Yesterday, the Astros announced the signing of Carlos Pena. Pena is expected to play first base and DH for the Astros. In a corresponding move, Mickey Storey was designated for assignment to clear room on the 40-man roster. Storey has been the bubble man this year, getting claimed off waivers by the Yankees and then, when the Yankees waived him, re-claimed by the Astros.
The Astros have been linked to Lance Berkman as a possible DH, and he may in fact still be in play, but the signing of Pena seems to have tabled the discussion, at least for now.
This leaves the roles of Brett Wallace and Nate Freiman immediately in question, as well as Jonathan Singleton, if and when he gets called up in 2013 (I believe his arbitration clock will be delayed and we won’t see him until June or even July.
Pena struggled last season with the Rays, batting just .197, though he did draw a hefty number of walks and hit 19 home runs. Historically, he’s been something of a Three True Outcomes kind of a guy.
But are his 2012 struggles behind him?
Bill James projects Pena to hit 209/340/408 in 2013, but James’ predictions are well-known for their sheer optimism. If it’s optimistic to expect Pena to hit just above the Mendoza line (albeit with 24 home runs and a 15.2% walk rate), should we as Astros fans be worried?
First, a table:
Most of the numbers are right in line with where you expect Carlos Pena to be, with a few things jumping off the page at you. Notably, his Z-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at inside the zone), which fell from 71.6% to 67.4%, his HR/FB rate (the home run to fly ball ratio), which jumped from 4.3% to 6.9%, his IFFB% (infield fly ball percentage), which jumped from 10.1% to 16.5%, and his IFH% (infield hits), which jumped from 4.3% to 6.9%.
Pena had 600 plate appearances in 2012, so we’re not really dealing with sample size issues here. So we have a pretty good idea of what Pena was doing in 2012. The picture appears to be of someone who’s perhaps a little too patient at the plate: Taking strikes in the zone, waiting for his pitch, and either A) not getting it, or B) putting it in the infield, rather than over the wall, once he gets it.
Now, some good news:
Those are Pena’s 19 home runs from 2012, with an overlay of Minute Maid Park. He’s a left-handed pull hitter who sprays a couple of shots to center field. Only one wouldn’t have left MMP, with another one questionable. Still, those seventeen home runs would have put him second on the Astros in 2012.
This signing accomplishes a few things:
1) At $2.9m plus incentives, it’s a relatively low-cost insurance policy for Wallace and Freiman at first base and DH.
2) At $2.9m plus incentives, no one’s going to feel bad sitting Pena to make room for Jonathan Singleton when he gets called up.
3) Pena has a reputation as a solid clubhouse guy, and may do very well for the youngsters on the squad.
4) Pena can be counted on to walk about 15% of the time. This kind of patience may rub off on the youngsters, and should help burn through starters.
5) Pena has a reputation as a solid defensive first baseman, with a UZR/150 of 4.2 in 2012.
6) If he has a good first half, when Singleton gets called up, it’s conceivable that Pena could be flipped to a contender for pieces. If he doesn’t, no big deal. He’s only making $2.9m.
And another thing to pay attention to:
They say it takes five years before you can truly evaluate a trade.
The 2007 season was an important one in the history of the Houston Astros. It brought the end of Tim Purpura’s tenure as general manager, and the beginning of the Ed Wade regime. It brought the beginning of the Carlos Lee era.
And then there’s Travis Phelps. More on that later.
Below is a list of the transactions between the end of the 2006 season and the beginning of the 2008 season, with just enough analysis to make it not completely boring.
October 15, 2006
The Astros had just finished the season, going 82-80, second in the NL Central by a game and a half. They’d won nine in a row and ten out of eleven to move to within a half game of the St. Louis Cardinals, who would go on to beat the Tigers four games to one in the World Series, but Houston lost two out of three to the Braves to end the season out of the playoff picture.
Definitely a disappointing season after Houston’s 2005 World Series appearance, but hopes were still high that they were within striking distance of another National League crown. This had the potential to be a very big offseason, and indeed some big things happened. But before big things can happen in any offseason, first little things have to happen. And on October 15, 2006, those little things involved letting players depart via free agency.
Those players included Travis Driskill, Mike Gallo, Jesse Garcia, Carlos Hernandez, J.R. House, Joe McEwing, Eric Munson, Jailen Peguero, Tike Redman, Walter Young, Alan Zinter, and Brian Gordon.
Travis Driskill – Driskill put together a couple of nice seasons early in his career with Baltimore and Colorado, and his one relief appearance in 2005 may have qualified his as the greatest Small Sample Size (SSS) player on the roster: 1 IP, 2 K, 0 ER, 0 H, 0 BB. He had a FIP of -0.98. That’s negative 0.98. I’m gonna be honest here and admit that I didn’t know a negative FIP was even possible. He had a pretty good year in AAA for the Astros in 2006, striking out over 8 batters per 9 IP, walking fewer than 2 per 9 IP, and finishing 4-8 with a 3.20 ERA.
Mike Gallo – 2006 was the end of Gallo’s miserable four-year run as an Astro. In 116 innings since 2003, he’d walked (3.65/9) almost as many as he’d struck out (5.35/9), going 4-3 with a 4.11 ERA, which actually out-performed his FIP (5.49) by a fairly wide margin.
Jesse Garcia – After a less-than-stellar career with the Orioles, Braves, and Padres, Garcia spent the 2006 with the Astros organization in AAA, where he posted a walk rate under 3% and slugged just .392, with a 72 wRC+.
