April in Review

added 5/1/2003 by Ray Kerby

Another April has passed and the majority of baseball fans across the country have taken their traditional April medicine: a dose of reality. In March, everyone is an optimist and every team has a theoretical shot at the post-season. The end of April is very close to the one-sixth point of the season for most teams, making this a good time to make season projections on the back of a nearby napkin.

Let's see... The Astros are 11-15, so that projects to a 90-loss season. Jeff Bagwell is projected to hit 60 homers but Lance Berkman projects to just 24 RBI. What does all of this mean? It means that while March is baseball's month of Unbridled Optimism, April is the month of Irrational Overreaction.

It is unwise to lend unnecessary relevance to player performances in April. Every regular player in the majors will play six months, and most will have one really good month and one really bad month. There's probably some kind of statistical law for this, but I wouldn't know what it's called. But there is no way of knowing when these good and bad months are going to happen, so you can figure than one-sixth of the players will have their good month in April while one-sixth will start the season with their bad month. So if you try to project a player's season based on April stats, you will be way off about one-third of the time. Jeff Bagwell is not going to hit 60 homers and Lance Berkman is not going to bat .208.

With that huge disclaimer out of the way, how exactly did the Astros play this month? In one fan forum, I projected the team to go 14-13 in April and that was the most pessimistic prediction among the fans. I don't consider myself to be a pessimist, but the phrase "Oswalt, Miller and three days of filler" was a good summation of my skepticism. And since the team went 11-15, it is safe to say that they certainly disappointed a lot of fans.

Oswalt, Miller and three days of filler

Pre-season skepticism concerning the rotation turned out to be warranted, but with an unexpected twist. The last-minute release of Shane Reynolds in Spring Training certainly ruffled a lot of feathers, both on and off the team, and it didn't help that the starting rotation was the team's weak link in April. Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller were expected to be aces, and both fell short. Oswalt was good but not great, and Miller was just plain bad. Fortunately, Tim Redding had a suprisingly good month, which gave the team the two solid starters it expected. Brian Moehler pitched poorly and landed on the Disabled List, while Jeriome Robertson did nothing to make the fans forget about Shane Reynolds. Scott Linebrink has assumed Moehler's role in the rotation and should see plenty of action in May.

My kingdom for a hit!

The offense shot out of the starting gate on Opening Day when Jeff Kent hit a home run in his first at-bat as an Astro and Jeff Bagwell became the first Astro since the team's inaugural season in 1962 to hit two homers on Opening Day. And, technically, Roman Mejias was a Colt .45, not an Astro. But by the end of the month, the team has amassed only 108 runs, 23rd in the majors. The key offensive disappointment was Lance Berkman, but the Astros had 4-5 mediocre to poor hitters in the everyday lineup (including the pitcher). In other words, there's plenty of blame to go around. Orlando Merced and Gregg Zaun have hit well off of the bench, but Jose Vizcaino struggled through a uncharacteristic 0-for-20 stretch. Morgan Ensberg drew the short end of the stick in the platoon at 3B, and has not distinguished himself in 30 or so at bats. Brian Hunter continued to play the role of the weak-hitting defensive specialist and pinch-runner who has provides no almost value to the team because the manager doesn't know the "steal" sign.

Seek and ye shall be saved

If there's been one bright point in the season thus far, it has been the performance of the bullpen. There have been several game-winning rallies by the team that would have fallen short of victory if the bullpen had not held the opposition scoreless for 3-4 innings. We often think of the role of the bullpen as "loss preventers", but they can also be seen as "rally enablers". Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel, as expected, have been outstanding. Pete Munro and Ricky Stone have pitched well, but Brad Lidge has come out of nowhere to become Outstanding Pitcher #3 in the bullpen. We've needed it. Bruce Chen and Brandon Puffer have pitched poorly in limited action.

