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  • The Astros have now played six series, and are an undefeated 7-0. For simplicity’s sake, we’re not counting the 4/11-13 series in San Francisco, since it’s not technically finished (after two rainouts, the Astros split two games with the Giants, and the final game will be made up on 5/8); if you want to include it, they’re 6-0-1. Overall, they’re 15-6, which is tied with the Reds for the most wins in the majors. According to our Adjusted Standings Report, though, this hides some pretty important context.

    Based on third-order Wins and Losses, the Astros get the second-largest negative recalibration of their “expected” W-L record in the majors: 15-6 becomes 11.7-9.3 (or 12-9), largely because they’ve faced below-average competition. They’re beating the teams that they should, but we shouldn’t be too quick to write them off.

    This information isn’t intended as a defiant “oh yeah?” in order to criticize an unexpected bout with contention (the Astros were considered a third-place team in our preseason author poll); stats are still largely decorative this early in the year. But their 15 wins are in the book, so they get to build on that, regardless of what Pythagoras says. And lest we already forgot, this is a team that has had success despite being written off two years in a row.

  • The Houston pitcher everyone’s talking about is Wandy Rodriguez, as 4-0 April records tend to drive stories; a recent story opens with the question “Roger who?” which seems more than a bit premature.

    Anointing him as anything more than back-of-the-rotation filler having a great month is pretty optimistic. His track record is so familiar–unassuming, pitch-throwing lefty–that PECOTA predicts he’ll be out of baseball by age 31. There are some truly frightening names on his PECOTA comparables list–Calvin Maduro and Jim Parque–but so long as Jamie Moyer also appears on that list, Rodriguez’s weaknesses will be presented as strengths. As our own Kevin Goldstein recently said:

    Every time somebody in the prospect world points out that a pitcher who fits the lefty/command/finesse mold will have trouble succeeding at the higher levels, he gets inevitably compared to Moyer as an argument in favor of the player. Jamie Moyer is what is commonly referred to in the scouting world as a “freak,” and in the statistical analysis world as an “outlier.” That lefty who rips up Double-A while throwing 85-87 mph is not the next Jamie Moyer. Every team in baseball has one or two of these guys in their system, and most don’t make it at all–and those who do are limited to LOOGY status or spot starting at best, while one out of maybe two or three hundred actually turn out to be Moyer.

    It’s really difficult to accept that, after five starts, Rodriguez has somehow turned a corner and has learned to pitch in the majors. He’s got a below-average BABIP, he’s posting the lowest walk rate of his career, he hasn’t faced very good offenses, and his home run rate is way down from what it’s been in the past. And as Dayn Perry demonstrated last year, Minute Maid park is particularly generous to right-handed batters where home runs are concerned. Since he’ll pitch more games in Houston than anywhere else, and since he’ll face predominantly right-handed lineups, his home run rate has nowhere to go but up. In other words, his April is a great story, but we can’t view it as predictive of a level of performance he’s never shown before.

John Erhardt

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Notes from the [AL Central] Underground…

  • Minnesota desperately needs Luis Castillo and his .371 career OBP locked into the two hole to have a chance in the AL Central. Thus far, Castillo has been outstanding, hitting .373/.448/.431 in 61 PA through Tuesday. He’s even gotten back to his old thievin’ ways, stealing three bags without being caught, a pace that would put him back north of 30 steals for the first time since 2002. Despite that positive sign, Castillo’s leg and knee problems are still present–he’s already sat with sore legs and knee tendonitis–and the FieldTurf at the Metrodome will likely ensure his continued struggle to escape the minor aches and pains that have become so frequent for him in recent years. The Twins’ Out Factory (chief foreman: Rondell White) has resembled a real offense when Castillo plays:

