Much Ado About Nothing

added 6/16/2008 by Scott Barzilla

"We were two players away from the pennant this year: Babe Ruth and Cy Young." -- Whitey Herzog as manager of the Texas Rangers in 1973

As I told you (at least those of you that read this column) earlier, I have been working on a project for SABR this year. Essentially, I am conducting an experiment to find the best way to predict future runs scored and runs allowed. Naturally, this study won't be done until the season is done. However, I can project the Astros current runs scored and allowed to see where things are "going wrong."

My study essentially uses Baseball Prospectus' projections and player's average performance from the last three years. I use the old-fashioned runs scored and allowed in addition to their "Value Over Replacement Player" (VORP). This creates four different projections for runs scored and runs allowed. For our purposes here, I will chart them as a range in which the Astros are expected to perform.

Runs Scored Range: 752-849
Runs Allowed Range: 811-893

I could bore you with the details of how those numbers were determined. If anyone is really interested you can email me at the address provided. Suffice it to say, if the offense achieves at the high end and the pitching achieves at the low end then we could be looking a win total in the mid 80s. As we take a breather on the off-day, it is a good time to see where the club stands.

Projected Runs Scored: 720
Projected Runs Allowed: 798

So, the offense is under-producing some, but that could easily change with another hot streak. Every season has dips and spikes and it is incumbent on us to wait it out before making any final pronouncements. Ironically, it is the pitching staff that is out-producing the past and the projections. I know this might not make anyone feel better right now, but this team is about where it should be.

This brings us to the drama from the weekend. Cecil Cooper said he was embarrassed and the two deans of the team (Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt) took umbrage. People can point to the team being too aggressive on the basepaths or Oswalt struggling on the mound, but we should have seen this coming. I'm sure Berkman's MVP type play and Oswalt's struggles played into their frustration. Berkman has to wonder what else he can do. He is having his best season with the bat, the glove, and on the basepaths. Oswalt is getting squeezed here, gives up a bloop there, and gives up more than the occasional bomb. The result is 5+ ERA and a losing record. That can't sit well with him.

The formula for Astro victory in the Central was predicated on three assumptions. First, Roy Oswalt would be Roy Oswalt. Let's assume that he was. If you assume he pitched well enough to win three starts that he lost then he would be 8-4 instead of 5-7. That would put the Astros at 36-34. That's hardly enough to win the division this year. So, blaming Oswalt is a red herring. Even if you assume an extra victory or two because of some kind of positive benefit on the bullpen you would still be looking at a team in distant third.

The second assumption was predicated on Michael Bourn and J.R. Towles playing well. I think we can all agree that both have been disappointing, but we have to question ourselves as to how realistic this assumption was. Towles played very little above the AA level before this year and began 2007 in A ball. He may still come back, but he probably can use the time in Round Rock. Bourn is probably a bigger disappointment to date, but the reviews on him were mixed coming in. He's elevated his OBP to .293. Still, a .239 average is a far cry better than it was going into June. If he is able to raise it to .260 or .270 by the end of the year then you have to consider this season a qualified success.

The third assumption was that the Central would be mediocre as it has been in seasons past. Obviously, this is the one that has killed the Astros this season. The Cardinals and Cubs have been very good. No one predicted that the Cards would be this good, but the Cubs are the defending champions and they did add Fukodome and Geovany Soto has developed as people thought he would. Both are on pace to win 90+ games. I don't know any sane person who thought that this Astros club could do the same this year.

The Astros aren't nearly as bad as the team Herzog managed in Arlington. Still, his quote is worth repeating. There isn't a trade out there that will elevate this team to a division crown. Sadly, the Bambino and the all-time victories leader aren't available. The team must avoid the temptation of entering into sweepstakes for pitchers like C.C. Sabathia at the deadline. Chasing bad money after bad doesn't make much sense.

What Ed Wade chooses to do depends a great deal on the main man upstairs. McLane probably salivated over the ticket sales and revenue generated this last weekend. They are even selling stuffed mountain lions in the team store. Trading away Oswalt, Berkman, Lee, or Tejada might make baseball sense, but it certainly hurts the marketing department. Call him a puppet if you wish, but don't call him an idiot. The Phillies fans that ran him out on a rail should keep in mind that he drafted Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, and Cole Hamels. You have to give him time to build a good farm system. Unfortunately, he doesn't work for a patient man.