Someone call the cavalry

There are a few players excelling at New Orleans that may be of some help to the team. Pitcher Scott Linebrink (2.70 ERA) has already been called up and replaced Brian Moehler in the starting rotation. Outfielder Jason Lane (.337 avg, 20 RBI) could return to Houston if the offense continues to struggle. However, the starting rotation is in the worst shape and both Kirk Saarloos (3-0, 1.65 ERA) and Rodrigo Rosario (3-2, 2.76 ERA) are playing well enough to warrant a promotion if a move has to be made. Jared Fernandez (2-1, 2.30 ERA) has also pitched very well but has not been as dominant as Saarloos and Rosario. Spring phenom Henri Stanley (.396 obp) deserves a mention but, as an outfielder in line behind Lane, could only expect a call-up if a reserve player is needed.

Key Player Recaps

Brad Ausmus, C

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  E
 2002:  .257 .322 .353  447  57 115 19  3  6  50   38  71   2  3  3
April:  .247 .303 .383   81   7  20  3  1  2  12    7   8   1  1  0

Brad Ausmus is following in a long line of weak-hitting Astros catchers, but he has certainly distinguished himself with his stellar defensive abilities. After receiving his second consecutive Gold Glove award early in the season, Ausmus shows no signs of slowing down, defensively. He had the game of his life on April 5th against the Cardinals, hitting his only two home runs of the season: a 1st-inning grand slam and a game-winning solo blast in the 12th. In the same game, he also threw out 3 baserunners in extra innings, including the final out of the game at third base.

For an indication of Ausmus' ability to shut down the running game, here is a comparison to recent Astro catchers:

Catcher          SB   CS  CS%
Brad Ausmus     213  150  41%
Tony Eusebio    283  119  30%
Rick Wilkins     63   25  28%
Alan Ashby      849  278  25%
Mitch Meluskey   76   24  24%
Craig Biggio    434  130  23%

As you can see, nobody on the list is even close to Ausmus. Johnny Edwards was a gold-glove caliber catcher from the team's early days, but his opposing baserunner stats are not available.


Jeff Bagwell, 1B

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  E
 2002:  .291 .401 .518  571  94 166 33  2 31  98  101 130   7  3  7
April:  .314 .390 .648  105  15  33  5  0 10  19   11  11   1  1  0

Any of those who doubted Jeff Bagwell's ability to age gracefully at the plate will have to stay in hiding for at least another month. Not only did Jeff have an outstanding month at the plate, but he's a strong contender for the National League Player of the Month. If that pans out, it would be the sixth time that Bagwell has won the award in his career.

Here are Bagwell's lines from his previous "Player of the Month" performances:

Month      HR RBI  AVG  
May 1993    7  25 .412
Jun 1994   13  28 .394
Jul 1994   11  29 .409
May 1996   10  31 .360
Jul 2001    9  36 .333

The NL RBI leaders are just a few ahead of Bagwell, but Jeff should get the award if Todd Helton's altitude-inflated numbers (6 HR, 24 RBI, .344 AVG) are properly discounted.

The big question with Bagwell concerns the state of his throwing shoulder. While it looks clear that he'll never return to his near-third-baseman arm, he is definitely throwing harder than last season. Jeff did reach a milestone with his 2000th career hit on April 26th. In typical Bagwellian fashion, it came on an infield grounder that he hustled into a hit.


Jeff Kent, 2B

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  E
 2002:  .313 .368 .565  623 102 195 42  2 37 108   52 101   5  1 16
April:  .300 .349 .520  100  13  30 10  0  4  16    8  15   0  1  4

Jeff Kent wowed the home crowd on Opening Day, launching a home run in his first at-bat as an Astro. Unfortunately, no one can sustain a 4.000 slugging percentage so things had to go downhill from there. While April was not a bad month for Kent, it was certainly lower than expectations especially considering that he was moving to a hitter-friendly home park. His three doubles and two homers in the last week are hopefully signs that during May we will soon the Kent of 2002.