Carlos Hernandez – Hernandez began his career with the Astros in 2001, and by the end of 2004, he’d thrown 170.2 innings in 35 games (33 starts). But in 2006, he only managed 14 innings for Corpus Christi, walking 10.3 per 9 innings.
J.R. House – House began his career in Pittsburgh, where he was ranked as high as the #21 prospect in all of baseball in 2001. He was signed by the Astros as a free agent prior to the 2006 season. He had a stellar year between Corpus Christi and Round Rock, but went 0-9 with 2 strikeouts in his limited time in the big leagues.
Joe McEwing – McEwing was a good-not-great super utility man for the Mets, Cardinals, and Royals before the Astros purchased him from Kansas City before the 2006 season. He spent the majority of the season mashing in Round Rock, with just 6 appearances at the major league level.
Eric Munson – The third overall pick in the 1999 draft, Munson had played pretty unspectacularly for the Tigers and Devil Rays before signing with Houston as a free agent. He finished 2006 under the Mendoza line, hitting 199/269/348 with 5 home runs and 19 RBI. Though dreadfully unlucky (.219) in BABIP, he didn’t help himself with his walk (7.1%) and strikeout (20.5%) rates.
Jailen Peguero – An amateur free agent, signed by the Astros out of the Dominican Republic in 2000, Peguero never rose above the AAA level in Houston, though he would later go on to pitch 24 mediocre innings for Arizona in 2007 and 2008.
Tike Redman – Signed as a free agent after being released by the Tigers during the 2006 season, Redman had 121 nice plate appearances in Corpus Christi, with a .366 wOBA, but couldn’t find a spot on the big league roster, perhaps owing to his reputation as a poor defender (he’d led the league in errors by a CF in 2005 for Pittsburgh.)
Walter Young – Young hit 277/309/410 in 366 plate appearances in Corpus Christi after being released by the Padres, but never moved up to Round Rock.
Alan Zinter – A former first rounder (24th overall) by the Mets, Zinter was a journeyman minor leaguer long before arriving Houston, having played in the Mets, Tigers, Red Sox, Mariners, Cubs, and Diamondbacks systems before joining the Astros. It was his second stint with Houston, who’d actually given him 44 of his 84 big league plate appearances, back in 2002.
Brian Gordon – Gordon was drafted out of Round Rock High School, and showed nice peripherals in the minors, but could never manage to stay healthy.
ANALYSIS: This is so early in the offseason that none of these moves can exactly be analyzed yet. Several of the players on this list did, in fact, come back and play for the Astros in 2007. Of those who didn’t, not much was given up. Redman was worth 0.2 wins for Baltimore in 2007, but he’s offset by Jailen Peguero, who lost 0.2 wins with Arizona. House was worth 0.1 wins in 2007 for Baltimore. So we’ve got a NET LOSS of 0.1 wins. Hardly worth mentioning.
October 30, 2006
The Astros let Russ Springer depart via free agency. A piece of the pennant-winning 2005 team, Springer was an extreme (60.5%) flyball pitcher with a tendency towards allowing home runs. He threw 59.2 innings in 2006, going 1-1 with 46 K, 16 BB, 1.039 WHIP, and 3.47 ERA.
ANALYSIS: Springer pitched 116.1 innings over the next two seasons for the Cardinals, going 10-2 with a FIP near 3 and a hefty strikeout total. His HR/9 total dropped from 1.51 to 0.41, owing largely to playing in a park where flyballs didn’t leave quite as frequently. He was worth 1.7 wins over his two seasons in St. Louis, with 1.2 of them coming in 2007. So, a NET LOSS of 1.2 wins.
October 31, 2006
Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, and Aubrey Huff departed via free agency. Don’t worry, future Hall of Famer Biggio would be back for one final season.
Huff had come over mid-season in a trade with the Devil Rays for Mitch Talbot and Ben Zobrist. It’s a good thing we’re not analyzing that trade, which was a giant loss for the Astros. He hit 250/341/478 for the Astros down the stretch, but poor fielding and baserunning gave him replacement value. Clemens had gone 38-18 with a 2.40 ERA in three seasons in Houston, striking out 505 batters in 539 innings while walking just 101. He won a Cy Young Award in 2004 (his 7th) and finished in the top three in 2005, but 2006 had been a bit of a struggle for him, and all signs pointed toward him heading into retirement.
ANALYSIS: Huff signed with the Orioles for three seasons, and was worth 1 win in 2007. In 2007, he was worth four times as many. After struggling through the first half of 2009, he was traded to the Tigers for Brett Jacobson, who never advanced past the AA level. Clemens pitched for the Yankees in 2007, going 6-6 with a 4.14 FIP. He was worth 1.8 wins. For the 2007 season, this is a NET LOSS of 2.8 wins in 2007.
November 6, 2006
Andy Pettitte departed through free agency. Something of a foregone conclusion after the loss of Clemens, Pettitte had gone 37-26 over three seasons in Houston, with a 3.38 ERA. He’d been worth 3.5 wins in 2006.
ANALYSIS: Pettitte went back to the Yankees in 2007, where he’s pitched ever since. 2007 shows a NET LOSS of 4.5 wins, as he went 15-9 with a 3.87 FIP for the Bombers.
November 10, 2006
Free agent Craig Biggio re-signed. Biggio came back for one final season, in which he hit a pretty lackluster 251/285/381, but he collected his 3,000th hit and solidified his Cooperstown credentials.
November 15, 2006
Free agent middle infielder Jesse Garcia re-signed.
November 24, 2006
Free agent outfielder Carlos Lee and free agent pitcher Woody Williams signed .
