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June 27, 2006

Prospectus Game of the Week

Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox, June 23, 2006

by Derek Jacques

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This week, we get to revisit the 2005 World Series, as interleague play brings us a matchup of last year's pennant winners, the Houston Astros and the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox are chasing hard after another championship, carrying the second-best record in baseball into Friday night's action, a mere half-game behind the surprising Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. Houston's not at a similar level of success, but they're not out of the race, either. They sit six games behind the Cards in the NL Central, in third place with a record one game over .500. That sounds bad, but consider that last season at this time, they sat at eight games under .500, and that team made it to the World Series.

It's been a busy week for both ballclubs. The Astros had the season debut of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens on Thursday, making the decision to have Clemens go against the Minnesota Twins at home, rather than pitch against the White Sox in Chicago. Clemens was hardly dominant in a game where young phenom Francisco Liriano emerged victorious.

For the White Sox, they've won seven in a row, sweeping the NL Central-leading Cardinals in a series that featured a little bit of everything. Joe Sheehan posited recently that the way that you can tell a truly bad team is that they can lose games in a variety of ways; conversely, you have to consider that one of the hallmarks of a very good team is the ability to win all sorts of games. These White Sox win blowouts, taking the first two games of the Cardinals series by a combined score of 33-11. They win pitching duels, taking the final game of that series 1-0 by beating rookie Anthony Reyes in a game where Reyes only allowed one hit--Jim Thome's homer in the seventh inning. They come back to win, like they did against the Cincinnati Reds last Saturday, when they scored three runs in the ninth for a 8-6 win.

Houston                              Chicago
                     EQA     WARP                         EQA     WARP
Craig Biggio, 2B     .264    2.3     Scott Podsednik, LF  .249     0.4
Chris Burke, CF      .311    1.5     Tadahito Iguchi, 2B  .255     1.5
Lance Berkman, DH    .323    4.2     Jim Thome, DH        .329     3.4
Mike Lamb, 1B        .288    1.3     Paul Konerko, 1B     .316     3.2
Morgan Ensberg, 3B   .304    2.2     Jermaine Dye, RF     .320     3.2
Preston Wilson, LF   .250    1.0     A.J. Pierzynski, C   .273     2.6
Jason Lane, RF       .261    1.7     Joe Crede, 3B        .279     3.0
Brad Ausmus, C       .252    1.6     Rob Mackowiak, CF    .262     0.6
Adam Everett, SS     .216    1.6     Juan Uribe, SS       .209     0.9

Starting Pitcher     RA+    SNLVAR   SO/9  VORP
Andy Pettitte        0.80     1.0    6.82   2.0
Jose Contreras       1.64     3.2    6.35  29.7

Remember last year, when the White Sox were purportedly a pitching and defense team? Yeah, well they rake, too. The Pale Hose lead the league in runs and homers, and three players top last year's team-high .309 EqA. The big difference is Jim Thome. The off-season acquisition of Thome balanced out the right-leaning Sox lineup, and added some welcome thump to a lineup that was already scoring a large portion of its runs by the home run. As well as the offense is clicking in the 3-7 slots, it's worth noting that last year's surprise performer, Scott Podsednik, has taken a step backward, as have Tadahito Iguchi and particularly Juan Uribe. That Uribe is contributing nearly a win above replacement is a testament to the power of his glove, since his bat isn't showing up to work.

Like the White Sox, the Astros punt offense at shortstop, making do with stellar glovework from Adam Everett. Houston fields a righty-intensive lineup, same as last year. As a team, they're 26-31 when facing a righthanded starter, and 12-18 on the road. The team's big off-season acquisition, outfielder Preston Wilson, has been a major disappointment. A righthanded batter who believes in only two of the Three True Outcomes (with a .333 career OBP coming into this season, we'll let you guess which two), Wilson was brought in with hopes that he would take advantage of the short left field porch in Minute Maid Park. That hasn't worked out too well--Wilson's only batting .238/.277/.408 at home--and it's starting to look like the porch is a distraction rather than an asset to Wilson's game. Wilson has hit seven of his eight roundtrippers at home, but overall he's been a much better hitter away from the Juice Box.

As for the starting pitchers, Jose Contreras has been big news, winning his last fifteen regular-season decisions dating back to a start against his old team, the New York Yankees, last August. We need the qualifier "regular season" in there, because Contreras actually broke his lossless streak in Game One of the ALCS last year. For some reason, we don't count postseason stats when it comes to streaks, or hitter-batter matchups, which never did make much sense to me. Regardless, anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that Contreras hasn't been experiencing success far greater than anyone could have predicted when the Yankees dumped his salary on the White Sox in 2004.