Defensively, Kent will never be a Gold Glover, but his .855 Zone Rating in April is a little better than his career average at 2B (.832) and a bit higher than his 2002 rating, indicating that he hasn't lost a step yet. For comparison, here are Biggio's ratings over the last 5 seasons:

Year   ZR
1998  .862
1999  .842
2000  .826
2001  .774
2002  .796

You can clearly see the effects of Biggio's knee injury in 2000 as his ZR drops from the mid to low 800s to the high 700s. Defensively, the acquisition of Kent has brought the team's defense on the right side of the infield back to the level it was before Biggio's injury.


Geoff Blum, 3B

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  E
 2002:  .283 .367 .440  368  45 104 20  4 10  52   49  70   2  0  8
April:  .259 .323 .341   85   7  22  4  0  1   5    8   9   0  0  1

Do not be alarmed by Geoff Blum's dropoff in performance. Blum's career stats are closer to his April numbers than his 2002 numbers, and no one expected him to hit as well in 2002 as he did. There is a good chance that last season was a career year for him, and career years are not typically repeatable. Even so, April was still a down month for despite being used almost exclusively in a platoon against right-handed pitchers.

If you remove Blum's six hitless at-bats against lefties, his average rises to .282. That looks eerily close to his .283 average in 2002, but Blum was not a strict platoon player last season and batted .304 against righties. Defensively, Blum continues to have decent range at 3B while keeping his errors down.


Julio Lugo, SS

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  E
 2002:  .261 .322 .388  322  45  84 15  1  8  35   28  74   9  3  8
April:  .246 .338 .292   65   6  16  3  0  0   2    9  12   2  1  3

Lugo's offensive performance has declined slightly each year since his first season in 2000, so we should not be too surprised that this trend seems to be continuing this season. The big secret with Lugo is that he is very good defensively, despite his well-publicized defensive gaffes in the post-season. He'll never hit well enough to win a Gold Glove, but he consistently gets to a higher pct of ground balls than do other shortstops.

However, his offensive performance in April was so bad that it took an miserable showing by Jose Vizcaino keep Lugo off the bench. Even worse, Lugo's job security is now threatened by former SS prospect Adam Everett, a worse hitter than Lugo who owns something that Lugo is lacking: a defensive reputation.

Late update: With Lugo's arrest after the April 30 game for assaulting his wife, his future with the team becomes much cloudier.


Lance Berkman, LF

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  E
 2002:  .292 .405 .578  578 106 169 35  2 42 128  107 118   8  4  7
April:  .208 .337 .319   72  13  15  2  0  2   4   12  14   1  1  1

I've finally figured it out. Left Field in Houston is now officially a death trap for hitters. We watched as Daryle Ward, the "can't miss" hitting prospect, floundered in left field and at the plate during his years with the team. Little did we know that it was the evil mojo of the Crawford Boxes keeping him down. Simply put, Berkman had the worst month of his major-league career in April. There is no reason to panic (yet) because this represents an aberration of epic proportions. I'll panic if Berkman is still hitting .210 on Memorial Day.

The real concern with Berkman is his problem with switch-hitting. Like most switch-hitters, Berkman has become a far better hitter batting left-handed than right. However the difference is extreme enough that perhaps a mandate should come from the organization for him to bat exclusively left-handed.

Statistically, a typical major-leaguer gives up about 10-15 points of batting avg when facing a pitcher who throws the same way he is batting. Specifically, from 2000 to 2002, the average major leaguer took a 25-point hit to both his on-base pct and his slugging pct when facing these pitchers. That 50-point drop in OPS (on-base + slugging) is what fuels platoon situations in baseball.

You can see how Berkman has fared since 2000:

        obp/slg     obp/slg
Year    vs Right    vs Left     difference (MLB avg = 50)
2000   .401/.615   .347/.372    297 OPS
2001   .438/.661   .400/.467    232 OPS
2002   .420/.639   .351/.364    344 OPS

As you can see, Berkman has taken a tremendous hit to his performance when batting right-handed. If he batted left-handed 100% of the time, we could expect just a 50-point OPS loss against left-handed pitchers rather than the huge drop he experiences now. Even though Berkman struggled from both sides of the plate in April, his record indicates that it is time for him to quit switch-hitting and bat left-handed full time.


