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.

Willie Mays gets a cable car named after him

Major League Baseball hall of famer  Willie Mays, who spent the majority of his career as a center fielder with the New York and San Francisco Giants, smiles as President Barack Obama honors the 2012 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants baseball team, Monday, July 29, 2013, during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. The team beat the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series, their second championship since the franchise moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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This is not exactly stunning news, but it’s Willie Mays’ 85th birthday today and any excuse to talk about Willie Mays is a good one. Happy Birthday, Willie!

The pretext is a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about how The Greatest Baseball Player of All Time (my view anyway) is getting an iconic cable car named after him. An icon named after an icon, I guess. The cable car is, appropriately, number 24.

Next month I’m taking my kids on vacation to California and we’re spending a few days in San Francisco. It’ll be a shame when I tell them we have to cancel half of a day’s plans while I make them wait for one particular cable car to come by so they can take my picture with it, but that’s just what they have to deal with given that I’m their dad.

Carlos Gomez calls out a hit piece-writing columnist

Houston Astros' Carlos Gomez (30) reacts after hitting a double in the second inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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Yesterday I wrote about a column written by Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. It was about Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez, who has had a poor start to the year.

The column, as I noted, was a hatchet job, blaming Gomez for the Astros’ problems despite the fact that Gomez is by far from the biggest of the Astros’ problems. It was particularly bad in that it presented an unedited bit of broken English from Gomez which seemed calculated to cast Gomez in a bad light. Many journalists were critical of Smith in this regard, noting that he could’ve used a translator, could have paraphrased or could’ve done some mild correction via brackets, as is often done with quotes from non-native English speakers.

Last night Gomez took to Twitter to call out Smith himself:

It’s possible to write a column about how a player hasn’t lived up to expectations without being an insensitive jackass. It’s possible to do so even in the sharpest of ways. Smith didn’t do that, however, and didn’t make an effort to try, it seems. Gomez is right to take issue with it. And I suspect that Gomez’s teammates and organization take issue with it too. Which likely doesn’t bode well for Smith getting cooperation from others in the Astros family.

Reminder: athletes are not heroes

Zack Greinke
Associated Press
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This is something of a “greatest hits” piece and it’s topic I’ve talked about here before, but I’m reminded of it again because of Facebook’s memories thing which tells me I wrote about it seven years ago today back when I was still doing stuff at my old Shysterball blog at the Hardball Times.

The topic: ballplayers as heroes. The subject of the 2009 post on the matter was Zack Greinke, who was then beginning his breakout year with the Kansas City Royals. A columnist talked about how uplifting Greinke’s story was, what with him having overcome some struggles with anxiety disorder which had caused him to leave the game for a brief period. In early 2009 he was back, baby, and better than ever and many wanted to turn him into something larger than just a ballplayer excelling at his craft.

In the post I wrote about how, while such an impulse was understandable, it was a dangerous one as athletes have been made into heroes for years and years and, so often, they end up disappointing. Because we built them up so high, however, we don’t see such instances as the mere exhibition of human fallibility. We see them as some greater failure or even a betrayal, which is both ridiculous and unfair to these men and women, even if they have failed in certain ways. They have worked hard all of their lives to be good at a particular sport. They did not promise us glory or inspiration, yet we assume that they owe us those things. Their failures, however they are manifested, are matched by our failures at expectation management.

But it’s even more pernicious than that. Because, as I wrote at the time, when we create heroes, we necessarily create the need for villains and we will go out of our way to find those too, justified or otherwise:

“Hero” is too strong and baggage-laden a word anyway. As [Bill] James notes, it places a heavy burden on young men, and these guys are under such scrutiny day-in and day-out that they really don’t need it. What’s more, the term hero it necessarily assumes its opposite — villain — and demands that we search them out too. You know, to restore balance to the universe and everything. Often — as in the case of A-Rod and Gooden and Bonds and all of the others — they’re the same people, just older . . . Hero creation, worship, and subsequently, destruction has long been a part of baseball. But it’s not an essential part, and in my mind not a desirable part.

Seven years later we’re still doing this. As Bill James noted in his “Historical Baseball Abstract,” “When a young player comes to the major leagues and has success right away, writers will almost always write about what a fine young man he is as well as a supreme talent.” Many of them, like Zack Greinke, will prove to continue to be fine older men, just as they were fine young men. Some will not. Would it not be better if we didn’t get so invested in how fine a young man any one of them is? Or, short of that, if we didn’t act so betrayed and victimized if they turn out not to be such a fine young man?

I like to hear a good story about a baseball player who, by all outward appearances, seems like a good person. But I’m content to give such a story a smile and leave it at that. If we require heroism, there are people who do truly heroic things in the world beyond throw baseballs.

Andrew McCutchen apologies to an official scorer he said should be fired

Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) watches from the dugout during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Pittsburgh. Detroit won 7-3.(AP Photo/Don Wright)
Associated Press
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Andrew McCutchen made an error on Wednesday night. He thought he shouldn’t have been charged with one on the play, however, and afterward said “whoever scored that an error should be fired. That’s unbelievable. I did everything I could to catch it.”

It was a dumb comment for two reasons. First, a player “doing everything he can” on a play doesn’t make a misplay not a misplay. The “e” ain’t about effort, man. I realize scoring has gotten somewhat lax in recent years and players are routinely not given errors if it looks like they really, really tried, but there is not an intent element to the crime of making errors on the playing field. If you muff one, you muff one.

It was a dumb comment for another reason, and that’s that it was just not very nice. As we noted when David Ortiz or some others have made publicly disparaging comments about official scorers, it’s the ultimate punching down. These are people who have other jobs, aren’t public figures, don’t get paid a lot and really, really don’t have it in for anyone. Publicly criticizing them is bad enough, publicly demanding their jobs is pretty low.

Thankfully, with a day’s worth of reflection, McCutchen realized that this was the case and apologized. There aren’t public words from McCutchen available, but the club said that he reached out to the scorer and personally apologized. As he should’ve.