Houston, You Are Not Good

I didn’t think I’d be writing this, but here I am. The Houston Astros are in second place in the National League Central. It’s July. It’s the second to last Friday in July, and yet the Astros have a better record than the Cubs, Brewers, and Reds; the Cardinals have a game and a half lead on Houston.

The problem: Lance Berkman just hit the disabled list. It goes without saying that Berkman is a vital clog to the Astros. He leads them in on-base average, slugging percentage, ISO, wOBA, and just about any other offensive stat of consequence. Berkman’s replacements aren’t so good, in fact, Berkman’s infield mates aren’t very good. In his absence, Chris Coste has taken over the first base duties. That leaves Kazuo Matsui, Geoff Blum, Jeff Keppinger, and Miguel Tejada rounding out the infield. Here’s a look at their wOBA to date:

Tejada .356
Coste .298
Keppinger .323
Blum .316
Matsui .289

Throw in Matt Kata and Darin Erstad for good measure and the Astros still only have one better than league average hitter standing on the dirt. None are too stellar with the glove either, which leaves the Astros in a rough predicament. They don’t have the young pieces to acquire a stand-in first baseman, or brand new second baseman. Instead, they’re left to make do with what they have. With so little depth a playoff run seems fairly hard to imagine.

Truth is, I’m not sure how they got to this point. Matthew showed them as the luckiest team in baseball recently and I think the shoe fits. They have top heavy talent. On offense four players are worth 2+ WAR and Carlos Lee/Ivan Rodriguez are worth 1+. After that, only two other batters over a half a win. Same can be said for their pitching staff. Two starters over two wins, one starter with a win, a reliever in Chris Sampson who is quite good, Russ Ortiz doing swingman duties, and that’s it. Those are your players with 0.5+ WAR.

They have a ton of negative valued players though. The pitching staff has Geoff Geary, Doug Brocail, and Brandon Backe (amongst others) to thank for -2 WAR while the batters should send parting gifts to Jason Smith and Jason Michaels; -2.3 WAR without counting the pitcher contributions on offense. That’s -4.3 WAR. If you take Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee off the team to date, they combine for 3.8 WAR. That’s how bad some of the players the Astros are relying on are.

Maybe they can sneak into first place for a few days, just for their fans sake, but it’s not going to last long. Frankly I might be a bit irked as an Astros fan, all this luck is going to cost Houston a nice draft pick for their efforts.

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46 Responses to “Houston, You Are Not Good”

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  1. Tom B says:

    how did you manage to write an entire article about the astros and not mention hunter pence once?

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    • DK says:

      Hunter Pence doesn’t exist on fangraphs (or to Charlie Manuel). He wasn’t mentioned in the 2009 MLB Trade Value articles, either.

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  2. Davidceisen says:

    Berkman is supposedly going to be out only 15 days, which means he’s not going to miss too many games. At most it will cost them a game. None of the NL Central teams are really that strong anyway.

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  3. Joe R says:

    Weak division, it’s a crapshoot for anyone but the Reds and Pirates. The winner of the division may just end up being the luckiest.

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  4. Evan says:

    Wow! Why the hate, man? I read FanGraphs every day, and I never see an author write this way about a team…did the Astros organization do something terrible to you?

    Jason Smith, Doug Brocail, Geoff Geary, and Brandon Backe are either no longer with the team, are injured, or are in AAA with zero chance of rising up to make the big league club again this season. Take out their terrible performances, and the team doesn’t look so bad.

    The Astros appear “lucky” because of their run differential/strength of schedule so far. Again, every team has throw away blowout losses that skew their pythag record. This team is no different. They’re something like 0-8 in games decided by 8+ runs…they lose blowouts, in other words.

    True, maybe, they aren’t that good, and maybe they don’t have a great farm system (ok, they don’t have a good farm system!), but why the need to jump all over them like this?

    As far as costing the team a draft pick…it’s not like it’s the NBA or NFL where early first rounders are more of a sure thing. It’s baseball. Tons of busts, no matter if you pick #4 or number #24 in the first round.

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    • joser says:

      Doesn’t look like hate to me. But then I’m not an Astros fan, so perhaps I’m not appropriately biased.

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  5. steve-o says:

    Quick question, how do the Astros have a better record than Chicago?

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  6. scott says:

    Lance Berkman is a key clog? Like the shoe?

