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October 1, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros

  • Who's Flying This Thing?: After spending much of the year jockeying for first place in the NL Central, including being up two games on September 14th, the Astros flopped to a 6-7 record over the final two weeks, including finishing 2-2 against the lowly Brewers, handing the Cubbies another October shot at breaking their fans' hearts.

    Much has been made over the easy schedule Chicago faced over the final month, and how it gave them the edge going down the stretch, so to some, this finish isn't all that surprising. But in a finish this close, there's always a round of finger pointing; while most of those fingers will get pointed towards the playing field, there are various signs they should be pointed to the dugout steps instead.

    Example: On September 15th, an off-day for the team, they were closer to second place (two games) than to the wild card (four games). The day's scheduled starter was easily the worst member of the rotation. By skipping Robertson, they could have moved Ron Villone, Wade Miller, and Roy Oswalt up a day. Among other things, this would have insured that all three would have also started the last series of the year, and that Oswalt could have started the final game of the season on normal rest.

    Williams chose the non-skip option. Sure, this allowed Oswalt to face the Cardinals that weekend. It's safe to assume his groin was hurting and he could use the rest. Technically, it avoided having to start someone on short rest if a 163rd game was needed (no way would Robertson have pitched that game), and set their rotation up nicely for the playoffs. But it doesn't matter how well-prepared the playoffs rotation is if you don't get there! Replacing one turn by the team's best pitcher with a turn by its worst just wasn't smart. If the Astros clinch early, Robertson starts the last game, and the playoffs rotation is still set up nicely. And with the Cardinals 5 1/2 games out at the time, why is saving Oswalt for them a priority?

  • Recurring Theme: Geoff Blum mysteriously continued to share time at third down the stretch while Morgan Ensberg was finishing strong. Ensberg is obviously a much better hitter (908 OPS vs 677), and is a noticeably better fielder, at least if Zone Rating is any indication. Admittedly, he has a knack for looking like a dope in the field, and Blum's fielding percentage was a whopping five points higher for the year.

    But the decision(s) to bench Ensberg for those half-dozen games cost the Astros roughly 1.5 expected run differential. At the risk of rigging the analysis in hindsight, perhaps those runs would have come in handy during their 3-2, 13-inning loss to St. Louis, a game in which Ensberg didn't do more than pinch hit?

  • Unclear on the Concept: It's September 27th, and the Astros are down 5-2 in the ninth, watching the Cubs win the first game of their doubleheader. An Astros loss means the best they can hope for, postseason-wise, is a playoff game with Chicago, and Adam Everett is allowed to lead off the inning. Perhaps Jason Lane--he of the 900+ OPS and two homers the other night--would have been a better choice? Jimy had already passed up the chance to pinch hit for Ausmus in the eighth (admittedly with two outs), and was about to have Orlando Merced hit for the pitcher, so it's not like Lane would have had another chance to be useful for a couple of innings... or, as it turned out, the rest of the year.

    Perhaps this is all too harsh on Williams. After all, management had largely tied his hands with their mid-summer torpor. But while it's always helpful for the manager to be on the same page as the front office, this should not extend to falling asleep at the wheel during a pennant race.

Oakland Athletics

  • Kinda All Over the Place: What seems like a long time ago, we pointed out that the main source of Barry Zito's struggles was his increased propensity to issue the free pass. When the issue was revisited later, Zito was still battling the free pass demons. Is his recent string of success (3-1, 2.60 ERA in September) a result of finally reeling things in? Has Barry finally curtailed his wildness?

    No. Zito's month-by-month walks per nine innings (BB/9)--3.73, 3.60, 3.58, 3.02, 3.43, 3.37--show a marked consistency. Zito's success or failure can be more closely traced to his batting average allowed (BAA) than his other statistics:

    
    Month      ERA     IP      K     BB    BAA
    April     2.63   41.0     22     17   .201
    May       2.83   35.0     27     14   .172
    June      4.06   37.2     20     15   .245
    July      3.24   41.2     25     14   .250
    August    3.93   36.2     20     14   .246
    September 3.18   39.2     32     14   .191
    
    

    Despite finishing second in the AL in walks, Zito has had a fairly successful season. His 3.30 ERA ranks him seventh in the AL and, within the top 10, he trails only teammate Tim Hudson in IP, further increasing the value of his impressive season. He ranks ninth in the majors in Michael Wolverton's SNWL. (Looking at both SNWL and ERA, he ranks as only Oakland's third best pitcher, trailing both Hudson and injured Mark Mulder.) His mediocre 14-13 record is mostly the result of the A's poor run support, an ailment that has also plagued Hudson. His Cy Young season last year combined with the high standards set by Hudson and Mulder also make Zito's season look much worse than it actually is.

