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Astros

CF Willy Taveras
2B Eric Bruntlett
3B Morgan Ensberg
LF Mike Lamb
1B Jose Vizcaino
RF Jason Lane
SS Adam Everett
C Raul Chavez
P Ezequiel Astacio

If I gave you no other information, what would you deduce from
that lineup?

A) The over/under for runs scored by this lineup is 1
B) The Astros have been demoted to the Texas League
C) They’re about to get whupped by a National League opponent

If you said D), all of the above, you’re correct. The lineup the Astros
ran out for Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Braves isn’t much better
than a Double-A squad, and a top-tier NL team like the Braves will likely
chop them to bits. Let’s see what transpired:

As Astros announcers Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies go through the lineup,
you can almost hear the defeat in their voices. It’s not like Astros
manager Phil Garner is waving the white flag on a Sunday lineup either.
This Astros team has struggled to score runs all year despite playing in
one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball, Houston ranks next to last in
the NL in runs scored. The departures of Carlos Beltran
and Jeff Kent deleted a total of 99 VORP (about 10 wins
above replacement level) from the lineup–and that’s with Beltran having
played just more than half of last season in Houston.

Among current Astros, Lance Berkman had just made it
back from a torn ACL on Friday; after playing him in two straight games, the Astros
wanted to rest him to avoid excessive strain and a heightened risk of
re-injury. Meanwhile Jeff Bagwell was forced to sit due
to his deteriorating right shoulder, the same shoulder that’s eaten into
his production the last couple years and made the last two years of his
$85 million contract an ugly sight to behold. Brad Ausmus
also sat, but as a perennial member of the Worst Regulars in Baseball
Society, there was no loss there. Only the streaking Craig
Biggio
‘s day off could be seen as resting a regular who could
expect to contribute. Even after losing two starters and with half the
regular lineup out, though, no team should have to suffer the horror of
playing Jose Vizcaino at first base and batting him
fifth to boot. Heading into Sunday’s game, the Astros had scored just 45
runs in 14 road games–that didn’t figure to improve on this day.

Willy Taveras leads off for the Astros. Though much was
made locally of Taveras’ bumping Adam Everett out of the
leadoff spot recently, it’s more likely a sideways move, if anything.
Though Taveras has already rung up 10 steals this year, and at .279/.342/.362
heading into the game, he was far from an ideal leadoff hitter. It’s worth
asking why teams don’t simply stack their best hitters at the top of the
lineup: A leadoff hitter is only assured of starting an inning once a
game, negating much of the value linked to his speed. On a more basic
level, installing a player in the leadoff spot gives him more than 100
more times at bat than if he’s plugged in toward the bottom of the order,
and several dozen more times up than even a cleanup hitter can expect to
accumulate. Put another way: If virtual Lance Berkman
leading off for my Strat-O-Matic team to ensure maximum playing time, why
not do the same for the real McCoy?

Taveras fouls off the 0-1 pitch for strike two, then turns to the dugout
for a new bat. Deshaies: “The bat boy’s bigger than Willy!” He may have a
better shot at the plate too–Taveras strikes out looking. An Eric
Bruntlett
groundout and a Morgan Ensberg popout to
first later, the Astros are down in order, having failed to get the ball
out of the infield against Braves starter Mike Hampton.

Hampton headed into the game with just 16 strikeouts (against 11 walks) in
43 innings. A groundball pitcher with a better than 2-1 GB/FB ratio,
Hampton relies on deception and his defense to get outs–with great
success to date, including a 2.47 ERA heading into Sunday. To beat him,
opposing hitters need to work the count in their favor, not be afraid to
go deep into the count–knowing Hampton’s not a big strikeout threat–and
look for a pitch to drive. Three batters into the game, it already looks
like the Astros may struggle to do any of those things.


Braves

SS Rafael Furcal
2B Marcus Giles
3B Chipper Jones
1B Adam LaRoche
CF Andruw Jones
LF Brian Jordan
RF Ryan Langerhans
C Eddie Perez
P Mike Hampton

Even without regular starting catcher Johnny Estrada,
that’s a much better lineup than what the Astros are using. Ryan Langerhans has started
slowly, but a 2004 breakout at Triple-A came just in time, as the
25-year-old was out of options heading into spring training this year;
he’ll supplant Brian Jordan or Raul
Mondesi
as a starter by the end of June, and is spelling Mondesi
here. The one through five hitters are solid, with Adam
LaRoche
coming on after a slow start, just as he did last year, and
Chipper Jones healthy and crushing the ball.

