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May 10, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Houston Astros @ Atlanta Braves, 5/8/05

by Jonah Keri

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Astros

CF Willy Taveras
2B Eric Bruntlett
3B Morgan Ensberg
LF Mike Lamb
1B Jose Vizcaino
RF Jason Lane
SS Adam Everett
C Raul Chavez
P Ezequiel Astacio
If I gave you no other information, what would you deduce from that lineup?

A) The over/under for runs scored by this lineup is 1
B) The Astros have been demoted to the Texas League
C) They're about to get whupped by a National League opponent

If you said D), all of the above, you're correct. The lineup the Astros ran out for Sunday's game against the Atlanta Braves isn't much better than a Double-A squad, and a top-tier NL team like the Braves will likely chop them to bits. Let's see what transpired:

As Astros announcers Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies go through the lineup, you can almost hear the defeat in their voices. It's not like Astros manager Phil Garner is waving the white flag on a Sunday lineup either. This Astros team has struggled to score runs all year despite playing in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball, Houston ranks next to last in the NL in runs scored. The departures of Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent deleted a total of 99 VORP (about 10 wins above replacement level) from the lineup--and that's with Beltran having played just more than half of last season in Houston.

Among current Astros, Lance Berkman had just made it back from a torn ACL on Friday; after playing him in two straight games, the Astros wanted to rest him to avoid excessive strain and a heightened risk of re-injury. Meanwhile Jeff Bagwell was forced to sit due to his deteriorating right shoulder, the same shoulder that's eaten into his production the last couple years and made the last two years of his $85 million contract an ugly sight to behold. Brad Ausmus also sat, but as a perennial member of the Worst Regulars in Baseball Society, there was no loss there. Only the streaking Craig Biggio's day off could be seen as resting a regular who could expect to contribute. Even after losing two starters and with half the regular lineup out, though, no team should have to suffer the horror of playing Jose Vizcaino at first base and batting him fifth to boot. Heading into Sunday's game, the Astros had scored just 45 runs in 14 road games--that didn't figure to improve on this day.

Willy Taveras leads off for the Astros. Though much was made locally of Taveras' bumping Adam Everett out of the leadoff spot recently, it's more likely a sideways move, if anything. Though Taveras has already rung up 10 steals this year, and at .279/.342/.362 heading into the game, he was far from an ideal leadoff hitter. It's worth asking why teams don't simply stack their best hitters at the top of the lineup: A leadoff hitter is only assured of starting an inning once a game, negating much of the value linked to his speed. On a more basic level, installing a player in the leadoff spot gives him more than 100 more times at bat than if he's plugged in toward the bottom of the order, and several dozen more times up than even a cleanup hitter can expect to accumulate. Put another way: If virtual Lance Berkman leading off for my Strat-O-Matic team to ensure maximum playing time, why not do the same for the real McCoy?

Taveras fouls off the 0-1 pitch for strike two, then turns to the dugout for a new bat. Deshaies: "The bat boy's bigger than Willy!" He may have a better shot at the plate too--Taveras strikes out looking. An Eric Bruntlett groundout and a Morgan Ensberg popout to first later, the Astros are down in order, having failed to get the ball out of the infield against Braves starter Mike Hampton.

Hampton headed into the game with just 16 strikeouts (against 11 walks) in 43 innings. A groundball pitcher with a better than 2-1 GB/FB ratio, Hampton relies on deception and his defense to get outs--with great success to date, including a 2.47 ERA heading into Sunday. To beat him, opposing hitters need to work the count in their favor, not be afraid to go deep into the count--knowing Hampton's not a big strikeout threat--and look for a pitch to drive. Three batters into the game, it already looks like the Astros may struggle to do any of those things.


Braves

SS Rafael Furcal
2B Marcus Giles
3B Chipper Jones
1B Adam LaRoche
CF Andruw Jones
LF Brian Jordan
RF Ryan Langerhans
C Eddie Perez
P Mike Hampton
Even without regular starting catcher Johnny Estrada, that's a much better lineup than what the Astros are using. Ryan Langerhans has started slowly, but a 2004 breakout at Triple-A came just in time, as the 25-year-old was out of options heading into spring training this year; he'll supplant Brian Jordan or Raul Mondesi as a starter by the end of June, and is spelling Mondesi here. The one through five hitters are solid, with Adam LaRoche coming on after a slow start, just as he did last year, and Chipper Jones healthy and crushing the ball.