    That said, there's no team in baseball that's more adept at taking advantage of walks and wildness than the Boston Red Sox. Leading the league in OBP and finishing third in walks, the Sox will likely try to work the count and hope that Zito pitches himself out of the game. Zito's ability to keep the ball in the zone will likely be the key to Game Two of the series.

  • Surprise!: With the season now completed, Ramon Hernandez's breakout can be confirmed as more than simply a hot first half that resulted in an All-Star selection. Hernandez put together a .273/.331/.458 line complimented by 21 home runs, a year that outpaced his 90th percentile PECOTA projection (.267/.347/.432, 12 HR) in every category save OBP. When looking at Hernandez's last four years, it appears that he has gotten back on the steadily improving path he was on before 2002:
    
    Year   AVG   OBP   SLG
    2000  .241  .311  .387
    2001  .254  .316  .408
    2002  .233  .313  .335
    2003  .273  .331  .458
    
    

    Several reasons could account for Hernandez's impressive performance. First, catchers have traditionally blossomed later than other hitters. Second, Hernandez has been working with the Big Three for three full seasons now, allowing him to spend less and less time working on his game calling. Third, he's 27, an age around which many hitters tend to improve, having had several years to mature and learn many of the pitchers around the league.

    While all of those reasons hold some water, the bottom line is that there's very rarely a clear cut reason to explain a breakout like his. Hernandez's sudden offensive improvement could not have come at a better time for the A's, who need all the bats they can get. Hopefully for Oakland, Hernandez will continue to be able to focus more on his hitting as he and the Big Three are all locked up through 2005.

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Working It: The Brewers went into 2003 with a marketing slogan of "We're Working On It." Not exactly confidence inspiring, but it was a refreshing example of truth in advertising. Some of the ads ran with pictures of new team president Ulice Payne and new manager Ned Yost. When a team markets a manager rather than a player, that's a bad sign. Add in new GM Doug Melvin and there were a whole lot of new plans circulating through Miller Park.

    The new administration put forth some realistic goals: remake the team's image, rebuild the team's character, restock the farm system, and reignite some passion for baseball in Milwaukee by reacquainting themselves with a near-500 record. Given the goals and the system as handed to them, only the record seems to fall short in an admittedly shortsighted hindsight. The team's image went from pathetic to merely bad. The team began to take on Ned Yost's personality as the season went on, if not his taste for orange hot pants, never quitting despite never really being in contention. As Houston folded, the Brewers played the role of spoilers so well that they sent a Sausage to Chicago to send a message. (If you didn't see it, one of the famous racing sausages stood outside Wrigley on Waveland with a sign reading "We did our part. Go Cubs.")

    The farm system has gone from decimated to populated with actual prospects, including some high ceiling players like Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and breakout prospect J.J. Hardy. Passion in Milwaukee is still focused on the Packers, but the Brewers didn't hurt themselves by showing some character, playing some good baseball, and not displaying in Seligian tendency to self-destruction. They worked on it, like they said, and while they get low marks for results, they do grade out well on effort.

  • Who's Next?: The Brewers do not figure to be a major player in the free agent market, instead following Doug Melvin's M.O. of building the farm system and signing second-tier free agents to plug holes. In fact, the Brewers in many ways resemble the Cubs of 2001.

    The Cubs had begun rebuilding the farm system but lacked players ready to step in and were short of good arms. By signing players to contracts that matched the front office's assessments of prospect time frames, the team was able to develop players without blocking them, focusing on team building rather than the short-term on field tasks. The Brewers can learn a lot from the approach and are likely to try and find cheap upside in a fourth outfielder, a middle infielder to pair with Bill Hall and take pressure of Rickie Weeks, and an innings-eater out of the Ismael Valdes mode.

    While there are rumblings that the Brewers might move Richie Sexson, Geoff Jenkins, or Ben Sheets, it will be tough in this offseason to get the value necessary for taking away players that have greater perceived value to the fans than they have on the field. Finding players like Danny Kolb, Doug Davis, and Scott Podsednik shows that Melvin and his staff can find good players in the legions of Quad-A available talent.

    Now Melvin needs to prove that he remembers just how easy it is to find and not waste precious payroll on big contracts for players based on one good year. Every time Doug Melvin thinks about re-signing Podsednik to a long term deal, he should shuffle over to his predecessors files and look up the contract for "Hammonds, Jeffrey."

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