Houston Astros: How Moneyball Concepts Can Help Them Get Back in Contention
If you are a baseball fan, you have probably seen Moneyball by now. If you haven't read the book you should. In a past life, I taught English literature at the high school level. One of the things you have to teach is how you can take a work of literature and distill a common theme or message out of the piece.
This is often difficult when you are working with something 100 or more years old. You have to factor in the times and the world the author lived in. Moneyball is nearly 10 years old, but in sabermetric terms that almost seems like a century ago. So, anyone can pick it apart in terms of literal strategy, but if you break it down to its essential roots, the message will stand the test of time.
The core message was that successful teams will look for value where the rest do not. In 2002 that was OBP. It may not be OBP today, but there are things the monsters are missing. Some organizations are tripping through the analytical age like an aging computer geek trying to hang onto dial up and AOL. Unfortunately, the Astros are one of these organizations.
In an interview with an Astros executive, I was told that "we do plenty of statistical analysis." Well, as we say in the South, "Should I believe you or my lying eyes?" I leave his name out because I have a great deal of respect for him personally and don't want to soil any reputations by pointing out the obvious.
One of two things is true: Either the Astros aren't really doing any substantive statistical analysis or they simply don't know how to do it. I don't know which one is worse, to tell you the truth. Let me demonstrate this with only one statistic since Ed Wade has been GM.
. . . . . . . . . ..DER. . . . . .Rank (NL)
2008. . . . . . ..697. . . . . . . .4
2009. . . . . . ..677. . . . . . .16
2010. . . . . . ..680. . . . . . .14
2011. . . . . . ..680. . . . . . .15
A couple of things should be pointed out. First, usually the first season under a GM can be attributed to the previous one. This is really bad for Wade because the team only competed in 2008 and were only good at fielding in 2008. When they were able to put their own stamp on the team, the current front office sent out three consecutive duds.
Yes, I'm cherry-picking numbers here, but I could whip out just about any meaningful statistic and demonstrate the same thing. The Astros simply don't do anything well and there can be no better sign of lack of analysis than that.
I'm Down with OBP (Yeah You Know Me)
You know the words to the song above, so sing along. OBP became the mantra after Moneyball and while it isn't the end all be all of human existence, it's pretty darn close. OBP correlates better than any single statistic with runs scored. Of course, slugging percentage is a very close second.
A quick preview of the Astros' seasons under Ed Wade prove the exact same thing that the last slide showed. Either they aren't paying attention at all or they simply don't know how to find it. Here's a clue: When trying to find players that will have a high OBP, try looking at players that actually have a high OBP.
. . . . . . . . . . . .OBP. . . . .Rank
2008. . . . . . . . .323. . . . . .12
2009. . . . . . . . .319. . . . . .13
2010. . . . . . . . .303. . . . . .16
2011. . . . . . . . .311. . . . . .11
The Astros finished below the league average in every one of these seasons. What's funny is that they usually finished in the middle or towards the top in batting average. This means their isolated patience numbers are off-the-charts bad. It's almost as if walks are the bubonic plague and free swinging is the penicillin shot they've been searching for.
The Beane Count
The Beane count has evolved since the days of the book, but essentially it started off as an accounting of walks and home runs by the offense and pitching staff. Some teams (say the Padres) will never hit a lot of home runs because of their ballpark. However, if they also surrender very few then they are in decent shape.
The Astros play in the Juice Box, so they will always have plenty of home runs. The problem is when the opposition has more than just plenty. Naturally, walks are pretty portable no matter where you play your home games.
