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September 6, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

St. Louis Cardinals @ Houston Astros, 9/4/05

by Jonah Keri

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When your team's offense is as bad as the Astros', one bad inning by one of your pitchers can often decide the game. That's exactly what happened on Sunday, as one lapse by the starting pitcher, combined with laissez-faire managing and non-existent offense sent the Astros to a loss. Call it the Inning of the Week.


Astros
CF Willy Taveras
2B Chris Burke
3B Morgan Ensberg
1B Lance Berkman
RF Jason Lane
LF Luke Scott
SS Adam Everett
C Raul Chavez
P Wandy Rodriguez

It's been a career year for Morgan Ensberg, and Lance Berkman has bounced back after a slow start to the season because of an ACL injury. Other than that, this is exactly the kind of lineup that narrows your margin for error substantially every time out. With Craig Biggio and his Father Time-defying season on the bench, you're looking at a lineup riddled with holes. Jason Lane hit 20 homers and slugged a shade under .500, but he's sitting on a .306 OBP. He and Willy Taveras have been decent considering their youth and low salaries, but both are no more than one win better than replacement level. Meanwhile Luke Scott, Chris Burke and Raul Chavez are all putting up numbers that are worse than your basic Triple-A lifer or waiver-wire fodder would be expected to produce.

We discussed the Astros' offensive woes earlier back in May, when the team was fighting to stay out of the cellar. Sure, they're now wild-card contenders--but they've made a huge comeback for the second straight season not because of their offense, but rather in spite of it. The Astros didn't do anything to address their loss of production in the off-season when Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran left via free agency. They didn't do anything at the trading deadline to bring in reinforcements, even when they'd stormed back into the race. If they fail to make the playoffs, you can point to those failures to address the team's offensive woes as the culprit.

Moreover, the Astros' awful offense could waste one of the best three-man pitching performances in major league history. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt have combined to give the Astros three bona fide aces. Since Baseball Prospectus' support-neutral pitching numbers--which measure how much value a pitch produces after stripping out run support and other factors--go back to 1972, let's look at the best pitching trios since that year (thanks to James Click for the data):


YEAR    TEAM   SNLVAR
2005    HOU    26.7*
1997    ATL    25.7
1973    NYN    25.2
1975    LAN    24.7
1996    ATL    24.6
1993    ATL    24.3
1997    TOR    23.7
1985    NYN    23.6
1998    ATL    23.6
1995    ATL    22.4
*On pace

That's right, the Astros are on pace to sport the best pitching threesome since the five-man rotation took hold across the majors, beating out the likes of the Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz Braves, the Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden Mets years, Clemens' otherworldly 1997 season in Toronto, and all others.

Making matters worse for the Astros Sunday, their starting pitcher was Wandy Rodriguez, who announcers Bill Brown and Larry Dierker called the "luckiest left-hander in baseball" for his 9-6 record and 5.96 ERA (yet another reason to check out BP's Support-Neutral pitching report). One mistake and this game could be over.


Cards
SS David Eckstein
CF Jim Edmonds
1B Albert Pujols
C Yadier Molina
2B Mark Grudzielanek
RF So Taguchi
3B Abraham Nunez
LF Hector Luna
P Jason Marquis

Tony LaRussa is either doing the best job of any manager in baseball (along with Bobby Cox) this year, or the Cards have just been unbelievably lucky--maybe both. The St. Louis lineup after the top three reads like a Triple-A roster. And yet Yadier Molina has produced above what you'd expect from his minor-league track record, including a .349 average against lefties. So Taguchi has replicated his surprising 2004 performance, this time in nearly twice the at-bats after being forced into regular duty. Abraham Nunez has set career highs across the board in doing an excellent--and near-shocking--job with Scott Rolen on the shelf. In other words, while St. Louis' offense on paper looks as bad or worse than Houston's, the Cards still have the edge in terms of 2005 production. Starting pitcher Jason Marquis stopped a seven-game losing streak last time out with a two-hit shutout; he's also a better hitter than most Astros, given his .342/.359/.513 clip this season.

Rodriguez valiantly keeps his team in the game through the first five innings. More than that, actually; he yields just two hits, with no walks or runs allowed, facing the minimum number of batters thanks to two double plays. Though he's mixing in a fastball on the corners and an occasional slider and change, Rodriguez is throwing a good 60% curveballs, including several all-curve confrontations with Cards hitters.

It's an intriguing strategy. The Cards' lineup includes several free-swinging, fastball hitters--notably Mark Grudzielanek--who could be neutralized by Rodriguez's big, sweeping curve. By throwing such a high proportion of curves, though, the Astros' starter puts himself in jeopardy for the second and third times through the order, unless he mixes it up. With great control of the curve--inside, outside, up in the zone and in the dirt--through five, though, Rodriguez keeps going back to the well.

Marquis struggles a bit more, but also looks mostly sharp early on. He's throwing a high number of strikes given his frequent control problems, while also inducing a ton of groundouts. His only mistake through five frames is an elevated fastball to Berkman in the fourth, a miscue that wouldn't have cost him, but for the ridiculously short porch in left at Minute Maid Park. It's an opposite-field shot for Berkman, his second in two games and one of many hit to left by the Astros in recent days, and gives the Astros a 1-0 lead. Other than that, it's the same punchless Houston offense, and Marquis is cruising.

And so, we arrive at our Inning of the Week, the top of the sixth, St. Louis batting. While I have no rooting interest in either team, by the end of this inning I'm yelling curses at my TV that would make a biker blush.

Nunez leads off the inning, working the count to 2-2. Rodriguez, who's shown pinpoint accuracy with his curve all day, suddenly throws a bender head-high and a mile off the plate for ball three. In my notes I've written "possible sign of fatigue?" It's just the 63rd pitch of the game for Rodriguez, though, so unless he's lost whatever mechanical or mental control he's maintained all game, it's probably a little early to make that assertion…except two pitches later, he's issued his first walk of the game.