Craig Biggio, CF

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  E
 2002:  .253 .330 .404  577  96 146 36  3 15  58   50 111  16  2  8
April:  .243 .306 .423  111  18  27  2  0  6  15    6  20   2  2  0

A great player on the tail end of his career, Craig Biggio is doing what all great players eventually do: reach significant career milestones. In April, Biggio reached two more: career homer #200 and the NL record for career leadoff homers. Those may pale in comparison to the exploits of Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, but those are impressive accomplishments for a second baseman. The next career milestones are 1500 runs and 500 doubles, of which Biggio now needs 81 and 25, respectively. You can read about his case Hall of Fame in this article.

Of course, Craig Biggio is no longer a second baseman. With the off-season signing of Jeff Kent, Biggio "took one for the team" and willingly accepted the challenge of learning to play center field - at age 37. While Biggio's throwing ability was acceptable at second base, it is more of an issue in the outfield. Don't be surprised if Biggio continues to be a selfless player and regularly defers catches in right-center to Richard Hidalgo when there are runners on base. His range in center has been very good so far, which is amazing considering that it's been 13 years since the team last experimented with him in the outfield. Expect continued improvement as the season progresses, despite the fact that Biggio is tackling center field at an age when most players are pondering retirement.

For comparison, here's how Biggio stacks against the career Zone Ratings for some other Astros centerfielders:

 ZR  Player
.930 Craig Biggio, Hou
.904 Brian Hunter, Hou
.902 Steve Finley, Ari
.893 Richard Hidalgo, Hou
.887 Carl Everett, Tex
.862 Roger Cedeno, NYM
.839 Lance Berkman, Hou

Obviously, a huge disclaimer applies to Biggio's performance because it spans just one month. But you can clearly see that Biggio has been representing himself well in his new position.


Richard Hidalgo, RF

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  E
 2002:  .235 .319 .415  388  54  91 17  4 15  48   43  85   6  2  1
April:  .293 .377 .511   92  14  27  8  0  4  10   11  15   3  0  2

Apart from Berkman's collapse, Richard Hidalgo probably had the most unexpected month of any Astro hitter. And, unlike Berkman, Hidalgo's April was unexpected in a good way. But after disappointing seasons in 2001 and 2002, his performance begs the question: "Is this a permanent improvement?"

It all depends on what you consider to be more valuable: 88 at-bats this April, or 900 at-bats over the last two seasons? Here's a reminder of how he performed in 2000 and 2001:

         Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  
 2000:  .314 .391 .636  558 118 175 42  3 44 122   56 110  13  6  
 2001:  .275 .356 .455  512  70 141 29  3 19  80   54 107   3  5

Do we really think that Hidalgo can return to his 2000 form? That's the real question. It is also a very important question because the team is contractually obligated to Hidalgo for $8.5 million this season and $12 million in 2004. That's a ton of money for a mid-market team to spend on a player who may or may not be a star.

For that kind of money, it might not be a bad idea to closely examine Hidalgo's outstanding 2000 season. For those of you who've blocked it out of your memory, it was that horrible season when nothing went right for Houston. But, in September, Richard Hidalgo had arguably the hottest streak of hitting in the history of the franchise:

2000:    Avg  OBP  SLG   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI   BB  SO  SB CS  
Apr-Aug .275 .358 .561  451  84 124 28  1 33  90   45 100  11  5
Sept.   .477 .532 .953  107  34  51 14  2 11  32   11  10   2  1

As you can see, Hidalgo was good for 5 months but became a modern-day Babe Ruth in the final month. It was the most incredible display of hitting in team history and we may never see another one like it from an Astro in our lifetimes. If you take out that one month, suddenly Hidalgo's breakthrough 2000 season looks as close to his "disappointing" 2001 season as what he has done this April. It is been a good month, but it doesn't signal a return to glory for Hidalgo.