Houston's starter, Andy Pettitte, is also a Yankee alumnus. Pettitte's had a hard 2006 so far, posting a 5.44 ERA, but his last few outings have been promising--seven runs allowed in his last 20 innings. Still, those last three starts have come against some of the weak sisters of the majors--Atlanta (15th in the majors in runs scored), the Cubs (30th), and the Royals (29th). Hardly undeniable proof of improvement.

That said, let's get to the game. First batter up, Craig Biggio, grounds out weakly on Contreras's second pitch. Next up, again, on two pitches, Chris Burke flies out to right fielder Jermaine Dye. DH Lance Berkman reaches on a grounder off the heel of Iguchi's glove, ruled a single. This brings up one of the more unlikely clean-up solutions in baseball, first baseman Mike Lamb. On his second pitch to Lamb, Contreras uncorks a wild pitch on a forkball which goes to the backstop. That's Contreras's eighth wild pitch, which puts him among the league leaders, just past Houston closer Brad Lidge, who has seven wild pitches in less than 35 innings of work. After fouling off a number of pitches, Lamb goes down swinging to strand the runner.

In the bottom of the first, Podsednik works the count full before Pettitte loses him on a pitch low and outside. Podsednik manages to get back to first on Pettitte's good move to first, but then is caught napping on Pettitte's great move to first. Lamb runs Podsednik down for the pickoff. Pettitte and the White Sox are a bad combination, from a baserunning perspective. The Southsiders have been picked off 11 times this season, second-most in the AL; while Pettitte's pickoff exploits are legendary. However, Keith Woolner points out, for all his acclaim, Pettitte's not even the active pickoff leader. Can you guess who is? I'll come back with the answer in a few innings.

Meanwhile, Iguchi whiffs, and Thome grounds out to end the inning, but Pettitte works hard to start the game, throwing 22 pitches.

Leading off the second, Morgan Ensberg gets a hanging slider, which he hammers into the left field corner for a double. Preston Wilson then bounces a ball over Contreras's head, which the 6'4" Cuban leaps to just barely spear with the tip of his glove. That's a groundout, 1-3, on which Ensberg fails to advance. Jason Lane then drives a ball the short way to left field, but Podsednik collects it on the warning track. Contreras then falls behind Brad Ausmus 2-0, but comes back to even the count, then get the catcher on a slow breaking ball.

Pettitte throws a cutter, a slow curve, and a four-seam fastball. The curve starts off Paul Konerko's at-bat in the second with a strike. Pettitte's a thick-legged pitcher, yet somehow his delivery is all knees and elbows, in the manner of a much lankier guy. Konerko grounds out weakly to Ensberg, bringing up Dye. Dye's a fellow we wrote off to start his career--he had a rep as a low-OBP hacker--and again later in his career when he was injured and ineffective in with the Oakland A's. Underestimating Dye is one of the reasons that our projection of the 2005 White Sox was so far off. Dye lines a Pettitte pitch into the left field corner for a double. A.J. Pierzynski pops up to second, bringing up third baseman Joe Crede with an open base and with a lefthanded batter, Rob Mackowiak, the next batter in the lineup. The Astros pitch to Crede, and Crede goes fishing for a down-and-away fastball, and winds up drilling it to the right-center field gap for an RBI double. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered, as Pettitte catches too much of the plate with a cutter to Mackowiak, who strokes a single up the middle, making it a 2-0 White Sox lead. Finally, Pettitte gets Juan Uribe to ground out to end the two-out rally.

What has changed for Contreras? He's getting the ball in the strike zone more consistently. He also has a better defense behind him with the White Sox than he did when he was suffering with the Yankees. In an article earlier this week, Phil Rogers pointed out that Contreras is using a far greater variety of arm angles than he did at the beginning of his major league career, and it's a stark difference. Against righthanded batters, Contreras' arm angle ranges from high three-quarters to straight sidearm.

In the third, Contreras gets a first-pitch flyout from Everett, and Biggio follows with a seven-pitch, five-arm-angle battle ending with a grounder off the fists to the shortstop. Burke walks on five pitches, and Berkman, who gets ahead of Contreras 2-0 before drawing a six-pitch walk. When he was a Yankee, this was right about the time that Contreras would implode, either lofting batting practice pitches over the middle of the plate, or departing the strike zone, never to return. He gets out of such situations these days, though, unscathed.

