Breaking Things Down

added 8/28/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Columnist Note: Those of you on the bulletin boards know AA starting pitcher Philip Barzilla has agreed to answer some questions for us. In case you haven’t guessed, Philip is my cousin, but he is also 6-6 with a 3.26 ERA. He assures me he will get to those questions as soon as the Hooks come back from their road trip.

I’ve been kind of gunshy when it comes to looking at bulletin boards lately, but we operate a good board here at Astrosdaily. One of the members threw out a stat that the Astros are nearly unbeatable in August when they score five or more runs and hapless when they score four or less. Like usual, my interest was piqued and I decided to do some further study. I could have posted this on the board, but I figured I would work these numbers into my column as the waiver trade deadline comes to a close.

There have been some assertions on the board that the Astros aren’t interested in winning. I’m not so sure this is the case. When you get shut out more often than any team in the league, the problem can seem bigger than it really is. The Astros have been looking at the big guns (Griffey, Dunn, Alou, and Sweeney) and have been disappointed at the asking price (not to mention the salaries involved). After all, when it seems you’re getting shut down repeatedly you need more than a bench player to get things going. The other choice is to try to fill all of the holes. In my last column you saw a bunch of those as well. I’m not so sure about the team’s unwillingness to win. Some of you will remember me suggesting we were more than one player away a couple of months ago. However, here is what I found when I retraced the schedule.

Scoring 0 Runs= 0-15
Scoring 1 Runs= 0-9
Scoring 2 Runs= 4-11
Scoring 3 Runs= 10-8
Scoring 4 Runs= 10-7
Scoring 5 Runs= 7-6
Scoring 6-9 Runs= 29-4
Scoring 10 or more runs= 7-0

The last two categories are obviously predictable, but it is the other categories that are truly interesting. The message on the board set the over and under at four runs, but the real mark is at three runs. Think about that for a second. We’re not asking the Astros to be the 1927 Yankees. We’re not even asking them to be average for crying out loud. The average team scores between four and five runs a game on average for heaven’s sake. We’re only asking them to be below average.

0-2 Record: 4-35 (.103)
3-10+ Record: 63-25 (.716)

Many of you are thinking this isn’t a revelation. Yep, you’re right. If you score zero, one, or two runs you can expect to lose most of the time. The revelation is two-fold: more than thirty percent of the Astros games have resulted in 0-2 runs, but most teams also struggle when they score only three runs. The Astros are actually above .500 in games where they scored three runs.

Everyone is aware of the problems with the bottom of the rotation, but if this team makes it to the playoffs Astacio and Rodriguez become a moot point. This is especially true if Brandon Backe recovers from his rib muscle injury. One of the facts escaping some fans is the solidity of the bullpen. Yes, Russ Springer and Chad Harville make me wince. It’s amazing, every time Springer pitches Larry Dierker talks about how he is better than his ERA. It’d be like saying, “Joe Bob might be hitting .100 with a .200 OBP and slugging percentage through 400 AB, but he is better than he looks.” Yet, those bottom three relievers won’t be used much in the playoffs either.

              IP      H   SO   BB   ER   HR
Brad Lidge    51.1   45   78   17   13    5
Dan Wheeler   56.0   37   58   13   11    5
Chad Qualls   61.1   56   52   19   22    5 	
Mike Gallo    12.2   12    7    4    4    0
Total        181.1  150  195   53   50   15

Yes, Mike Gallo doesn’t make me that comfortable, but he is having a decent season. So, if this team gets to the playoffs we’re looking at an eight man pitching staff basically. This four man bullpen has averaged 7.4 hits per nine innings, 9.68 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.6 walks per nine innings, and 0.7 home runs per nine innings. That’s not too shabby. When we combine that with our vaunted top three in the rotation anything can happen in the post-season. Getting to the post-season is another story entirely. As far as the lineup is concerned, the Astros have three options from here on out.

Option 1: Do Nothing

Just saying, “do nothing” sounds terrible, but it may not be as bad an option as it sounds. This team is the same team that ran through June and July like gang busters. However, the momentum that Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg had in those moments has begun to sputter. Everyone’s favorite whipping boy is Chris Burke. The road trip that saw the Astros win seven of eight games in Pittsburgh and Washington was the highwater mark of the season. Burke reached .261 on that trip. He is back in the .230s now.

The offense does have some elements to hang their hat on. Brad Ausmus is having one of his best seasons in Houston. I have been a frequent critic of Ausmus in the past, but his batting average and OBP are reaching Houston highs. Yes, his slugging percentage is still rather low, but considering what we expected of him, he is not dragging the offense down in August (anymore than he did in the other four months).

Jason Lane is also a frequent target, but he has quietly vaulted himself above .260 and within a dinger of hitting twenty for the season. At this pace, he should come close to hitting .270 with 25 home runs and 80 RBIs. Be honest, how many of you would have taken that going into the season from him? My hand is raised high. So, the onus goes squarely back to Burke and the other left fielders. The Garner response has been a freaky kind of platoon.

