5 Reasons to Be Bullish on the 2012 Houston Astros
The 2011 campaign has been tough for the Houston Astros and their fans. However, most dispassionate observers agreed that this kind of year had to happen. It probably happened a few years to late, but it finally happened. The core of veterans before the Killer Bs ran its course in the late 1980s. There were a couple of awkward years in there, but when the club traded away some of those key veterans, they got back the young core that just finally ran its course a few years ago.
Ironically, exactly 20 years ago, the Astros had the worst record in baseball. Naturally, we don't need to be reminded of how they spent the No. 1 overall pick (Phil Nevin instead of Derek Jeter). Yet, 1992 and the next several years each saw growth. There are reasons to be believe in that growth again, even if watching the product on the field this season leaves a lot to be desired.
Improved Team Defense
The 2011 Houston Astros currently stand 28th in a statistic called defensive efficiency rating (DER). DER is a very sobering statistic because it is so simple in its calculation. Once you remove home runs, what percentage of another team's balls in play get converted into outs? Right now, the Astros stand with a .682 DER. By comparison, the Tampa Bay Rays stand in first with a .724 DER.
At the trade deadline, the Astros ranked 29th in DER, ahead of only the Chicago Cubs. To put this in perspective, we should look at the bottom five teams in DER. They include the Cubs, Minnesota Twins, Astros, New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles. In other words, we are talking about teams with losing records, who are all in last place in their division except for the Cubs (because the Astros are in last). Simply put, when you allow more hits, you allow more runs.
The Astros lost their most gifted defender in a trade with the Braves, but their best defender likely is staying. Plus, moving Carlos Lee to first base improves left field immensely. Jose Altuve and Jimmy Paredes are both better than their predecessors as well. So, the Astros should at least be average in 2012, which means they will have a sharp improvement in their pitching.
People in other sports talk about it all the time. When a team has a superstar, the other players tend to sit around and watch them dominate. In the absence of that superstar, they all have to step up their games and play. The Astros didn't have any superstars, but they had one stud athlete in Michael Bourn. Bourn led the league in steals and made acrobatic plays in center field.
The Astros won't have anyone that leads the league in steals next season, but I wouldn't be surprised if they have more steals as a team. They will also likely do more hitting and running and other creative strategies that slower teams can't do.
Depending on who is in the starting lineup, the Astros could have as many as four players in the regular lineup capable of stealing bases regularly, and a couple more on the bench. It won't make the difference between last place and first place, but an effective use of the running game could account for a few extra victories over the course of a season.
Back in the 1980s, Bill James developed a formula he called the Pythagorean formula. It was based on the Greek mathematician's theories. Essentially, he took the number of runs you scored and the number of runs you allowed and spit out an expected won-loss record. Most of the time, teams finish with three games either way of their expected record. When a team finishes significantly above or below that, then they could be said to be lucky or unlucky.
Of course, in recent years this has become much more sophisticated. Baseball Prospectus has three different formulas it uses. With the exception of the San Diego Padres in the first formula, the Astros had the largest negative differential in all of them. In other words, according to the formula, they should have won as many as eight more games than they actually won.
What Bill James found is that teams usually regress towards the mean in subsequent seasons. Some teams consistently outperform or under-perform their projections, but most follow that path. So, everything else being equal, the Astros could avoid 100 losses in 2012 through Pythagoras alone. And you thought there were no practical uses for geometry.
Improved Pitching Depth
Prior to the 2011 season, the Astros signed Ryan Rowland-Smith to a $750,000 contract. That made Smith one of the highest paid AAA starters in baseball this past season. They brought him in simply because they did not want to rush Jordan Lyles. Smith failed miserably, but then again, he had a 6.00-plus ERA in Seattle in 2010. I don't know why we should be surprised.
That is where the lack of organizational depth gets you. Suddenly, you are sifting through every dumpster looking for a left-hander that has a track record and a pulse. Sometimes, these dumpster dives produce fruit, but players are in the proverbial dumpster for a reason. It is far better to produce your own talent so you can let the other teams do the dumpster diving.
Whether someone like Wesley Wright figures it out in the long term is anyone's best guess. However, the more pitchers like him that you bring in, the more likely at least one or two of them will stick. This has been the Astros way for several years now. This time, they have enough young players to build on that strategy instead of hoping someone that was effective five years ago can somehow rekindle that magic for one more season.
Increased Organizational Depth
What is true of the pitchers is also true of the position players. The Astros don't have many prospects that will knock your socks off, but they do have the makings of a roster where there will be little drop off between the regulars and the bench. The outfield alone has five current young players capable of playing everyday. What's more, with the exception of J.D. Martinez, they can all play all three outfield positions.
Increased depth means more competition. The Astros don't have to put anyone anywhere simply because there is no one else. They can play the best available player and they can easily mix and match based on matchups or based on who may be hot or cold. If Brad Mills proves capable, he could easily squeeze out a few more victories based on his ability to play around with the lineup.
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The Hall of Fame Index is a revolutionary compendium of statistics used to rate a player's fitness for the Baseball Hall of Fame. The formula is used to divide players into categories so the beat writers and Veterans Committee have an idea of who has been overlooked and who is overrated. The book is sure to inspire debate. It is also available for the Nook and Kindle for $9.95. The Hall of Fame Index was nominated for the Sporting News Award for statistical innovation in 2011.
Additionally, you can catch Scott on his podcast Hardballchat Radio once a week. The first five editions are available for free on iTunes. Guests have included people like author Mike Luery, blogger and Pigskinreport founder Eric Schmidt, beat writer of the Houston Astros Zachary Levine and Senior Director of Social Media for the Houston Astros Alyson Footer.