Detroit Tigers v Houston Astros

Do the Houston Astros have what it takes?

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The Houston Astros have five pseudo regulars in thelr lineup — FIVE — who are striking out more than once per game. This is a rather astounding achievement, possibly historic, and it leads to my prediction that this team will get no-hit before the year’s out, maybe twice. They have already flirted with no-nos — Yu Darvish took a perfect game into the ninth against them and Justin Verlander had them no-hit for six innings on Sunday. It will happen.

But what makes the Astros special is that their lineup is probably the best part of the team. Their pitching staff is obviously trying to become legendary. At the moment, their rotation includes Erik Bedard (7.36 ERA), Phillip Humber (8.82 ERA) and Brad Peacock (9.41 ERA). Each of these pitchers has been extraordinary in one way or another this year. Bedard has given up an  eight home runs in 22 innings, which, honestly, would be tough to do if you were throwing batting practice. The league is slugging .681 against Peacock. And the league is hitting .349 against Humber. Your 3-4-5 pitchers, ladies and gentlemen.

CSN Houston: Astros hold team meeting after being swept

It is hard not to feel sorry for second baseman Jose Altuve, a good young player perhaps breaking out into stardom. Nobody notices.

Right now, the Astros are 8-24, right at the the magical .250 winning percentage that the 1962 New York Mets nailed perfectly. Those Mets went 40-120, and they did it with a breathtaking consistency that, even 50 years later, fills the soul with joy.

1962 Mets

April: 3-13 (.231)

May: 9-17 (.345)

June: 8-23 (.258)

July: 6-23 (.207)

August: 8-26 (.235)

September: 6-18 (.250)

That’s how you do it — month after month after month of consistent awfulness. You think it’s easy, but it isn’t. There are series when the other team is beat up and uninterested. There are games when the bounces break your way. There are times when the umpire gives you a good call and the ball looks like a beach ball coming in. You have to overcome that sort of good fortune and still find ways to lose.

Look at those Mets: Sure, they got blown out 37 times by five runs or more — but that’s the easy part. This Astros team is on pace to being blown out 50 times this year. The hard parts: The Mets had to lose 39 of the 58 one-run games they played, which is a real challenge even for a terrible team. They had to lose 13 of the 17 games they played that went into extra innings. They had to have an LVP …  a player who found ways, through performance and bad luck and sheer happenstance, to deliver losses consistently, even when victory seemed assured. That Mets team had a 23-year-old righty named Craig Anderson, who served the role beautifully.

Anderson had talent. He was a good pitcher at Lehigh, and the Mets took him from St. Louis in the expansion draft. Through May 20, he was 3-1 with a couple of saves and a 2.38 ERA. On May 12, he actually earned the win in both games of the doubleheader, pitching two scoreless innings in the first game and one scoreless in the second. Anderson could never have known then what was about to happen to him.

On May 24, he gave up back to back RBI singles to Frank Howard and John Roseboro to turn a 2-2 game into a 4-2 loss. Three days later, he came into a game against the Giants with the Mets leading 5-2. A single (to Willie Mays), double, single, wild pitch, stolen base, walk and passed ball later, the Mets lost 6-5. Next time out, tie game, Anderson allowed a homer to Willie Davis to lose another.

He entered a game the Mets were losing 4-0, and pitched pretty well for 5-plus innings. The Mets scored four runs to tie the game in time for Anderson to give up what turned out to be the losing runs. He was one out away from getting a save against the Cubs when third baseman Rod Kanehl botched a ground ball. Anderson promptly walked the next guy and gave up a three-run homer to Ernie Banks. He blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth against the Houston Colt 45s, with Joey Amalfitano lining the walk-off single, The Mets led 3-2 in the seventh, and Anderson gave up the tying homer to Billy Williams. He started a game against the Pirates and lasted 1/3 of an inning, giving up five hits before he was pulled. Two starts later, he threw a complete game against St. Louis and allowed only three runs — and lost 3-2.

He got shelled against the Dodgers and lasted only an inning. Pitched into bad luck in Cincinnati and lost 5-3. Blew a save in Milwaukee and then had a bad start in Milwaukee two days later. Lasted only 3 1/3 innings his next two starts. Gave up 11 runs — only three earned — against the Dodgers. Blew a lead in Houston when the guy he intentionally walked scored on a single and an error by left fielder Frank Thomas.

These are just the lowlights of a pretty incredible season, one where Anderson lost 16 straight games, blew six saves and allowed 27 unearned runs in barely more than 100 innings over a four month period. Well, if you’re going to lost 120 games in a season, you need that kind of individual performance and team effort to pull it off.

The question is: Does this Houston Astros team have the staying power to be that kind of awful all year long? Oh, they’re bad … no question about that. They will lose 100 games. But, those of us who have spent much of our lives following and studying bad teams know: It’s not easy to stay THAT bad for an entire season. The 2005 Kansas City Royals were probably the worst team I have watched with regularity, which is saying something when you consider I watched the 1985 and 1991 Cleveland Indians, the 2004 and 2006 Kansas City Royals with regularity.