What's the point of all this? TRADE HIDALGO. There may never be a better chance for the Astros to strike while the iron is hot and get out from under that huge contract. Will anyone take Hidalgo and his contract? I don't know, but I strongly believe that the effort should be made. Surely there's at least one GM in baseball that will look at Hidalgo's 2000 stats and his hot start and give it some serious consideration. If Derek Bell can get a contract, then Hidalgo can be traded after a hot start. That would free up $12 million for next season, and Jason Lane could capably replace Hidalgo in the outfield.


Roy Oswalt, SP

         W-L   ERA  Avg  GS  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:  19-9  3.01 .247  35 233.0 215 86 78  17  62 208
April:   2-3  3.86 .244   6  39.2  38 23 17   4  13  34

Game Log:
Date   Opp   Inn  H  R ER BB SO HR  Pit
4/1    Col   7.0  4  2  1  2  1  0   94
4/8    Cin   8.0  4  1  1  2  6  0  119
4/13   StL   6.2  9 10  5  3  8  2  104
4/18   Mil   5.0  8  4  4  0  7  1  110
4/23   NYM   6.0  7  3  3  4  5  1  113
4/29   Atl   7.0  6  3  3  2  7  0  104

What is wrong with Roy? Is anything wrong? Oswalt had probably the best initial two seasons on any Astro pitcher, 14-3 and 19-9, but has lost 3 of 5 decisions in the first month of 2003. Sure, his won-loss record and ERA look troubling, but I'm not that worried since his underlying stats look good and he's still looking sharp on the mound.

Opposing batters are hitting just .244 against him, which is right in line with the .242 average for his career. His walk and strikeout totals are in line with his career averages, and he's not giving up an unusual number of homers. I always hate to use the word 'luck' when talking about player performances, but Roy O. just looks like the victim of bad luck.

If 5 hitters of out 20 get a hit against you, odds are that some will do so in the same inning and score a run against you. Good "luck" means you were able to spread them out and get a shutout. Bad "luck" suggests that all 5 batters bunched their hits together and scored a handful of runs.

If Roy pitches in May as effectively as he did in April, he could easily go 4-1 with a 2.00 ERA during the month. As they say, sometimes that's just the way the ball bounces.


Wade Miller, SP

         W-L   ERA  Avg  GS  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:  15-4  3.28 .249  26 164.2 151 63 60  14  62 144
April:   0-3  6.07 .305   6  29.2  36 22 20   1  17  19

Game Log:
Date   Opp   Inn  H  R ER BB SO HR  Pit
4/2    Col   3.1  7  5  5  3  2  0   79
4/9    Cin   6.0  6  3  1  1  6  0   91
4/14    SF   5.1  4  4  4  4  5  1  110
4/19   Mil   7.0  5  0  0  3  3  0  104
4/24   NYM   3.0  6  5  5  4  1  0   83
4/30   Atl   5.0  8  5  5  2  2  0   79

Like most fans, I've had major warning lights going off about Miller all month. His control has been off most of the month, which is evident from his very high walk rate and the inflated batting average against him. Unlike Oswalt, everything in his pitching line looks pretty bad. As one of the two bulwarks of a young starting rotation this season, the Astros cannot succeed this year unless Miller rebounds. It's easy to be an armchair manager and pitching coach, but I am a little paranoid that there may be something physical going on with Miller. The pessimist in me is predicting a DL stint for Miller, but the optimist in me says I have no clue what I'm talking about so just hope for the best.


Brian Moehler, SP

         W-L   ERA  Avg  GS  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:   3-5  4.86 .302  13  63.0  78 39 34  11  13  31
April:   0-0  7.90 .379   3  13.2  22 12 12   4   6   5

Game Log:
Date   Opp   Inn  H  R ER BB SO HR  Pit
4/4    StL   4.2  8  5  5  2  2  3   89
4/11   StL   5.0  6  2  2  1  0  1   54
4/16    SF   4.0  8  5  5  3  3  0   78

Brian Moehler has not been much of a disappointment. He was another in a long line of reclamation projects necessary to meet the team's budget constraints, and history has shown that these players have about a 50/50 chance of either playing decently or stinking up the joint. The Astros knew the risk they were taking with Moehler, and they ended up with the worst-case scenario: some bad starts and then a trip to the Disabled List. Hopefully they can keep finding reasons to keep him out of the rotation until they are certain he can not only pitch, but pitch effectively. There is a place for Moehler on a major-league roster, but it is not a starting rotation spot for a team that believes it can contend for the playoffs.

