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.
It doesn’t matter that I’m largely pleased by the trades Houston has made this week, even if they mean two of my favorite Astros – Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman – will be finishing their careers elsewhere.
Despite it being Earth day, and the Astros wearing their “Play Green” caps, there was plenty of power to be had tonight in Minute Maid Park. Five balls left the yard tonight, three from the Dodgers in the sixth inning alone, and the Astros beat the Dodgers 6-5 to take the series from the Dodgers.
If Houston continues to hit for extra bases, they will sweep this series, there is little doubt in my mind. In fact, I’ll make a bold prediction: If the home team gets more than three XBH, they will win.
If there’s a dark lining to the silver cloud (or something), it’s that the entire Dodgers pitching staff finished this game with just 107 pitches thrown. Roy Oswalt alone threw 108 in 6.0 IP. If the Astros hitters cannot work deeper into counts – and do it habitually – we will lose more of these close games than we will win. It’s that simple. Baseball is a game of attrition. Relief pitchers are worse pitchers than starters are; that’s why they’re in the bullpen. If you can’t work your way to them early in games, you aren’t going to win as many games. Really.
But we did win this one, and I have to give credit to Ivan Rodriguez. I was quick to point out a sloppy couple of pitch sequences he called with Mike Hampton on the mound, so it’s only fair that I point out one that he called tonight to strike out Casey Blake in the top of the eighth:
Now, what do I love about this sequence? First, I have to remind you that the pitcher is Chris Sampson, who is – like Blake – right-handed. Then, I have to explain, in case it’s not obvious, that pitches 1, 4, and 5 are sliders; pitches 2 and 3 are fastballs; and pitch 6 is a curveball. He began this at-bat by getting Blake looking outside… first with the breaking stuff, then with a fastball. Then, to keep him from getting too comfortable out there, he backs him off of the plate with a slider at his hip that breaks out over the plate.
That’s devastating enough, then he throws a couple of chase pitches that Blake doesn’t bite at, but they’re enough to get him leaning out… and he’s wondering when he’s going to get the fastball. Then it comes – a mistake pitch over the heart of the plate. Or so he thinks. Instead, it’s the curveball he hasn’t seen all night, which he flails at as it falls off the table with its 13″ break.
Well played, Pudge. Well played. I can safely say J.R. Towles would not have called that sequence in a million years. He’s more of an inside-outside guy who prefers the changeup as the out pitch. Sampson, too, likes the changeup. Which Blake probably knew, but he never saw one.
Pudge’s RBI single in the bottom of the eighth? I’m far less enthused about that. But so long as he calls these kinds of sequences behind the plate, I’ll be happy.
Sometimes we forget what an oddity Tal’s Hill is out in centerfield, because we’re so used to it. But the impact it can have on visiting players is very real, as this article about Matt Kemp can attest.
“You have to really count your steps out there,” Kemp said. “There’s
really no kind of practice for trying to run up a hill and trying to
catch a ball. I don’t think there is.”
Did we mention there’s a flagpole sticking out of the middle of Tal’s Hill? It’s true.
“The flagpole at least has a little padding on it,” Kemp said. “It’s a
little weird. There’s a lot of weird things going on out there in
Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar, Tal’s Hill is a steep incline in center field that starts behind the warning track and goes until the center fielder is 436 feet away from the plate. Minute Maid Park is thought of as a band box – and it is – but it’s extremely deep to center field, and the hill at the end of the run is no picnic.
It’s a sort of an homage to “The Terrace” at the old Crosley Field in Cincinnati. A lot of parks used to have them, but most (Fenway Park’s “Duffy’s Cliff” comes to mind) have been leveled out. Tal’s Hill is, I believe, the only one in the major leagues.
On Jason Michaels‘ two-run double in the sixth inning that tied the game 4-4, Kemp appeared to be dogging it in center field. I believe that this can be directly attributed to his confusion over Tal’s Hill.
I wouldn’t ordinarily ask you, my dear reader(s), to go to Reds.com to do anything, much less something a Reds blog suggested, but I really do believe that this is a worthy cause.