Making just his second big-league start, Ezequiel Astacio is a
far more unproven commodity than Hampton is. Yet given his track record and
repertoire, he’s got a fair chance of pitching a big game himself. Astacio
had a breakout year in 2004 after coming over from the Phillies in the
Billy Wagner trade. In 176 innings at Double-A Round
Rock, he fanned 185 batters, while walking just 56. While the gaudy
strikeout rate was a change, the low walk rate wasn’t: Astacio had shown
good control throughout his career. His improved mastery over
his mid-90s fastball and sharp splitter, combined with his slider and
occasional change-up, have the Astros bullish on his future. Though some
talk had been given to installing him in the bullpen and letting his
fastball/splitter combo talk in the late innings, the Astros have a need
at the back of their rotation; as they did with Roy
Oswalt
, the Astros want to give Astacio every opportunity to make
it as a major-league starter. Unlike with Oswalt, there’s been no
apprenticeship in the Houston bullpen.

Rafael Furcal leads off, and the announcers tick off
Furcal’s numbers for the series: 4 for 12, with a triple, a walk, two RBI
and four runs scored. This becomes a running theme as they introduce each
hitter: With the Braves having won the first three games of the series, it
seems the whole team has been nailing Houston pitching.

Garner has made Raul Chavez Astacio’s personal catcher so
far in his young career, and Chavez seems to be doing his best to help.
Astacio mixes two mid-90s fastballs with a splitter to get Furcal to
1-2–Chavez pulling his glove down to remind Astacio to keep the ball
below the knees. With Furcal off balance, Astacio throws a sinking
fastball knee-high on the outside corner, whiffing Furcal. If he throws
that pitch consistently, the Astros will have a gem on their hands.

But on the first pitch to Marcus Giles, Astacio shows the
thinner margin for error in the majors compared to Double-A. Another
94-mph fastball stays thigh-high and middle-in to Giles, who
smokes it down the left-field line for a double. Velocity and even mixing
pitches won’t be enough for Astacio to make it at this level. Deshaies
quoting Greg Maddux: “The most effective pitch in
baseball is a well-located fastball.” Fastball to Furcal: well located.
Fastball to Giles: poorly located.

Chipper Jones comes up, sitting fifth in the NL in batting average .354.
Many in the stathead and prospect community have wondered aloud why the
Braves haven’t brought up superprospect
Andy Marte, installed him at third base and moved Jones back
to left field. Braves management maintains Jones is both more comfortable
and more likely to stay healthy playing the position he’s manned for most
of his career, third base. The team plans to stick it out with low-cost
options in Jordan, Mondesi and Langerhans in the corner outfield spots,
with the hope that Jones’ offense will pick up if he’s left to play
third, his hitting overshadowing the worst third-base glove in baseball
over the last decade, according to Baseball
Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average
metric. Here, Astacio makes
another mistake, throwing the same middle-in fastball to Jones on 1-2,
resulting in a sharp single to right. Somewhere John Schuerholz and his
front office and scouting staff are smiling.

As Adam LaRoche steps to the plate, the tomahawk chop is already going.
You get the sense that if Astacio doesn’t stem the tide quickly, the game
could end right here–the Astros simply don’t have the manpower to come
back from any significant deficit, not unless Hampton throws a stinker.
Astacio just misses with his first pitch, a splitter. He goes back to the
splitter on 1-0–is he scared of throwing his fastball after Giles and
Jones killed it?–and throws it down and in for ball two. Chavez had set
the target away–not a good sign.

Deshaies and I seem to be on the same wavelength: “Giles hit a
fastball, Chipper hit a fastball, so he starts LaRoche with a couple of
splitters.” It’s an interesting point, but ultimately Astacio just needs
to locate his pitches better. If he starts messing up his pitch sequences
due to a couple of bad results stemming from poor location, it’s only
going to get worse. Astacio comes back with a third straight splitter
anyway, but this is a nasty one: It starts thigh-high, ends below the
knees, and has LaRoche out in front for strike one. Gutsy pitch. Only
then does Astacio come back with another middle-in fastball. LaRoche gets
under it and settles for a sacrifice fly, but Astacio needs to show better
command within the strike zone to succeed.

Chavez guides the young hurler past Andruw Jones,
standing nearly upright on 1-2 to get Astacio to throw his fastball well
out of the zone, then tapping the ground for a sharp splitter that strikes
Jones out. One run allowed, and already a thorough glimpse into both
Astacio’s arsenal and his mindset.

Meanwhile, Hampton is cruising. Mike Lamb raps a solid
single to right, only to quickly be erased by a Vizcaino double play. Vizcaino would go on to ground out weakly
to the left side all three times at bat, two of those times on the first
pitch. That the Astros don’t have a semi-prospect (Todd
Self
?) or Petagine-type lifer anywhere in the minors who could do
a better job than Vizcaino off the bench seems impossible.