. . . . . . . . . . . .BB For. . . . . .BB Against. . . . .Net
2008. . . . . . . . . .449. . . . . . . . . .492. . . . . . . .-43
2009. . . . . . . . . .448. . . . . . . . . .546. . . . . . . .-98
2010. . . . . . . . . .415. . . . . . . . . .548. . . . . . .-133
2011. . . . . . . . ...401. . . . . . . . . .560. . . . . . .-159
While I'll let these numbers soak in for awhile, I'll point out one glaring fact. 2009 is the only season where the Astros did not finish last in walks. They finished 15th. I can't sugarcoat that and I'm not going to. They've gotten worse instead of better. God help them if they really are analyzing data because they might as well be studying actuary tables.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .HR For. . . . . .HR Against. . . . .Net
2008. . . . . . . . . . .167. . . . . . . . . .197. . . . . . . .-30
2009. . . . . . . . . . .142. . . . . . . . . .176. . . . . . . .-34
2010. . . . . . . . . ...108. . . . . . . . . .140. . . . . . . .-32
2011. . . . . . . . . . . .95. . . . . . . . . .188. . . . . . . .-93
Look at these numbers are you are liable to wonder how the Astros even won 56 games. Suffice it to say it is a perfect storm of Biblical proportions. You draw fewer walks and surrender more. You hit fewer home runs and surrender more. This is one of those algebraic equations that simply doesn't work.
Outs Are the Blood Currency of the Sport
This is something you didn't hear in Moneyball, but it's a Moneyball-type concept. Peter Brand kept talking about buying wins and runs. He is right, but the one thing every team gets are 27 outs. How you use those outs can make a huge difference in a baseball game. If you give them away on the bases or through sacrifice bunting you could be making a huge mistake.
The Astros reside right below the league average in sacrifice hits. This is a good start. They also were one of the best percentage base-stealing teams in the league as well. Give a couple of thumbs up to Brad Mills on solid strategy. Beyond that, considering outs gives you a much different way to look at players. For instance, let's take a look at three position battles coming into the 2012 season. We will use career averages in each case.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .TB+BB. . . . . .Outs. . . . . .BPO
Brett Wallace. . . . . . . . .214. . . . . . .364. . . . . . .588
J.D. Martinez. . . . . . . . ..101. . . . . . .159. . . . . . .635
Jordan Schafer. . . . . . . .198. . . . . . . .379. . . . . ..522
J.B. Shuck. . . . . . . . . . ..37. . . . . . . . .62. . . . . ..598
Jason Bourgeois. . . . . . .156. . . . . . . .322. . . . . .484
Brian Bogusevic. . . . . . ..101. . . . . . . .155. . . . . .652
These are all relatively easy decisions when you look at them, but bases per out can be very valuable before dipping into the free-agent pool. You may not feel great about Shuck in center or Bogusevic in right, but crunch the numbers first. You may find you aren't going to get a whole lot of bang for the buck.
Follow the Batted Ball
In 2010, Chris Johnson was a revelation. He came out of nowhere to be the Astros' best hitter once Lance Berkman left town. He hit for power, he hit for average and he drove in runs. He was going to make everyone forget Denny Walling.
Then, 2011 happened. Below are some of the important numbers for Chris Johnson in both seasons and you tell me what changed.
. . . . . . . . .AVG. . . . .SO%. . . .BB%. . . . .BABIP
2010. . . . . .308. . . . . .27. . . . . . .4. . . . . . . .387
2011. . . . . .251. . . . . .26. . . . . . .4. . . . . . . .317
They are virtually the same in every way except for the difference on batting average on balls in play. 2011 brought out the real Chris Johnson. He is a decent hitter when making contact, but he swings and misses too often. He also never met a pitch he didn't like. This brings us to the case of Jimmy Paredes.
. . . . . . . . . .AVG. . . . . .SO. . . . . .BB. . . . .BABIP
2011. . . . . . .286. . . . . ..28. . . . . . ..5. . . . . ..383
Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow. Just watch this one unfold. The Astros will give the job to Paredes and he will end up coming back down to earth. Without a good walk rate or power, his .250-ish bat will sink the offense like an anvil. Am I psychic? No, I just pay attention to batted ball statistics.
Matt Downs had only a .315 BABIP, walked more often, and hit for more power than either Johnson or Paredes. Seems to be he would be a nice cheap candidate for the job, but then again, the Astros will do their own "analysis."
Please No LOOGYs
Every team has to have a situational lefty. Why do they have to have one? I don't have the foggiest idea, but we hear it every spring. Inevitably, some good right-hander will be sent down or released so we can have that obligatory lefty. Of course, he can't get right-handers out and sometimes other right-handers are better at getting lefties out.