Lee had been a powerhouse for the White Sox, Brewers, and Rangers, and was signed by Houston to provide pop from the cleanup spot.
Williams was brought in to plug up the rotation with the departure of Clemens and Pettitte. An effective pitcher for the Blue Jays, Padres, and Cardinals, Williams’ tenure in Houston was less successful.
ANALYSIS: Williams struggled in Houston, going 8-15 with a 5.27 ERA through 33 games (31 starts). He was worth -0.1 wins. It’s hard to argue with the Lee signing, as – aside from a subpar 2010 in which his defense negated his 246/291/417 line – he consistently provided positive value. He was worth 10.7 runs over the next 5.5 seasons (at about $9.3m per win). Specifically for 2007, these two signings showed a NET GAIN of 3.3 wins, with Lee offsetting Williams’ negative value.
However, signing Lee forced the Astros to surrender their first round pick (17th overall) to the Texas Rangers. The Rangers used this pick to select Blake Beavan, who they later traded to the Mariners (with Matthew Lawson, Justin Smoak, and Josh Lueke) for Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe.
Lee played the remainder of the season in Texas and then was signed by the Phillies, giving Texas two more draft picks in 2011, which they used to select Kevin Matthews and Zach Cone. Cone, in particular, looks like a win so far for Texas. He hit 262/326/421 in A-ball in 2012 (115 wRC+) and, if he can learn a little more patience at the plate, could eventually prove to be a solid center fielder in the big leagues.
For his part, Lowe has provided 0.4 wins over the past two seasons for Texas.
Losing the first round pick carries its own unique set of hardships, but since we’re evaluating the 2007 season, we’ll stick with the net gain of 3.3 wins.
December 12, 2006
And away we go. Perhaps believing – somehow – that Woody Williams alone wasn’t quite enough to plug up the loss of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, GM Tim Purpura decided to pull the trigger on a trade: Taylor Buchholz, Jason Hirsh, and Willy Taveras to the Colorado Rockies for Miguel Asencio and Jason Jennings.
Whatever Buchholz’s emotional shortcomings may have been (and they certainly may have been), he’d been a pleasant surprise for the Astros in their 2006 campaign. Though he’d gone just 6-10 with a 5.18 FIP, worth 0.4 wins. Nothing to write home about, but his future looked promising enough.
Jason Hirsh had shown command and control problems in his own rookie campaign in 2006, walking 4.43 batters per 9 innings and allowing 2.22 home runs per 9. An extreme flyball pitcher (69.9%), he didn’t fit the profile of a MMP pitcher. But he certainly didn’t fit the profile of a Coors Field pitcher, either.
Taveras was one of those frustrating leadoff hitters, all speed with no on-base skills. He drew just a 5.8% walk rate in 2006, with a wRC+ of 72, but saved 20.3 runs in center field and stole 33 bases. He’d boasted a .333 OBP, aided largely by his insane 42.9% bunt hit percentage.
Asencio had shown some early promise in Colorado, generating lots of groundballs, but could never quite command the strike zone.
Jennings was the real keystone of this piece for Houston. The 2002 NL Rookie of the Year had built a solid reputation in Colorado, going 58-56 with a 98 ERA+. Though he’d gone just 9-13 in 2006, he’d posted career-low ERA (3.78) and WHIP (1.373) totals.
ANALYSIS: For all the buzz that this trade generated, it was more or less a wash. Asencio spent 2007 struggling in the Astros’ minor league system, while Jennings generated the highest flyball percentage (64.8%) and HR/9 (1.73) of his career to date. He went 2-9 through just 18 starts, with a FIP of 5.39 and just 0.2 WAR.
On the other side of the trade, Taveras was worth a career-high 1.1 wins in 2007. Hirsh provided 0.9 wins of his own, going 5-7 with a 4.81 ERA, and Buchholz was worth 1.7 wins in 2007, limiting the long ball and the free passes. Overall, this was a NET LOSS of 3.5 wins for the Astros in 2007.
January 4, 2007
The first transaction of the new year saw the Astros re-sign free agent Eric Munson, as well as signing free agent Kevin Walker, who’d been lackluster for the Padres, Giants, and White Sox. Walker never pitched a big league inning for the Astros.
January 5, 2007
The Astros signed free agent Ray Sadler, who’d shown promise in Pittsburgh, but never materialized on the Astros’ big league roster.
January 8, 2007
The Astros signed free agent Mark Loretta. This was Loretta’s second stint with the Astros, having played 21 games for them during the 2002 season. But mostly, he’d been with the Brewers, Padres, and Red Sox. He was an infielder with good on-base skills and a little power, but not a ton in the way of defensive ability. He performed as expected for the Astros, going 287/352/372 in 2007, for a NET GAIN of 1.3 wins.
January 10, 2007
The Astros re-signed free agent Travis Driskill.
January 16, 2007
The Astros signed free agent Travis Phelps, albeit not for the last time during this offseason. They also signed free agent left-hander Steve Randolph. Phelps would not play in the majors for Houston. Randolph, on the other hand, pitched 13.1 innings. He struck out 22 batters in that time (14.85/9), but walked 17 (11.48/9) and gave up 18 earned runs, 21 hits, and 4 home runs. He ended the season 0-1 with a 12.15 ERA and a 2.850 WHIP, providing a NET LOSS of 0.4 wins in the process. Pretty impressive for 13.1 innings.
January 17, 2007
The Astros signed free agent infielder Danny Klassen.
January 18, 2007
The Astros signed free agent outfielder Todd Self.