All looks well with Hector Luna up, though. Rodriguez throws a fastball for strike one. He throws a big curve that dives out of the zone for a whiffed strike two. He comes back again with the curve and Luna just fights it off to stay alive. On 0-2 he comes back with a fastball--and hits Luna squarely on the hip. Rodriguez turns away in disgust. He's put the number-seven and number-eight hitters on base, Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols are getting closer to taking their hacks, and he's got only that slim one-run lead to protect. In my notes I write "Get the bullpen up!" If nothing else, the Astros can have LOOGY Mike Gallo ready to face Edmonds if Rodriguez continues to unravel. Phil Garner and his staff elect to do nothing. The Astros, like every other team, have expanded their September roster so that there's a slew of pitching options available, but no one's seeing Rodriguez getting into trouble here, apparently.

Marquis comes up having laid down zero sacrifice bunts in '05, due to his incredible hitting performance, not a lack of execution. Small sample size granted, he's 6-for-15 on the year with runners in scoring position to boot. After Rodriguez gets away with a high fastball that's fouled off, Marquis moves the runners over with a sacrifice.

Rodriguez throws two benders in the dirt, and Eckstein swings through both. Though a good sign in that he's ahead of the hitter, I've scribbled down "getting too predictable?", the steady diet of the same pitch now as much a concern as possible frustration or wildness setting in. Rodriguez throws a third curve in a row--this time a fat one--but Eckstein just fouls it off. After another foul on a fastball, Eckstein inexplicably tries to bunt with two strikes. Fouled off, strike three. Rodriguez is one out from getting out of the inning.

Having secured two outs, with no one warming up, it's clear the Astros will now have Rodriguez pitch to Edmonds. It's probably too much to expect Garner to pull Rodriguez here, with two outs and no runs on the board. Still, it's interesting that neither Garner, nor pitching coach Jim Hickey, nor Raul Chavez has gone out to talk to Rodriguez, whether to keep him composed or to strategize. Last time up, Edmonds demolished an outside fastball to left-center, a running catch by Taveras preventing an extra-base hit. In my notes I write "Does he throw another fastball here?"

Nope. Curve, a looper right in the middle the plate. Edmonds jumps on it, dumps it into right for a two-run single, 2-1 Cards. Dierker, one of the best color men in the business, picks up on this right away: "I think he had a pretty good idea what was coming. Wandy got ahead of him with two curveballs last time. And then he threw him a fastball, and he hit it pretty hard. So I think Edmonds was looking for a curveball this time." You got it, Larry.

Rodriguez intentionally walks Pujols. (Play-by-play man Bill Brown notes that, "Both Pujols and Edmonds in their careers at Minute Maid Park have OPSes--that's on-base plus slugging--of better than 1000." See how easy it is to slip in more meaningful statistics into a key moment of the game? Without burying the listener or resorting to the usual mangling of stats, a la 'Bob is hitting .400 with a full moon against near-sighted marsupials' to boot.) Chavez and Hickey finally go out to talk to Rodriguez, though only for a few seconds. There is still no one warming up for the Astros.

Molina comes up with a chance to add a big insurance run, one that could effectively ice the game given Houston's weak offense. First pitch is a curve, eye-high, for ball one. Molina swings through yet another curve for strike one. Hmmm, what might he throw next? Why, it's a curve! Ripped up the middle, base hit, 3-1 Cards. Ballgame.

Dierker's on the ball again: "Rodriguez is scheduled to hit first when the Astros come up in the bottom of the sixth inning. And with the score 3-1 Cardinals at this point, the Astros will most likely pinch-hit for Wandy. You can't really let that influence you in your managing, though. You can't just leave him out there to give up six or seven runs because you want to pinch-hit for him next inning. The Astros have enough pitchers now where you can bring someone in to get a batter out, then pinch-hit for him."

I'd have questioned the non-move a little earlier, but the point remains the same. When Rodriguez finally retires Grudzielanek to get out of the inning, he's thrown 37 pitches--33 not during the intentional walk--nearly all of them in a high-stress situation. The more we dig and the more we hear from biomechanical experts, the more it seems that throwing in an isolated spot while fatigued, while facing high degrees of stress, may do more to hurt a pitcher's arm than merely racking up a superficially high pitch count over eight or nine innings. By leaving him in the entire inning, despite a huge assortment of relievers waiting, the Astros may get a less effective Rodriguez next start or down the road, in addition to blowing a lead in the thick of a pennant race. His risk of future injury may have also climbed.

When Marquis mows down the side in order in the 9th, the Astros finish with just five flyball outs the whole game, with just one run on five hits. After noting earlier that a sprinkler head that exploded in the Cardinals bullpen had been fixed, Dierker summed up Houston's overarching problem: "They still haven't fixed the problem in the Astros' batter's box."

And yet, another lights-out pitching performance by Pettitte, coupled with three runs on one swing of the bat by Berkman Monday night, propelled the Astros back into the wild-card lead. While the Cards have long since secured their playoff spot, the Astros have about as good a chance as anyone of getting in via the Wild Card. They just might have to win a bunch of 1-0 games to get there.

--

Set Your TiVos and VCRs: The next Prospectus Game of the Week happens Sunday, Sept. 11, 3 p.m. ET, as the Arizona Diamondbacks take on the Colorado Rockies, Channel 741 on DirecTV. Aaron Cook battles Javier Vazquez in a matchup of the last two teams yet to be covered by GotW, fulfilling promises made at the start of the season. The reader who sends in the best alternate reason for covering this game gets their answer printed in next week's column.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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