Houston Astros: Just when it looked like we could write off the Houston Astros’s 2005 season, they put together a very nice stretch of 29-14 baseball since the start of June. Now, despite their rough first two months to the season, the Astros have a better record through 94 games this year than they did in ’04. Even given their ascent to mediocrity, though, the ‘Stros still have too many roadblocks between them and the playoffs.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much room for improvement given how impressive the Astros starting pitching has been. Three teams have three players in the top 20 in Pitcher’s VORP, the Chicago White Sox, Washington Nationals, and Astros. The Astros version of the Big Three is quite obviously Roger Clemens (first), Roy Oswalt (fourth), and Andy Pettitte (19th). Despite this strength, it has not translated fairly for the Astros corps. Clemens and Pettitte entered Wednesday as the two unluckiest teammates in the Majors (min. 100 IP). Even Oswalt, who has 12 wins and squeezed onto the All-Star team, deserves 2.45 more wins than he has.
The Astros are going to need their Luck to turn around in order to continue their playoff push. According to BP’s Playoff Odds Report, the Astros have just a 10% likelihood to make the playoffs. While optimists will point out that this is ten percent more than division foes like the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates have, realists will point out that the St. Louis Cardinals are practically a statistical lock to win the NL Central, and that the Astros need to count on some significant bloodletting in the NL East to squeak into the Round of Eight. While that is not a completely unrealistic scenario–after all it did happen last year–the Astros are going to have hold up their end of the bargain.
And therein lies the problem. As Bill Simmons would say, when you’re counting on Willy Taveras and Craig Biggio to produce at the top of your lineup, well then you’re counting on Willy Taveras and Craig Biggio to produce at the top of your lineup. What is worse? That Taveras and Biggio have a combined .336 OBP in the top two spots, or that they represent two of the four good players the ‘Stros have on offense this year?
In a marked departure from 2004, when the Astros were in the middle of the pack offensively, the 2005 Astros offense scores less than Milhouse Van Houten coming off a garlic bender. Entering Wednesday, only the Pirates and Nationals had fewer runs scored, and using AEqR, the Astros had scored the worst offense in the NL. It is quite a testament to their pitching staff that they have outscored their opponents to date. Their defense, which is a middling 16th in Defensive Efficiency, is not a major contributor to the cause. The Astros simply miss a lot of bats, as entering Wednesday they ranked second in both K/9 and K/BB.
While it has to be comforting to the new guard in the Astros front office that the team has turned a corner, it now leaves them the unenviable task of deciding if they are buyers or sellers as the trade deadline approaches. Given their offensive output and ability, the outlook still isn’t rosy for the boys in Brick Red, but given how bad it could have been, the Astros still have to be pleased to be on the edge of the fight.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: The Angels offense is puzzling. Through Tuesday, the team has an OPS (on base plus slugging) of 731, 24th in MLB. Beyond Vladimir Guerrero, every player has an OPS below 800. Angels leadoff hitters (mostly Darin Erstad and Chone Figgins) have a collective OBP of .319, and the cleanup hitter, Garret Anderson, has a sub par 776 OPS, which would be his lowest total in a full season since 1997. The team has little power, its 80 home runs also ranking 24th in the majors. Despite all of that, Anaheim has managed to remain in the middle of the pack with 438 runs scored, 11th most in the majors, helping them maintain a seven-game cushion in the AL West.
So how does this offense function? Take a closer look at Anderson, who seems wholly unfit for the cleanup spot. Despite his poor offensive rate statistics, Anderson leads the Angels with 65 runs batted in. At Baseball Prospectus, we often reiterate the point that RBIs are an inferior measure of production, because they are more closely tied to lineup context than hitting skill. They are, however, useful at the margins, and since an RBI means a run, one player’s atypical success at plating baserunners can help explain why a team is scoring more than offensive metrics would indicate. In this instance, Anderson’s surprisingly high RBI figure is the result of an interesting split in his batting line:
Situation AB HR AVG OBP SLG None on 185 3 .259 .286 .373 Runners on 170 8 .335 .361 .541
Anderson has gotten more at-bats with runners on than anyone else on the Angels, and has been an entirely different hitter in those situations–the best in the majors, in fact, at clearing the bases. He has come to the plate this season with 243 total runners on base, and has batted in 54 of them (65 RBI minus 11 home runs, or times he has knocked in himself). That gives him an RBI/runner of 0.2222, tops among all players who qualify for the batting title (3.1 plate appearances per team game). Such a large upturn in production with runners on base has been Anderson’s modus operandi for the past two seasons as well:
Year Situation AB HR AVG OBP SLG 2004 None on 230 2 .313 .333 .400 2004 Runners on 212 12 .288 .353 .495 2003 None on 318 12 .286 .302 .494 2003 Runners on 320 17 .344 .385 .588
Guerrero, who has a 963 OPS with runners on versus 863 with the bases empty, is 11th among qualifiers with 0.1969 RBI/runner. Between Anderson and Guerrero, the Angels have two of the best at cashing in base runners this season hitting back-to-back in the order. The entire team, in fact, has hit much better with runners on base (778 OPS) than with the bags clear (696).
The middle of the lineup’s opportunistic tendencies help explain the gap between Anaheim’s 438 runs scored and 417 equivalent runs. Developed by BP’s Clay Davenport, equivalent runs are based upon a team’s equivalent average. Anaheim’s .253 EqA, like its team OPS, ranks in the bottom ten in the majors. As Davenport wrote in a recent e-mail, “I did run a study which showed that I could explain about half the error between R and EqR by knowing how much better (or worse) the team hit with men on base than they did overall…. If you concentrate your OPS into higher leverage situations, like men on or in scoring position, you’ll get more runs for the same apparent production.”
Call it luck, chemistry or the fearsome aura of the Rally Monkey, but the Angels have clearly been aided by some immeasurable force this season. None have felt it more than starting pitcher Jarrod Washburn, who in 2005 has struck out 4.86 batters per nine innings, posted a 1.76 K/BB ratio, and allowed opponents to hit for a 777 OPS, all the worst figures of his career. Instead of struggling to keep his head above water, Washburn is sailing along with a 3.27 ERA and team leading 35.1 VORP. Part of that relates to Washburn having thrown 78 2/3 of his 124 innings on the road, where he has always been more effective (he had a 3.55 road ERA from 2002-04 and a 4.56 home ERA). More significantly, Washburn, a flyball pitcher, has had 23 double plays turned on his watch in 100 opportunities, one of the highest percentages in the league and the best rate of his career. From 2002-04, Washburn had double plays turned in just 11% of opportunities. With a 0.98 groundball/flyball ratio, Washburn has not been getting more ground balls than he did last season, when he had a 0.96 G/F, so the fact that he has had 10 more double plays than average turned behind him, the second-best mark in the AL, is particularly surprising.
The Angels have been winning by the old adage–pitching, defense and timely hitting–but be wary of whether Washburn and the Halos hitters can sustain their success.