Reds.com announced a contest for fans to vote on which pitcher’s bobblehead they were going to give away. In addition to the usual suspects – Edinson Volquez, Aaron Harang, et al – they included some minor leaguers, including one Sam LeCure.
The guys over at OMGReds have asked everyone to go over and vote for Sam LeCure to get a bobblehead. Imagine the look on some poor middle-aged sap’s face when he goes through the turnstiles at Great American Ballpark and gets handed a bobblehead for a player he’s never heard of in his entire life.
You can vote here.
(For the male member(s) of my reading audience, if shocking a middle-aged Reds fan isn’t enough incentive, it would make Mrs. LeCure very happy. And when a woman looks like Mrs. LeCure, and is willing to date a schlub who looks like Mr. LeCure, isn’t that exactly the type of woman you’d like to make happy?)
Kepp Kepp Hooray
Jeff Keppinger continues to impress. He has hit safely in eight straight games as an Astro – coincidentally, the exact number of games he’s played as an Astro. In addition to that, his throws from third to first look very strong and effortless. The top of the second was score 5-3/5-3/5-3, and each ball was fielded hard in the pocket, but he easily threw out the runners, who included Russell Martin and Matt Kemp, who are not easy outs in the infield.
His .455/.520/.773 as a Houston Astro are not sustainable, but what a great start to his Houston career. With righty Chad Billingsley on the mound, Keppinger will probably have the day off tomorrow.
Speaking of Billingsley
He is one of only five starting pitchers yet to surrender a home run, and he’s walking into Minute Maid Park tomorrow, where the balls have looked awfully lively lately. If you play HR Beat The Streak, I’m thinking Lance Berkman has to look like a really good choice, as the only power-hitting lefty in the lineup. Berkman is 2-for-12 career against Billingsley with no XBH, but that could change tomorrow.
Progressive Fan of the Game
The “Progressive Fan of the Game” during tonight’s Fox Sports Houston telecast was former Astro Roger Clemens, who is apparently an Astros season ticket holder. He was at the game, looking not terribly unlike an oilier version of my older brother Kenneth, watching his friend Roy Oswalt pitch. He was also completely douched out with his laptop and earpiece so that he could hear his son, Koby, play for the Lancaster Jethawks.
When I go to Jethawks games, am I going to run across the Rocket?
A couple of games ago, they profiled two white trash twenty-somethings who’d snuck to the top of the bleachers to “be alone,” aka dry hump one another. I felt less sleazy after that than I did watching Roger Clemens speak for three minutes.
Kudos of the Day
I offer Carlos Lee my sincere admiration for not only managing not to topple after this swing, but for actually turning it into a single. That’s a big load to keep upright, right there:
If I’m Joe Torre – and I think it’s important to stress that I am not – I know a few things right now. I know that I’m leading my division, and even if I lose tomorrow and the Padres win, the worst we’ll be is tied. I know I’ve already lost this series. I know that I have six games left in my road trip, all against division opponents, immediately followed by an 11-game homestand, all but three of which are against division opponents.
I know I want to keep my guys as fresh as possible so that I can be best-suited for those divisional matchups, and I know that I have a bench player who would get a standing ovation during a road game. Could we see Brad Ausmus suit up? I think we could.
What Happened Was…
Houston Astros (MLB) – You all know by now how this one ended, or at least I hope you do.
