prospects to solid major leaguers, and maybe putting that record in pay after all.

May 07, 2013 13:58 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

You bring up some fair points, Dale, but I think it's less a coaching deficiency and more just that the Houston lineup is composed almost entirely of young/raw guys. They're not seasoned, and hell, they've got nothing to lose if they swing from their heels. If they happen to run into one, then they're heroes.

May 07, 2013 15:56 PM
 
rsjanabasis

"Luhnow and company have made it clear they are attempting to build a sustainable, competitive organization. He’s asked his employers, his employees, and his fans to trust the process. "


Sorry, a team with $200 M in revenue is not supposed to have $20 M in payroll. On what basis do they have a right to ask fans to trust the process that picks their pockets in such an obscene way? What exactly does a ticket to see the Astros buy you?

That type of behavior needs to be punished with boycotts, blackouts, graffiti, burning-in-effigy, and mass cancellations of any season tickets or cable television subscriptions outstanding. Teams are supposed to spend a reasonable percentage, e.g. half, of their payroll on players. The appropriate response of the fanbase should be to cut those revenues to $40M, asking the Astros to "trust the process".

May 08, 2013 03:03 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

Well, you and I have a fundamental difference of opinion there. I believe that the Astros' baseball ops staff are committed to building a team that, in 2 or 3 or 4 years, can be competitive over the next decade. They've earned my trust by making sound baseball decisions.

I reject the notion that teams are *supposed* to spend X% of revenues on salary. Look at the Angels or the Dodgers right now. Bloated salaries, bad free agent signings, and awful W-L records. What if Houston spent 40 or 60 or 80 million on player salaries this year. What does that get them -- a middle of the pack finish and they don't make the playoffs anyway. They simply don't have the talent to compete right now -- but they will soon.

When the Astros' window for competitiveness opens in a few years, if they start making bad baseball decisions, then they'll lose my trust. But right now, I'm buying what Jeff Luhnow and co. are selling. If I end up being wrong, then so be it.

May 08, 2013 07:43 AM
 
rsjanabasis

"I reject the notion that teams are *supposed* to spend X% of revenues on salary."

OK, let me argue a little differently. The league structures revenue sharing, visiting shares of ticket proceeds, and draft pick assignments based on some underlying assumptions, namely that teams that do poorly are in fact trying to win, and lack the money to spend on salaries in order to attract top talent. Therefore we make it cheaper for them to get talent by giving them more money and better draft picks.

But what the Astros are showing is that it is possible to make a lot of money not by refusing to pay for talent. They wait until the MLB restocks their farm, sell off part of it, and have the occasional good year.

They are in effect a for profit farm system . The Astros are going to be the most profitable team in baseball this year by a long shot, and will have the worst record by a long shot as well.

That should at least make us revisit the notion of providing preferential draft picks to poorly performing teams as well as revenue sharing when the bulk of those revenues were earned by teams paying a premium for talent.

Until the Astros change their strategy, they should be treated like an independent AAA club. It is no wonder why cable providers are hesitant to pay a premium for a team that spends almost nothing on paying for talent. If you were a cable provider, how much you pay to carry the Astros, and wouldn't you care whether you were carrying a AAA club or an MLB club?

May 08, 2013 19:25 PM
rating: 1
 
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