Who Is An "Astro-Killer"?

added 5/15/2009 by Bob Hulsey

Note: This is a reprint of a column posted on May 13th which was dropped from the front page due to programming issues.

The term is thrown around with regularity, even by me, so it is time to clarify a bit what it means to be an "Astro-killer" or a (fill-in-the-blank)-killer. Simply put, it is when a player on the opposing team plays at a consistently higher level against your team than he does against anyone else. The reputation can be enhanced by a series of clutch performances or, eventually, a dread knowing that the "killer" is going to get that clutch hit or that key out that makes the difference in wins or losses.

Perhaps two of the most classic examples of the "killers" are Astros themselves who have made life miserable for Cincinnati Reds fans. Two Houston players have dominated the Reds like few have ever beaten an opposing team.

One is pitcher Roy Oswalt, who has faced Cincinnati 30 times in his career. He’s won 23 of them, lost only once and holds a 2.35 ERA against them. By contrast, Oswalt has beaten no other team more than 13 times (the Pirates and Brewers share that distinction). His winning percentage against the Reds (.958) is his best against National League opponents. Not counting interleague foes, his ERA against the Reds is bettered only by his ERA against the Diamondbacks (2.25) and the Rockies (1.84). In other words, while Oswalt is unquestionably one the top pitchers in the National League, he’s on another level when he goes up against the Reds.

Roy Oswalt.
The other noteworthy example is Lance Berkman. His career batting average against Cincinnati is .330. It’s better against the Rockies (.337) and the Nationals (.354) but Berkman has homered against the Reds 46 times, ten more than his second-highest opponent. He also has a higher OPS (1.150) against the Reds than any other NL club.

You don’t have to be a star player to be a “killer”. Craig Reynolds was a career .252 hitter during his 11 years with the Astros. But against two teams, he feasted. Versus the Giants, Reynolds hit .285 with a .752 OPS and seven homers. Against the Braves, he hit .272 with nine homers and 67 RBIs - his best against any N.L. team.

Another classic “killer” was J.R. Richard against the Dodgers. If you look at his splits, he seemed to play better against L.A. in almost every category including wins (15), winning percentage (.789), ERA (1.86), and WHIP (0.957). There’s no doubt that had he not fallen victim to a stroke, Richard would have been able to lead the Astros into the 1980 N.L.C.S. without the need of a one-game playoff. Manager Bill Virdon could have just trotted J.R. out during one of the final three games and likely been sipping champagne that night.

Some stars play no particular favorites. Both Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were great hitters but their numbers don’t show one particular club that was their constant victims.

So, now that I’ve set some examples, let's look at some Astro-killers over the years:

Briefly in 1963, the Colt .45s owned a young Dominican outfielder by the name of Manny Mota, but then traded him before Opening Day. Big mistake. While Mota was rarely a regular player, he became a pinch-hitting specialist with a particular penchant for hitting Astros pitching. Although his batting average (.295) and OPS (.747) were not his top numbers against other teams, he hit more homers (7), drove in more runs (63) and stole more bases (8) against Houston than anyone else. For a guy that never reached 500 at bats in any campaign of his 20-season career, he was a consistent thorn in our side.

Pete Rose wasn't so much a killer as an all-time pest. His numbers against Houston (.312 average, .791 OPS, etc) weren't his best. In fact, it seems the Braves were his favorite whipping boy over 24 seasons. But Rose was certainly an antagonist. In 1964, when the Reds beat the Colts even as Ken Johnson tossed a no-hitter, it was Rose who reached on an error and scored the winning run in the ninth. Sixteen years later when the Astros were trying to reach the World Series in that memorable Game 4 of the 1980 N.L.C.S., it's Rose again who delivered a forearm blow to Bruce Bochy as he scored the winning run for the Phillies. In between were numerous other situations where the all-time hits leader tormented Houston.

Lenny Dykstra.
In a similar vein was Lenny Dykstra. As a Met and a Phillie in the 80s and 90s, Dykstra batted .349 with a .917 OPS against us. He had better partial-career numbers against the Rockies and the Phillies but, over his full career, he was an Astro-killer. We'd like to forget the home run Dykstra hit in Game 3 of the 1986 N.L.C.S. to beat the Astros but it is hard to when it frequently appears on ESPN Classic. Without it, the whole series might have been different.

You would expect to see some power hitters like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Mike Schmidt among the Astro-killers but they weren't. Oh, sure, they hit their share of homers against us but their numbers were lower against Houston than several other clubs. Likewise, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa didn't hurt the Astros as badly as they did teams with shorter fences. The power-negating Astrodome likely gets a big assist here. A lot of sluggers just hated that place.

Among pitchers, two notables were Steve Carlton (33-13, 2.45 ERA) and Bob Gibson (29-13, 2.55 ERA). They were particularly tough on Houston hitters over the years. Perhaps none was worse, though, than Philadelphia's Chris Short who compiled a 17-6 record with a 2.05 ERA and 1.020 WHIP against the Astros. Short also blanked Houston in the first regular-season game at the Astrodome in 1965.

Ask today's fans which players are Astro-killers and two names pop up that aren't particularly true. Chipper Jones of Atlanta has had some nice numbers against us over the years (.327 average, .979 OPS, 18 homers), but he has abused our team less than he has some others, notably the Phillies and the Mets. The real Astro-killer on the Braves was Javy Lopez (.312 average, .900 OPS), although he seemed to enjoy feasting on San Francisco pitching even more than ours.

Albert Pujols is another name that comes up. No doubt his numbers against us (.318 average, 1.004 OPS, 36 homers) are outstanding and he has one huge moment in Game 5 of the 2005 N.L.C.S. against us. But he treats some other clubs the same or worse. Pujols is not a killer, just an exceptional hitter. In fact, if you look at Berkman's career numbers against the Cardinals (.313 average, 1.015 OPS, 36 homers), they cancel out Pujols' numbers against us and we've already established that St. Louis isn't Lance's favorite opponent.

So, who are the Astro-killers of today? Start with Aramis Ramirez. The Cubs third baseman has hit more homers (29) and driven in more runs (96) against the Astros than any other team, even though his average (.264) and OPS (.776) are surprisingly low compared to some other teams. He's an example of killing with quality more than quantity.

Jim Edmonds.
Similarly, Adam LaRoche of the Pirates hits a robust .312 against the Astros and has driven in 36 runs, most against any opponent. Toss in his post-season numbers vs Houston (.320 average, two homers) and he is clearly an Astro-killer.

Mike Cameron of the Brewers is growing into an Astro-killer as well. His average (.287) and OPS (.899) against Houston is as good as his numbers against any National League team - except the Brewers. I guess that explains why Milwaukee was smart to sign him.

However, the All-Time Astro-killer is the recently-retired Jim Edmonds. It's not the .288 average against us or his 30 homers and 86 RBIs. It's the combination of clutch hitting and flashy outfield defense that demoralized Houston fans over and over again. Edmonds hit .292 in the 2004 N.L.C.S. against us, including belting the game-winning homer in Game 6.

They might have popped champagne in the Astros front office when Edmonds was traded by the Cardinals to San Diego before the 2008 season. He hit just .178 with only one homer before the Padres released him. That homer was, of course, against Houston. But once he was released, he was signed by Chicago and was back in the Central Division where he hit three more homers against us as a Cub.

With Edmonds gone, new killers will no-doubt show up over time to take his place just as there will be Astros who will torment opponents with regularity

Statistics quoted courtesy of Baseball Reference.com as of May 9, 2009.