Round Rock Express (AAA) – As I was watching the Astros on MLB.tv (no Channel 9 feed tonight), I had the Express game on Gameday. As the Dodgers put up four runs in the sixth, the New Orleans Zephyrs (FLA) put up three in the sixth. As Hunter Pence hit a Ground Rule Double in the eighth, the Zephyrs’ Michael Ryan hit a Ground Rule Double in the eighth. These were happening nearly simultaneously. It was creepy. New Orleans won handily, 8-3. Of the Express’s 10 hits, only 1 – a double by John Gall – was an XBH. Neal Musser threw two wild pitches. In the same inning. The Express used five pitchers, and only two – Casey Daigle and Chad Paronto – didn’t allow runs. Ryan McKeller got five outs, three of them strikeouts, but found time to walk two and allow a hit. Everyone’s favorite Saccomanno, Mark Saccomanno, was 0-for-5 with an RBI, which doesn’t sound that spectacular until you realize that he now has 18 RBI in 14 games, which puts him on pace to have 183 in a 142-game season. He also played another game at third without an error, which is always an accomplishment. Gall, 2B Matt Kata, and OF Eli Iorg were each 2-for-4 on the night. Neither J.R. Towles nor Chris Johnson played.
Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) – The Hooks had a scheduled night off. Tomorrow, they’re back at Whataburger Field for a four-game set against the Frisco Roughriders (TEX), who enter the series with an identical 6-6 record. The RoughRiders feature 1B Justin Smoak. You might remember him as the guy we should have drafted instead of Jason Castro. It looks like the Hooks won’t have to face LHP Kasey Kiker, one of the top pitching prospects in the Rangers system.
Lancaster Jethawks (A+) – The bullpen did their very best to spoil a great start by Christopher Hicks, but in the end, Lancaster ended up pulling out the victory over the Inl
and Empire 66ers (LAD), 4-3. Hicks was exceptional, striking out 9 in 5.0 IP, with 2 walks, 5 hits, and no earned runs. On the opposite side, Chris Withrow struck out 10 in the same period, walked two, and only allowed 3 hits, but a run scored on his watch. Sometimes there’s no justice in this game. Each successive Jethawks pitcher – Chia-Jen Lo, Reid Kelly, and Jordan Powell – allowed a run, but an RBI walk by Jason Castro in the top of the ninth proved to be the game-winner. Koby Clemens was behind the plate with Castro at DH, and his night was… well, let’s say mixed. At the plate, Clemens was 2-for-5 with a double and an RBI. Behind it, he was 1-for-2 on SB attempts, allowed a passed ball, and had a throwing error. But he’s still new at playing catcher, so this is to be expected. Castro was 0-for-3, but walked twice, scored a run, and had the aforementioned RBI. 1B Brian Pellegrini hit a solo home run, and SS Chris Minaker was 2-for-3 with a double and an RBI.
Lexington Legends (A) – The Legends got excellent performances from their pitchers as they beat the Hickory Crawdads (TEX), 4-3, on the road. Ross Seaton, a steal at #109 in last year’s draft, threw very well to earn the win. Okay yes, he hit three guys (well, two guys, but one of them twice), had a wild pitch, walked a guy, and allowed four hits and a run in 5.2 IP, but he struck out 6 earned the win. Henry Villar pitched three innings in relief, giving up two runs but none earned, and Daniel Meszaros recorded a single out to earn the save. Ross was matched by the Crawdads’ Martin Perez, who struck out six through 5.0 IP, but allowed two runs to earn the loss. It was a sloppy win, what with the HBPs, the WP, a PB, and 0-for-2 on SB attempts, but the Legends were able to string together just enough offense to pull it out. 1B Phil Disher hit a home run, and SS Ronald Ramirez, 2B Albert Cartwright, and OF Brandon Barnes each added a double. Not surprisingly, they accounted for 3 of the 4 runs (Barnes was erased on a CS). No Legend had more than a single hit.
For all intents and purposes, the Astros have always had an ace. A dominant pitcher who could be given the ball every fifth game and be expected to shut down the opposing team as often as not. In 2001, a skinny, unseemly right-hander from Weir, Mississippi was called up in May and asked to do just that. Less than a month later, he was entered into the starting rotation, and the team won the next eight games he started, with him collecting the W in six of the eight games.
He went 12-2 as a starter that year, with three complete games including a shutout. He threw 127.2 innings as a starter, with 130 strikeouts, 17 walks, a 2.82 ERA, and a 1.03 WHIP. He was second in Rookie of the Year voting, fifth in Cy Young voting, and 22nd in MVP voting.
