2009 Astros Lineup

In the Astros forums, we’ve been debating a great many things.  Chief among them (other than our desperate need for a #2 starter) are: Who will play catcher?  Who will start at third base?  What will be our batting order?  I’ve been piecing together some analyses, but I’ve yet to sit down and take an objective look at our roster.

Obviously, answering the third question requires answering the first two, so I sought to answer these, as well.  I decided to focus on the outfield situation, too, as I don’t believe Michael Bourn is a solid option in center field at this point in his career.

I took each player’s stats from the past three seasons, at both the major and minor league levels.  Of course, the farther away from the majors you get, the less dependable statistics become.  So what I did was to multiply AAA stats by 75%, AA stats by 60%, A+ stats by 50%, and A, A-, and Rookie ball stats by 40%.  I then averaged out the stats of the past three seasons to come up with my predictions.  This is a somewhat crude method, but hey.  I’m a somewhat crude statistician.

The catcher position features four hopefuls: Veteran Toby Hall, youngster J.R. Towles, returning starter Humberto Quintero, and Rule 5 draftee Lou Palmisano.  Each comes with question marks – Towles was considered a big prospect entering the 2008 season, began the season as the starter, and quickly flamed out.  Palmisano has never played above AA ball, and hasn’t played at the catcher position since 2007, acting as DH last season due to surgery.  Hall is more or less a career backup, and Quintero has not shown an ability to hit consistently.

Their adjusted stats worked out like this:

J.R. Towles’ numbers pop out here.  More home runs, second-highest batting average, highest OBP, SLG, and Total Bases. Palmisano warrants a look, especially because he walks so frequently and Towles strikes out more often.  But it looks like Towles is the clear winner here.

From here, we move on to third base.  The departure of Ty Wigginton left a sizable gap at third base, and there are three contenders for the slot: Veteran Aaron Boone, youngster Chris Johnson, organizational player Mark Saccomanno, and veteran utilityman Geoff Blum, considered by most to be the favorite to win the battle.

Again, I compared the three players’ stats from the past three seasons, adjusted for level and averaged out by season.  This gave me the following look:

third_basemen.JPG

Much to my own surprise, Mark Saccomanno stood out among this group.  Not only did he display the most power, but he also consistently gets on base, largely owing to his ability to draw walks.  He also had the highest batting average of the group.  This kind of plate discipline, combined with his ability to hit for a little power, made him my favorite.  I should admit that, coming in, I thought Boone would be the guy to beat, but I would actually place him third on my list, behind Saccomanno and Johnson (who I believe needs more seasoning at the AAA level, and should be ready to seriously compete next year, if not by the All-Star break.)

This leaves us with the outfield.  Carlos Lee is definitely the starter in left field, and Hunter Pence will certainly be a starter, as well.  He has some flexibility, though, and can play either center or right.

This leaves three outfielders vying for the third spot: Veteran Darin Erstad, who plays all three outfield positions and first base and who proved to be a good left-handed bat off the bench last season; young speedster Michael Bourn, a left-hander who began 2008 as the starter in center, and who proved to be one of the worst leadoff hitters in the league as he struggled mightily at the plate; and Jason Michaels, the veteran free agent who can play all three  outfield positions.

Their stats, when adjusted and averaged out, look like this:

right_fielders.JPGNone of the other three options leap off of the page, but Michaels has shown the ability to hit for a higher average, as well as get on base and hit for power better than Bourn or Erstad.  Bourn has to merit strong consideration, as he’s not far behind Michaels in either of these categories, plus he runs far better, but at the moment I have to give the edge to Jason Michaels.

So that gives us the following starting lineup:

lineup.JPG

Simply looking at this group points out at least one glaring problem – the lack of a left-handed bat.  Aside from Berkman and Matsui, who are switch-hitters, every player in this list is a righty.  For the moment, I’m not going to let that sway me into one solid option: Moving Pence to right and starting left-hander Bourn into center.  For now, at least, I’m going to go with this group.

Batting Order

When determining a batting order, I always start with the #3 and #4 spots, and then build around those.  The third spot should be the team’s best hitter.  This is the guy who will get the third-most at-bats, and should have the majority of the opportunities with runners in scoring position.  The choice here is pretty obvious.  Lance Berkman combines power and average better than anyone else on this team.  This leaves us with the cleanup hitter.

Most teams expect their cleanup hitter to be able to hit for doubles and home runs to capitalize on any scoring opportunities.  The Astros have a player who fits this mold perfectly in left fielder Carlos Lee, who leads the team in doubles, is second behind Berkman in home runs and SLG, and who actually is also second in OBP, which makes him a very promising candidate for the #4 spot (or, more likely, points out the deficiencies found elsewhere in the lineup.)

Leadoff

A good leadoff hitter is a guy who can get on base consistently and run the bases responsibly.  In the current lineup, there are no players who fit this mold.  Even were we to use the speedster Bourn, he does not have a solid OBP.  2B Matsui steals some bases and comes with a nice .286 batting average, but he lacks an ideal on-base percentage.  Towles and Saccomanno actually have better OBPs, but neither is much of a concern on the basepaths.

The best combination of speed and on-base is actually Towles with .355/6 SB/4 CS, but his .265 average is most definitely not ideal.  His high OBP is mostly because of the number of pitches that hit him, as he doesn’t draw walks or hit for average.  For this reason, the best option is likely Matsui, at least until Bourn comes around.

