Retiring Astros' 3-4-5 As Easy As 1-2-3

added 5/20/2010 by Pat Hajovsky

Here's a quick tidbit from earlier this decade (or last decade, depending on how you count a decade):

In the 2003 season, the Astros were starting their season with the newly-signed Jeff Kent starting at second. Kent wasn't signed for his defensive capabilities; he was signed to supplement a batting order which produced a disappointing 749 runs in 2002. Kent completed the 3-4-5 slots in the order, backing up Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman.

There was an immediate impact to the lineup. Opening Day of 2003 welcomed the Colorado Rockies to Minute Maid Park. Here's the results of the 3-4-5 hitters each time through the order:

Bagwell: Fly out to deep left
Berkman: Strikeout swinging
Kent: Solo home run

Bagwell: Two-run home run
Berkman: Walk (later scored)
Kent: Single (later scored)

Bagwell: Solo home run
Berkman: Ground out
Kent: Fly out

Bagwell: Ground out
Berkman: Ground out
Kent: Single

Bagwell: Walk
Berkman: Ground out
Kent: Ground out

Notice something? Every time through the order, at least one of these three sluggers reached base, three times producing runs (including three home runs), and the Astros won the game. Next day, same result. Not one time were all three retired, and the Astros again won the game. Not until the third game were the Rockies able to get all three men out in succession.

That year, the Astros, while falling tragically short of the playoffs, improved to 805 runs scored as the meat of the order produced all year long. Their Pythagorean win-loss total showed 94 wins, whilst injuries to the pitching staff and a final series swoon to the Brewers brought in a total of 87 wins, a game back of the Cubs.

This year? Houston is on pace to score a mere 481 runs. (Take a second and let that number wash over you: 805 runs in 2003 - 481 runs in 2010.) I need a drink to watch this team. But even more, I think I know where to place the blame. Look no further than the heart of the batting order.

The point here is not that good hitters produce wins. The point is that bad hitting, particularly in the 3-4-5 holes in the batting order, make it exceedingly difficult to win. If a pitcher can get through that part of the order, the road gets easier for any team - and especially with a team with not one but usually two or three hitters below the Mendoza Line from there on to the pitcher's spot.

As anyone could have predicted going into the season, the Astros overall have struggled to score runs and, thus, have struggled to win games. In 2003, opposing teams knew that it would be difficult to get through the middle of the order and came into games knowing they would need to score more than a couple runs to win. Through 38 games in 2010, however, the 3-4-5 hitters have been retired in order a remarkable 40% of the time.

Digging a little deeper, let's look at the 3-9 start without Berkman. In those dozen games, the 3-4-5 slots were retired in order 67% of the time!!! Since Berkman's return, the team record is 10-16 (not great, but more respectable), and hitters 3-4-5 have been retired in order a mere 29% of the time.

But before we go high-fiving each other and announce "problem solved", dig even deeper at the 29%. In the ten wins, those slots were retired in order only seven out of 41 times. Okay, seems logical. In the 16 losses? 23 out of 57 times, for a 40% clip. But if you take out the absolutely pathetic 7-out-of-10 times in the Padres series in early May, you're left with a respectable 34%.

What gives? In those 26 games, somebody's obviously getting on base via a walk or a hit. I think these numbers show that the meat of the order - the group most responsible for run production - has gone from not hitting at all in the first 12 games, to not hitting when the pressure has been on in the next 26.

Case in point: in Roy Oswalt's start on May 15th, at least one of the middle hitters reached base on their turn through the order three out of four times but, with runners on base in those at bats, they produced zero runs. Indeed, for the entire San Francisco series that weekend, at least one of the 3-4-5 guys got on base 10 out of 12 times, but that group produced a mere four runs, with two of those on solo shots by Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee.

Is it nice to see an evolution from complete ineptitude to a mere lack of clutch hitting? Sure, and the optimist in me says that proven RBI guys in the heart of the order, like Berkman and Lee (and Pedro Feliz, since I think Pence should be the number two hitter) will turn that around, and with it will come respectability. The pitching is simply too good to waste wins if or when the clutch hitting evens out.

But the pessimist in me says, "481 runs??" Pass the scotch, and better make it a double, please.