The double play starts a streak in which Hampton sets down 21 Astros in a
row; he headed into the ninth inning having faced the minimum 24 batters,
allowing just one hit. He’s not doing anything dramatic, mostly mixing a
cut fastball in on righties with a sinker away, both of which induce a
raft of weak outs, including 11 groundouts. The Astros are being
impatient, and Hampton incredibly goes to a three-ball count just twice in
the first eight innings. Though the league’s better hitters are going to
give him trouble, Hampton’s savvy enough to know how to exploit a lineup’s
weaknesses. When a team trots out a lineup filled with nine of them, he’s
usually going to succeed.

Jack Morris fans might argue that Hampton pitched
to the score
on this day. Whatever the case, he had plenty of scoring
behind him:

  • Astacio falls behind Jordan leading off the second, then gives up a long
    double after Taveras has the ball pop out of his glove at the wall.
    Astacio gets ahead of Langerhans 1-2, then tries to finish him off
    with…another fastball, middle-in. Langerhans hits the pitch to Macon,
    and the Braves take a 3-0 lead. When pitching coach Jim Hickey goes out to
    talk to Astacio after the homer, you wonder if he’s telling him to stop
    grooving pitches on 1-2, if he’s recommending a better mix of pitches, or
    if he’s issuing a couple of attaboys for show. Whatever he said, Astacio
    breaks out a change on 2-2 to Eddie Perez that induces a
    popout, followed by a great 96-mph fastball/outside-corner slider combo
    that catches Hampton looking for strike three. It’s going to take time for
    Astacio to put it all together, but the Astros are going nowhere this
    year, they’ll be shedding Bagwell, Biggio and Roger
    Clemens
    by the end of next season, and the resulting youth
    movement should give the team’s young talent time to grow into their
    roles.

  • It’s Mother’s Day, and all Astros players are being introduced with their
    mothers’ names at the bottom of the screen. Mike Lamb’s mom’s is Marie.
    Deshaies: “So when he was born, you could say Marie had a little Lamb.”
    This from the guy who once called himself “the poster boy for bad
    pitching,” only to set up a now defunct Web site–putjdinthehall.com–that
    asked voters to cast one vote for his election and for posterity. He’s
    intelligent, articulate, offers quick, insightful observations, and
    he’s funny. This team may stink, but I’m going to watch more Astros games
    for J.D.

  • This was Ryan Langerhans’ coming-out party. He followed his initial
    two-run homer with a well-struck two-run double to left-center–an
    impressive bit of opposite-field slugging. When the hapless
    Brandon Duckworth tried to sneak an 89-mph dead-straight
    fastball down the middle by him, Langerhans swatted it into the
    right-center field seats. While play-by-play man Bill Brown talked up the
    contributions of Jordan and Mondesi this season, Jordan stood at
    .255/.308/.336 after Monday’s game, Mondesi at .202/.236/.356. At worst
    Langerhans should play regularly against righties, with the Braves
    upgrading the other outfield slot once Jordan goes down to injury and
    Mondesi either flames out or bails on his team.

  • An Adam Everett at-bat sums up Hampton’s performance, and
    highlights the difference between a savvy veteran and a talented but raw
    rookie still looking for a comfort zone. Hampton starts Everett with an
    83-mph slider for strike one. He throws another one low for ball one, then
    zips in a fastball at the knees to go to 1-2. He throws a cutter on the
    hands and higher in the zone for a foul ball, then throws another cutter
    lower but still inside for another foul. Hampton goes still lower on the
    next pitch, getting Everett to roll over on a sinker out of the zone for a
    harmless groundout to short. When a pitcher changes speeds, pitches, and
    vertical and horizontal planes on a hitter it can be a joy to watch, even
    when that opponent is overmatched.

I’d love to discuss the numerous tense situations and brilliant in-game
maneuvering that took place in this game–unfortunately there was none.
Hampton allowed just two hits and one walk over nine innings, cruising to
the easiest shutout you may see all season. The Braves pummeled Astros
pitching, launching five homers, including four by the noted slugging trio
of Langerhans, Perez and Hampton, en route to a 16-0 win. If you’re a
Braves fan, you’ll have fun with this
box score
. If you’re an Astros fan…well, at least your boys snapped
their six-game losing streak and 11-game road losing streak Monday night against the Marlins–giving them
two road wins for the season. There’s always next year.

Prospectus Game of the Week will go on a brief hiatus, then return Sunday,
May 22 for the Show Me State battle between the St. Louis Cardinals and
the Kansas City Royals. Starting pitchers and DirecTV channel TBA.

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