#2 Hitter

Let me start with an admission: I do not believe that there is such a thing as a “productive out.”  This puts me at odds with many baseball fans, which is why I feel the need to tell you up front.  For me, a #2 hitter is one who gets on base himself, and who doesn’t hit into double plays.  Though I try to keep that in mind, OBP
is king here for me. 

This should lead us to Towles, whose .355 on-base percentage is behind only Berkman and Lee, but again I don’t like his low average and walk total.  This leaves Saccomanno and Tejada with their .350 OBP.  Since 2002, Miguel Tejada has only had one season in which he was not have one of the three most double plays grounded into.  In 2008, he had the most by a big margin.  Because I’d rather have a consistent hitter who doesn’t eliminate the leadoff man, allowing the #3 and #4 hitters RBI opportunities even when he doesn’t get on base, I’m going to shy away from Tejada.

That means that my #2 hitter is Mark Saccomanno.

#5 Hitter

The #5 spot is a multi-faceted one.  First, you want someone dangerous enough to keep opposing pitchers honest when facing the cleanup hitter.  You also want him to be able to “cleanup” anything the cleanup hitter hasn’t been able to take care of ahead of him.

When you get to the #5 spot, you become aware that subsequent hitters will be less and less dangerous.  For that reason, someone who gets on base via singles and walks isn’t ideal, as he’s likely to get stranded on base.  The primary job of this hitter is to deliver power.  When choosing this spot, I think OPS is the single-most important statistic.

Hunter Pence is #4 on the team in OPS, behind Berkman, Lee, and Saccomanno.  He’s also fourth in SLG, behind the same three players.  He’s also fourth in batting average, behind Lee, Tejada, and Berkman.  It seems pretty obvious that he should be the #5 hitter.

#6 Hitter

When rating the “10 worst number 6 hitters since 1957“, the Hardball Times came up with possibly the best description of the number six hitter I’ve ever come across: “The great majority of the time, the guy batting sixth is simply the least bad of the remaining hitters.”

They also go on to point out that most teams will get solid at-bats from their third and fourth slots, as well as some pretty good ones from their fifth slot, the #6 hitter is usually a pretty good indication of their offensive run production. 

If that’s true, then the Astros offense may not be in complete jeopardy, as Miguel Tejada is a pretty easy projection here at #6.  Second on the team with a .304 batting average, Tejada also provides some power with 19 home runs and a .454 SLG.  He’s no longer an elite power hitter, but he is still a great option to have this low in the order.

#7 and #8 Hitters

The #7 hitter is generally thought of as the guy who isn’t as bad as the #8 hitter.  His job description, really, is “don’t suck.”  The two players we have left are J.R. Towles, the catcher, and Jason Michaels, the right fielder.  Obviously, we want the guy who will stink up the field less.  It’s ideal if he can also stretch a single into a double.  This way, the #8 hitter can end up with a single and score a runner, rather than relying on an extra base hit.

Once again, I turn to OPS, as this gives us a better indication of the ability to get on-base and hit for extra bases.  With a .791 OPS to Michaels’ .702, Towles is a significantly better candidate here.  For this reason, I put him in at #7 and Michaels at #8. 

This leaves our batting order as this:

batting_order.JPG

I really don’t like the weightedness towards right-handers, but even if Bourn was inserted into center field, that would only change the #8 – maybe the #7 – spot.  This would still give us a lot of right handers. 

However, beyond that concern, I believe this batting order to be the most efficient use of the current Astros’ roster.

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4 comments

  1. renaudtn

    Another good post!
    I like your approach of 75/60/40% for minor league at bats.
    Saccomano does seem to be a serious candidate for a spot on the 25 men roster. However, after what happened to Pence during spring training 2007 when he hit so well but was sent to AAA anyway, my guess is Saccomano will suffer the same fate. He’ll be called up later in the season.
    I can’t wait for spring training to start. I’m really curious to see if all the predictions turn out to be accurate.

  2. roundrock15

    The difference between the two is that Pence was 24 and had never played in the majors. Saccomanno will be 29 and has some time in the majors, if only 10 at-bats. That, and Pence was auditioning for Phil Garner and Tim Purpura. Saccomanno is auditioning for Cecil Cooper and Ed Wade. If that does happen, and Mark is sent down, Boone and Blum will likely platoon at third base, which greatly improves the defense and diminishes the offense.

  3. renaudtn

    Very good point RR15. I didn’t think about that…
    See i’m still very green behind the ears when it comes to analysing baseball.
    I know you’re big on Saccomanno. I would like to see him at third with Blum this year myself; I’m not estatic about Boone…really not.
    Now, what will happen if Johnson and Saccomano finish spring training with big numbers? we can’t carry 4 3rd base.

  4. roundrock15

    In that case, I think Johnson still starts the season at Round Rock. But more importantly, I think so does Boone. I actually see the position players on the five man roster as:

    C: J. Towles, H. Quintero
    1B: L. Berkman
    2B: K. Matsui, D. Newhan
    SS: M. Tejada
    3B: M. Saccomanno, G. Blum
    LF: C. Lee
    CF: H. Pence, M. Bourn
    RF: J. Michaels, D. Erstad

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