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    • Travis L says:

      This must be a reference to Joe Morgan’s infurating quotations about how he hates slow guys who get on base a lot because they “clog up the bases”. Very funny, even if unintentional.

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  7. Lee says:

    Awesome article. I really liked the part of Houston’s reliance on Backe (no longer in the organization), Brocail (DL), Geary and Smith (Triple-A Round Rock). Then there was also the part about them being above the Cubs in the standings. Awesome research there as well. Not to mention the part about not having enough young-pieces in the minors to acquire a stand-in first baseman (I agree, Castro, Lyles, Seaton, Norris, Towles, Lo, etc. suck).

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    • Davidceisen says:

      There really isn’t a need to trade for a stand-in first baseman, as Berkman will be back in two weeks. However they could trade for a Teahen or Andy LaRoche type 3rd baseman who could slide into first until Berkman gets back and then take Keppinger’s spot at 3rd.

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      • Ezra says:

        Adam LaRoche types abound and they are cheap.

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      • Lee says:

        I wasn’t suggesting that they would or should. Just being critical of the overused, lazy and incorrect comment that the Astros system is totally bereft of talent (so much so that they couldn’t even trade for a ‘stand-in first baseman’).

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  8. Robert from Kingwood says:

    The NL Central is a like rush hour traffic on Loop 610 in Houston – Whoever can navigate the off-/on-ramps better will win. Right now Milwaukee and St. Louis are looking at Halladay or Lee. If either one of them (or both) add that kind of ace to their starting pitching, it may be enough to pull them ahead of the mediocre pack by mid-August. The Astros are playing like college kids pulling an all-nighter before finals. However, once the Red Bull wears off, where will they be left standing? Wandy & Roy are as good as it gets right now for a 1-2 punch, but unless the 3-5 can hold up, it will be hard for them to get any real separation no matter how hot Tejada & Lee’s bat are. If either cool off, cue the fat lady! With 2009 up in the air, I say the Astros should shy away from any big “buy” moves as their farm system sets them up nicely for the next couple of seasons. The Cubs are the Cubs. Lovable to some, despised by most so they get no love from me, an Astros fan, as the Cubbies are underperforming like a 60-year old porn star on a three-day bender. Pirates and Reds? ‘Nuff said.

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  9. Pat says:

    Why all the hate for the Astros? God forbid a team without a good farm system wins games these days. Getting a higher draft pick really isn’t a big deal, because aside from being in the top 5, there is usually talent to be had throughout the whole draft, it’s not like other sports where you can trade picks and high picks have enormous value.

    They’re just trying to win games, granted they have a bit of an odd roster, but they are making due with what they have. The farm system is getting a little better, if they just draft well, they’ll be better prepared for when their core completely breaks down. Why don’t we start bashing the Cubs as well? They’re built fairly similarly to the Astros and are failing even more.

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  10. rfs1962 says:

    Or Carlos Lee — well, except to discount him. Or Michael Bourn. Look, I expect them to fade, but they may have the best outfield in the division, the third-base platoon has worked OK, Tejada’s still hitting, and they’ve gotten rid of the pitchers who were killing them. Brandon Backe hasn’t pitched in a month, and Brocail and Geary haven’t pitched in two months. The Chris Coste pickup is probably a little thing, but it improves their previously hopeless bench.

    You could say they’ve been lucky, but they have five games in which they’ve been outscored 58-5. That could be a sign of their awfulness or it could just be a weird thing, but either way they packed about 10 games worth of losing into 5 games. I’m calling it efficient.

    I feel compelled to apologize for them. They are old, they dress badly, they lack impressive statistical support. My guess is they’ll go down in a blaze of pulled hamstrings, but there’s a lot of mediocre baseball being played in that division. If you’re this close with 67 games to play, it doesn’t cost anything to keep playing.

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    • Cubbie says:

      Backe was DFA’d and refused assignment, if I remember correctly. Hence not pitching for a month …

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    • Aaron B. says:

      The Brewers have a better outfield. Easy

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      • rfs1962 says:

        Small advantage for the Brewers outfield, probably. Braun >> Lee, Cameron > Bourn, Pence >> Hart. Is Bill Hall the worst regular in the majors? Just wondering.

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    • Reuben says:

      It costs the prospects that they could be acquiring if they were trying to move some of their pieces, specifically Tejada, Valverde, and Oswalt. The belief that they’re in the playoff hunt is hurting the team in the long run. They should be rebuilding; they don’t have nearly enough to win.

