May 29, 2000
NL Central Notebook
One of the great things about baseball is that no matter how many games you've seen, there's always the chance that you'll see something you've never seen before. What's true at the game level is equally true at the seasonal level: each season, there is that delicious possibility that some team will do something--or have something happen to them--that is unprecedented.
Less than two months ago, the Astros were in great shape to win their fourth straight NL Central title. They had been confident enough in the strength of their franchise that they chose to reload with youth in offseason, hoping that the additions of Octavio Dotel, Roger Cedeno and Adam Everett would give them an excellent chance to extend their dominance of the division for several more years.
It's now Memorial Day, and the Astros are 10 games out of first place with the third-worst record in the National League, and these exasperating rumors that Larry Dierker's job is on the line just won't go away. This kind of collapse might not have been surprising for the Mets or the Diamondbacks and their octogenarian rosters. But the Astros? The best-run NL franchise west of Atlanta?
Being a Bit Unlucky
Well, for starters, the rumors of the Astros' collapse have been greatly exaggerated. Courtesy of the Astros' unfathomable 0-12 start in one-run games (going back to last year, their losing streak actually reached 14, an NL record), the Astros' overall record is in no way reflective of the team's overall quality, as manifested in their totals of runs scored and runs allowed:
Team R OR Expected W-L Actual W-L
The Yankees' differential is only 23 runs better than the Astros, yet their record is 10 1/2 games better. The Astros have a .375 winning percentage despite scoring 99% as many runs as they have allowed. No team that has scored at least 97% as many runs as it has allowed has played worse than .420 ball for a full season:
Year Team R OR Record
You'll notice that one of those teams, the 1983 Cubs, went on to have a miracle season the following year. One of Bill James's all-time great predictions was his statement that "if I have ever seen a dead giveaway set-up for a miracle, this is it" a reference to the Cubs in the 1984 Baseball Abstract. Their place on this list--the fact that the 1983 Cubs were a much better team than people realized--goes a long way towards explaining James's statement. The 1924 Cardinals went on to win a World Series two years later.
All that may bode well for Houston in 2001 and 2002, but right now they have more pressing matters, like trying to salvage something positive from this season. And foremost on the Astros' problem list is their bullpen. We like to say that a team's record in one-run games is completely due to luck, but that's not entirely accurate: it's about 90% luck and 10% bullpen. The Astros have had an awful bullpen.
Last season, Billy Wagner was the best reliever in the league. This year, he's...well, not. Any evaluation of the Astros' bullpen woes has to start with Wagner and his 5.73 ERA. Billy the Small's peripheral stats (22 innings, 22 hits, 8 walks, 23 strikeouts and four home runs allowed) are not nearly as bad as his ERA would suggest, but ultimately, whether Wagner turns it around has very little to do with his peripheral stats and everything to do with the soundness of his arm. He claims his arm is healthy, the Astros claim his arm is healthy, and he is still striking out more than a man an inning. But the difference between complete health and an obvious injury is not a sharp line, and if Wagner's arm is somewhere in the gray area, he may continue to pitch poorly until an injury announces its arrival with a little more fanfare.
Flies Can Ruin a Day at the Park
Wagner is not the only culprit. The Astros' team ERA of 5.54 is the third-worst in the NL. Enron Field has been blamed for everything short of the Oilers' move to Tennessee, but placing all the blame for the Astros' collapse on their ballpark is terribly simplistic. Still, the idea has some merit. Consider the groundball/flyball ratios of the Astros' pitching staff:
Name G/F (2000) G/F (Career)
By way of comparison, the NL average G/F ratio is 1.25. The Astros, as a team, have a ratio of 1.02; no other team in baseball is lower than 1.05.
So you take a pitching staff that is by far the most flyball-oriented in the major leagues--a perfectly reasonable characteristic for a team that has spent the last 35 years playing in the Astrodome--and you drop that staff into one of the most homer-friendly parks in baseball? Well, it's actually not the same staff. It's a staff that has replaced Mike Hampton (2.38 G/F ratio career), one of the three most extreme groundball pitchers in baseball, with Dotel, who may be the most extreme flyball pitcher in baseball.