No matter, you have your situational lefty and we'll see him every time a good left-handed hitter comes up. It doesn't matter what he has done against that hitter. Is he left-handed? Yup. Is the hitter left-handed? Yup. So send him in there.
I have a better idea: Let's stack the bullpen with the best seven arms no matter whether they throw righty, lefty or shoot it out of an orifice. Get hitters out any way you can. That should be the mantra we live by.
Learn Your DIPS
DIPS stands for Defensive Independent Pitching Statistics. The best way to think of DIPS is to think of pitching and hitting as mirror images. If you are looking for hitters that walk more often and hit for more power then you are looking for pitchers that prevent hitters from doing those things.
Statistics like wins, losses and even ERA can be very deceiving. J.A. Happ would be exhibit A in that category. He had two very successful seasons in 2009 and 2010. They were based almost completely on an unusually low BABIP. If Chris Johnson and Jimmy Paredes are likely to regress then it makes perfect sense that pitchers will as well.
. . . . . . . . .SO/9. . . .BB/9. . . .HR/9. . . .BABIP
2009. . . . . ..6.5. . . . .3.0. . . . . .1.1. . . . .266
2010. . . . . ..7.2. . . . .4.8. . . . . .0.8. . . . .262
2011. . . . . ..7.7. . . . .4.8. . . . . .1.2. . . . .297
As you can see, Happ was essentially the same pitcher the last two seasons. He had more home runs this season, but he also struck out more hitters. The largest difference came in his BABIP. Funny, but even his 2011 BABIP was below the league average. His low BABIP should have raised red flags before the Roy Oswalt trade, but red flags don't matter for an organization that doesn't do real statistical analysis.
If you need another example we can move right along to Brett Myers. Those of us in Blogosphere were screaming for him to be traded at the 2010 deadline while his value was as high as it ever would be. Instead, Ed Wade gave him a new contract and pronounced that he had turned a corner. No, really he had.
. . . . . . . . .SO/9. . . .BB/9. . . .HR/9. . . .BABIP
2010. . . . . ..7.2. . . . .2.7. . . . . 0.8. . .. . .288
2011. . . . . ..6.7. . . . .2.4. . . . ..1.3. . . . ..293
Here we should mention that Brett Myers' career home run rate is exactly 1.3 home runs per nine innings. Wow, is that an amazing coincidence. His artificially low home run rate (and an artificially high LOB percentage) made more of a difference than BABIP. The end result is a very durable pitcher that is also very average. Durable pitchers with average numbers have decent value. The 2010 Brett Myers had a whole lot more.
Even if you use the right numbers, there are going to be certain players out of your price range. That's okay. The price jump between an .800 OPS hitter and a .900 OPS is enormous. This is especially true at premium positions. Carlos Lee has produced as he always did, but his production simply doesn't justify the price.
Teams get themselves in trouble during the winter meetings when they see the stars in their eyes. Stars may win you playoff games, but that does little good if you can't afford to put a team around them. Every dynasty in the game's history has stars, but they also had the secondary players you need in the dog days of summer.
Anytime when a family, small business or even large business wants to get more bang for the buck they rarely do well buying the Mercedes. They make small improvements across the board. For instance, Chris Johnson was likely among the worst five regulars in baseball when hitting and fielding is considered. You don't need Mike Schmidt. What you need is a player a little bit better.
Their catchers were collectively 29th in hitting. You don't need Johnny Bench. What you need is someone a little bit better. A combination of Jason Castro, Jimmy Paredes and Matt Downs may end up being that, but if you do go out into free agency you don't suddenly throw a ton of money at one position. You spread that money out to multiple positions.
Addendum: Scouts Have Their Place
The movie stayed true to the book, but the book was flawed. It made scouts look like they were useless. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is usually somewhere in between and more and more scouts are incorporating the new methods into their scouting. For instance, many are beginning to look at plate discipline as a tool instead of something you teach.
The reality is that 99 percent of scouts know Fabio isn't a shortstop and they don't really base off a player's ability on how good-looking his girlfriend is. These guys and girls are professionals and they know the game. Numbers matter, but people matter too. When you put both together you have a winning organization.