January 19, 2007
The Astros signed free agent outfielder Tim Raines. Not that Tim Raines.
January 27, 2007
The Astros signed free agent pitcher Brian Moehler. This was Moehler’s second stint with the Astros (he’d thrown 13.2 innings in 2003 for Houston). He’d established himself as a capable pitcher with Detroit, Cincinnati, and Florida. Someone who could pitch out of the bullpen or as a starter. This was a fairly low-key signing, but Moehler would prove to be quite an asset for Houston in 2008, going 11-8 with a 4.57 FIP. In 2007, though, he was a replacement-level pitcher.
January 31, 2007
The Astros re-signed free agent Brian Gordon.
Februrary 2, 2007
The Astros signed veteran lefty Scott Sauerbeck and righty Rick White. Sauerbeck would not pitch at the big league level for the Astros, but White did end up contributing 29.1 miserable innings in 2007, with a NET LOSS of 0.3 wins.
March 2, 2007
The Astros signed free agent outfielder Barry Wesson.
March 6, 2007
The Astros signed international free agent Jose Altuve. Though he wouldn’t begin contributing until 2011, the diminutive seventeen-year-old infielder may have been the second-best signing of the offseason. An All-Star in 2012, he’s been worth 2.1 wins in roughly a season and a half in Houston. Still, for the 2007 season, he’s a wash.
March 26, 2007
The Astros claimed Ezequiel Astacio off waivers from the Rangers. Though he’d pitched before in Houston, Astacio would not re-surface on their roster in 2007 or beyond.
Purpura also pulled off a low-profile trade, sending Wade Robinson to the Nationals for Danny Ardoin. Robinson struggled at the AA-level before Washington cut him, and Ardoin never made it to the big leagues for Houston, despite appearances in the past for Minnesota, Texas, Colorado, and Baltimore.
March 27, 2007
The Astros released Travis Phelps. Poor guy.
March 30, 2007
The Astros released Charlton Jimerson. Jimerson had gone 247/287/445 for Houston’s AAA club in 2006, and had even contributed 0.1 wins for the big league club. After he was released, the Mariners signed him. Though he only had two plate appearances for Seattle in 2007, one of them resulted in a home run, for an impressive (on paper) line of 1000/1000/2500, 1.448 wOBA, 848 wRC+. He also flashed a good glove and stole two bases in his limited time for the Mariners, worth a NET LOSS to Houston of 0.2 wins.
This would be the final move of Spring Training before the Astros began the 2007 season. The dates, moving forward, will have the Astros’ record for the sake of reference.
April 3, 2007 (0-2, t-5th NL Central)
The Astros released Kevin Walker.
April 27, 2007 (9-13, t-5th NL Central)
The Astros signed Travis Phelps. Hey, welcome back!
May 20, 2007 (21-22, 2nd NL Central)
The Astros released Travis Phelps. Oh, hey, never mind.
June 7, 2007 (24-35, 5th NL Central)
The 2007 Rule 4 Draft was, more or less, an unmitigated disaster for Houston. They didn’t select until 111th overall. In total, they selected 42 players, only one of whom ever played in the major leagues. That one, Robbie Weinhardt, was drafted in the 38th round. He didn’t sign. In 2008, Tigers drafted him in the 10th round, and he’s contributed 0.4 wins for them
The small amount of upside is that they were able to flip 10th-rounder Matt Cusick to the Yankees for LaTroy Hawkins, who would go on to be worth 1.1 wins for Houston, but not until the 2008 season.
11th-rounder Robert Bono was part of the package sent to Florida for Matt Lindstrom in 2010. Lindstrom was worth 0.3 wins that season, and was later sent to Colorado for Jonnathan Aristil and Wes Musick, both of whom pitched in Oklahoma City in 2012.
June 12, 2007 (27-37, 4th NL Central)
The Astros signed veteran free agent pitcher Chan Ho Park. Park would not end up pitching in the majors for Houston, though he would have a productive year two years later for Philadelphia.
June 19, 2007 (31-40, 5th NL Central)
The Astros released Scott Sauerbeck.
June 28, 2007 (33-46, 5th NL Central)
The Astros released Rick White.
July 28, 2007 (46-58, 4th NL Central)
Despite being ten and a half games out of first place, Purpura still believed Houston had a shot, owing largely to the reputation the Astros had put together of being a “second-half team.” It was the pressure to make a push for the postseason, no doubt, that prompted him to trade Dan Wheeler to Tampa Bay for Ty Wigginton.
At the time, this felt very similar to the deal that sent Talbot and Zobrist to Tampa for Aubrey Huff. Huff and Wigginton were both part-time rentals from Tampa Bay. They both played third base. They both had some power. In reality, though, this trade hurt Houston far less. Wigginton turned in a career-best 3.1 WAR in 2008, limiting his defensive liabilities. In just 187 plate appearances in Houston in 2007, he went 284/342/462 and was worth 0.8 wins.
Wheeler had been a key piece of the Houston bullpen in 2005 and 2006, and had been moderately less effective in 2007. He never again matched his 05/06 peak, finishing the season with 0.3 WAR for Tampa, but contributing 0.3 more over the following three seasons combined. This resulted in a NET GAIN of 0.5 wins for Houston in 2007.
July 31, 2007 (46-60, 4th NL Central)
Wigginton’s signing made it pretty clear that Morgan Ensberg’s days in Houston were done. Ensberg had been electric during the 2005 season, with 6.5 WAR, and another 3.8 in 2006. But he struggled in 2007, both in the field and at the plate, and was responsible for -0.5 WAR. He rebounded slightly after being traded to San Diego for cash considerations. This move resulted in a NET LOSS of 0.5 wins.
