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One of the great things about baseball is that no matter how many games
you’ve seen, there’s always the chance that you’ll see something you’ve
never seen before. What’s true at the game level is equally true at the
seasonal level: each season, there is that delicious possibility that some
team will do something–or have something happen to them–that is
unprecedented.

Less than two months ago, the Astros were in great shape to win their
fourth straight NL Central title. They had been confident enough in the
strength of their franchise that they chose to reload with youth in
offseason, hoping that the additions of Octavio Dotel, Roger
Cedeno
and Adam Everett would give them an excellent chance to
extend their dominance of the division for several more years.

It’s now Memorial Day, and the Astros are 10 games out of first place with
the third-worst record in the National League, and these exasperating
rumors that Larry Dierker’s job is on the line just won’t go away. This
kind of collapse might not have been surprising for the Mets or the
Diamondbacks and their octogenarian rosters. But the Astros? The best-run
NL franchise west of Atlanta?

Being a Bit Unlucky

Well, for starters, the rumors of the Astros’ collapse have been greatly
exaggerated. Courtesy of the Astros’ unfathomable 0-12 start in one-run
games (going back to last year, their losing streak actually reached 14, an
NL record), the Astros’ overall record is in no way reflective of the
team’s overall quality, as manifested in their totals of runs scored and
runs allowed:

Team             R   OR   Expected W-L  Actual W-L

Houston 280 283 24-24 18-30 New York (AL) 219 199 25-20 27-18

The Yankees’ differential is only 23 runs better than the Astros, yet their
record is 10 1/2 games better. The Astros have a .375 winning percentage
despite scoring 99% as many runs as they have allowed. No team that has
scored at least 97% as many runs as it has allowed has played worse than
.420 ball for a full season:

Year  Team             R    OR        Record

1924 St. Louis (NL) 740 750 65-89 (.422) 1907 Cincinnati 526 519 66-87 (.431) 1894 Chicago (NL) 1041 1066 57-75 (.432) 1913 Brooklyn 595 613 65-84 (.436) 1983 Chicago (NL) 701 719 71-91 (.438)

You’ll notice that one of those teams, the 1983 Cubs, went on to have a
miracle season the following year. One of Bill James’s all-time great
predictions was his statement that "if I have ever seen a dead
giveaway set-up for a miracle, this is it" a reference to the Cubs in
the 1984 Baseball Abstract. Their place on this list–the fact that
the 1983 Cubs were a much better team than people realized–goes a long way
towards explaining James’s statement. The 1924 Cardinals went on to win a
World Series two years later.

The Bull(!$#%!)pen

All that may bode well for Houston in 2001 and 2002, but right now they
have more pressing matters, like trying to salvage something positive from
this season. And foremost on the Astros’ problem list is their bullpen. We
like to say that a team’s record in one-run games is completely due to
luck, but that’s not entirely accurate: it’s about 90% luck and 10%
bullpen. The Astros have had an awful bullpen.

Last season, Billy Wagner was the best reliever in the league. This
year, he’s…well, not. Any evaluation of the Astros’ bullpen woes has to
start with Wagner and his 5.73 ERA. Billy the Small’s peripheral stats (22
innings, 22 hits, 8 walks, 23 strikeouts and four home runs allowed) are
not nearly as bad as his ERA would suggest, but ultimately, whether Wagner
turns it around has very little to do with his peripheral stats and
everything to do with the soundness of his arm. He claims his arm is
healthy, the Astros claim his arm is healthy, and he is still striking out
more than a man an inning. But the difference between complete health and
an obvious injury is not a sharp line, and if Wagner’s arm is somewhere in
the gray area, he may continue to pitch poorly until an injury announces
its arrival with a little more fanfare.

Flies Can Ruin a Day at the Park

Wagner is not the only culprit. The Astros’ team ERA of 5.54 is the
third-worst in the NL. Enron Field has been blamed for everything short of
the Oilers’ move to Tennessee, but placing all the blame for the Astros’
collapse on their ballpark is terribly simplistic. Still, the idea has some
merit. Consider the groundball/flyball ratios of the Astros’ pitching staff:

Name            G/F (2000) G/F (Career)

Octavio Dotel 0.45 0.80 Billy Wagner 0.69 1.02 Doug Henry 0.70 0.95 Scott Elarton 0.77 0.80 Jay Powell 0.96 1.78 Jose Cabrera 1.07 0.70 Jose Lima 1.10 1.15 Mike Maddux 1.19 1.90 Shane Reynolds 1.51 1.97 Chris Holt 2.00 2.09

By way of comparison, the NL average G/F ratio is 1.25. The Astros, as a
team, have a ratio of 1.02; no other team in baseball is lower than 1.05.