The result? The Astros have a 4.86 ERA on the road and a 6.23 ERA at home.
Meanwhile, the Astros replaced Carl Everett (1.23 career G/F) with Roger Cedeno (2.02 career G/F). Some of the Astros' hitters, like Jeff Bagwell (0.95) and Richard Hidalgo (0.80) are enjoying the home-field advantage; Hidalgo has an OPS of over 1150 at home. But overall, the Astro hitters are taking far less advantage of Enron Field than their opponents.
Over the last five years, the Astros have been a shining paragon of how to make sensible baseball decisions. But they made an awful decision when they decided to do away with the Astrodome's forgiving dimensions. A ballpark that distinguishes itself from the other ballparks in the league is an advantage for the home team, because such a ballpark caters itself to a specific class of ballplayer. It allows the team to utilize players who are not particularly suited for other ballparks, like Jose Lima, and who are not, therefore, perceived to be as valuable on the open market. By designing a ballpark with dimensions that blend into the sameness of all ballparks in baseball today, the Astros no longer have an environment that can convert other teams' castoffs into useful ballplayers.
It seems terribly unjust that one bad decision--along with a heaping dose of bad luck--could ruin the Astros' best-laid plans. But that appears to be exactly what has happened so far.
Can they turn it around? Well, you know that bit about seeing something you had never seen before? The funny thing about baseball is that the game's history is long, and it's so well-recorded that even if you've never seen it before, rest assured it probably happened somewhere. And what's happened to the Astros so far this year is eerily similar to the circumstances encountered by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989.
The Blue Jays, like the Astros, were the best-run team in their division. They had won a division title in 1985 and led the division by 3 1/2 games going into the final week of the 1987 season before blowing it. Widely expected to win the division in 1989, the Blue Jays instead quickly dropped into the cellar of the AL East, and manager Jimy Williams was fired with the team 12-24. By the end of May, the Blue Jays' record was 20-31. Their closer, Tom Henke, had blown four straight save opportunities at one point and had an ERA of 7.84 when Williams was fired.
And yet they had been outscored by just two runs, 233 to 231. They were 5-12 in one-run games, the worst one-run record in baseball. And they still had the core of talent that had made them such a dominant team to begin with.
The Blue Jays did not streak up the standings, but rather marched up with the momentum of a great team that is finally playing up to its talent level. They didn't get over .500 until August 8, but from that point on they went 33-17, finishing the season with a three-game series at Baltimore, who trailed them by just one game. The Blue Jays clinched the division by winning the first two games of the series.
They won both games by one run.
If there's one compelling reason why the Astros' chance of making a miracle run is longer than the Blue Jays' chance was, it is this: at the end of May, 1989, only one team in the AL East had a winning record. The Orioles were 26-22 after losing 107 games the year before. 89 games was enough to win the AL East in 1989. For the Astros to take the NL Central, they're going to have to do more than go 71-43 to finish the season: they're going to have to find some way to stop the Cardinals, who are 28-19 and on a pace to hit 334 homers.
Can it be done? Well, if the Astros continue to lose games like they did Saturday--trailing by one run in the ninth, they had the bases loaded with none out and a 3-0 count on Daryle Ward and were still unable to score the tying run--then no, it can't. At this point, the Astros need to think less about coming back and more about damage control. They can't let a bizarre turn of events for six weeks cloud their judgment and allow them to re-think the philosophy that has brought them such rewards over the last three years.
But the first signs of panic are beginning to emerge. It's a sign of panic when Dierker lets Chris Holt throw 137 pitches in a game to preserve an eight-run lead in the ninth inning, which he did last Tuesday. No pitcher, not even Randy Johnson had ever thrown that many pitches in a game under Dierker. It's a sign of panic when the Astros trade Russ Johnson, one of the best backup infielders in the game for Triple-A roster-filler Marc Valdes.
But as long as the Astros don't fire Dierker because no one can accept the idea that there's nothing wrong with the franchise that time and fortune won't cure, they'll be fine in the long run.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at email@example.com.