August 22, 2007 (57-70, 4th NL Central)
Danny Ardoin was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for cash considerations.
September 11, 2007 (63-81, 6th NL Central)
The Astros purchased Dennis Sarfate from the Brewers.
September 20, 2007 (67-86, 5th NL Central)
Ed Wade was hired as the general manager of the Houston Astros.
September 24, 2007 (68-88, 5th NL Central)
Wade’s first move as GM is to ship Jason Lane off to San Diego for nothing. Lane, once one of the Astros’ most highly-touted prospects, floundered at the Major League level, and in 2007 he was worth -0.5 WAR. Even after the trade, he resulted in a NET GAIN of 0.1 WAR. He’s currently trying to rebuild his career as a pitcher.
Altogether, a net loss of a little over 7 wins. The 2006 Astros had won 82 games; eight fewer puts them at 74. Though they actually only won 68 games, Pythagoras had them good enough for 72. Between expected regression, a few bad bounces, and personnel decisions, two games of variance isn’t too bad for this experiment.
The Chicago Cubs won the NL Central in 2007 with 85 wins, or roughly the cost of trading pieces for Jason Jennings and not replacing Andy Pettitte’s value.
Because I live in Los Angeles, California, I spend a lot of time during the baseball season at Dodger Stadium. An interesting thing happens at Dodger Stadium that doesn’t happen at any other Major League ballpark. Well, a lot of things happen at Dodger Stadium that don’t happen at any other Major League ballpark. For instance, attempted homicide in the parking lot.
But what I’m referring to in this entry is that every time a fly ball is hit in Dodger Stadium, everyone stands up and cranes their neck to watch the ball’s flight. Well, not everyone. 40% of the Dodger Stadium crowd is, at any given point during a game, fixated on one of three hundred beach balls being batted around the stadium (they are not all fixated on this because they enjoy it; it’s also a legitimate safety concern for fans of visiting teams. I’ve been the victim of attempted beach ball assault on more than one occasion). But of the remaining 60%, a very large number stand up to watch every fly ball.
Every fly ball. It could be a pop-up to the catcher behind the plate. People will stand up. It could be a long, graceful foul ball that lands somewhere near Vin Scully. People will stand up. It could be a high, looping fly-out to the shortstop. People will stand up. People will stand up because in a city like Los Angeles, at any given time, there are fifty-seven things more interesting than watching the Dodgers. But even in a city like Los Angeles, home runs are one thing people understand and want to see.
What makes this behavior particularly odd is that fly balls don’t generally turn into home runs at Dodger Stadium. In 2012, 1.56 home runs per game were hit in Dodger Stadium. That’s the sixth-least of any stadium in Major League Baseball. In fact, every year since 2006 – when the ESPN Home Run Tracker was created – Dodger Stadium has been ranked as one of the top ten home run-suppressing stadiums in baseball.
Minute Maid Park, of course, has the opposite reputation. It’s known as a hitter-friendly park. One that encourages home runs. At least, that’s the reputation.
But in looking at the Home Run Tracker, something interesting pops up. Though it’s true that from 2006 – 2008, Minute Maid Park ranked among the top ten parks in home run rate, since then it has normalized, and in fact it’s currently listed as a fairly neutral park. In fact, the hitter’s advantage that MMP has been known for since its inaugural season of 2000 may not be such an advantage, after all.
Minute Maid Park Park Factors By Year (Batting)
After four seasons, Minute Maid Park stabilized and has been more or less a neutral park ever since. But whatever the offensive environment in Minute Maid Park, it’s been more or less understood that it allows more home runs – and fewer beach balls – than Dodger Stadium. Since 2006, an average of .43 fewer home runs a game per season. Over 81 home games, that’s almost 35 fewer home runs per season.
Which makes it even more puzzling what happened in 2010. In 2010, Minute Maid Park allowed just 1.59 home runs per game. Dodger Stadium allowed 1.62. One’s first instinct is to write this off as a bad offensive team, which isn’t entirely untrue, but remember that this covers visiting teams, as well. And as you can see, visiting teams didn’t exactly knock the ball out of Minute Maid Park, either (I include the Astros’ road splits for context):
|Year||Home SLG||Road SLG||Visitors SLG|
Astros’ hitters lost 43 points of SLG from 2009-2010 at Minute Maid Park, compared to 34 on the road. But visiting hitters lost 44 points themselves, only to completely rebound the following season.
A look at GB/FB rates doesn’t provide any answers:
|Year||GB/FB||Home GB/FB||Visitors GB/FB|
Looking at home runs per fly ball yields some interesting results, however.
|Year||HR/FB||Home HR/FB||Visitors HR/FB|
The Astros’ HR/FB rates tumbled in 2010 – down 2.4% from 2009 overall, but actually up almost 2% at home. Conversely, however, visitors in Minute Maid Park only saw 8.4% of their fly balls leave the yard – a 2.7% reduction.
So what happened in 2010 that kept fly balls from leaving the stadium, for both the visitors and for the home team? I don’t see any evidence of a physical change that the stadium encountered that would have resulted in this.
One possible theory I can come up with is that Prince Fielder – who crushed the ball in Minute Maid Park – had a down year in 2010. Fielder slugged just .200 in Minute Maid Park in that season, far down from his career .627 (not a typo) slugging percentage there. Is it possible that his power slump in Houston was able to change the run environment that much? It seems unlikely. But something happened that year.