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      • rfs1962 says:

        I don’t think they’d trade Oswalt, and the value of a couple of months of the first two guys is far from clear. (I’d be fine if they traded Valverde.) I don’t think they’d get top prospects. Plus, is it smart to get in the habit of throwing away your season when you’re two games out?

        Part of me wishes they’d been awful so they could add some prospects. But they have a 20 percent chance of going to the playoffs, according to CoolStandings. I say play on.

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  11. Alireza says:

    Erstad is a tremendously good defender at 1B, though his bat seems to have completely disappeared at this point. Andy LaRoche could make some sense, especially considering he can also play 2B, but I don’t know if he ever becomes the hitter he was supposed to.

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  12. John says:

    I’ve read the article, then I had to do a search for “Pence”, then “Hunter” nothing. Does not compute.

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  13. Tom says:

    Who the heck trades for a “stand in first basemen” for a precautionary 15 day DL stint?

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  14. jacob g says:

    wheres the clever title: Houston, You Have A Problem.

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  15. Walt C. says:

    This is weak analysis. I love the site and the stats and analysis are terrific in spotting trends with players, but you’ve completely missed the story with the Astros. The story is Pence and Bourn, especially, improving. The story is high contact rates from Tejada and Lee steadying the ship in RBI situations. The story is Wandy Rodriguez emerging and Oswalt maintaining his excellence. Berkman is Berkman, he’s been fighting this injury and will end up with his numbers. Let’s talk about the guys you didn’t mention:

    Bourn- K/BB up to .5 from .33, LD% up to 23% from 16.7%, flyballs down, doing a better job bunting, hitting the other way. Your little salary thing says he’s worth $11.2 MM if. Anyone watching the Astros even sporadically the past 2 years would know that this guy’s improving pretty steadily… 1st derivative and 2nd derivative look nice on Bourn.

    Pence- K/BB up to .62 from .32. Batted ball stats are stable. Monster power, size, and speed would indicate that if he can continue to improve with his approach (not quite the monotonic improvement we’ve seen with Bourn) the ceiling is quite high. Your salary thing has him worth $9.3 MM this year.

    The team won 86 games despite Pythagoras last year and is notably improved at C and CF and there are some huge arms at AAA. But yeah, throw dirt on them, they’ve won 31 of they’re last 49, only lost 3 of 15 series over that stretch, took 5 of 7 from the Dodgers and Cards… they’re not good.

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  16. Alex JN says:

    Fangraphs “missed the story”? This article is way too critical? Maybe I missed something, but the article doesn’t seem to me to be any indictment of the organization as a whole, just a statement that their major league squad at this moment isn’t particularly good for where they are in the playoff race. This doesn’t read to me as nearly the slap in the face to the organization that some seem to be taking it as.

    For example, I have a rooting interest in the Nationals and, in a season a few years ago, they were in the playoff race relatively late due to winning a large number of one-run games. If fangraphs had written an article at the time saying that the Nationals weren’t very good, I wouldn’t have taken offense – it’s not a criticism of the organization, just a statement of fact based on statistics other than W-L. It also would have turned out to be extremely correct.

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  17. Andrew says:

    The Astros may be 7 games behind the Cards in third-order wins, but the Cubs and Brewers are 5 and 6 games back respectively and no one is writing them off. As a bunch of people have said, when Houston is losing they bring in crappy relievers and then get killed. When the game is close, Way-Rod and Oswalt have usually had brilliant outings with no run support and eke out a win.

    This is one way in which pythagereon record undervalues good pitchers and overvalues bad ones. A team that is consistently able to preserve small leads with ace relievers and send in a Gagne when they’re trailing (and get shelled) isn’t that much worse than the team without the Gagne.

    Also there are very strong financial incentives to stay in a playoff hunt and to not sell the team when you’re just 2 games back. A playoff-hunt fills seats and gets ratings.

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  18. Kyle says:

    The title for this blog should be R.J. Anderson is a douchebag. Please do a little research before typing inaccurate dreck like this. Oswalt should have at least 10 wins, but hasn’t gotten run support(just like every season.) Wandy Rodriguez should have been an all-star with his 2.72 ERA, 10(should be 12 wins) and 117 k’s. Plus Hampton has been pitching well enough to keep us in games(not to mention he homered off Santana just now.)

