An Ocean Of Frustration

added 6/5/2009 by Bob Hulsey

Any Astros fan will tell you that to root for the Astros is to struggle. Those who have rooted for them only during the last dozen years know mostly of walking down an emotional tightrope through the pennant stretch and beyond.

It's not the same purgatory as Cub fans are in, nor of those who root for the Pirates or the Brewers, franchises who see success about as often as Libertarians win elections.

An Astro fan doesn't know what it is like to be a front-runner, to relax with a smug feeling that you've got it made and can now rest up and set your rotation for the postseason. In the nine times that Houston has reached the playoffs, only twice (1986 and 1998) have they arrived comfortably.

In 1980, they needed a one-game playoff with Los Angeles to win the Western Division. In 1997, they took the N.L. Central with about a week to spare but still had to sweat crossing the line with a winning record. In 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2005, they waited until the very last day of the season to clinch. Even when they've been eliminated in recent years (2003, 2006, 2008), they were still alive in the final week.

Since 1994, Drayton McLane's second year of ownership, the Astros have finished first or second in the Central 12 out of 15 seasons. And yet watching the Astros achieve the ultimate prize - a World's Championship - is like watching Sisyphos, the man in Greek mythology condemned to forever push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back to the bottom.

In short, we Astros fans know frustration.

Observing the 2009 Astros is to know a new level of frustation. It is frustrating to watch great players like Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt struggle against their accustomed levels of excellence. It is frustrating to watch the oldest team in the majors shuffle players on and off the Disabled List and wonder how much better we might be with a healthy Jose Valverde or Doug Brocail or Kaz Matsui.

It is frustrating to watch our bullpen get lit up or our bench players like Jason Smith, Darin Erstad and Jason Michaels contribute so little. It is frustrating to realize that, in better economic times, we would be watching Randy Wolf and Ty Wigginton this year instead of Mike Hampton and Geoff Blum.

But, more than anything, what makes it so frustrating to watch the 2009 Astros is their failure to deliver with men in scoring position. They are the gas guzzlers of the National League, squandering scoring chances at an alarming rate.

Thanks to the wizards at Baseball-Reference.com, there is no shortage of statistics to illustrate what has been happening when an Astro reaches second or third base (All statistics listed are through Thursday, June 4th).

Let's start with some basic building blocks. The Astros are third of 16 teams in batting average (.272) yet just .253 when there's a runner on second or third. They are tied for second in the league in hits (490), but 14th in runs scored (221). They are sixth in on-base percentage (.336) and exactly the league average in slugging percentage (.408). If our offense were just league average in runs scored, we would be 22 runs further ahead which would translate to a few more wins and likely a spot in the standings next to the struggling Cubs.

Before moving to individual players, let's see how the team has performed in critical situations. With men on base, the Astros' team batting average is .271, close to the overall average cited above. With only a man on first, that average jumps to a robust .299 with a healthy on-base percentage of .370.

But just let that man advance to second and the lumber in our bats turn to putty. With just a runner on second, the Astros are hitting .235. With runners on first and second, the team hits a better .264 but with the bases full, the number dips back to .237 and a feeble .646 OPS.

Putting a runner on third is more of a mixed bag, reflecting perhaps the more statistical variance when you are dealing with a smaller sample. With only a runner at third, the Astros are batting .310. With runners on second and third, they are batting .300. But, with runners at first and third, the Astros bat .224 (with an embarassing .533 OPS). If there's a runner on third with two outs, the club is hitting an anemic .219.

Part of the problem is that the Astros keep running themselves out of scoring chances. Houston leads the league in "caught stealing" (21) and are 12th in stolen base percentage (61%). They are second in grounding into double plays (GIDP) with 47 and first in GIDP percentage (13% of opportunities). There is no stat for "boneheaded attempts to take an extra base when they were out by a mile" (BATTEBWOBM), but I'm guessing the Astros would lead that stat too.

A stat I have drummed to death this year is "runners in scoring position" (RISP) which measures how the offense performs when runners are on second or third. You may want to get an antacid before reading further.

Of the regulars in our lineup, the only two who have good RISP numbers are presently the first two guys in the lineup. Michael Bourn is hitting .395 with a 1.016 OPS. Miguel Tejada is batting .310 with a moderate .750 OPS. Those two are not the guys you expect to be run producers.

Lance Berkman is but he's hitting just .192 in RISP situations, although with a .732 OPS. Carlos Lee is hitting a respectable .264 (and .842 OPS) while Hunter Pence is batting .291. Note that each of these are significantly lower than their overall batting averages.

Then we reach the Wipeout Zone with Geoff Blum (.200 BA/.667 OPS), Ivan Rodriguez (.224/.591) and Kaz Matsui (.222/.578). Don't look to the bench for help either. Other than Humberto Quintero (.444/1.000), the bench of Jeff Keppinger (.150/.546), Erstad (.167/.381) and Michaels (.083/.250) are statistically worse than pitchers Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Wandy Rodriguez.

To make matters worse, Pudge has hit into five double plays in RISP situations, Pence has hit into four and Lee three times. Pence and Berkman have both been caught stealing twice in RISP situations.

There is some hope on the horizon. Newcomer Edwin Maysonet (.429/1.071) leads the team but he has only been up seven times so far in those situations. And some would say that the "law of averages" will help guys like Berkman and Lee whom we know are better hitters than their 2009 stats would indicate.

Perhaps this is all a long-winded way to say the Astros are where they are because they aren't taking advantage of the situations they have been given, although there's also a pitching side to the equation I haven't explored here. But if you see Astros fans with grimacing looks on their faces this year, part of the reason is watching their team blow chance after chance to score. That's what I call frustration.