Do the Houston Astros have what it takes?

43 Comments

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.

Rob Manfred is prepared to implement a pitch clock unilaterally for 2018

Getty Images
17 Comments

Rob Manfred has long been on record wanting to speed up the pace of play in baseball and, to that end, last year proposed a 20-second pitch clock. Pursuant to baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, he could not implement that unilaterally last year. However if, one year after a proposed rules change, no agreement can be reached with the union, he has the power to impose the originally-proposed change unilaterally.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic says today that he is prepared to do just that — imposing that pitch clock and a rule limiting mound visits — for the 2018 season. He further says that the players might very well allow him to do that, despite the fact that they and Manfred are currently negotiating an agreed set of rule changes.

Why? Because, Rosenthal says, if they step aside and let Manfred do it by himself and the rules changes prove unpopular, he’ll take the blame for it:

If enough players oppose the changes, they could absolve themselves of responsibility and allow Manfred to force the issue by introducing the two key elements of MLB’s plan: a 20-second pitch clock and reduction in mound visits. The onus then would be on Manfred to deal with any public fallout and unintended consequences the new rules might trigger.

I’m not sure, based on the story itself, if that’s just Rosenthal’s speculation or if it’s actually a potential union strategy to do nothing and let Manfred own the rules changes. If it’s the latter, though, it’s a monumentally stupid strategy. For a few reasons.

The first and biggest reason is that it is not a union’s job to play public relations games. It’s a union’s job to make workplace conditions as good as possible for its membership via bargaining. Rob Manfred is required to engage with the union on these rules changes for a limited time and is doing so, apparently in good faith. The union, while not possessing great leverage here, has at least some ability to put its two cents in on a rule that impacts all of its members and could, conceivably, make the rules a bit better for them. Barring that, they could at least attempt to obtain some sort of concession in another area in order to get their agreement to the rule. Blowing the chance to have input on work rules because of a chance to win a public relations fight is an abdication of responsibility for a labor union.

Second: there is not going to be any sort of public relations win for the union regardless of what happens. Indeed, to even think there could be one is to ignore what has happened with every rules change in baseball history and how they have played with the public.

No matter how much some people complain about a change in baseball — and some people love to complain — most folks eventually get used them. The DH rule just celebrated its 50th anniversary. People moan, but it’s just part of life. Same with interleague play and divisional realignment and expanded playoffs and no-pitch intentional walks and the takeout slide rules and everything else. The complaints about such things are loud, but they’re not deeply felt or widely felt by any but a handful of self-proclaimed traditionalists. The game chugs on and most people get used to it without there ever being the kind of P.R. fallout that puts egg on the league’s face or which puts the players in some better light. If the pitch clock rule is imposed, people will complain a lot and lot of ink will be spilled about it, but it won’t do anything to substantially harm the league let alone help the players.

That speaks to a larger historical lesson about public relations and players, of course: they’re almost always going to be seen as the bad guys by fans, no matter what they do.

Owners abused their power for a century and fans didn’t care. Starting in the 1960s, when the players finally began to effectively assert their leverage, the players were cast as greedy mercenaries. An owner gives out a foolishly large contract and the player is blamed for taking it. The owners band together in an illegal scheme to harm the players’ interest and the owner who orchestrated it is inducted into the Hall of Fame. The DH rule gets imposed and players who excel as designated hitters are viewed poorly by the writers and the public when it comes time to consider their Hall of Fame case. A new rule gets implemented to deal with slides and it’s not “The Rob Manfred slide rule” it’s “The Chase Utley Rule.” The players are the visible ones. They bear the brunt of just about anything that happens.

Which is to say, if the pitch clock creates some weird situations or controversies, the players involved in those situations and controversies are going to be the ones to take the blame. Just imagine a Dodgers-Giants game that turns on some weirdness involving Madison Bumgarner taking too long to deliver a pitch to Yasiel Puig, forcing in the walkoff run. Imagine that both Bumgarner and Puig saying the other was to blame. Imagine that the umpires messed up the application of the rule. You think Rob Manfred is going to catch hell for it as opposed to the players and the umpires involved? Hell no. Giants fans will yell that Puig did something that should’ve caused the clock to be reset. Dodgers fans will blame Bumgarner for taking too long. It’ll dominate the news for a couple of days but it won’t be the league and its owners taking crap for it.

Against that backdrop, why in the heck would the union try to win some P.R. battle? Screw the P.R. battle. Union leadership — including Tony Clark and the player reps — should negotiate for the best rules possible for the players they represent and let the public relations chips fall where they may.

Will they do that? Based on how the last few management-labor battles have gone, I don’t have a lot of confidence. In recent years the union has seemed far more focused on relatively short term and picayune concerns while trying not to look like the bad guys to fans. Meanwhile, the meat and potatoes labor issues which sometimes require a union to take unpopular stances in the long term, big picture interests of the players have been dominated by the owners. Ask the free agents who can’t find a team because the luxury tax is far lower, compared to revenues, now than it was 15 years ago and is serving as a defacto salary cap. Ask the guys who are being lowballed because of the qualifying offer.

It appears as though we’ll have a pitch clock in 2018 one way or another. The players need to decide pretty quickly if they’re going to have some say in that process or if they’re going to allow themselves to be marginalized in the management of the game even more than they already have been.