You can decide for yourself how successful this strategy has been for starting pitchers. Keep in mind that they all came cheaply and that the bad ones don't hang around for long.

Reclamation projects (starters) during the Hunsicker era:

Year Player             W-L   ERA  G    IP   H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
2003 Brian Moehler      0-2  7.90  3  13.2  22 12 12   4   6   5
2001 Kent Bottenfield   2-5  6.40 13  52.0  61 44 37  16  16  39
2000 Brian Powell       2-1  5.74  9  31.1  34 21 20   8  13  14
2000 Dwight Gooden      0-0  9.00  1   4.0   6  4  4   1   3   1
1998 Sean Bergman      12-9  3.72 31 172.0 183 81 71  20  42 100
1998 Pete Schourek      7-6  4.50 15  80.0  82 43 40  10  36  59
1997 Sid Fernandez      1-0  3.60  1   5.0   4  2  2   1   2   3
1997 Ramon Garcia       9-8  3.69 42 158.2 155 71 65  20  52 120 
1997 Tommy Greene       0-1  7.00  2   9.0  10  7  7   2   5  11

Of the various starters given a chance to revive their careers in Houston since Hunsicker took over the team, only 37% (3 of 8) have had any success. However, those 3 starters have accounted for 83% of the innings allotted to the group.


Tim Redding, SP

         W-L   ERA  Avg  GS  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:   3-6  5.40 .276  18  73.1  78 49 44  10  35  63
April:   2-2  3.29 .274   5  27.1  29 10 10   3  10  21

Game Log:
Date   Opp   Inn  H  R ER BB SO HR  Pit
4/5    StL   7.0  7  1  1  0  1  0   94
4/12   StL   5.0  5  2  2  4  4  0  103
4/17   Mil   3.1  8  3  3  1  3  2   68
4/22   NYM   6.0  3  1  1  2  6  0   92
4/27   Mon   6.0  6  3  3  3  7  1   99

Where Wade Miller has faltered, Tim Redding has stepped up and carried a load for the team. It's almost as if they switched bodies this month, for Miller is suffering from the same problems that have plagued the very talented Redding: wildness and chronic inconsistency, often resulting in premature showering.

Apart from one start against the Brewers, Redding has been everything that the team had hoped. That's four Quality Starts (6+ IP, <= 3 runs) out of five tries. His pitching line tells you exactly how things are turning out different for Redding this season: his walks and home runs are down, but the opposing batting average is unchanged. While he cannot control what his fielders do with the ball once it is put into play, he can control the number of walks and home runs he allows and therein lies the difference.

Can Redding keep it up? I am hopeful that he can, but I also know not to expect consistency from a player who has an established record of inconsistency. Cautious optimism is probably the best outlook to have, and also hoping that no one tries to tinker with his mechanics while he's on a roll.


Jeriome Robertson, SP

         W-L   ERA  Avg  GS  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:   0-2  6.52 .394  11   9.2  13  8  7   4   5   6
April:   1-3  7.99 .313   5  23.2  30 24 21   3  11  22

Game Log:
Date   Opp   Inn  H  R ER BB SO HR  Pit
4/3    Col   4.1 10  8  8  0  3  2   73
4/10   Cin   7.0  2  1  1  3  8  0  101
4/15    SF   4.0  5  6  3  4  4  0   78
4/20   Mil   5.1  7  3  3  2  4  0   77
4/25   Mon   3.0  6  6  6  2  3  1   68

As the man who cost Shane his job, Jeriome Robertson started this season with a big, red bullseye on his forehead in the eyes of many fans -- including myself. There are a legion of naysayers prepared to jump on his every mistake, and there's only one tried and true way to quiet a hostile crowd: play well. Unfortunately for Jeriome, that is one thing he hasn't done.

