Dog Days of Summer

added 7/19/2005 by Scott Barzilla

At the all-star break it appeared as if the Astros were on the verge of completing another miracle. The had vaulted themselves to a 44-43 mark and second place in the National League Central. Optimists pointed out that they were actually better off this year than they were last year when they came in 44-44 into the break. I was among those ready to gear myself up for another amazing run and then I remembered my old buddy Pythagoras. I’ll bet y’all thought I wouldn’t bring him up again after that long series early this year.

You see, I took a trip over to Rob Neyer’s site on ESPN.com. Unfortunately, I can’t read the columns anymore (ESPN charges now for almost everything) but I could look at his index page where he has the regular standings and the Pythagorean standings through the all-star break. The Astros “expected” record coming into the second half: 44-43. Gee, that looks familiar doesn’t it? This shouldn’t surprise us that much. We underachieved in the first 45 games and overachieved in the last 42 games before the break. Last season, we were below our mark at the all-star break and ended up right around our expected record.

So, my optimism waned a little going into the Cardinals series and then we played the Cards and it waned a lot. You can look at that series and say, “gee, we were so close in those games,” or you can say “if only we have somebody in there different than Chad Harville, or if we had a break or two on Saturday.” I looked at the series and saw a better team in Saint Louis and it wasn’t the Astros. Of course, the Astros don’t need to be better than the Cardinals to make the playoffs, but the subject of the Cardinals needs to come up at some point.

In the last several weeks we have seen columns here, at the Chronicle, and everywhere else around Texas about what the Astros need or can do before the trade deadline. I’ve chimed in with my opinions on positions that I would target, but every once in awhile it is good for me to step away from the situation. I love numbers and numbers allow me to have a detached look a 29 other teams, but even numbers don’t leave me bullet proof to reacting as a fan before reacting as a analyst. Before we move on we have to ask ourselves some obvious questions.

Let’s assume for the time being that we could all agree that one more good hitter is what we need to stay in the race. If we get that one hitter (at this point it can be any position you like) how many of you think we will make the playoffs? We can also agree that the Cardinals are the class of the National League again. Would that give us enough to beat them in a seven game series? I’m not so sure we can beat the Cardinals even if we acquire that hitter.

This is where I have to shut down the fan inside me and start thinking like an analyst. When you look at the two major deals this team has made in the last six years you see two important characteristics. Ideally, you’d like to have both, but each had one. In the case of Randy Johnson, we gave up quite a bit, but we were already in first place and thought he’d throw us over the top. If you look at our roster that season even in hindsight you’d have to agree. Last year, the club gave up less for a player they thought could give them a legitimate chance to go all the way. His effect was belated, but it ended up happening. This year, can we honestly say that acquiring a hitter makes us World Series contenders?

This is where each of us needs to check our adrenaline at the door. I’ll admit, I bought into the post-season run as much as anyone. Even with the Pythagorean hangover I had, I rationalized to myself that if we made a big deal now then we could continue on our hot streak and vault the Braves or Nats. After taking a step back I’m wondering if that is really enough to justify bankrupting our farm system.

Standing in the middle of this spin swamp is Astros General Manager Tim Purpura. If we can stop criticizing him for one second we can see the difficult situation he is in. People are already blaming for doing very little in the off-season and if nothing happens before the deadline he will end being labeled as the “do nothing” general manager. Unfortunately, Purpura is armed with the knowledge that minor deals won’t likely be enough to make the playoffs and a major deal will cost him three or more prospects. Is making it to the NLCS enough to justify that? I’ll leave that up to you, but I will look at the history of the wild card to see what moves they made over the years.

1995 Yankees
W-L = 79-65
Major Acquisition: David Cone  (9-2, 99 INN, 3.82 ERA)
Result: Lost in ALDS

1995 Rockies
W-L = 77-67
Major Acquisitions: None
Result: Lost in NLDS

1996 Orioles
W-L = 88-74
Major Acquisitions: Eddie Murray (.257 AVG, 10 HR, 34 RBI)
		    Todd Zeile (.239 AVG, 5 HR, 19 RBI)
Result: Lost in ALCS

1996 Dodgers
W-L = 90-72
Major Acquisitions: None
Result: Lost in the NLDS

1997 Yankees
W-L = 96-66
Major Acquisitions: Cecil Fielder (.260 AVG, 13 HR, 61 RBI)
Result: Lost in the ALDS
	
1997 Marlins
W-L = 92-70
Major Acquisitions: Darren Daulton (.262 AVG, 3 HR, 21 RBI)
Result: Won World Series

1998 Red Sox
W-L = 92-70
Major Acquisitions: Mike Stanley (.288 AVG, 7 HR, 32 RBI)
Result: Lost in ALDS

1998 Cubs
W-L = 90-72
Major Acquisitions: Gary Gaetti (.320 AVG, 8 HR, 27 RBI)
		    Mike Morgan (5-5, 22.2 INN, 7.15 ERA)
Result: Lost in NLDS