Making just his second big-league start, Ezequiel Astacio is a far more unproven commodity than Hampton is. Yet given his track record and repertoire, he's got a fair chance of pitching a big game himself. Astacio had a breakout year in 2004 after coming over from the Phillies in the Billy Wagner trade. In 176 innings at Double-A Round Rock, he fanned 185 batters, while walking just 56. While the gaudy strikeout rate was a change, the low walk rate wasn't: Astacio had shown good control throughout his career. His improved mastery over his mid-90s fastball and sharp splitter, combined with his slider and occasional change-up, have the Astros bullish on his future. Though some talk had been given to installing him in the bullpen and letting his fastball/splitter combo talk in the late innings, the Astros have a need at the back of their rotation; as they did with Roy Oswalt, the Astros want to give Astacio every opportunity to make it as a major-league starter. Unlike with Oswalt, there's been no apprenticeship in the Houston bullpen.

Rafael Furcal leads off, and the announcers tick off Furcal's numbers for the series: 4 for 12, with a triple, a walk, two RBI and four runs scored. This becomes a running theme as they introduce each hitter: With the Braves having won the first three games of the series, it seems the whole team has been nailing Houston pitching.

Garner has made Raul Chavez Astacio's personal catcher so far in his young career, and Chavez seems to be doing his best to help. Astacio mixes two mid-90s fastballs with a splitter to get Furcal to 1-2--Chavez pulling his glove down to remind Astacio to keep the ball below the knees. With Furcal off balance, Astacio throws a sinking fastball knee-high on the outside corner, whiffing Furcal. If he throws that pitch consistently, the Astros will have a gem on their hands.

But on the first pitch to Marcus Giles, Astacio shows the thinner margin for error in the majors compared to Double-A. Another 94-mph fastball stays thigh-high and middle-in to Giles, who smokes it down the left-field line for a double. Velocity and even mixing pitches won't be enough for Astacio to make it at this level. Deshaies quoting Greg Maddux: "The most effective pitch in baseball is a well-located fastball." Fastball to Furcal: well located. Fastball to Giles: poorly located.

Chipper Jones comes up, sitting fifth in the NL in batting average .354. Many in the stathead and prospect community have wondered aloud why the Braves haven't brought up superprospect Andy Marte, installed him at third base and moved Jones back to left field. Braves management maintains Jones is both more comfortable and more likely to stay healthy playing the position he's manned for most of his career, third base. The team plans to stick it out with low-cost options in Jordan, Mondesi and Langerhans in the corner outfield spots, with the hope that Jones' offense will pick up if he's left to play third, his hitting overshadowing the worst third-base glove in baseball over the last decade, according to Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average metric. Here, Astacio makes another mistake, throwing the same middle-in fastball to Jones on 1-2, resulting in a sharp single to right. Somewhere John Schuerholz and his front office and scouting staff are smiling.

As Adam LaRoche steps to the plate, the tomahawk chop is already going. You get the sense that if Astacio doesn't stem the tide quickly, the game could end right here--the Astros simply don't have the manpower to come back from any significant deficit, not unless Hampton throws a stinker. Astacio just misses with his first pitch, a splitter. He goes back to the splitter on 1-0--is he scared of throwing his fastball after Giles and Jones killed it?--and throws it down and in for ball two. Chavez had set the target away--not a good sign.

Deshaies and I seem to be on the same wavelength: "Giles hit a fastball, Chipper hit a fastball, so he starts LaRoche with a couple of splitters." It's an interesting point, but ultimately Astacio just needs to locate his pitches better. If he starts messing up his pitch sequences due to a couple of bad results stemming from poor location, it's only going to get worse. Astacio comes back with a third straight splitter anyway, but this is a nasty one: It starts thigh-high, ends below the knees, and has LaRoche out in front for strike one. Gutsy pitch. Only then does Astacio come back with another middle-in fastball. LaRoche gets under it and settles for a sacrifice fly, but Astacio needs to show better command within the strike zone to succeed.

Chavez guides the young hurler past Andruw Jones, standing nearly upright on 1-2 to get Astacio to throw his fastball well out of the zone, then tapping the ground for a sharp splitter that strikes Jones out. One run allowed, and already a thorough glimpse into both Astacio's arsenal and his mindset.