That 2005 Royals team had a magic about them. They started the year with Tony Pena as manager — he quit in May. Bob Schaefer took over in an interim capacity, which saddled the poor guy with a lifetime 6-12 career record. Then Buddy Bell came in and piloted the team to a delightful 19-game losing streak. The Royals that year lost one game when the left fielder dropped a pop-up, lost another when two fielders started jogging back to the dugout with the ball still in the air, lost another when a pitcher, in attempting to get force out at the plate from about 40 feet away, threw the ball roughly 50 feet over the catcher’s head. It was an astonishing team, really.

They only lost 105 games, though.

The 2003 Tigers are probably the worst team I watched from a relatively short distance. That team had it all. The couldn’t hit, couldn’t field, couldn’t pitch. The Tigers’ best starting pitcher — their very best, and it wasn’t especially close — was Nate Cornejo, who went 6-17 with a 4.67 ERA and (I find this quite amazing) just 46 strikeouts in 194 innings pitched. That’s 2.13 strikeouts per nine, if you are scoring at home, and that’s the lowest total for any qualifying pitcher in the last 50 years. You would expect more strikeouts than that by mistake. Repeat: He was their BEST starter.

And the Tigers were even worse offensively — dead last in almost every category, Just one example: They hit 73 fewer doubles than any team in the league. One more example: Their .300 on-base percentage was tied for the worst in the league in a decade — tied with themselves one year earlier.

But they too could not quite maintain the magical .250 win percentage.They tried, Lord they tried, but playing the Royals and Twins at the end of the year, they could not help but win five of their last six to go 43-119 … and the 1962 Mets players filled their champagne glasses and toasted themselves once more.

The 2010 Seattle Mariners are the worst offensive team I’ve ever seen. Ichiro hit .315 with 42 stolen bases in more than 700 plate appearances that year … and scored just 74 runs. That’s almost a mathematical impossibility. The team was last in batting averages, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, doubles, triples and home runs. Forty three times that year, the Mariners score one or zero runs, most in the AL since 1990. But that team still managed to lose only 101 games, largely because of that party pooper Felix Hernandez, who won the Cy Young Award with his league leading 2.27 ERA and dominant pitching.

The 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks were terrible in so many different ways. They were dead last in the league in on-base percentage. They were near the bottom in walks allowed and ERA. And, wow, was that team a defensive disaster. They gave up more than 100 unearned runs,. But as bad as they were, they were not quite bad enough — at one point early in the year they won eight of 12 to more of less guarantee they would not lose 120 games.

Even the 1988 Orioles, who lost their first 21 games and finished the year dead last in both runs scored and runs allowed, lost only 107.

Does this Astros team have the staying power to challenge the ’62 Mets? They did show something over the weekend, first losing a hard-fought 4-3 game to Detroit and then losing 17-2 and 9-0. They have given up seven or more runs 15 times already. Their record when they allow four-plus runs is a choice 1-23, which shows a certain team effort. But it’s a long season. And it’s hard to maintain this kind of bad.

The New Zealand World Baseball Classic team performs the Haka

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It’s World Baseball Classic time again. Just the qualifying rounds. The actual tournament happens in 2017. Qualifiers will happen in Sydney, Australia, Mexicali, Mexico, Panama City, Panama and Brooklyn, N.Y., periodically, between now and September.

The Sydney round just got underway yesterday, so yes, some actual baseball is going on. As I’ve written and ranted before, the WBC is not my favorite thing that happens in baseball and certainly not the most important thing, but it’s pretty fun. Especially when there are displays of enthusiasm and pageantry and the like.

Such as the Haka, which basically every New Zealand sports team does and which never gets old:

 

Down in Sydney, the Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and South Africa teams are competing in a six-game, modified double-elimination format. In the other three qualifying rounds, Mexico, Czech Republic, Germany, Nicaragua, Colombia, France, Panama, Spain, Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan will compete. Each qualifying round puts one representative in the WBC.

Those four qualifiers will compete in the WBC itself against countries that performed well enough in the past that they need not submit to qualifying: Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela.

Someone make sure Jon Morosi is well-hyrdrated. It’s gonna be a long year.

Yovani Gallardo and the Orioles are both “optimistic” about a deal

Yovani Gallardo
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Multiple reports Wednesday had the Orioles and free agent right-hander Yovani Gallardo deep in negotiations on a multi-year deal. Nothing has been finalized yet, but Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com says “both sides appear to be pretty optimistic still.”

Ghiroli adds that the “ball is in the Orioles’ court,” although that may simply reveal her likely source to be Gallardo’s agent. Whatever the case, Baltimore is apparently now willing to forfeit their first-round draft pick to sign Galllardo and he may lead to a domino effect in which they also forfeit a second-round draft pick to sign outfielder Dexter Fowler.