Yesterday, my colleague over at Crawfish Boxes, David Coleman, posted his “Three Astros Things.”
One of the Astros things was actually a Rangers thing:
They lost out on Zach [sic] Greinke. They lost out on James Shields. What’s left for the Rangers?
Well, it appears our enemies to the north will try to load up on every other player they can. There’s talk that they may re-sign Josh Hamilton. There’s talk they may push through the Justin Upton trade. They may go after Michael Bourn, Anibal Sanchez, or any number of other players.
But, what if they don’t get anything? How much will the Rangers be hurt if they stand pat? It almost seems like they may be better off not making these moves. They need to replace Josh Hamilton’s offense, but adding Mike Olt may replace some of that offense, right?
Plus, they’d lose draft picks if they have to sign too many big-ticket free agents, which hurts the team down the road. In an Upton trade, they also would have to give up either Andrus or Profar.
I guess the question is are the Rangers good enough to contend without making a splashy move or can they still win the AL West with the team they have now?
My response will be longer than I’d feel comfortable posting in their comments section, so allow me to devote my own article to answering his article.
The usual caveats apply here – since I’ll be spending a lot of energy talking about WAR. WAR is a nice tool, but it’s not the only tool, and it’s certainly not the best predictive tool. But it does put us in the ballpark of a player’s value, so I’ll be using it as a catch-all throughout this article.
I think that, to answer this question, you first have to answer three other questions. Namely:
1. Were the 2012 Oakland Athletics a fluke?
It’s impossible to talk about the Rangers winning or losing the AL West without considering the team that did win the AL West in 2012, the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics seemed to overcome all odds in winning their division, despite having the second-lowest Opening Day payroll in all of baseball. They were built on youth without long major league track records: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Chris Carter, Derek Norris, and Collin Cowgill were all rookie position players who were worth more than replacement value. Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, A.J. Griffin, Travis Blackley, Evan Scribner, and Jordan Norberto were all rookie pitchers who did the same.
Pythagoras only put the 2012 Athletics two wins behind their actual performance. Then again, the Rangers only finished one game behind the Athletics in 2012, so I think it’s safe to call that a toss-up. For all intents and purposes, the Rangers and Athletics were equally good in 2012. You could point at any of a number of reasons why the A’s may have a sophomore slump in 2013, or why an additional year of playing together – with postseason experience – could make them play even better. Obviously, it could go either way. But there’s no compelling reason, at this time, to assume that Oakland won’t be in the mix in September and October 2013.
One problem with a young team is trying to define regression to the mean, since they are currently in the process of establishing the mean. As a result, I have no reason to think that the 2013 Athletics will be significantly worse than the 2012 Athletics.
Additionally, the Angels and Mariners could easily improve next season, putting added pressure on Texas to make a move. Or so it would seem.
2. What have the Rangers lost since 2012, and can they replace it?
Since the end of the 2012 season, Texas has lost 11 players with relevant (read: within the last three seasons) Major League experience, and they’ve gained 11 players with relevant Major League experience.
Using a 5/3/2 regression on incoming players, and 2012 rates for outgoing players:
Between Feldman, Napoli, Hamilton, Dempster, and Adams, the Rangers have lost a significant amount to Free Agency this winter. The Geovany Soto “gain” is actually a wash, as Soto was also on the roster in 2012. All told, the Rangers have lost approximately 12 wins from 2012. Prospects, such as Mike Olt, Jurickson Profar, and Leonys Martin, might make up some of the difference, but it’s unlikely they’ll make up all of it. Sure, Mike Trout had 10.0 WAR in his second rookie season of 2012, but counting on 13 wins from a trio of rookies isn’t the best idea in the world.
I would pencil the trio in for somewhere between 4-8 WAR in 2013. We’ll split the difference and call it 6.0. That leaves the Rangers with a 7-win differential from 2012, and an 8-win differential from the 2012 Athletics.
3. What, exactly, constitutes a “flashy signing”?
8 wins is a lot. 8 wins is Buster Posey. Heck, James Shields and Zack Greinke combined would be just over 9 wins. Re-signing Josh Hamilton would eliminate the loss of just 4 wins, and it seems to me that re-signing Hamilton might be a losing proposition. Not only did the Rangers make it clear that Greinke was Option 1 over Hamilton, but they also seem to have downplayed his contributions to an extreme. If I was Josh Hamilton (and let’s make it very clear here that I am not Josh Hamilton), I would look for a payday elsewhere.
But what’s interesting is that re-signing Ryan Dempster would bring the Rangers almost as close as re-signing Hamilton would. Of course, if Dempster’s agent is to be believed, Dempster would rather go to an NL team with Spring Training in Arizona (that’s the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Reds, Rockies, Dodgers, Brewers, Padres, and Giants, incidentally).
Dempster might not be as flashy as Hamilton, but he brings you almost as close to making up the win-differential from 2012 to 2013. After that, it’s a matter of “finding” around 5 wins. Now we’re in Michael Bourn/Justin Upton territory. But, heck, now we’re in Jimmy Rollins territory, too. Or Miguel Montero territory. It’s a lot easier to find 5 wins than it is to try and land one big free agent who can bridge the gap by themselves.
In short, I think a couple of non-flashy signings might benefit the Rangers at least as much as a big signing would. Anibal Sanchez has never been worth as many as 4.5 wins. Michael Bourn is coming off a personal-best 6.4, but he has a skillset that deteriorates with age.
I think a flashy signing might look nice to the fans in Arlington, but I have no reason to think that it’s the best thing the Rangers could do to stay competitive. They’d almost be better off letting the prospects play and trying to catch lightning in a bottle the way Oakland did in 2012.
