Time to Panic?

added 4/28/2007 by Scott Barzilla

You could see it coming. The Astros are floundering again offensively after a brief stop on top of the standings. A week ago they were on top of the world (at least in the NL Central.) After one week, the Astros are now at the bottom of the NL Central. Of course, a part of this is baseball in April, but the other part is the ever increasing parity in the division.

When June and July come around you can expect the Reds and Bucs to fade as they normally do. It seems like the Cubs are annually throwing jack and someone and annually disappointing. Yet, the Brewers appear to be contenders for the first time in more than a decade and the Cards are the defending champs. Apparently, the patience camp lost this time around.

Phenom Hunter Pence was called up last night. A lot of folks in Astro fandom are crying, "it's about frickin time!" However, it means that Chris Burke doesn't have a position. Yes, he will be on the club, but Mark Loretta is the primary infield replacement and Jason Lane appears to be the primary outfield replacement. Burke goes from regular to end of the bench overnight. Was it deserved?

                    OBP     SLG     OPS
Craig Biggio       .300    .459    .759
Chris Burke        .329    .329    .658
Lance Berkman      .380    .325    .705
Carlos Lee         .296    .471    .767
Morgan Ensberg     .350    .391    .741
Luke Scott         .333    .407    .740
Adam Everett       .325    .328    .653
Brad Ausmus        .328    .352    .680

In this case it looks like the Astros are making the right call. It's not as if Burke is completely punchless. He is hitting .219, but a combination of walks and hit by pitches is making his OBP almost respectable. Still, OPS explains 90 percent of offensive production and he is next to last. Even if the Astros were so inclined to replace Adam Everett, they don't have anyone that can. So, Burke is the logical choice.

Phil Garner correctly pointed out that Burke is not the only problem on the team. Certainly, a team that has ZERO regulars with an 800 OPS has serious problems. Meanwhile, both Mark Loretta and Mike Lamb have surpassed that mark. Garner hinted that they might get more playing time and well they should. The problem is that while no one is playing well, no one is playing so horribly that they scream to be replaced.

Morgan Ensberg is doing what he does well: seeing pitches and drawing walks. Carlos Lee has been very efficient at driving in runs, but outside of one game in Philadelphia, he hasn't been particularly potent. We all know about Berkman's struggles, but he leads the team by a wide margin in OBP. Finally, you have Biggio. Yes, he doesn't draw walks anymore. Yes, he swings at bad balls in the dirt, but he is also quietly second among the regulars in slugging percentage.

A comprehensive study of the Astros shows that they combine the nightmare of not getting on base enough (five of the eight regulars get on base less than 33 percent of the time) with the nightmare of not having enough pop in their bats (five of the eight don't have .400 slugging percentages.) A further study would show their power comes in bunches. While we may have lost the Carlos Lee three homer game without his three dingers, we might have won two others had he spread them out in a timely fashion. Jason Lane appears to be very adept at the art of pile on. Following is a brief study of the Astros game by game.

0 Runs= 1
1 Runs= 2
2 Runs= 3
3 Runs= 3
4 Runs= 5
5 or more runs= 8

The Astros have nearly as many games with three or fewer runs as they do with four or more. The four run mark is usually the break even point. The Astros are 2-3 in games where they have scored four runs. This is fairly normal. The problem comes in the other games. They are 7-1 in games where they have scored five or more runs. So, if you are adept at math, that means you know they are 0-8 in games where they have scored three runs or less.

In the golden days of Clemens, Pettitte, and Oswalt, they might have been able to squeak out a couple of those games. If they did that, the club would be looking at an 11-11 mark overall. Sadly, the pitching staff won't be that dominant this year barring a young pitcher REALLY stepping up. The problem is even more localized than simply scoring runs. The problem is that there are too many games where they simply don't muster an attack.

If a team scores ten runs in one game and two runs in the next two, it isn't the same as a team scores five, four, and five. The club is hoping that Hunter Pence is part of the answer, but here is one fan saying they will need a lot more to fix this problem. Management threw a lot of money at Carlos Lee thinking he would be the solution. Unfortunately, this is a pervasive problem that goes beyond who mans centerfield.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as excited as anyone to see what Pence can do. The man had ten doubles in 93 plate appearances. That translates to a 60 double pace over a full season. His home run power hasn't immediately manifested itself, but if someone hits 60 doubles and hits .341 you don't care how many home runs they hit. Yet, he only come up four or five times a game.

The bigger problem is that you have a leadoff man that doesn't get on base. You have a fifth hitter that isn't aggressive enough to be an RBI guy. You have two right fielders that are collectively hitting their weight. You still have a seventh or eighth hitter that allows the pitcher to take an inning off mentally. Willie Mays or Ty Cobb in centerfield wouldn't solve those issues. So, Pence gets his opportunity and he certainly does deserve it. Just don't expect the offense to suddenly become championship quality.