                   PA    AVG    OBP    SLG  EBH Runs  RBI   SB
Chris Burke       290   .234   .299   .342   21   41   22   10	
Mike Lamb         250   .208   .249   .373   21   26   40    1	
Orlando Palmeiro  184   .314   .363   .477   21   21   17    3

Palmeiro had a .900+ OPS at one time, but as Garner has used him more his production has taken a dive. This is because Palmeiro isn’t a .900 OPS guy. Coming into this season he had a .704 OPS and had more than 300 plate appearances only three times (career high of 371). Palmeiro has never been an everyday player and if Garner tries to turn him into one he’ll likely morph back into the .704 pumpkin that he’s been before this season.

If Garner puts Lamb into the lineup on a regular basis he could be arrested for consumer fraud. I’m not sure what Lamb is, but he isn’t a big league hitter. His track record is not as long as Palmeiro’s, but the results end up about the same. Even if he surges this season he likely end up close to that .704 OPS. This leaves only Chris Burke on the current club.

If you travel back in time to 2002 you will recall that Morgan Ensberg and Adam Everett began the season as the regular third baseman and shortstop. They were overwhelmed and sent back to New Orleans. What’s the difference between Chris Burke and those two? Apparently, the only difference is that the Astros feel they are out of options in left field.

                   PA    AVG    OBP    SLG  EBH Runs  RBI   SB
2002 Ensberg      153   .242   .346   .394   12   14   19    2	
2002 Everett      103   .193   .297   .227    3   11    4    3
2005 Burke        290   .234   .299   .342   21   41   22   10

Chris Burke is the marriage between Ensberg and Everett. Whatever you think about those two you can’t deny that they became better players in 2003. The same will likely be true in Burke’s case. We have to remember that he isn’t a corner outfielder and he is expected to produce like one during his rookie season. In most cases he would be playing second base in Round Rock or sitting on the bench in Houston. If you continue as is, you are gambling that he will begin to realize his potential in the heat of September.

Option Two: Call up Luke Scott

This might be picking at a scab for some, but Scott is tearing the cover off of the ball in Round Rock. Scott followed this pattern last season, we picked him up from Cleveland and was sent down to A ball (he had been in AA with Cleveland) and struggled there. In July he was promoted to Round Rock and he went on a tear in August. Suddenly, the trend is continuing.

               PA    AVG    OBP    SLG  XBH   SO   BB
Scott-Major    44   .154   .250   .205    1   13    5		
Scott-Minors  423   .285   .360   .595   57   94   40

I realize the numbers are outrageously different, but there are two categories that appear very similar. When I saw Scott in Houston he seemed to be a patient hitter, but when you look at the numbers you don’t necessarily see that. Has he learned anything in Round Rock in that regard?

Walks per 100 PA (Majors): 11
Walks per 100 PA (Minors): 9

Strikeouts per 100 PA (Majors): 30
Strikeouts per 100 PA (Minors): 22

So, he’s making slightly better contact in Round Rock, but he’s actually walking less as well. Clearly, those numbers aren’t that much better. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out he is making a lot more hay when he makes contact. What we don’t know is how much of that is due to inferior pitching and how much of that is due to Luke Scott developing as a hitter.

On the one hand, anyone can rattle off a laundry list of players that mastered AAA pitching, but couldn’t make it at the next level. Mike Coolbaugh is a perfect example of that. On the other hand, Scott had never played in AAA before this season. Who knows, maybe he’s found something. It’s also just as likely that big league pitchers have the kryptonite to take down Scott.

Option Three: Make a Trade

Since the non-waiver trade deadline has passed, the list of names available has dwindled to three: Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Sweeney, and Matt Stairs. The Reds owner wants to sell the Reds. Some owners want to dump salary to make the club more attractive to perspective buyers. Others want to hold onto the stars so the club will have drawing cards for the new owner. The owner is in that second category, so Griffey doesn’t appear to be available.

Mike Sweeney is a very good hitter, but he is very expensive and plays first base. This is important because Sweeney is signed beyond this season for more than ten million dollars a season. If Bagwell returns next season the club would have two first basemen signed for more than thirty million dollars. Not such a good idea.

This leaves Matt Stairs. Stairs 2005 salary is 1.2 million dollars and the Royals are going nowhere but to 100+ loss land. You could probably get him for one middle of the road prospect at this point as the Royals are almost certainly looking to rebuild. The question on every Astros fan’s mind is how much we would get in return for that middle of the road prospect.

        PA    AVG    OBP    SLG  EBH   SO   BB  SB
2005   361   .266   .368   .445   32   53   48   1
2004   496   .267   .345   .451   42   92   49   1
2003   357   .292   .389   .561   41   64   45   0
2002   315   .244   .349   .478   31   50   36   2
2001   403   .250   .358   .462   38   76   52   2

Nobody would accuse Matt Stairs of being an all-around player, but he is a productive hitter. He had an OPS under .800 only once and that was a .796 OPS in 2004. In fact, he has had an OPS under .800 only twice in ten seasons with 100 or more plate appearances. No matter what you might think of him as a fielder or base-runner, Stairs is a productive hitter.

If you insert Stairs into the sixth spot in the order and move Burke to the bench you don’t suddenly solve all of the offensive problems on the team. After all, Stairs has “only” 11 home runs and 50 RBIs this season. Even in Kansas City’s depressed offense that is still not all-star level performance. It is however competent and competent will help this team get to that three run plateau more often.

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