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May 7, 2013

Punk Hits

The Record the Houston Astros Won't Break

by Ian Miller

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I’m legitimately excited to be going to Houston this weekend to attend the Baseball Prospectus event at Minute Maid Park. It won’t be my first BP event, but it’ll be my first event as a BP staff member. I hope no one asks me any tough questions about baseball, because I don’t really know anything about the game. Luckily Jason Collette and Jason Cole and lots of other smart people will be there to field the tough questions. What should I wear? I don’t have any golf shirts or polos, so I hope the attendees don’t mind hoodies and cutoff jean shorts. 

I also hope the Astros have a better week this week than last. I mean, I don’t wanna necessarily hang around with a bunch of bummed-out front-office types and personnel. Let’s be frank here: Saying the Astros had a bad week is an understatement of the highest order. It started out with them beating Andy Pettitte, and went completely off the rails after that. They ended up losing six straight and suffered a four-game sweep, at home, at the hands of the Tigers.

You kind of expect them to get beaten by Hiroki Kuroda and Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, but they also lost games to Boone Logan, Drew Smyly, and Luke Putkonen. Is that last guy even a real baseball player? I’m not convinced. Sounds made up. 

The Tigers outscored them 37-8 over the course of a four-game sweep, pushing the Astros’ run differential to -2.35 per game, worst in all of baseball. The sweep, and the near-no-hitter by Verlander on Sunday, were enough for the Astros to convene a closed-door, players-only meeting to get the team fired up and back on track. This is the low ebb so far, but almost certainly not the nadir in a long year.

This is a bad team by any measure. If you want to play the “on-pace game,” Houston is on pace for a 41-121 season. Joe Posnanski thinks they might lose 120, or maybe he doesn’t; I can’t quite tease out his conclusions from the musings about the terrible Tigers and Mets teams of yore.

I submit that, while they are terrible, the Astros aren’t 120-loss terrible. PECOTA backs me up on this: our Playoff Odds Report has them going 62-100 this season. They have a solid core of young talent, at least among position players: their team .259 True Average puts them dead in the middle of the pack for offense (15th of 30) and they’ve scored 123 runs, good enough for 10th in the American League.

Contrasting this with the Marlins, the only other team who might conceivably challenge Houston for the top draft pick in 2014, is edifying: Miami is dead last in baseball in True Average, ISO, and VORP for position players. It’s Miami’s middling pitching that has led them to a 10-22 record, whereas Houston’s pitching is the reason its run differential is so ghastly.

Thing is, that ain’t gon’ happen.

Yes, the Astros staff is godawful. They’re last in baseball in ERA, and by almost a full run: 5.75 vs. the next-worst Angels’ 4.78. The starters have been especially bad: Houston’s starters own a 6.53 ERA and have pitched 4.8 innings per start, both worst in baseball by plenty.

But lo, even now there is reason for optimism. There’s some evidence that Houston’s pitchers have been unlucky. Houston’s staff owns the highest BABIP in baseball at .328, and their starters’ is higher still, at .348. It’s impossible to tease out how much of those figures is luck and how much is ineffectiveness or bad defense, but we should expect to see those numbers regress heavily toward .300. (The worst non-Colorado BABIP of the last five seasons was the 2008 Rangers at .315, and the Astros posted BABIPs of .301 and .306 in 2011 and 2012, both 100-loss seasons.)

Houston’s Fair Run Average (FRA) also suggests that their arms are a little better than their performance so far. The Astros aggregate FRA is “only” 5.27, a half-run better than their ERA. The staff’s FIP is in that same ballpark (5.20), and their xFIP – which regresses HR/FB rates -- is lower still, at 4.82. (That’s still worst in baseball though, so don’t get too excited.)

The Astros’ farm is stocked with talent -- we ranked them ninth this year, and they’ll continuing to improve through draft position -- but don’t expect the cavalry to come over the hill in 2013. Houston needs guys who can eat innings, and those guys just don’t exist right now. Like I said way back there, this is a bad team, and they’ll likely lose 100 games and become the first team to select first overall three years in a row.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter if the Astros lose 100 or 120 or 154. (Actually, losing 130 straight would be pretty amazing, so I take that last one back.) Luhnow and company have made it clear they are attempting to build a sustainable, competitive organization. He’s asked his employers, his employees, and his fans to trust the process. If you believe in Luhnow and his team and have a very active imagination, you can project out a few years and visualize a team that can compete with Texas and Oakland in the AL West and maybe even go deep into the playoffs. Veteran and batting champion Jose Altuve anchors a lineup that features Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa. Matt Dominguez is winning Gold Gloves, and Justin Maxwell is making All-Star games. Jason Castro catches Mark Appel every fifth day, Jarred Cosart is closing, and Carlos Rodon is knocking on the door.

Now try that exercise with the Marlins organization.

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

Related Content:  Houston Astros,  Jose Altuve

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