Minute Maid Park is now over a decade old, but when it opened, it signaled a very obvious change for the Houston Astros organization. Gone were the pitching-friendly confines of the Astrodome, and in their place was a new park with a reputation (deserved or otherwise) as a hitter’s paradise.
On Opening Day, 2000, the ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Kenneth Lay (oops) to open what was then known as Enron Field, now Minute Maid Park. Since then until the end of last season, no fewer than 97 position players and 124 have donned a Houston Astros uniform.
The Astros have been through a lot during that period – 4th place in their division in 2000, and then starting a string of success that would culminate in the 2005 National League pennant, followed by a sharp and dramatic decline.
As we step forward into a new era – one in which no single player who saw that ceremonial first pitch is still an active player for the Astros – I got the idea to look back and answer a very basic question: “Which Astros have been the best players during the Minute Maid Park era?”
For this, I looked at a number of stats, mostly WAR, only factoring in seasons in which the Astros called MMP (or Enron Field) home. Most of the players were chosen for their total team value, though some were given the nod for big contributions over the course of just a few seasons. A twenty-five player roster proved to make some decisions much too difficult, so I expanded it to 30.
What this is not is a look at the best hitters in Minute Maid Park. No attention was paid to home-road splits, although I may revisit that idea down the road. Also, I used B-R’s WAR, which sometimes varies wildly from FanGraphs’ WAR. It is what it is.
The largest single-season WAR for any position player was posted by Lance Berkman in 2008, and the largest single-season WAR for a pitcher was the 7.2 that Roger Clemens put up in 2005. In fact, not surprisingly, it was the pitching that year that propelled Houston into the playoffs. Of the top five single seasons ever put together by an Astros pitcher in the Minute Maid Park era, 3 of them came that year: #1 Roger Clemens (7.2), #3 Andy Pettitte (5.8), and #5 Roy Oswalt (5.3). Only one position player from that season, Morgan Ensberg (third at 6.5), had a season in the top ten of all-time seasons by an Astros position player in the MMP era.
So without further delay, I present to you the 30 Greatest Astros of the Minute Maid Park era:
1. Roy Oswalt. Of the ten best pitching seasons in the Minute Maid Park era, Oswalt has four (2002, 2005, 2006, and 2007). He’s far and away the leader in overall WAR, owing largely to the fact that his 291 starts dwarfs any other pitcher – Wandy Rodriguez has the second-most, with 167. Oswalt came up with the Astros in 2001, and played his entire Astros career in the MMP era. With 5 Cy Young top-five finishes, 3 All-Star appearances, 4 appearances in the Top 25 of MVP voting, and a Rookie of the Year runner-up, he’s easily the most-decorated pitcher of the era. But it wasn’t just longevity that aided Oswalt. His 4.2 WAR-per-season as a pitcher is second in the MMP era only to…
2. Roger Clemens. Clemens was already a six-time Cy Young Award winner by the time he needled (see what I did there?) his way into Houston in 2004 to begin a three-year stretch of dominance that saw him win one more Cy Young, a second top three finish in the voting, two All-Star appearances, and two MVP top-25 selections. He also threw at his son, Koby Clemens, who had earlier homered off of him in an exhibition game. I mean, I’m just saying that that happened.
3. Wade Miller. When Miller’s name is mentioned around Astros fans, it usually takes them a moment or two to remember who he was, but he did post double-digit wins three years in a row (2001-03). Unfortunately for him, the World Series year of 2005 was his first away from the club. If one includes the 10.1 innings he pitched during the Astrodome era, Miller was 58-39 as an Astro, with a 3.87 ERA, 117 ERA+, 1.309 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, and 2.15 K/BB. He also struck out 6 Braves in 7 innings in his only playoff appearance, Game 1 of the 2001 NLDS.
4. Andy Pettitte. Astros fans can be forgiven for thinking of Pettitte and Clemens as one in the same. The strong lefty-righty combo came into town – and left town – at the same time, from the same New York Yankees, and back to those same New York Yankees. Pettitte’s 7.5 WAR over that time pales in comparison to the other three names on the list, but he did finish fifth in the Cy Young voting in 2005 and helped propel the team to their first World Series appearance. Pettitte also left town with a cool 1.230 WHIP and more than three strikeouts to every walk he issued as an Astro in the MMP era.
