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:
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:
None 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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
However, beyond that concern, I believe this batting order to be the most efficient use of the current Astros’ roster.