Eight seasons later, Roy Oswalt is the undisputed ace of the Houston rotation, but in 2001 – despite the tremendous year by Wade Miller – the ace was Shane Reynolds, who went 14-11 with a 4.34 ERA. Not ace-type numbers, but Reynolds had been the de facto ace since his 16-win campaign in 1996. Though Darryl Kile and a young Mike Hampton also pitched well for that team, Reynolds was clearly the leader.
Before Reynolds’ emergence, most people would probably have pointed at veteran Doug Drabek. Before that, Pete Harnisch. Mike Scott. Nolan Ryan.
Other teams, on the other hand, have trouble defining an ace. Specifically, the Pittsburgh Pirates – an intradivisional foe – have had a string of seriously bad luck with their aces.
In 2006, after a 14-win campaign, Ian Snell was annointed with the “ace” title. Entering the 2009 season, he has only managed 16 wins in the two years since then. In 2007, Tom Gorzelanny was the 14-game winner on the roster, and now he finds himself in minor league camp.
It seems that, as an organization, the top of the Pirates’ rotation has been befuddling at least since Oliver Perez’s Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde act from 2004-2006. This year, their hope lies in the left arm of Paul Maholm.
Maholm is a sinkerball pitcher who has gone 19-24 over the past two seasons with 244 K and 112 BB in 384 IP. Over that time, he has an ERA of 4.31 and a WHIP of 1.35. His DIPS was 4.26 and his DICE was 4.18. By almost any metric, saber or otherwise, he’s at best an above-average pitcher.
And last month, they awarded him with a three-year, $14.5m contract to avoid arbitration.
That’s a lot of money for a guy who had 2.7 Value Wins a year ago. So does Maholm have ace-type stuff, or is he merely benefitting from being part of a weak pitching staff?
Maholm’s VORP in 2008 was 40.8 – 30th in the majors among pitchers with a minimum 100 IP. Roy Oswalt’s 43.3 was just five spots ahead at 25th. It was almost double the next-highest VORP on the team, reliever John Grabow with 22.3, and far away above Zach Duke, who had the second-highest VORP among Pirates starters in 2008 with 5.3.
Compare that to Gorzelanny in 2007, whose 41.5 VORP was 31st in the majors and just 0.2 ahead of rotation-mate Ian Snell. In 2008, Gorzelanny’s VORP had tumbled to -13.2; in other words, worse than a replacement-level player. Snell’s was “better” at -3.9, but hardly good. There is some indication that Snell, at least, was the victim of bad luck, as his BABIP was a hefty .360, compared to Maholm’s .298.
But Pirates coaches believe Maholm has the mental makeup of an ace, which can of course be important. Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who used to work with the Yankees and the Red Sox, told Sporting News “If you’ve seen him throwing on the side, see his understanding of the
game, the understanding of his craft — pitching — you can tell he has
a great idea,” Kerrigan said. “He’s a coach’s dream. The effort he puts
into the side sessions, his bullpen sessions, is translated into the
That’s great, but it doesn’t exactly make him an ace.
Maholm has been coolly efficient this spring, going 2-0 with a 0.46 ERA, 12 K, and 1 BB in 19.2 IP. He’s run out of innings in games well before hitting the maximum pitch count set aside by his coaches this spring.
Considering the rapid falls from grace many of the Pirates’ other “aces” have seen in recent years, it’s definitely too early to give Maholm the title – and as of right now, he is being vastly overpaid – but there’s certainly room for hope for the Pirates, who need as much as they can get.
I was happy to see that (Ivan) Rodriguez is no longer mentioning the
Astros as the teams who are supposedly interested in him. The latest
news I read listed only the Mets and Marlins. That is good, because
after checking with Ed Wade yet again today, I can assure you the
Astros are not pursuing him. And judging from the irritated look on his
face, I can also assure you I won’t be asking him about Pudge again
anytime soon. At least not for two weeks. Or maybe 10 days. At the very
least, I’ll wait a week.
