Camp Competition

added 2/10/2006 by Scott Barzilla

Baseball fans have to find something to focus on during the extended Spring Training that begins in less than a week. When you have a team that is mostly intact from the year before, you have to search for genuine competition somewhere. Last year, it was Chris Burke, Willy Taveras, and Luke Scott that kept our attention. The surge from Scott is proof positive that you never know what can happen. This year, the competition happens to be on the mound. With Roger Clemens absence (or sabbatical?) there are two rotation spots open.

Before I introduce the candidates let me talk about the three prongs of successful player evaluation: statistical analysis, scouting, and psychological analysis. Consider the case of Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt, and Tim Redding. If the Astros would have had solid information on all three prongs they would have known Redding would be a dud. Unfortunately, information was not available because in order to see how someone handles adversity they have to face it first. Redding breezed through the minors and didn’t face adversity. This is important as we compare Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio with their minor league counterparts. It’s a guessing game. Being that as it may, we can look at the numbers and make some reasonable guesses. In this case, we will look at each going back to 2002 in the minors.

                     INN    SO/9   BB/9    Ratio    HR/9
Ezequiel Astacio    541.2    7.1    2.4     3.0     0.60 
Taylor Buchholz     478.0    6.8    2.6     2.6     1.04
Jason Hirsh         335.0    7.9    2.8     2.8     0.54
Fernando Nieve      554.1    8.3    3.3     2.5     0.91
Wandy Rodriguez     459.1    7.3    3.1     2.4     0.84

What we find is that there isn’t a lot of difference between them. All five pitchers have strikeout rates better than the league average. All of them have ratios better than two to one. Only Taylor Buchholz has a home run rate below average. So, at first glance it would appear that all of them have a decent chance to succeed. If we ended the analysis here we would look at what they did in the spring and choose then.


When we take a closer look at the numbers above we need to look at three different numbers: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. In terms of strikeouts it would appear that Jason Hirsh and Fernando Nieve are harder to hit. Incidentally, the scouts agree that their stuff is the most impressive out of the five pitchers here. Conversely, Buchholz again appears to be in the hole.

The walks show Astacio to be in the driver’s seat. Incidentally, he walked 2.78 hitters per nine innings in his time in Houston, so the control is there. Here, we see that Hirsh ad Nieve fall on the bottom end of the spectrum in that regard. When we add both categories together we find that Astacio has the best ratio in the group, but the others are pretty bunched in there.

Jason Hirsh was number one in home runs per nine innings. Ironically, Astacio finished number two in his minor league numbers. Obviously, we know that the major league numbers don’t bear that out. So, we cannot assume that minor league numbers will immediately translate into big league numbers. This is where the psychological analysis really comes in handy. Think about the following two pitchers.

              W    L    INN    ERA    SO/9   BB/9   HR/9
Pitcher A    20   21    342    4.04   3.89   2.65   0.76
Pitcher B    26   26    435    4.21   5.39   3.43   0.68

Which one of these pitchers had the better career after their first three seasons (1986-1988)? You might be surprised to hear that Pitcher B was Greg Maddux and Pitcher A was Jimmy Jones. Roy Oswalt hasn’t had a great deal of adversity (beyond his groil injuries), but he is exception rather than rule. The key is not whether you will struggle, but how you react when you do. What we don’t see here, is that Maddux followed up a 6-14 campaign with an 18-8 campaign. Maddux became a Hall of Famer while Jones became a footnote in history.

Overcoming Adversity

There is no adversity like pitching in the big leagues, but all of these candidates have the added pressure of knowing they could hold the key to the Astros post-season chances. In that sense we can never really know what the future holds and the numbers become less important in this regard. With that caveat, we can look at the past to see how they’ve handled adversity. Each level up the minor food chain is an increasing level of adversity. Each level should become more challenging and should give the pitcher another opportunity to prove they can adjust. So, what are looking for is whether the pitcher continually improves or if they bounce back from a sub-par season with another good one.

Ezequiel Astacio

         SO/9     BB/9     Ratio      HR/9
2002      5.9      2.7       2.2      0.53
2003      5.1      1.8       2.9      0.55
2004      9.5      2.9       3.3      0.61
2005      7.8      1.6       4.8      0.82

So, could we have predicted Astacio’s home run barrage last season? Surprisingly the answer is yes. As you can see, his home run rate went up every single season in the minors. That indicates that people were taking more and more advantage of his mistakes as he went up. We can say that Astacio had one of those cosmic “a ha’s” when he went to the Houston system in 2004. That season is the main reason he went from throw in to top prospect.

