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June 12, 2012

Overthinking It

Ten Reasons the Astros Aren't Historically Terrible

by Ben Lindbergh

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Last season, the Twins won 63 games and were widely acknowledged to be a total disaster. But the Twins were baseball’s second-worst team. The Astros were on another level of awful. They won only 56 games, the lowest total of any team since the 2005 Royals. They were the NL’s worst pitching team and the NL’s worst defensive team, and they weren’t much good at offense, either.

That level of futility wasn’t foreseeable. In order to be as awful as they were last season, the Astros had to decline by a whopping 20 wins. In the 1982 Abstract, Bill James observed that a team that declines in one year is likely to improve the next. He called it the Plexiglas Principle.* In most cases, we’d expect a team that fell off by as much as the Astros to bounce back the following year. But the Astros weren’t most cases, and they weren’t supposed to bounce. They were supposed to break through the glass and fall even further.

*In the 1983 Abstract, he called it the Whirlpool Principle. Bill James was such a prolific author of principles that he sometimes came up with the same one twice.

There were good reasons to think that the Astros would have trouble holding what little ground they had. For one thing, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, who were traded at the 2011 deadline, still finished with two of the team’s three top WARP totals. That was depressing for two reasons: first, that the Astros had so few good players that two of them could miss months of the season and still be among their most valuable, and second, that they wouldn’t have them at all in 2012. The Astros would also be without Jeff Keppinger, another player who’d been traded after a hot first half. Their fourth-best player, Clint Barmes—and if you’ve seen a sadder beginning to a sentence than that, don’t send it to me—had signed with the Pirates. And there wasn’t much immediate help on the way from the minor-league system, which Kevin Goldstein ranked baseball’s fifth-worst.

Subtracting wins from the previous year’s team isn’t a sophisticated way to project performance. But the sophisticated ways painted a similarly pessimistic picture. PECOTA projected the Astros to go 61-101, which is one of the meanest things you’ll ever see PECOTA say. That was six wins fewer than the system had foreseen for the 2011 team. The worst PECOTA had forecasted any team to finish since 2004 was 66-96. At Baseball Nation, Jeff Sullivan wondered, with good reason, whether the Astros were the worst projected team of all time. Elsewhere on the internet, writers flexed their fingers and blew compressed air at their keyboards, preparing to unleash a perfect storm of snark.

It didn’t matter much that the Astros spent the offseason hiring smart people: in December, Jeff Luhnow, and in January, Sig Mejdal, Mike Fast, and Stephanie Wilka. That improved the team’s long-term outlook, and maybe it made the snark a little less fun, since the heads responsible had already rolled. But even though Ed Wade was gone, his handiwork wasn’t. Things were supposed to get worse before they got better.

Instead, the Astros are on pace for 70 wins, which is neither good nor so bad that they’ll be remembered for their failure. Their third-order record is the same as their actual one. To repeat their record from last year, the Astros would have to finish 30-72. That isn’t going to happen, even if they offload again at the deadline. Normally, we don’t write about what a team has done well unless the team has, you know, done well. The Astros haven’t done well, and they won’t for a while. If almost any other team had their record, we’d be writing about what had gone wrong. But expectations are everything, and because so little was expected of the Astros, the team is a pleasant surprise. Here’s how that surprise has happened.

1. The 2011 team wasn’t quite as bad as it looked
Let’s get the boring reasons of the way early. The first, non-Astros-specific reason, which I'm not even counting as one of the 10, is that extreme events don’t happen often. If you bet against something strange happening, you’ll be right more often than you’re wrong. The Tigers won’t score 1,000 runs, Josh Hamilton won’t win the Triple Crown, and the Astros won’t be historically bad.

Now, on to the Astros: if we were going to ding them for losing a lot of good players from last year’s team, we should have given them some credit for being a little less than the sum of their parts. Last year, the Astros undershot their third-order record by around six wins. Luck doesn’t always even out over a single season, but over stretches of seasons, it does. Unlike last year, the Astros’ record is a perfect match for its underlying performance. And that underlying performance says they’ve actually been better than the Pirates, who are momentarily tied for first place.

2. Jed Lowrie has stayed healthy.
In February, Sullivan wrote, “I like Jed Lowrie, but when you can make an argument that Jed Lowrie is the best position player on a team, you should be worried about that team.” That’s still true, in the sense that a team that could be led by Lawrie, who’s never played 90 games or been worth two wins in a single season, can’t also be about to contend. But: A) Jed Lowrie hasn’t been the Astros’ best position player (more on that in a moment), and B) Jed Lowrie has been really, really good. So good, in fact, that only seven NL players have a higher WARP than he does.

Lowrie has done this before—in 2010, he hit .287/.381/.526 for the Red Sox in 197 plate appearances. The problem was that those 197 plate appearances were the only ones he made, since he missed the first few months of the season with mono. Last year—and every other year, for that matter—his health problems were even worse. Our comment for Lowrie in BP2012 said, “when he is healthy, he’s demonstrated enough run-producing skills that he’s worth a chance.” So far, he’s been healthy, Another nice development, which may or may not be anything more than a small-sample fluke: the switch-hitting Lowrie has recorded a .313/.378/.578 line against righties, after hitting only .214/.293/.342 against them from 2008-11.