5. Wandy Rodriguez. At first glance, Rodriguez’s place on this list seems to owe itself more to the fact that he’s the longest-tenured current Astros pitcher of the MMP era, and there is some merit to that. His 167 starts is second among Astros pitchers during this time. But his 1.3 WAR-per-season isn’t bad – the only pitchers not on this list who can match it are Shane Reynolds (1.3) and Chris Holt (1.9). Wandy’s been successful as an Astro largely by keeping the ball in the park – he’s allowed just 1.0 home runs per 9.0 innings pitched since coming up in 2005, and his WHIP has been on a downward trend ever since the career-high 1.60 he posted as a sophomore. Rodriguez has also posted three seasons (2008, 2009, 2010) with an ERA+ above 100, and has had three double-digit win totals: His rookie campaign in 2005, 2009, and 2010.
6. Brett Myers. Myers may look out of place on this list, as he’s only had one full season as an Astros pitcher, but that season ranks among the best all-time in the MMP era. His 4.7 WAR-per-season is second only to Clemens’ 5.1, outpacing even Oswalt’s 4.2. In his lone season as an Astro, Myers finished 10th in the Cy Young balloting and posted a career-high 123 ERA+.
1. Octavio Dotel. There aren’t a whole lot of surprises on this list, but the first might be seeing Dotel ranked above closer extraordinaire Billy Wagner. A case could be made for either of the last two in the once-vaunted Lidge-Dotel-Wagner trio that was once used to mop up opponents during the early years of the MMP era, but Dotel wins on tenure. His 10.6 WAR over the course of 5 seasons as an Astro during this period is the best for any reliever, and his insanely-good 3.05 K/BB ratio (which does include 85.1 IP during the Astrodome era) is pretty impressive, too.
2. Billy Wagner. When the hard-throwing lefty came up in 1995, he captured Astros nation and held it for nine seasons, five of which came in the MMP era. The final year of the Astrodome era was his best and earned him 4th place in the Cy Young balloting, but he pitched well even in the new ballpark. In fact, it was his final year in Houston, 2003, that saw him post his career-high 44 saves, and he earned 2 of his 3 All-Star Game appearances as an Astro in the MMP era.
3. Brad Lidge. It’s easy enough, after watching Brad Lidge struggle through the end of his tenure as a Houston Astro, to forget how dominant he could be. But from his first full season in 2003 through the World Series year of 2005, he owned opposing hitters, striking out more than 3.75 batters for every one he walked, posting a 1.078 WHIP, and putting together a string of devastating ERA+: 122 in 2003, 230 in 2004, and 185 in 2005. He finished 5th in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2003, 8th in the Cy Young voting in 2004, and earned an All-Star nod in 20
4. Chad Qualls. Qualls was never quite as flashy as Lidge, Dotel, or Wagner, but he did post consistently-high ERA+ during his tenure as an Astro in the MMP era: 124 (2004), 130 (2005), 119 (2006), and 146 (2007). During these four seasons, he posted a 1.236 WHIP, 6 saves, and 23 wins out of the bullpen.
5. Dan Wheeler. Wheeler has never enjoyed greater success as a pitcher than he did during the 3+ seasons he spent as an Astro during the MMP era, an era during which he posted an amazing 1.088 WHIP and a 145 ERA+ over 268.2 innings. The 3.9 WAR he posted over the course of that time is incredible for a middle reliever, which he’s been for the overwhelming majority of his career.
6. Jose Valverde. Antics aside, Valverde proved a useful commodity in the retooling years of 2008 and 2009, with a 3.3 WAR and a 1.159 WHIP. He struck out 3.16 batters for every walk he issued, and 9.9 for every nine innings he pitched as an Astro – a full 139 of the 552 batters he faced (over 25%).
7. LaTroy Hawkins. Hawkins is much-maligned around certain (ahem, Cubs) circles, largely because he always seemed like a setup man who could never really step up and become a full-time closer. That may well be true, but he pitched well during his Astros tenure, from midway through 2008 through 2009. He held down a 1.71 ERA during those two years, and an amazing 244 ERA+. Like Rodriguez, he was a guy who kept the ball in the park, allowing just 0.7 HR/9, with a 1.091 WHIP. His 3.3 WAR for less than two full seasons is pretty remarkable for a middle reliever.
8. Brandon Lyon. Though Lyon has pitched just one full season in Houston, 2010, his 2.0 WAR in that single season ranks among the best single-season WAR for any Astros reliever during the MMP era. Never truly dominant, he did post a 125 ERA+ and allowed just 0.2 HR/9.