He has pitched poorly and I believe it was a questionable decision to release a Proven Veteran (tm) in favor of an unproven player on the basis of a handful of innings in Spring Training against minor-league players.

However, Shane is no longer an Astro but Jeriome is, so I'll focus on the positives. Jeriome is young and can be expected to improve. His hit and walk rates are poor, but his strikeout and home run rates are good. In fact, his strikeout rate (22K in 23+IP) is the best among the starters. Combined with his youth, we might be able to convince some of those stat gurus in Boston that Jeriome has a lot of untapped potential. Baseball stat gurus just love pitchers with high strikeout rates.

Realistically, I do not see much of a future for Robertson as a starter and expect him to go the way of Chris Holt, Donne Wall and John Halama. Moehler's move to the Disabled List probably bought Robertson some time to turn things around. If he doesn't feel a sense of urgency, then someone should tell him that Kirk Saarloos is currently 2-0 with a 1.77 ERA in AAA New Orleans.

The clock is ticking for Robertson and he is staring at a May Day showdown against Shane Reynolds in Astros Field (May 1st). Hopefully he will pitch well and I'll serve myself a big bowl of crow.


Billy Wagner, RP

         W-L   ERA  Avg   G  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:   4-2  2.52 .196  70  75.0  51 21 21   7  22  88
April:   1-1  1.80 .192  12  15.0  10  4  3   1   6  16

I've been wrong about a lot of players in the past, but probably never more wrong about anyone than Billy Wagner. I give up; the guy is amazing. He's always working on that second pitch, but Billy has gotten more mileage out of his one-pitch arsenal than any other pitcher I can remember. He has proven all of the naysayers wrong, time and again, and he has been the team's foundation in the bullpen for 6 years. Careers in the bullpen are usually measured in dog-years, and it takes an elite pitcher to be as successful as Wagner has been. If you remove the season he was injured (2000) from his stat line, this is what you see:

         W-L SV   ERA  Avg   G  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 1996:   2-2  9  2.44 .165  37  51.2  28 16 14   6  30  67
 1997:   7-8 23  2.85 .204  62  66.1  49 23 21   5  30 106
 1998:   4-3 30  2.70 .211  58  60.0  46 19 18   6  25  97
 1999:   4-1 39  1.57 .135  66  74.7  35 14 13   5  23 124
 2001:   2-4 39  2.73 .198  64  62.2  44 19 19   5  20  79
 2002:   4-2 35  2.52 .196  70  75.0  51 21 21   7  22  88
 2003:   1-1  4  1.80 .192  12  15.0  10  4  3   1   6  16

Opposing hitters have a career .190 average against Wagner, and they are batting .192 against him this April. The man is unstoppable, and I am never complaining about his salary again.


Octavio Dotel, RP

         W-L   ERA  Avg   G  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:   6-4  1.85 .173  83  97.1  58 21 20   7  27 118
April:   1-1  2.08 .167  11  13.0   7  3  3   1   5  14

Octavio came to Houston in the Mike Hampton trade and, much like Billy Wagner, was originally projected to be a starter. He didn't do to well in the rotation and, much like Billy Wagner, has transformed into one of the best relievers in the majors.

The Astros have enjoyed the devastating 1-2 punch of Dotel and Wagner in the bullpen since 2001. The only other time they've had a comparable combination was during the early Eighties when both Dave Smith and Joe Sambito were healthy. In 1980, Smith and Sambito had ERAs of 1.93 and 2.19, respectively. You compare their careers and decide which combination was superior (stats through 2002):

The Lefty      W-L   ERA   Avg  Obp  Slg   IP   H  R   ER  HR  BB  SO
Joe Sambito   33-32  2.42 .226 .284 .324  536 441 168 144  35 155 421
Billy Wagner  25-25  2.69 .190 .278 .306  418 281 131 125  40 168 589

The Righty     W-L   ERA   Avg  Obp  Slg   IP   H  R   ER  HR  BB  SO
Dave Smith    53-47  2.53 .230 .297 .314  762 646 254 214  28 260 529
Octavio Dotel 16-16  3.46 .211 .291 .353  327 264 136 126  38 135 405

Dotel's numbers are skewed somewhat by his failed stint as a starter, but then there are some bad seasons included in the totals for the other pitchers as well. Not only do Sambito and Smith fare well in the comparison, one could argue that they were a better duo. However, there is a little more overlap in the peak seasons of Wagner and Dotel, giving them the edge in sustained dominance in tandem.


