Manager's Dilemma

added 4/17/2008 by Scott Barzilla

Believe it or not, the Astros have gotten to the ten percent pole in the season. 6-10 isn't a good place to be, but it could be worse, we could be the Washington Nationals. There are a lot of positives we can look at. With the exception of Brandon Backe's start today and Roy Oswalt's start against the Marlins, all five starters have done a good job of keeping the team in the game. In fact, Wandy Rodriguez and Shawn Chacon have looked quite good.

In the hitting department, the big three have done their job for the most part. Miguel Tejada has looked good with the glove as well. Doug Brocail shook off a shaky March to have a splendid start to the season. Maybe even more surprising, Wesley Wright looks like the Rule V draft pick of the year. More than anything else, Wright has spared us the sight of Stephen Randolph strutting out from the bullpen. I could go on and on with superlatives and I don't want to leave anyone out, but no one wants to read a column about positives when their team is in last place.

Roy Oswalt's last start hopefully subsides that story line, so we turn our attention to the two big question marks of this team: Jose Valverde and Hunter Pence. It's quite easy to say cut the bums at this point. Houston fans have had their fill with blown saves over the years. You can point to the Albert Pujols dinger all you want, but blown saves in the 1980 and 1986 NLCS still hit most of us much harder. Perhaps our sensitivities are keener than the average baseball fan. Still, the situation with Valverde demands more thinking than that.

Before I go into the ugliness that are his numbers we must remember that his shenanigans have resulted in only one loss for the team. When Ed Wade built this team he built it envisioning that Valverde would save 40 games and the rest of the bullpen would provide support. Even if Brocail follows 2007 norms, he would become an average closer. Goodness knows who would step up to be the setup guy. Of course, there is a school of thought that teams shouldn't have established closers anyway.

When someone is a coach and they are dealing with a talented, but struggling player they must walk the line between three possibilities: sending the player down, sitting him on the bench, or riding the wave. Cooper will have to know which one will eventually benefit Valverde and the team. Before we analyze that particular situation we should bite our lips and look at his numbers.

Innings: 7.1
Strikeouts: 9
Walks: 3
Home Runs: 4

I would love to say that Valverde normally has better control, but his career numbers say otherwise. Still, his strikeouts show that he still has pretty good stuff. This is where we get into good news and bad news. Four home runs is terrible at this point in the season. Some closers don't give that up in a full season. On the other hand, a .458 BABIP is absolutely horrendous and shouldn't continue. So, Valverde will still struggle if he pitches like this, but he shouldn't be THIS bad. The question is whether he is good enough to close.

Last season, Phil Garner pulled the plug on Brad Lidge very early on. Many observers said he did it too soon. Yet, you cannot deny that Lidge was downright dominant when he wasn't the closer. So, if Valverde could somehow become very good as a 7th or 8th inning guy then he would still be useful. The question for Cooper is when to pull the plug. That is only a decision he can make.

Now, we turn our attention to Hunter Pence. Despite what the blogs, bulletin boards, and the conventional press say, this situation is much more pressing. The Astros offense was built around having a multitude of good hitters. This meant that Hunter Pence, Ty Wigginton, and J.R. Towles have to produce as well. Towles and Wigginton have good excuses. Both should be back in about a week along with Kaz Matsui. Pence looks to be a more pressing problem.

PA: 58
Hits: 9
Walks: 2
Strikeouts: 16
Total Bases: 14
OBP: .186
SLG: .250

A .436 OPS is comically bad. I'm not one to freak out over April numbers, but Pence's start is alarming because of the approach we see at the plate. If we multiply his numbers ten times we will see 160 strikeouts and only 20 walks. Pitchers have figured out that Pence is a free swinger. He is swinging at the same breaking stuff away that Biggio did at the end of his career. He will have to make an adjustment. The question is whether he needs to do that on the bench (and in the cages), in the lineup, or in Round Rock.

One of the things I learned in coaching is that each player reacts differently in these situations. Cecil Cooper is earning a lot of money to make these decisions. Too much is made of in game decision making. This is where managers make or break their teams. If Cooper makes the right decision then this will be a good team. If not, it will be a long, hot summer.