Leading off the third, Podsednik drives a ball to right-center over Jason Lane's head. Podzilla parlays this into a triple. Given the first shot to drive in Podsednik from third, Iguchi strikes out, again, swinging at pitches both high and low out of the strike zone. On the first pitch against Thome, the ball is popped to the visitor's dugout, just out of the reach of Ausmus. On the second pitch, Thome blasts it to right, hooking foul despite the exhortations of home(r) announcer Hawk Harrelson. That bit of excitement over, Pettitte gets Thome to ground out to first and Konerko to ground out to short, stranding the leadoff triple.

Speaking of Harrelson, it's not the "He gone!" after every visitor strikeout that's ticking me off, it's continuously referring to the White Sox as the "Good Guys," as if the Astros were kitten-eating villains, rather than just the opponents. In the fourth, Contreras is looking tentative and taking approximately half an hour between pitches. The result is another walk, this time a leadoff job to Ensberg. Now, you've just seen Contreras struggle with his control for the past inning-plus, you think it might be a good idea to see a few pitches? If you answered "yes," you're not Preston Wilson, who grounds the first pitch to Crede. Only Wilson's hustle up the line prevents a double play. Jason Lane follows with another grounder to third, on an 0-1 count This time the White Sox turn two, inning over.

Pettitte starts out the bottom of the inning in a promising fashion, quickly getting ahead of Jermaine Dye 1-2. Slowly, however, the count creeps full, and Pettitte loses Dye on a pitch low and away. Next up, Pierzynski hooks an inside fastball to right, to make it first-and-third for Crede. Pettitte misses every which way you can to Joe Crede, high, low, inside, outside, for a four-pitch walk. Bases loaded, no outs, for Rob Mackowiak. Mackowiak's a fill-in for the regular center fielder, rookie Brian Anderson. Anderson's in the middle of a five-game suspension, but when he's active he has had a hard time with the bat: his .200 EQA is the lowest of any center fielder with 150 or more plate appearances. Mackowiak taps to third base, and Ensberg goes home to get the lead runner out, but Mackowiak beats Ausmus's relay throw to first. Next up is Juan Uribe, who has experienced almost as much offensive futility as Anderson. Four pitches, and Uribe whiffs.

So Pettitte's almost out of trouble, again, when Podsednik hammers a low pitch out to right field. Gone, grand slam, Sox lead 6-0. After another walk, Pettitte manages to strike out Thome to end the inning, but by the time all is said and done, he's thrown 40 pitches in the frame.

With one out in the top of the fifth, Everett dunks one into short right field. That brings up the B's--a group now composed of Biggio, Burke, and Berkman. Once upon a time that appellation belonged to Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, then joined by pre-"Operation Shutdown" Derek Bell, for a time Sean Berry, and later Berkman. I don't like the buzzing sound effect they play in Houston, but this feels like more than just coincidence. Do the Astros look at their scouting reports in alphabetical order, and never get past the letter B?

Biggio flies out to center, two outs. Chris Burke fouls the first pitch from Contreras off his foot for strike one, but comes back to take a 2-2 pitch to left field, where it drifts just barely over the wall, past the extended glove of Podsednik. It's now a 6-2 game. Berkman then hits a 1-2 pitch to pretty much the same spot-just much deeper-for back-to-back homers. Finally, some non-B player makes an out, getting Contreras out of the inning.

Dave Borkowski takes over for Pettitte in the sixth inning. Borkowski, a 29 year-old veteran of the Tigers and Orioles organizations, has been Houston's third-most effective reliever (as measured by WXRL). He's done this while pitching in low-leverage situations, mopping up in the middle innings. Borkowski collects two outs before Pierzynski grounds a ball down the leftfield line, which goes for a double. Despite a wild pitch that moves Pierzynski to third, the runner is stranded.

Contreras strikes out Ensberg on three pitches to start the sixth. After a single to Wilson, he's back at it, with Jason Lane down, 0-2. Lane fouls off his first 0-2 forkball, but the second fools him, and Lane whiffs. Brad Ausmus takes the count 2-2 before grounding softly to the pitcher. Overall, this is Contreras's best inning, the one that shows us what all the fuss is about.

Borkowski quietly retires the side in order in the sixth, the first 1-2-3 inning all game. The final out of the inning probably ended any bid Podsednik might have had for the cycle, as the White Sox bats would have to get pretty busy--or the Astros would have to take the game to extra innings--for S-Pod to have two more plate appearances in which to collect a single and a double to go with Podsednik's triple and home run.

Contreras starts things off well in the seventh, getting Everett on a check swing flyout to center. He then starts off 0-2 against Biggio, putting the second baseman in plate coverage mode, fouling off ball after ball before taking one to the opposite field for a single. Burke follows, pulling a fastball up and in, which scoots past Podsednik in left field. It's a double for Burke, scoring Biggio.