Ricky Stone, RP

         W-L   ERA  Avg   G  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:   3-3  3.61 .266  78  77.1  78 36 31   9  34  63
April:   1-0  1.93 .294  10  14.0  15  3  3   0   8   9

Stone was ridden hard in his rookie season last year and, based on the way he collapsed after the All-Star break, I hope that manager Jimy Williams uses Stone more sparingly. Here are Stone's 2002 stats, before and after the All-Star break:

         W-L   ERA  Avg   G  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
Before:  3-2  1.99 .236  44  45.1  39 14 10   4  23  33
After:   0-1  5.91 .305  34  32.0  39 22 21   5  11  30

Was it fatigue, or did the league's hitters catch on to the rookie? That is an important question, and Stone's 1.93 ERA this April makes it look like fatigue. But a closer look reveals that his low April ERA may be misleading. Batters are hitting at a .294 clip against Stone and he is walking a lot of batters.

ERA can be a deceptive stat for relief pitchers, especially if they often enter a game in the middle of an inning. All 15 hits against Stone have been singles, which explains the low ERA. But pitchers have less control than you'd think over how a batted ball turns out once it is put into play, so Stone's ERA could easily be much higher. Do not be surprised by Stone's ERA rises quite a bit in May.


Pete Munro, RP

         W-L   ERA  Avg   G  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:   5-5  3.57 .283  19  80.2  89 37 32   5  23  45
April:   1-1  3.06 .188  12  17.2  12  7  6   1  10  10

Gerry Hunsicker's need to sign reclamation projects to fill holes in the pitching staff was discussed briefly in Brian Moehler's recap. While Hunsicker's success with starters has been spotty, he has a better track record with relievers.

Pete Munro was picked up for table scraps before the 2002 season and turned in a very nice season for Houston. Munro pitched poorly for Toronto in 1999 and 2000 and spent 2001 in the minors. Because Munro's pro career has been a mixed bag, it is hard to tell whether last season was a career year for a bad pitcher or was a step in the maturation process for a young pitcher. Munro has been up and down in his 12 appearances this year, limiting the team's ability to use him in game-critical situations.


Brad Lidge, RP

         W-L   ERA  Avg   G  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 2002:   1-0  6.23 .333   6   8.2  12  6  6   0   9  12
April:   2-0  1.02 .172  12  17.2  10  2  2   0   7  18

After an injury-plagued career, Brad Lidge was rewarded with a major-league promotion after an injury-free 2002 season. Always highly-regarded in the organization, he appears to finally be reaching his potential as a pitcher.

Ignore his pitching line for his brief 2002 callup. Here are his minor-league stats:

         ERA   G  IP     H  R ER  HR  BB  SO
 1998:   3.27  4  11.0  10  5  4   3   5   6
 1999:   3.38  6  21.1  13  8  8   0  11  19
 2000:   2.81  8  41.2  28 14 13   3  15  46
 2001:   1.73  5  26.0  21  5  5   1   7  42
 2002:   3.30 29 122.2  92 51 45   9  50 128
Total:   3.03 52 222.2 164 83 75  13  88 241

In particular, notice Lidge's hits allowed and strikeouts per inning pitched. Both are outstanding and good predictors for future success. If Lidge can keep his walks down and his arm healthy, then this April may be an accurate sample of what we can expect all season.

In Closing...

Thanks for reading this far; I hope you enjoyed the recap. I promised myself that, after a long hiatus, I would return to writing columns about the team. My current plans are to write a recap like this after each month. If you have any suggestions or questions regarding this column, feel free to email me at ray@astrosdaily.com or post a comment to our Message Forum.

Ray