The idea being that if you’re going to cough up the 14th overall pick to sign a mid-level free agent with spring training right around the corner you might as well cough up a lower draft pick to sign a second one. Gallardo has shown signs of decline, including a big dip in strikeout rate, but he logged 184 innings with a 3.42 ERA for the Rangers last season.

Chipper Jones says the Mets are his pick to “go all the way”

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Chipper Jones may believe some weird things but he’s pretty savvy and clear-eyed when it comes to analyzing baseball.

Remember back in 2013 how he picked the Dodgers to beat the Braves in the NLDS? And how, because of his perceived “disloyalty,” Braves players had an immature little temper tantrum and refused to catch his ceremonial first pitch? Yeah, that was a great look. If I was more inclined to the hokey and irrational, I’d say that created “The Curse of Chipper” and that it condemned the Braves to two straight years of sucking. Hey, people have built careers on curses sillier than that.

Anyway, kudos to Chipper for apparently not giving a crap about that sort of thing and, instead, saying what he thinks about baseball. Stuff like how he thinks the Mets are going to win it all, saying “They’re really setting the bar and they’re my early-season pick to probably go all the way.”

Keeping in mind that anything can happen in baseball, it’s as good a pick as any other I reckon. Even if it means he has to say that the team who was his greatest rival during his playing career — and whom he thoroughly owned during that time — is better than the one that pays his salary now. Or any other one.

Did Tony La Russa screw Jim Edmonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy?

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Yes, that’s a somewhat provocative question. But it’s still an interesting question, the relevancy of and merits of which we’ll get to in a second. I pose it mostly so I can tell you about some neat research a friend of mine is doing and which should make Hall of Fame discussions and the general discussion of baseball history a lot of fun in the coming years. Bear with me for a moment.

There has long been a war between metrics and narrative. The folks who say that so-and-so was great because of the arc of his story and his career and those who say so-and-so was not so great or whatshisface was way, way better because of the numbers. Those views are often pitted as irreconcilable opposites. But what if they weren’t? What if there was some data which explained why some players become narrative darlings and others don’t? Some explanation for why, say, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Dwight Evans isn’t despite having better numbers? An explanation, that isn’t about voters being dumb or merely playing favorites all willy-nilly? What if there was some actual quantitative reason why favorites get played in the first place?

That’s the thesis of the work of Brandon Isleib. He has just finished writing a very interesting book. It’s not yet published, but I have had the chance to read it. It sets forth the fascinating proposition that we can quantify narrative. That we can divine actual numerical values which help explain a player’s fame and public profile. Values which aren’t based on some complicated or counterintuitive formula, but which are rooted in the very thing all baseball fans see every day: games. Wins and losses. The daily standings. Values which reveal that, no, Hall of Fame voters who made odd choices in the view of the analytics crowd weren’t necessarily stupid or petty. They were merely reacting to forces and dynamics in the game which pushed them in certain ways and not others.

“But wait!” you interject. “Jim Rice and Dwight Evans played on the same dang team! How does Brandon distinguish that?” I won’t give away all the details of it but it makes sense if you break down how the Red Sox did in certain years and how that corresponded with Rice’s and Evans’ best years. There were competitive narratives in play in 1975, 1978 or 1986 that weren’t in play in 1981 or 1987. From those competitive narratives come player narratives which are pretty understandable. When you weight it all based on how competitive a team was on a day-to-day basis based on how far out of first place they were, etc., a picture starts to come together which explains why “fame” works the way it does.

From this, you start to realize why certain players, no matter how good, never got much Hall of Fame consideration. And why others’ consideration seemed disproportionate compared to their actual performance. All of which, again, is based on numbers, not on the sort of bomb-throwing media criticism in which jerks like me have come to engage.

Like I said, the book won’t be out for a bit — Brandon just finished it — but in the meantime he has a website where he has been and, increasingly will be, talking about his quantification of narrative stuff, writing short articles posing some of the questions his book and his research addresses.

Today’s entry — which is what my headline is based on — isn’t really numbers-based. It’s more talking about the broader phenomenon Brandon’s work gets at in terms of trying to figure out which players are credited for their performance and which are not so credited and why. Specifically, it talks about how Tony La Russa, more than most managers, gets the credit for his success and his players probably get somewhat less than they deserve. In this way La Russa is kind of viewed as a football coach figure and his players are, I dunno, system quarterbacks. It’s something that is unfair, I think, to guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and will, eventually, likely be unfair to players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday.

It’s fascinating stuff which gets to the heart of player reputation and how history comes together. It reminds us that, in the end, the reporters and the analysts who argue about all of these things are secondary players, even if we make the most noise. It’s the figures in the game — the players and the managers — who shape it all. The rest of us are just observers and scribes.