Meanwhile, Hampton is cruising. Mike Lamb raps a solid single to right, only to quickly be erased by a Vizcaino double play. Vizcaino would go on to ground out weakly to the left side all three times at bat, two of those times on the first pitch. That the Astros don't have a semi-prospect (Todd Self?) or Petagine-type lifer anywhere in the minors who could do a better job than Vizcaino off the bench seems impossible.

The double play starts a streak in which Hampton sets down 21 Astros in a row; he headed into the ninth inning having faced the minimum 24 batters, allowing just one hit. He's not doing anything dramatic, mostly mixing a cut fastball in on righties with a sinker away, both of which induce a raft of weak outs, including 11 groundouts. The Astros are being impatient, and Hampton incredibly goes to a three-ball count just twice in the first eight innings. Though the league's better hitters are going to give him trouble, Hampton's savvy enough to know how to exploit a lineup's weaknesses. When a team trots out a lineup filled with nine of them, he's usually going to succeed.

Jack Morris fans might argue that Hampton pitched to the score on this day. Whatever the case, he had plenty of scoring behind him:

  • Astacio falls behind Jordan leading off the second, then gives up a long double after Taveras has the ball pop out of his glove at the wall. Astacio gets ahead of Langerhans 1-2, then tries to finish him off with...another fastball, middle-in. Langerhans hits the pitch to Macon, and the Braves take a 3-0 lead. When pitching coach Jim Hickey goes out to talk to Astacio after the homer, you wonder if he's telling him to stop grooving pitches on 1-2, if he's recommending a better mix of pitches, or if he's issuing a couple of attaboys for show. Whatever he said, Astacio breaks out a change on 2-2 to Eddie Perez that induces a popout, followed by a great 96-mph fastball/outside-corner slider combo that catches Hampton looking for strike three. It's going to take time for Astacio to put it all together, but the Astros are going nowhere this year, they'll be shedding Bagwell, Biggio and Roger Clemens by the end of next season, and the resulting youth movement should give the team's young talent time to grow into their roles.

  • It's Mother's Day, and all Astros players are being introduced with their mothers' names at the bottom of the screen. Mike Lamb's mom's is Marie. Deshaies: "So when he was born, you could say Marie had a little Lamb." This from the guy who once called himself "the poster boy for bad pitching," only to set up a now defunct Web site--putjdinthehall.com--that asked voters to cast one vote for his election and for posterity. He's intelligent, articulate, offers quick, insightful observations, and he's funny. This team may stink, but I'm going to watch more Astros games for J.D.

  • This was Ryan Langerhans' coming-out party. He followed his initial two-run homer with a well-struck two-run double to left-center--an impressive bit of opposite-field slugging. When the hapless Brandon Duckworth tried to sneak an 89-mph dead-straight fastball down the middle by him, Langerhans swatted it into the right-center field seats. While play-by-play man Bill Brown talked up the contributions of Jordan and Mondesi this season, Jordan stood at .255/.308/.336 after Monday's game, Mondesi at .202/.236/.356. At worst Langerhans should play regularly against righties, with the Braves upgrading the other outfield slot once Jordan goes down to injury and Mondesi either flames out or bails on his team.

  • An Adam Everett at-bat sums up Hampton's performance, and highlights the difference between a savvy veteran and a talented but raw rookie still looking for a comfort zone. Hampton starts Everett with an 83-mph slider for strike one. He throws another one low for ball one, then zips in a fastball at the knees to go to 1-2. He throws a cutter on the hands and higher in the zone for a foul ball, then throws another cutter lower but still inside for another foul. Hampton goes still lower on the next pitch, getting Everett to roll over on a sinker out of the zone for a harmless groundout to short. When a pitcher changes speeds, pitches, and vertical and horizontal planes on a hitter it can be a joy to watch, even when that opponent is overmatched.

I'd love to discuss the numerous tense situations and brilliant in-game maneuvering that took place in this game--unfortunately there was none. Hampton allowed just two hits and one walk over nine innings, cruising to the easiest shutout you may see all season. The Braves pummeled Astros pitching, launching five homers, including four by the noted slugging trio of Langerhans, Perez and Hampton, en route to a 16-0 win. If you're a Braves fan, you'll have fun with this box score. If you're an Astros fan...well, at least your boys snapped their six-game losing streak and 11-game road losing streak Monday night against the Marlins--giving them two road wins for the season. There's always next year.

--

Prospectus Game of the Week will go on a brief hiatus, then return Sunday, May 22 for the Show Me State battle between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals. Starting pitchers and DirecTV channel TBA.

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

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