9. Dan Miceli. A case could be made for lefty Tim Byrdak, but Miceli gets the nod for his 1.6 WAR in 2004 and parts of 2003, which saw him pitch for 4 major league teams. His 375 ERA+ over the course of the 30.0 innings he pitched as an Astro that year reek of bad sample size, but striking out 3.03 batters for every walk issued is a pretty solid argument, as well.
1. Brad Ausmus. Ausmus wins on playing time alone. Sure, he posted a 2.8 WAR as an Astro during the MMP era, his second stint with the team, but it took from 2001-2008 for him to do it. He also won three Gold Gloves during this time, and much of his value came on defense, unlike:
2. Mitch Meluskey. Meluskey took to Minute Maid Park like a pig to mud, ranking fifth in Rookie of the Year balloting during the park’s inaugural season, after which he departed, only to return in 2003 to much more dismal numbers. That rookie season alone was enough to win the hot-headed backstop a spot on a thin roster of Astros catchers. Despite losing 0.5 wins to his poor defense, he made up for it at the plate, where he hit .300/.401/.487.
1B Lance Berkman. Since getting 6th place in the Rookie of the Year balloting in MMP’s inaugural 2000 season, Berkman has been a mainstay, first as a corner outfielder (plus who remembers his 1,292.1 innings as a center fielder over parts of five seasons?) and then as a first baseman. With five top five finishes in the MVP balloting and five All-Star selections, the switch-hitter has been nearly-synonymous with the MMP era, picking up where legends like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio left off, as one more Killer B. His 46.1 WAR over this time dwarfs any other player. Of course, as we all learned last night, he isn’t any less deadly in MMP as an opposing hitter, either.
2B Craig Biggio. The consummate team player, Biggio changed positions with some regularity. After coming up in 1998 as a catcher, he moved to second base, later to the outfield to make room for Jeff Kent, and then back to second base. In my mind, he will always be a second baseman, a position he defined for the Astros over the course of 17,154.2 innings at the position. His finest days may have been behind him once the move was made to MMP, but he never took a pitch off, amassing 10.9 WAR from 2000-2007.
3B Morgan Ensberg. Though Ensberg played in MMP’s inaugural 2000 year, he didn’t work his way into being a full-time starter until three years later. In parts of seven seasons, though, he put together a .266/.367/.475 line, including the 2005 season which saw him finish 4th in MVP voting, earn his only All-Star selection, and win a Silver Slugger award en route to leading the Astros offense that won the NL pennant.
SS Adam Everett. Everett is another player whose value came mostly from having a longer tenure than anyone else at his position during the MMP era, but he also provided 6.9 WAR over 7 seasons as a defender alone.
LF Moises Alou. Alou was already well-traveled, having played for Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Florida before he landed in Houston in 1998 with a campaign that saw him earn an All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger award, and third in the MVP voting. It wasn’t until he resurfaced with the team in 2000 and 2001, though, that he got to be a part of the MMP era. And during his time in Houston, he made his mark on that period with two more MVP top-twenty finishes and another All-Star nod before departing for Chicago to blame fans for interfering with balls he would never have caught in a million years.
CF Richard Hidalgo. Fans may have trouble remembering Hidalgo, who played for the Astros in parts of 8 seasons, including 2000-2004 in the MMP era. Certainly, Mets and Rangers fans would have liked to have seen him continue the .278/.356/.501 line he put up during his tenure as an Astro, or the 17.4 WAR he accumulated, all but 3.3 of which came during the MMP era.
RF Hunter Pence. It’s difficult not to think of Pence, now a team leader in his fifth season with the club, as the goofy 24-year-old that surfaced in 2007 with a rookie campaign that earned him third in the ROY voting. He boasts a 6.6 WAR over that time, despite losing 1.1 wins on the defensive side of the ball (all in 2010), which actually ranks him third after Berkman and Hidalgo among players who have manned right field for the Astros in the MMP era.
1B Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell played five full seasons, and part of a sixth, during the MMP era, and though he might not have been the force he’d been earlier in his career, he did amass three seasons (2000, 2001, and 2003) with numbers good enough to finish in the top 15 of MVP voting, including a 1.039 OPS in 2000. From 2000-2003, he posted four consecutive seasons with an oWAR over 3.5, and all told, he added over 20 wins from 2000-2005.
2B Jeff Kent. One of two future All-Stars to man the second sack for the Astros in the MMP era, Kent had already solidified his career in Toronto, New York, Cleveland, and San Francisco by the time he landed in Houston from 2003-2004, where he posted a .293/.350/.521 line and 5.9 WAR.