    Castillo Playing   Team Result    Runs Scored/Game
          Yes             8-6               5.6
           No             0-5               1.8
  • Surprisingly, the team’s pitching is mainly to blame for Minnesota’s 8-11 start, with the staff posting a 5.82 ERA. As the most recent Hit List points out, a major culprit is a defensive efficiency ranked 29th in the majors, a far cry from last year’s #6 ranking. Consequently, every Twins pitcher besides Joe Nathan has a BABIP .310 or higher. Castillo and Tony Batista, known for strong gloves, are both two runs below average at second and third respectively, figures you’d expect to improve. More worrisome is the play of first baseman Justin Morneau; not only has the 25-year-old slugger continued last season’s offensive doldrums, but his defense has also been shoddy. The Twins could stomach bad glovework if Morneau could get back on the offensive track he established in 2003, but a sub-.260 OBP and minimal power (just five extra-base hits) from the player tabbed by PECOTA for the team’s second-highest EqA is potentially fatal to Minnesota’s run production.
  • Don’t worry about Johan Santana. His performance thus far has been spotty (4.81 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 18/9 K/BB in 24.1 IP), but he’s faced Chicago, Cleveland and New York–the three highest scoring outfits in the AL–and Toronto, which ranks sixth. Santana’s start also fits with his career trend: he had an ERA north of 5.5 through the first two months of 2004, then turned around and got medieval on the AL the rest of the way. Last year, he had a 3.7 mark entering August, and then similarly shut down the league the rest of the way. For his career, Santana has a significant All-Star break differential:

    Split  IP   ERA WHIP  AVG  K/9 BB/9 HR/9  H/9
    PRE  474.2 4.04 1.22 .240 9.37 2.90 1.06 8.12
    POS  405.2 2.55 1.03 .202 9.43 2.68 0.75 6.61

    Interestingly, the main factor in Santana’s (relatively) hesitant starts has been his hit rate, particularly a propensity to surrender homers–he’s given up three in those 24.1 innings so far. With the significant career sample the discrepancy likely isn’t random fluctuation; possibly Santana just takes some time to shift gears from “dominant” to “Doc Gooden 1985.” The end of the year is a time you want your franchise player to be at his best, but it’s too bad the Twins’ window to fully capitalize on Santana’s second-half brilliance has been closed (for the moment) by the Chicago/Cleveland axis.

  • The Mysterious Case of Jesse Crain: a University of Houston closer taken in the second round in 2002, Crain was groomed as a stopper in the minors, blowing through five leagues with 11.5 K/9 before arriving in Minnesota late in the 2004 season. That’s when things started getting strange. Here are Crain’s career stats entering 2006:

    Level   IP   K  BB  H HR  ERA
    Minor 162.1 207 53 95  5 1.94
    Major 106.2  39 41 78  8 2.53

    Crain’s strikeout potential completely evaporated in the majors, although he’s managed to keep runs off the board with a low hit rate. His BABIP in that 27-inning 2004 debut was .194, and over a full season last year was .222, the sixth lowest in the majors among pitchers throwing 70 innings or more. Considering that Crain is not on the periphery of the groundball/flyball dichotomy–his PECOTA-projected 45% groundball percentage (on all balls in play) for 2006 would have been about average last year–hits and runs allowed should escalate, a fact reflected in Crain’s 69% PECOTA projected collapse rate, the eighth highest among the nearly 800 pitchers processed by our projection tool. Crain has been racked for nine runs and 16 hits in 9.1 IP so far, including three homers. However, optimistic fans can look at his 7/1 K/BB ratio as a sign Crain might be back on track towards realizing his potential as Nathan’s chief setup man.

  • While things are grim on the offensive side of the ledger, the Twins can take solace in their remarkable pitching depth, which should keep Minnesota a playoff picture dark horse despite their toothless attack. In Triple-A, Boof Bonser–the third piece of the titanic return on A.J. Pierzynski–seems ready to contribute in the Homerdome. Bonser has been held to six innings in each of his four starts for Rochester thus far, giving up only 12 hits (one homer) and two runs with a 23/8 K/BB. Add in the sublime big league performance of Francisco Liriano in the early going, and the struggles of Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva, and you can imagine Twins fans dreaming of Santana, Lirano, Scott Baker, and Bonser together in the rotation. That should become a reality next season, but you can bet that the Twins won’t wait too much longer to slide Liriano into the rotation, and Bonser is the best choice to take his spot in the pen.

Caleb Peiffer

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