Oh, and he’s not bidding on Pedro Martinez, either.
This was from Alyson Footer’s blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, three days ago. This morning, Roy Oswalt let loose with the scoop that he ran into Rodriguez at Dolphin Stadium during the WBC, and that Rodriguez greeted him with, “Hey, teammate.”
I respect and admire Alyson very much, and don’t blame her for the misdirection play Wade ran, despite many major media outlets continuing to say that the Astros were talking to Pudge’s agent, Scott Boras. If that’s how he felt he needed to play it, then so be it.
Yes, following the WBC and a physical, Rodriguez is expected to sign with the Astros (please keep in mind that he has not signed – he is simply expected to.)
On the surface, I have to admit that this makes perfect sense. The Astros’ catching situation is a quagmire. Neither Humberto Quintero nor J.R. Towles has separated himself from the admittedly-abysmal pack this spring, and here is one of the best, if not the best catcher of his generation, looking for nothing more than playing time.
And a $1.5m deal, with another $1.5m in possible incentives, doesn’t break the bank. Rodriguez comes with a solid resume. He’s raking for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He may have single-handedly carried the Marlins to a World Series championship in 2003. He’s probably the best dual offensive-defensive catcher since Johnny Bench. And despite a tumultuous time in New York at the end of 2008, he finished the year going .276/.319/.394, which by far bests the current Astros duo of Towles and Quintero, who went a combined .185/.255/.306 at the big league level.
As far as moves go, it was an instant and decisive upgrade at a reasonable price, and most Astros fans should be thrilled. As for me, I don’t really like the move.
My last entry detailed a lot of why this is. Over the past two seasons, Rodriguez has averaged 1.75 Win Shares with his offense and defense. Quintero, almost the very definition of league-average, contributed 0.0. Towles had -0.3. This gives, at the most, a 2-3 game swing. If that 2-3 wins is enough to get us into the playoffs, this is a great move.
If it isn’t, we’ve hurt ourselves in a few ways. First, we’ve lost money. Without knowing the incentives, let’s assume Pudge makes $3m in 2009. Since he’s unlikely to make the team significantly more competitive by himself, it’s unlikely the attendance figures will increase from 2008. In fact, a decrease in attendance is still more likely. The money going to Rodriguez, a temporary stop-gap measure that may mean the difference between 3rd and 4th place in the weak NL Central, would be far better spent on signing bonuses and development, in my opinion.
Second, assuming we pick up those 2-3 wins, we’ve hurt ourselves in the 2010 June draft. Last season, a 3-win swing could have hurt a team’s draft spot by as many as four draft picks (had Atlanta won three more games, they would have ended up drafting after Detroit, Cincinnati, Colorado, and Kansas City.) Additionally, though Rodriguez is a Type-B Free Agent and therefore doesn’t require the surrender of a 2009 draft pick, the Yankees do receive a sandwich pick for him. This means that there will be one more player off the board by the time we get to our second round pick, after what was already going to be the longest first round in history.
If I’m wrong and Pudge helps whip the pitching staff into shape and ignites the offense, batting second in the order and providing multiple opportunities for Berkman, Lee, Tejada, and Pence, propelling us into the playoffs, then I’ll be happy to be wrong.
But if all he does is put us into the hunt for a Wild Card late in the season, it will actually have turned out to have been a bad move for a team that needs to re-stock its farm system.
(Note: I was working on an article about the Boston Red Sox to post today. However, due to some unforeseen time constraints and this breaking news, I will have to delay it. I hope to have it completed by the end of the week.)
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Alex Rodriguez may have to withdraw from the WBC due to a hip injury.
You never like to see such a high-profile player go down to injury, but my thoughts immediately turned in a different direction than most people’s.
If Alex Rodriguez misses the WBC, does this make Miguel Tejada the Dominican Republic’s starting third baseman?
Tejada withdrew from the Classic after hearing a rumor that he was going to be used primarily as a first baseman. Then, with manager Felipe Alou’s eventual assurance that he would play shortstop, third base, and DH, he changed his mind and joined the team.