1999 Red Sox
W-L = 94-68
Major Acquisitions: None
Result: Lost in the ALCS

1999 Mets
W-L = 97-65
Major Acquisitions: Darryl Hamilton (.339 AVG, 5 HR, 21 RBI)
		    Kenny Rogers (5-1, 76 INN, 4.03 ERA)
Result: Lost in the NLCS

2000 Mariners
W-L = 91-71
Major Acquisitions: Al Martin (.231 AVG, 4 HR, 9 RBI)
Result: Lost in ALCS

2000 Mets
W-L = 94-68
Major Acquisitions: Mike Bordick (.260 AVG, 4 HR, 21 RBI)
Result: Lost in the World Series

2001 Athletics
W-L = 102-60
Major Acquisitions: Jermaine Dye (.297 AVG, 13 HR, 59 RBI)
Result: Lost in ALDS

2001 Cardinals
W-L = 93-69
Major Acquisitions: Woody Williams (7-1, 75 INN, 2.28 ERA)
Result: Lost in NLDS

2002 Angels
W-L = 99-63
Major Acquisitions: None
Result: Won the World Series

2002 Giants
W-L = 95-66
Major Acquisitions: Kenny Lofton (.267 AVG, 3 HR, 9 RBI)
Result: Lost in the World Series

2003 Red Sox
W-L = 95-67
Major Acquisitions: Jeff Suppan (3-4, 63 INN, 5.57 ERA)
		    Scott Williamson (0-1, 20 INN, 6.20 ERA)
Result: Lost in ALCS
		
2003 Marlins
W-L = 91-71
Major Acquisitions: Ugueth Urbina (3-0, 38 INN, 1.41 ERA)
Result: Won the World Series

2004 Red Sox
W-L = 98-64
Major Acquisitions: Orlando Cabrera (.294, 6 HR, 31 RBI)
		    Doug Mientkiewicz (.215, 1 HR, 10 RBI)
Result: Won the World Series

2004 Astros
W-L = 92-70
Major Acquisitions: Carlos Beltran (.258, 23 HR, 53 RBI)
Result: Lost in NLCS

Okay, so there is the full run down of the wild card teams since the advent of the wild card. Let me break this down into a chart so we can see what we’re dealing with. First, we’ll see the results in the post-season and then we’ll break this down by category. Finally, we’ll look at what they did before the deadline. Won World Series: 4 Lost in World Series: 2 Lost in the LCS: 6 Lost in the LDS: 8

If we look simply at these numbers then we see that a wild card team has a 30 percent chance of advancing to the World Series and a 20 percent chance of winning it. However, notice that the most likely event is losing in the divisional round. It’s easy to get caught up in stories like the Red Sox, Marlins (twice), and Angels to forget what we already know to be true. The wild card is not necessarily a great way to get to the big dance, it just gives you a mathematical chance. The other issue we have is that not all teams are created equal.

World Series Champions: 95-67
Lost in World Series: 94-68
Lost in the LCS: 93-69
Lost in the LDS: 92-70

It’s interesting to see the sliding scale here and it’s definitely important since we are essentially at the .500 mark at this point. Just to get the minimum wild card average we would have to finish with a 47-25 the rest of the way. If we wanted to reach the World Series participant average it would be 49-23. Folks, that is a .681 winning percentage (or a 110-52 record over a full season). Does anyone honestly believe we are one hitter (no matter how good) away from that? Before we analyze trade activity let’s take a closer look at who advanced to the World Series. The worst team to advance to the World Series via the wild card was 91-71.

Yes, the Rockies and Yankees had records worse than that, but they both lost in the divisional series. So, it is one thing to win the wild card and another completely to have a team good enough to advance. This year looks to be shaping up as one of those down years, but we’ve been to the playoffs five times since 1997. Getting eliminated in the divisional championship series can’t be enough to satiate us can it?

Acquired Hitters: 12
Acquired Starting Pitchers: 5
Acquired Relief Pitchers: 2
Acquired No One: 4

We want to know what the World Series champions and those that advanced to the World Series did. Two champions acquired hitters, one acquired a relief pitcher, and another did nothing, so we get nothing there. The two teams that advanced, but did not win acquired hitters. So, why did so many teams acquire hitters? It’s probably because position players have a bigger impact on the game than pitchers. Starters go every fifth day and unless you acquire a dynamite closer, a reliever is usually not enough either.

What does all of this mean? Well, it means that the road ahead is harder than most of us would have acknowledged a week ago. It’s not just about being six or seven games out of the wild card. It’s also about what it means if we are able to win the wild card. Do we have a chance from there? That is the question Purpura must answer himself before he moves forward on a major deal. The rest of us need to lay off of him until we see what transpires around the deadline.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”