3B Ken Caminiti. Caminiti had already spent 8 years in Houston during the Astrodome era before parting for San Diego in 1995, but he would return in 1999 and play his final year for the Astros in 2000, the inaugural year of MMP. The 1.5 WAR he posted that season was far from the best of his career, even of his Astros career, but the fading slugger did well enough that year to warrant a spot on the thirty best.
UTIL Ty Wigginton. After the Rays dealt Wigginton to the Astros in 2007 for Wheeler, he put together probably the best stretch of his career, going .285/.347/.506 in 161 games, split between third base, first base, and both corner outfiel
d spots. The 2.8 WAR he put together in such a short time is the best of any team he’s played for.
OF Michael Bourn. Bourn’s still got a lot of holes in his game, but the All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner has amassed 7.1 WAR over the last two seasons, after a disastrous first year which saw him give away 2.1. He led the league in dWAR, Total Zone Runs, and Stolen Bases in 2010, and seems to be maturing before our very eyes.
OF Carlos Beltran. Beltran played just 90 games for the Houston Astros after a midseason three-team trade that saw John Buck go to the Royals and Octavio Dotel to the Athletics, but he made his time here count, putting together 3.5 WAR and leading the charge deep into the playoffs, where he posted an OPS over 1.5. Only Lance Berkman has carried this team on his back better than Beltran did in the second half of 2004 during the MMP era.
Let’s step back in time to October 14, 2003. Game 6 of the National League Championship Series had the Cubs playing the Marlins.
The Cubs led the series, three games to two, and had a 3-0 lead going into the eighth inning. Mark Prior was on the mound, five outs from clinching the Cubs’ first National League pennant since 1945. Juan Pierre was standing on second base with one out in the eighth and Luis Castillo at the plate.
Castillo fouled a ball into the left field stands. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou watched as a fan, later revealed to be one Steve Bartman, caught the foul ball. Alou, in a classic display of sportsmanship, slammed his glove on the ground and shouted at Bartman.
The Cubs lobbied for fan interference, but the officials refused to grant it, based on the fact that the ball was caught outside of the field of play.
Alou, who I will very politely say was never the most gifted fielder in the world, had apparently sprouted Go Go Gadget Arms before the game, and had suddenly become able to catch a ball already out of his reach and heading even farther into the stands.
Castillo ended up walking. Ball four was a wild pitch, which allowed Pierre to advance to third. Prior hung an 0-2 curveball that Ivan Rodriguez turned into an RBI single. 3-1 Cubs. Miguel Cabrera, in a rare magnanimous gesture, then hit an easy double-play ball to shortstop Alex S. Gonzalez. 6-4-3. Game over. Cubs win the pennant, Cubs win the pennant.
Only that’s not what happened, as we all know. Instead, Gonzalez booted the ball, loading the bases full of Marlins. Florida went on to put a total of eight runs on the board in the eighth, one of them earned. As the inning progressed and the Marlins continued to score, Cubs fans – being the classy human beings that they always are – turned on Bartman, who did what any one of them would have done, given the chance, by catching a foul ball that was out of the reach of the home team’s inept left fielder.
By the end of the game, ballpark security had to escort Bartman out of Wrigley Field. It wasn’t over, though. While the Cubs went on to completely fumble Game 7, losing 9-6 in the friendly confines, Bartman’s life story unfolded in the public eye. He was shunned. He was issued death threats. This lifelong Cubs fan became the embodiment of every other Cubs fans’ frustrations, and they took every opportunity to tear him apart.
And Moises Alou was content to stand by and let this kid take the blame, or so it seemed. Five years later, he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “You know what the funny thing is? I wouldn’t have caught it, anyway.” He then quickly reneged, saying he didn’t remember saying that.
Why am I drudging all of this back up? Aside from an opportunity to take a swipe at Cubs fans, I bring it up because Moises Alou, the Gold Glover in his own mind, was recently quoted as saying that this year’s World Baseball Classic would likely be his “last rodeo.”
He will be 42 years old this year, and though he continues to perform at a high level, the aches and pains – and, I like to think, his conscience – are catching up to him.
There’s no doubt that Alou was a terrific hitter. For three years in Houston, he hit .331/.403/.585 with 95 home runs, two All-Star Game appearances, a Silver Slugger, and a third-place MVP finish. But his reaction to “the Bartman incident” has always soured him in y opinion.
So, Moises, with the news that you may be retiring from the game, I’d like to wish you good riddance.