Of course, there’s a reason why Oakland is Oakland, and why Texas is Texas. And I’d certainly never say that a team who has appeared in back-to-back World Series recently has any sort of a flawed method. But I do have to think that rushing out and signing a free agent just to sign a free agent isn’t the best thing the Rangers could do for themselves right now.
Because I live in Los Angeles, many of the conversations I have about baseball involve, in some way, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I almost never blog about other teams here, but I feel compelled to write a bit about the Dodgers’ offseason.
The Dodgers used to be owned by a man named Frank McCourt, who by all accounts horribly mismanaged the team and put a disappointing product on the field. In 2012, however, the team was bought by Guggenheim Partners.
Entering the 2013 season, Guggenheim has already changed the landscape of baseball in the Southland. Far from stingy, they are now being accused of throwing money at free agents. With the Yankees looking to reduce payroll to get under the luxury tax threshold by 2014, the Dodgers are quickly taking their place as the free spenders of merit.
(Incidentally, it’s extremely interesting to watch people get mad at the Dodgers for spending money, while simultaneously getting mad at the Yankees for not spending money.)
With the recent signings of Zack Greinke ($147mm) and Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu ($36mm), the blogosphere is alive with talk of the 2013 Dodgers and their free-spending ways.
The 2013 Dodgers could have the highest payroll in history. The 2013 Dodgers could have a luxury tax penalty higher than most teams’ entire payrolls.
These sorts of enormous signings, usually done by east coast junior circuit teams, always seem to raise a lot of questions. Namely: Do free-spending teams ruin baseball, and Can you buy a championship?
The short answer for both is: No. Teams from different-sized markets make the playoffs every year. The Yankees, historically the biggest spenders in baseball, haven’t won it all since 2009. Before that, they hadn’t won since 2000.
So the door is open. Let’s get that out of the way.
The next question I have to wonder is: What’s wrong with building a team this way? If a team had traded for or developed a roster like the Dodgers have, they would no doubt be praised by every blogger, every baseball fan in America. The basic problem with this, of course, is that no team in the modern era has ever fielded a team made entirely of their own draft picks, or players received in trades.
But the question goes even deeper than that. What, in essence, is the problem with building a team via free agency, instead of through drafts and trades? It’s a mere matter of money, and if the Dodgers have money to spend, what exactly is wrong with them building their team by using it? They’ve been mishandled far too long to rely solely on their farm system, and there is a definite sense of needing to be relevant right now.
Astros fans may shudder to remember trading away prospects to receive players on the decline. When paired with bad drafts and poor development, the Houston front office ran the cupboards dry until there was no present, no future, and no money. The current Astros roster is proof that, when not properly handled, this is a method that doesn’t always work.
But I do say it is a legitimate way to build a roster, particularly when there aren’t a ton of bright spots in the minors.
So, then, the real question is: Are the 2013 Dodgers going to be any good? The problem with throwing a lot of money at players in free agency is that it really puts the spotlight on a team. So I decided to try a little comparative exercise.
Using MLB Depth Charts, I isolated the Opening Day rosters of nine teams from 2012, spanning both leagues and several tax brackets:
1. New York Yankees (highest payroll in baseball)
2. Philadelphia Phillies (highest payroll in the NL, 2nd-highest in baseball)
3. Boston Red Sox (3rd-highest payroll in baseball)
4. Detroit Tigers (5th-highest payroll in baseball, AL champs)
5. San Francisco Giants (8th-highest payroll in baseball, world champs)
6. St. Louis Cardinals (9th-highest payroll in baseball, defending champions going into the season)
7. Cincinnati Reds (largely home-grown team, 17th-highest payroll in baseball)
8. Tampa Bay Rays (6th-lowest payroll in baseball and considered to be a great developmental organization)
9. Oakland Athletics (2nd-lowest payroll in baseball, also considered a great developmental organization)
I used a 5/3/2 analysis of their 25-man roster’s fWAR from 2009-2011 to get a rough idea of what they should have been expecting heading into the season: ((5*2011fWAR)+(3*2010fWAR)+(2*2009fWAR))/10. This is obviously a crude way to determine expected value, as WAR is not only imperfect, but it’s a counting stat, and changes dramatically with increased or reduced playing time. For instance, Ryu will be counted as a replacement-level pitcher for the purposes of this exercise.
Given the ability to look at the actual 2012 results, this generally puts us somewhere in the ballpark. Close enough, at least, to satisfy me. I’m no great statistician, so it’ll do for the purposes of my evaluation.
I then used MLB Depth Charts’ projected roster for the 2013 Dodgers and applied the same methodology to see where they fit in. The only difference, of course, is that I used fWAR data from 2010-2012.
All but three of these teams – Boston, Tampa Bay, and Philadelphia – made the playoffs in 2013. Interestingly, all three of those teams finished in the top half of this list. Simply put, the Phillies, Rays, and Red Sox were disappointments in 2012. The 2013 Dodgers’ projected roster fits squarely in the middle of the group, just one win from being tied for third on the list.
The Houston Astros need pitching help. They need a lot of pitching help. Though GM Jeff Luhnow was able to acquire some arms during and before the winter meetings – Sam Demel, Josh Fields, and Alex White, notably – the rotation in particular looks a bit shaky.
Since the Astros aren’t going to be major players in free agency (even my dream of acquiring Francisco Liriano looks far-fetched right now), it becomes incumbent on them to poke around in the bushes a little more with the hopes of landing a potential arm for the rotation.