Overall, I would say there are reasons to be optimistic when it comes to Astacio. His strikeout to walk ratio improved each season and his strikeout rate has remained pretty consistent since coming to the Astros system. However, the increasing power numbers are troubling and a sign of a need for major adjustment. This Spring will begin to show us if he will adjust.

Taylor Buchholz

         SO/9     BB/9     Ratio     HR/9
2002      7.3      2.9      2.5      0.62
2003      7.1      2.1      3.5      0.87
2004      6.8      1.5      2.6      1.47
2005      5.3      3.2      1.7      1.64

This is where I usually throw in one of those patented Marge Simpson groans. When the Astros acquired him he had come off of two consecutive solid seasons where he gave up fewer homers than normal and had a collective three to one strikeout to walk ratio. The scant two years has seen Astacio and Buchholz move in different directions. I don’t know what’s in Buchholz’s head, but the results are scary. Of course, he’s also been hurt the last two seasons, so maybe another season at Round Rock will point this in the other direction.

Jason Hirsh

         SO/9     BB/9     Ratio     HR/9
2003      9.2      1.9      4.7      0.00
2004      6.6      3.9      1.7      0.55
2005      8.6      2.2      3.9      0.63

Hirsh has never pitched above the AA level, so a lot of this analysis is difficult to prove, but Hirsh fits the profile of someone that had a down season and bounced back. Hirsh’s 2003 and 2005 ratios stand second and third among the pitchers listed in individual seasons. Of course, you can’t beat zero home runs allowed. Oswalt made the jump from AA and never looked back. Hirsh has that same kind of look, but that kind of statement has been levied before on countless other players. You never want to put too much stock in the ol’ “reminds me of a young……” kind of scouting report.

Fernando Nieve

         SO/9     BB/9     Ratio     HR/9
2002      7.9      3.4      2.3      2.55
2003      8.6      3.9      2.2      0.60
2004      7.3      2.6      2.8      0.49
2005      9.2      3.3      2.8      0.92

Nieve is the wild card in this bunch. On the one hand, he was a marginal prospect as recently as 2003, but he turned it around big time the last two seasons. However, one must look at his home run rates and pause a bit. I would be remiss not to point out that Nieve made the jump from AA to AAA during 2005, so his home run totals could be partially explained there. More importantly, his walks went up again after a solid 2004 campaign.

Nieve will be the most interesting candidate this Spring because it appears he has as good if not better stuff than any of the other candidates. However, he seems to struggle more with his control than the other candidates as well. The home runs were all over the chart, so that will be interesting as well. All of this means that Nieve has the most to gain or lose by his spring performance.

Wandy Rodriguez

        SO/9     BB/9     Ratio     HR/9
2002     7.7      2.5       3.1     0.68
2003     5.8      3.3       1.8     0.73
2004     7.3      3.6       2.0     0.95
2005     9.3      3.1       3.0     1.36

I fear that Wandy Rodriguez has Jeriome Robertson written all over him. He had an impressive record in 2005 because of excellent run support, but the numbers here and at the major league level show cracks in the veneer. The strikeout and walk rates in Houston were not appreciably different than they were in 2003 and 2004. There is nothing wrong with calling him up in 2005, he had performed well and they were desperate for pitching.

Like with Astacio and Willy Taveras, the task now is to build on 2005 by patching up the cracks. First on Wandy’s list should be lowering the walk rate. Rodriguez cannot affect how hittable he is to a large extent, but he can minimize the damage by minimizing the walks.

The Missing Prospect

It’s shameless, but I’m going to throw in one more prospect in the Astros chain. As most of you know, Philip Barzilla is my cousin and is due to pitch for the Italian team this spring. Yet, he was not invited to Astros camp despite throwing up some decent numbers over the last several years. Let me put the same numbers up for him.

        SO/9     BB/9    Ratio    HR/9
2002     6.5      3.6     1.8     0.21
2003     4.9      4.0     1.2     0.10
2004     6.8      4.7     1.4     0.74
2005     6.9      2.4     2.9     0.48

In my mind, Philip had one of those “a ha” moments last season with his control. What impresses me as an analyst is the low home run rate throughout much of his pitching career. I suppose the club has a decent argument for keeping him out of Kissimmee, but another solid season this year in AAA should put him right there in my book. Of course, I might be a little biased.