With that, Contreras calls it a night at six and a third innings, with 111 pitches thrown. He can't lose the ballgame, and Neal Cotts is summoned to protect the two-run lead. Cotts was the third-best lefty reliever in baseball last year by WXRL, behind Eddie Guardado and B.J. Ryan. Berkman switches to bat from his weaker right side, and winds up smoking a ball right to Crede at third base for the groundout; the runner doesn't advance. This leaves the lefty Cotts to face Mike Lamb. A pinch-hitter would be coming in for Lamb in this situation, if the Houston bench weren't tissue-thin. Lamb whiffs in a bit of lefty-on-lefty violence.

Borkowski is still on the mound in the bottom of the seventh inning. Willy Taveras takes over in center field, batting in Biggio's spot, with Burke moving to second base. It seems that Biggio's shoulder might be bothering him. Regardless of what ails Biggio, Borkowski keeps mowing down the Sox, allowing only a walk to Jim Thome this inning.

In the eighth, righthander David Riske gets the call for the Sox. Riske's pitching pending the appeal of a three-game suspension he received for hitting Chris Duncan in retaliation for two batters hit by Sidney Ponson in the team's 20-6 blowout of St. Louis on Tuesday. Manager Ozzie Guillen, who as a management employee doesn't have the right to appeal discipline passed down by the Commissioner's office, served a one-game suspension on Thursday.

Let's just take a moment here to talk about all the discipline Guillen received this week. Aside from being suspended and fined an undisclosed amount of money for his pitcher hitting a batter after warnings had been handed down, Guillen was also fined for the "use of slurs" and offensive language about Chicago columnist and media personality Jay Mariotti. The amount of that fine was also undisclosed.

There's nothing much that can be said in defense of what Guillen called Mariotti. The word he used is undeniably offensive, but then again, so are many of the words Guillen uses regularly in addressing the media. Usually they're covered up between brackets, noting a deleted expletive or replacing the profanity with something more tame. The particular three-letter slur in question wasn't covered up by the press, because it was directed at Mariotti. The only reason the league is making a big show of not taking any of Ozzie's [expletive deleted] any more is because these offensive comments were made to members of the media, about a member of the media. If the league actually wanted to take a stand against bigotry, they wouldn't wait until Guillen shot off his mouth about a big-name columnist. But the problem with the league's policy on offensive language is that it doesn't exist. There are only isolated and inconsistent responses to bad language uttered within earshot of a reporter, and that's not enough to change anyone's attitudes.

Probably the greater concern--and the one more likely to cause Guillen long-term trouble--was the non-slur related discipline he received from the league. Most managers put up some pretense that they don't order their pitchers to retaliate, but the same candor that makes Guillen so popular also works against him when it comes time to deliver the fake "I'm sure it was unintentional, my pitcher's just trying to work inside" speech. In these situations Guillen comes off like Jack Nicholson at the end of A Few Good Men. Unlike bad language, baseball has a very active policy against beanballs and retaliation, and you have to think that sooner or later, MLB Dean of Discipline Bob Watson's going to get tired of Guillen openly thumbing his nose at those policies.

By the way, while we were philosophizing, Riske retired the side in order. Also, for any of those still wondering, the active leader in pickoffs is Detroit's Kenny Rogers, whose 72 career pickoffs lead Pettitte's 69.

With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Borkowski allows a single to Joe Crede, and Houston summons 33 year-old lefty Trever Miller to try and keep the game close. Miller has the tell-tale sign of the LOOGY, more appearances (25) than innings pitched (21). He's a journeyman on his second tour with Houston. Miller retires Mackowiak on a foul popup, but faced with Juan Uribe, he's betrayed by his defense. Uribe lofts a ball to left field, which is playable except that Wilson loses it in the lights. The ball goes skipping past the left fielder. Emboldened, the White Sox decide to wave Crede around the bases, which is a brutal decision, as the relay throw looks to get to the plate in plenty of time… except that Ausmus doesn't catch the throw, which goes five-hole, in hockey parlance, straight through the catcher's wickets. Crede scores, the runner's on third, and the Sox lead, 7-4. The threat ends when Miller retires Podsednik on a groundout to short.

Bobby Jenks comes on to hurl an anticlimactic 1-2-3 inning against the bottom of Houston's order, retiring Ausmus, Everett, and Taveras for the save. Contreras gets his 16th consecutive regular season win without a loss, the Sox run their winning streak to eight, while the Astros fall to .500.

Game of the Week will be taking July the Fourth off, and will return in two weeks. Keep posted to the Newsletter for game details.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek's other articles.

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

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