One possibility may be Scott Kazmir, the former first-rounder for the Mets.
Kazmir, out of Cypress Falls High School, was supposed to be a stud. In 2005, Baseball America listed him as the #7 prospect in baseball. Ahead of Rickie Weeks, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Cain, Prince Fielder, and… well, all but six players in the universe (those six players? Joe Mauer, Felix Hernandez, Delmon Young, Ian Stewart, Joel Guzman, and Casey Kotchman). The Mets traded him, along with Jose Diaz, to the Devil Rays for Bartolome Fortunato and Victor Zambrano.
Though it’s easy to look at Kazmir’s time in Tampa Bay as disappointing, he did manage to strike out more batters than innings pitched, was never worth fewer than 2 wins in a season, and went to two All-Star Games. The lefty pitched well through 2008, when elbow issues forced him onto the DL in early 2009. That’s when the real trouble began.
A string of injuries prompted the Rays to trade Kazmir to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez, Matt Sweeney, and Alexander Torres. His tenure in Anaheim was terrible. A rash of injuries led to a breakdown of his mechanics, and reduced effectiveness. His velocity had fallen from touching 94 in 2004, to the mid-80s in 2011. He also lost the feel for his slider, his other plus pitch. The Angels, mercifully, released him in June 2011.
In 2012, Kazmir pitched for the Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters, and didn’t fare terribly well there, either. 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA, only 1.55 strikeouts per walk, and a 1.672 WHIP. He pitched a little better in Puerto Rico this winter, pitching 4 games, throwing in the 90-94 range, and going 0-2 with a 5.12 ERA, striking out 21 (in 19.1 innings) and only walking 6. Perhaps the most encouraging statistic was his ability to generate groundouts (2.20 GO/AO), which would be a valuable asset for a power pitcher who’s lost his power.
Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com recently mentioned that Kazmir may have multiple suitors. Ordinarily, if a player has a choice between more than one team, then it’s unlikely that Houston is going to be the top choice. However, given that Kazmir grew up locally, there is a possibility. After all, he had his choice of Independent teams, and he chose to pitch for Sugar Land. Not to mention Houston is one destination where he may actually have a solid chance to not only make the roster, but to get penciled in as a starter out of Spring Training.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow’s first Winter Meetings are in the rearview mirror, and as he leaves Nashville, it’s time to look back and see how he did with the team’s most pressing needs:
Upgrade the Bullpen
Last season, the Astros’ bullpen was in the bottom 5 in the major leagues in ERA (5th-worst), batting average against (2nd-worst), save percentage (5th-worst), WHIP (3rd-worst), and home runs against (7th-worst). Upgrading the bullpen is at or near the top of the priority list for most GMs every offseason, and this year was no different for Luhnow.
The first thing anyone notices is the trade of Wilton Lopez to Colorado, in exchange for Alex White and Alex Gillingham. You might raise your eyebrows and wonder how the bullpen will be improved through the loss of Lopez, the team’s best reliever, but it might have been. During the Winter Meetings, the Astros added several arms, including White, Gillingham, Rule 5 picks Josh Fields and Cameron Lamb, and Mickey Storey, claimed off waivers from the Yankees (who’d claimed him off waivers themselves from Houston before the Winter Meetings.)
Storey, Fields, and White should contribute immediately to the 2013 pitching staff. It’s unclear whether White is being looked at as a starter or as a reliever, but the story on him since college is that he could be a fairly dominant reliever. What’s helpful, too, is that he’s a similar-type pitcher to Lopez, but under team control longer. Fields is a power pitcher, and Storey had a very nice season in 2012, with 10.09 K/9 and a 2.80 FIP.
Maybe the best news is that Jason Stoffel, who figures to be a good bullpen arm for the Astros in 2014 if not sooner, didn’t get taken in the Rule 5 Draft. Of course, this is through no great display of skill by Houston, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Prior to the Winter Meetings, Houston had already picked up Sam Demel off waivers from the Diamondbacks.
Lamb and Gillingham won’t pitch for the big league club this season, but Storey, White, Fields, and probably Stoffel will. Without signing a single free agent or spending any real money, Luhnow & Co. at least maintained the big league bullpen, whether or not they actually strengthened it.
Improve the Starting Rotation
Before the Winter Meetings, the Astros went out and snagged Philip Humber off waivers from the White Sox. Heading into Nashville, it didn’t seem very likely that much else would be done to improve the starting rotation, which could benefit from a veteran presence that slots in either above or below Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell, and Bud Norris. Figure that the competition for the final two rotation spots is currently between Jarred Cosart, Dallas Keuchel, and Alex White.
Clearly, this is an area where the Astros could use an upgrade, even if it’s just a veteran stop-gap who can hold down the fort until Cosart’s put in some time in Oklahoma City.
There are still some veteran arms I like, including Francisco Liriano, and some more that I’ll discuss later in the week. But during the Winter Meetings, unless you consider White a potential starter, Luhnow did not address the rotation.
Find a Designated Hitter
Despite reports that the Astros checked in on Lance Berkman, Travis Hafner, and Carlos Pena, no one was signed during the Winter Meetings with the express intent of playing DH for the Astros. Rule 5 selection Nate Freiman does look like someone who might be able to fill the role if no one else is signed, as he can provide pop at the plate, but I can’t even imagine that he’s Option A for anyone in the Houston front office.
Though Houston came out of the Winter Meetings arguably stronger than when they went in, there are still holes to address. Still, for Luhnow’s first go-around, it was a pretty solid effort without spending any money or making any compromises.