So you take a pitching staff that is by far the most flyball-oriented in
the major leagues–a perfectly reasonable characteristic for a team that
has spent the last 35 years playing in the Astrodome–and you drop that
staff into one of the most homer-friendly parks in baseball? Well, it’s
actually not the same staff. It’s a staff that has replaced Mike
Hampton
(2.38 G/F ratio career), one of the three most extreme
groundball pitchers in baseball, with Dotel, who may be the most extreme
flyball pitcher in baseball.

The result? The Astros have a 4.86 ERA on the road and a 6.23 ERA at home.

Meanwhile, the Astros replaced Carl Everett (1.23 career G/F) with
Roger Cedeno (2.02 career G/F). Some of the Astros’ hitters, like
Jeff Bagwell (0.95) and Richard Hidalgo (0.80) are enjoying
the home-field advantage; Hidalgo has an OPS of over 1150 at home. But
overall, the Astro hitters are taking far less advantage of Enron Field
than their opponents.

Over the last five years, the Astros have been a shining paragon of how to
make sensible baseball decisions. But they made an awful decision when they
decided to do away with the Astrodome’s forgiving dimensions. A ballpark
that distinguishes itself from the other ballparks in the league is an
advantage for the home team, because such a ballpark caters itself to a
specific class of ballplayer. It allows the team to utilize players who are
not particularly suited for other ballparks, like Jose Lima, and who
are not, therefore, perceived to be as valuable on the open market. By
designing a ballpark with dimensions that blend into the sameness of all
ballparks in baseball today, the Astros no longer have an environment that
can convert other teams’ castoffs into useful ballplayers.

It seems terribly unjust that one bad decision–along with a heaping dose
of bad luck–could ruin the Astros’ best-laid plans. But that appears to be
exactly what has happened so far.

Hope

Can they turn it around? Well, you know that bit about seeing something you
had never seen before? The funny thing about baseball is that the game’s
history is long, and it’s so well-recorded that even if you’ve never seen
it before, rest assured it probably happened somewhere. And what’s happened
to the Astros so far this year is eerily similar to the circumstances
encountered by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989.

The Blue Jays, like the Astros, were the best-run team in their division.
They had won a division title in 1985 and led the division by 3 1/2 games
going into the final week of the 1987 season before blowing it. Widely
expected to win the division in 1989, the Blue Jays instead quickly dropped
into the cellar of the AL East, and manager Jimy Williams was fired with
the team 12-24. By the end of May, the Blue Jays’ record was 20-31. Their
closer, Tom Henke, had blown four straight save opportunities at one
point and had an ERA of 7.84 when Williams was fired.

And yet they had been outscored by just two runs, 233 to 231. They were
5-12 in one-run games, the worst one-run record in baseball. And they still
had the core of talent that had made them such a dominant team to begin with.

The Blue Jays did not streak up the standings, but rather marched up with
the momentum of a great team that is finally playing up to its talent
level. They didn’t get over .500 until August 8, but from that point on
they went 33-17, finishing the season with a three-game series at
Baltimore, who trailed them by just one game. The Blue Jays clinched the
division by winning the first two games of the series.

They won both games by one run.

If there’s one compelling reason why the Astros’ chance of making a miracle
run is longer than the Blue Jays’ chance was, it is this: at the end of
May, 1989, only one team in the AL East had a winning record. The Orioles
were 26-22 after losing 107 games the year before. 89 games was enough to
win the AL East in 1989. For the Astros to take the NL Central, they’re
going to have to do more than go 71-43 to finish the season: they’re going
to have to find some way to stop the Cardinals, who are 28-19 and on a pace
to hit 334 homers.

Can it be done? Well, if the Astros continue to lose games like they did
Saturday–trailing by one run in the ninth, they had the bases loaded with
none out and a 3-0 count on Daryle Ward and were still unable to
score the tying run–then no, it can’t. At this point, the Astros need to
think less about coming back and more about damage control. They can’t let
a bizarre turn of events for six weeks cloud their judgment and allow them
to re-think the philosophy that has brought them such rewards over the last
three years.

But the first signs of panic are beginning to emerge. It’s a sign of panic
when Dierker lets Chris Holt throw 137 pitches in a game to preserve
an eight-run lead in the ninth inning, which he did last Tuesday. No
pitcher, not even Randy Johnson had ever thrown that many pitches in
a game under Dierker. It’s a sign of panic when the Astros trade Russ
Johnson
, one of the best backup infielders in the game for Triple-A
roster-filler Marc Valdes.

But as long as the Astros don’t fire Dierker because no one can accept the
idea that there’s nothing wrong with the franchise that time and fortune
won’t cure, they’ll be fine in the long run.

Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.