    Berkman will miss 15 games, and that’s going to hurt. As for Berkman’s infield mates, I guess you haven’t been paying attention. Tejada is hitting .329, on pace for over 200 hits and 50 doubles while only striking out 28 times. The outfield is tied for third in assists, and has the least amount of errors. Pence is around .300 for the season, and is very streaky. He could go on a tear. While Lee is overpaid, he’s still hitting .308 and on pace for 25 homeruns and 100 RBI.

    Also they are 2nd in team batting average in the National League, and 6th in ERA. They’re second to last in strikeouts so they always have a chance. The outfield is tied for third in assists, and has the least amount of errors. (You’re a fan of numbers, aren’t you?)

    The Astros farm system sucks. But with Jordan Lyles(18) who throws 96-98 and Ross Seaton also 18. They’re now considered untouchables by BaseballAmerica.com. Plus Bud Collins and Jon Gaston(only 18 and leading the minors with 27 homeruns, most on the road.) Things are looking up, and they could easily make a trade or two.

    So bottom line, this is one of the most inept, poorly written “blogs” I’ve seen. No one expected the Astros to even be in the hunt, Sherlock. I was thinking the title might be facetious, but alas, you cracked the case.

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    • Ray says:

      Way off the line reply

      First of all, its incredibly off target to attack an author, especially a credible one at that, just because he wrote a negative article about your team.

      If an author did that for my cubbies or rays, I would find it interesting, and allow me to make my own opinions based on his or her professional knowledge.

      Secondly, YOUR pitchers (to say the least) are not good. ANY team that goes into a season with Brian Moehler as your fourth starter should just give up. And I find it humorous that you brought up errors and batting average in this forum…what a joke

      maybe you should do a bit more research and a little less trolling

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      • Tom B says:

        doesn’t change the fact that this article was poorly written and seemingly rushed. there’s more research done in the comments than in the original article.

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  19. Robert from Kingwood says:

    Ray…Ray…Ray…easy killer. While I am not for name-calling, clearing the credible author left himself open for attack by building some of his foundational arugrments mentioning 4 players who are either in the minors or no longer with the team. Since you are a Cubbies fan, that would like mentioning Kerry Woods is hurting your team this season (well maybe all the money and time invested in him considered it might not be a stretch). But I digress.

    I am an Astros fan who hears time a ticking due to our older players. I am very much in favor of selling Tejada or Valverde if the deal is right, which I believe the AL East and West are going to be big buyers at the deadline. We should keep what base of a farm system intact for next year and the year after. The Astros shouldn’t “buy” anything. I also believe in Dennis Green’s favorite quote “They are who we thought they were”. The Astros were not expected to do much of anything this season due to bad pitching not being able to support our good hitting. Hence our .500 at the break. Looking at the Mets and the Cubbies, I would say it is better to be an Astros fan right now then a fan of either of those teams because the expectation for those storied franchises were much higher than their current records indicate. If we make another run to the playoffs, it would be a Cinderella Story. If we don’t, we weren’t suppose to this season. However, the Mets and Cubs don’t make it? Riots in the streets. And if I had their lineups & depth, I would be there with pitchfork & torch in hand too!

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  20. Andrew says:

    When a team is the “luckiest” in baseball two years in a row, does that mean something else is going on? Or still too small a sample to call it a pattern? I thought HOU was hugely fortunate to be where they were last year, and now here they are again, doing the same thing. My argument that it’s all luck gets weaker the more that happens.

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  21. gary says:

    What this shows is that stat geeks are just as irrational as the mainstream writers they hate on. When real world events don’t match the stat geeks’ assertions, they just dismiss the real world. Classy.

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    • Joe R says:

      To be fair, the ‘stros are 4 games up on their phytag W-L.

      Still, even if they are only a 76 win team at year’s end, it’s better than the absolute miserable portrayal here.

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  22. Justin says:

    I am shocked at the responses to this article. The article rang pretty true to me.

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    • Tom B says:

      it looks like this article was written months ago and new numbers were just plugged in or something. he’s got AAA guys and guys not even on the roster negatively effecting the review, and failed to even mention their 2 youngest and brightest, bourn and pence.

      there was more research conducted in the comments than he actually did for this article and its really sub-par for this website.

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  23. BlackOps says:

    Damn, what’s with the influx of the fuckheads?

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  24. Tweety says:

    Vital COG – that is all

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