With Rodriguez in the lineup at third, and Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, it wasn’t immediately clear how much playing time Tejada would get in the infield. Now, that’s all changed.
Barring whomever would replace A-Rod on the roster, the only other third baseman currently with the team is Willy Aybar. Given that option, it seems reasonable to assume that Tejada would become the starting third baseman.
And that, as far as I’m concerned, is a problem for the Houston Astros.
I’m generally pro-WBC. I don’t mind players taking the added injury risk to play for their countries. LaTroy Hawkins, Roy Oswalt, and Carlos Lee are all involved in the classic, and bully for them. These are three guys who performed for the Astros last year. They did exactly the job they were asked to do, and they did it well.
But Tejada’s short tenure with the Astros has been tumultuous, at best. First, he was caught lying about his age. Then, he suffered a mid-season slump that hurt the team in a bad way. Next, he was indicted for lying to federal investigators. Then came the WBC.
Simply put, I feel pretty strongly that Miguel should be in camp. He should be getting reps as a shortstop. He should be preparing himself to earn the money he’s getting paid – an albatross contract, signed under false pretenses regarding his age. That contract, and the five players we gave up to get Tejada from the Orioles, could be singled out as the single-largest reason the Astros were unable to make a move of any merit this offseason.
The news that he may get significant playing time at another position doesn’t sit well with me.
Of course, there is another option, given the Astros’ holes at third base. If Tejada shows himself to be a competent third baseman, perhaps Coop may consider moving him there permanently, and allowing either Tommy Manzella or Drew Sutton to play shortstop, assuming Chris Johnson is sent to AAA at the end of Spring Training.
Knowing Cooper, that seems unlikely, but it is a possibility. Tejada’s still a better-fielding shortstop than he gets credit for (he had a 4.01 RFg in 2008, six points above adjusted league average), but he is aging (three years more quickly than we’d realized.)
In other news, Roy Oswalt will be on The Late Show With David Letterman tomorrow (Thursday) night for the Top 10 list: “Reasons To Watch The World Baseball Classic.”
When a starting rotation has as many question marks as the Houston Astros’ 2009 edition does, Spring Training competition begins to take on an added edge.
For those of you unfamiliar, this is what our rotation looks like:
1. Roy Oswalt, RHP (no question marks here)
2. Mike Hampton, LHP (part-timer; isn’t likely to make more than 12-15 starts)
3. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP (better than a lot of people realize)
4. Brian Moehler, RHP (had a good 2008; can he repeat?)
5. Brandon Backe, RHP; Russ Ortiz, RHP; Clay Hensley RHP; Felipe Paulino, RHP; Fernando Nieve, RHP; etc.
The 1-3 spots are pretty much set, at least for as long as Hampton can stay healthy, and minus whatever time Wandy spends injured. The upside to having so much competition for the fifth starter spot is that it means there are a lot of options for spot starters when the opening rotation gets battered.
Today, we’ll get our second look at Russ Ortiz in an Astros uniform. A non-roster invitee, Ortiz didn’t interest me very much when he came to the organization. His career has been a mess since his career year in 2003, when he finished 4th in the Cy Young voting:
2003: 21-7, 212.1 IP, 3.81 ERA (112 ERA+), 1.314 WHIP, 149 K, 102 BB
04-08: 22-31, 431.2 IP, 5.61 ERA (76 ERA+), 1.677 WHIP, 260 K, 237 BB
So when he came to Astros camp, I figured he was just a guy brought in to challenge the other starting alternatives.
But the thing is, he looked very good in his first spring game. In his two innings of work, he allowed just one hit, walked one, and struck out three, not allowing any runs.
Sample sizes don’t get much smaller than that, but at the moment I’d say he’s the odds-on favorite for the fifth starter spot. We’ll see him today against the Yankees, and it’ll be interesting to note if he continues to perform well through the Spring, especially with Nieve’s and Hensley’s disappointing performances in yesterday’s game.