3. Jose Altuve has hit not only for average, but for everything else.

Now we know how many Altuves it takes to keep the Astros out of the NL Central cellar: just the one. This is what the NL WARP leaderboard looks like today:

The top five in NL WARP consists of four superstars and Jose Altuve. Even Altuve’s biggest boosters didn’t see that coming. The second baseman has broken out and become much more than a novelty by being more selective. He’s swinging a lot less, both inside and outside of the strike zone, and when he does swing, he’s making more contact. Like everyone else on the field, he might be playing a bit over his head, but he isn’t a mirage. It used to be that Altuve drew Dustin Pedroia comparisons because he was a short second baseman. Now, he’s a short second baseman who can hit, so the comp makes a little more sense.

The biggest reason for the Astros’ (relative) success is that they’ve had two of the league’s eight most valuable position players. That’s something no one could have seen coming.

4. Wandy Rodriguez is still good.
Wandy Rodriguez has been the Astro most likely to be traded for longer than almost anyone else has been an Astro at all. This season, he’s succeeding with fewer strikeouts, fewer walks, and more grounders, but his new approach is working just as well as the old one. Since 2007, only 21 pitchers have amassed more WARP than Wandy. He’s just plain good at pitching. Not Cy Young good, but definitely “every team would take him” good. Pretty soon, one of them will.

5. The Brett Myers conversion has worked out well.
On the surface, at least. Myers has a 2.08 ERA, and he’s saved 15 out of 16 save opportunities. He has all the traditional trappings of a successful closer. He also has a low strikeout rate and the third-lowest BABIP among NL pitchers with at least 20 IP, but if Luhnow can dump him on a desperate team before he blows up, the Astros won’t get burned.

6. Wilton Lopez doesn’t walk anyone.
Arbitrary endpoints/playing time minimums alert! Lowest walk rates among pitchers with at least 170 innings pitched from 2010-12:

Name

BB%

Roy Halladay

3.6

Cliff Lee

3.6

Kevin Slowey

3.7

Wilton Lopez

4.0

Carl Pavano

4.0

Not walking anyone doesn’t necessarily make a pitcher successful. It has in Cliff Lee’s case, but not in Kevin Slowey’s. In Lopez’ case, though, not walking anyone has worked out pretty well. Here’s another top five list Lopez cracks, with the same restrictions as above:

Name

App

Jonny Venters

192

Sean Marshall

186

Matt Belisle

180

Tyler Clippard

178

Wilton Lopez

173

 

If we expanded the table to 10, he’d appear on the list of top groundball rates, too. Lopez doesn’t throw particularly hard or strike out everyone, and he doesn’t wear goggles, so he doesn’t get many mentions as one of baseball’s best setup men. But he has good control, gets grounders, and takes the ball often. That’s also a description of a player every team would want.

7. Brandon Lyon is having a career year.
Yeah, we’re already up to Brandon Lyon, and we have three more reasons to go. Ten may have been a little over ambitious. I almost wrote, “Brandon Lyon is finally showing why Ed Wade gave him that big contract,” but that’s not true. Ed Wade gave Brandon Lyon that big contract because Ed Wade was a guy who gave relievers contracts they didn’t deserve. So let’s just leave it at this: Brandon Lyon is pitching better than he was when he was getting saves and becoming the apple of Ed Wade’s eye. In fact, he’s pitching better than he ever has. “Brandon Lyon is having a career year” makes this sound more important than it is. He’s a reliever who’s pitched 23 2/3 innings, so his success isn’t that big a deal. But a team that won 56 games last season will take it.

8. Brett Wallace has hit .400/.500/.760.
…In 30 plate appearances. Look, I’m sorry. We’re running out of above-replacement players here. If you clicked on this article expecting to see 10 reasons why the Astros are good, or even 10 reasons why the Astros aren’t bad, you should have looked more closely at the title. Those 30 plate appearances were worth half a win, which makes Wallace the fifth-most-valuable Astro. It won’t continue, but it counts.

9. Carlos Lee could be worse.
Now we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Carlos Lee has been bad. But admit it, you thought he was going to be worse. In 2010, Lee was 34 years old, with a .245 TAv and $37.5 million remaining on his contract. He looked like he was about to become the albatross to end all albatrosses. Since then, he’s been kind of okay, which is more than the Astros could have expected. And the best part is that the contract is about to expire.

10. Score one for the Decision Scientists.
It’s hard to point out any obvious mistakes made by the new Astros regime. Most likely, that’s because the new Astros regime has been in place for less than six months. It hasn’t had time to make any obvious mistakes. But it has had time for one obvious success: less than a week after he took the job, Jeff Luhnow traded for Jed Lowrie, which has worked out brilliantly. He also got a deal done quickly with first-round draft pick Carlos Correa, for well under slot. When a physician takes charge of a patient, he focuses on one simple instruction: “First, do no harm.” That’s not a bad rule for a new GM to follow, especially one taking over a team that appeared to be terminal. Luhnow hasn’t done any harm, and he’s probably done at least a little good. Six months in, that’s about all one can ask.

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

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