The Thirty Greatest Astros of the Minute Maid Park Era

Minute Maid Park is now over a decade old, but when it opened, it signaled a very obvious change for the Houston Astros organization.  Gone were the pitching-friendly confines of the Astrodome, and in their place was a new park with a reputation (deserved or otherwise) as a hitter’s paradise.

On Opening Day, 2000, the ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Kenneth Lay (oops) to open what was then known as Enron Field, now Minute Maid Park.  Since then until the end of last season, no fewer than 97 position players and 124 have donned a Houston Astros uniform. 

The Astros have been through a lot during that period – 4th place in their division in 2000, and then starting a string of success that would culminate in the 2005 National League pennant, followed by a sharp and dramatic decline. 

As we step forward into a new era – one in which no single player who saw that ceremonial first pitch is still an active player for the Astros – I got the idea to look back and answer a very basic question: “Which Astros have been the best players during the Minute Maid Park era?”

For this, I looked at a number of stats, mostly WAR, only factoring in seasons in which the Astros called MMP (or Enron Field) home.  Most of the players were chosen for their total team value, though some were given the nod for big contributions over the course of just a few seasons.  A twenty-five player roster proved to make some decisions much too difficult, so I expanded it to 30.

What this is not is a look at the best hitters in Minute Maid Park.  No attention was paid to home-road splits, although I may revisit that idea down the road.  Also, I used B-R’s WAR, which sometimes varies wildly from FanGraphs’ WAR.  It is what it is.

The largest single-season WAR for any position player was posted by Lance Berkman in 2008, and the largest single-season WAR for a pitcher was the 7.2 that Roger Clemens put up in 2005.  In fact, not surprisingly, it was the pitching that year that propelled Houston into the playoffs.  Of the top five single seasons ever put together by an Astros pitcher in the Minute Maid Park era, 3 of them came that year: #1 Roger Clemens (7.2), #3 Andy Pettitte (5.8), and #5 Roy Oswalt (5.3).  Only one position player from that season, Morgan Ensberg (third at 6.5), had a season in the top ten of all-time seasons by an Astros position player in the MMP era. 

So without further delay, I present to you the 30 Greatest Astros of the Minute Maid Park era:

Starting Pitchers

1. Roy Oswalt.  Of the ten best pitching seasons in the Minute Maid Park era, Oswalt has four (2002, 2005, 2006, and 2007).  He’s far and away the leader in overall WAR, owing largely to the fact that his 291 starts dwarfs any other pitcher – Wandy Rodriguez has the second-most, with 167.  Oswalt came up with the Astros in 2001, and played his entire Astros career in the MMP era.  With 5 Cy Young top-five finishes, 3 All-Star appearances, 4 appearances in the Top 25 of MVP voting, and a Rookie of the Year runner-up, he’s easily the most-decorated pitcher of the era.  But it wasn’t just longevity that aided Oswalt.  His 4.2 WAR-per-season as a pitcher is second in the MMP era only to…

2. Roger Clemens.  Clemens was already a six-time Cy Young Award winner by the time he needled (see what I did there?) his way into Houston in 2004 to begin a three-year stretch of dominance that saw him win one more Cy Young, a second top three finish in the voting, two All-Star appearances, and two MVP top-25 selections.  He also threw at his son, Koby Clemens, who had earlier homered off of him in an exhibition game. I mean, I’m just saying that that happened.

3. Wade Miller.  When Miller’s name is mentioned around Astros fans, it usually takes them a moment or two to remember who he was, but he did post double-digit wins three years in a row (2001-03).  Unfortunately for him, the World Series year of 2005 was his first away from the club.  If one includes the 10.1 innings he pitched during the Astrodome era, Miller was 58-39 as an Astro, with a 3.87 ERA, 117 ERA+, 1.309 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, and 2.15 K/BB.  He also struck out 6 Braves in 7 innings in his only playoff appearance, Game 1 of the 2001 NLDS. 

4. Andy Pettitte.  Astros fans can be forgiven for thinking of Pettitte and Clemens as one in the same.  The strong lefty-righty combo came into town – and left town – at the same time, from the same New York Yankees, and back to those same New York Yankees.  Pettitte’s 7.5 WAR over that time pales in comparison to the other three names on the list, but he did finish fifth in the Cy Young voting in 2005 and helped propel the team to their first World Series appearance.  Pettitte also left town with a cool 1.230 WHIP and more than three strikeouts to every walk he issued as an Astro in the MMP era.

5. Wandy Rodriguez.  At first glance, Rodriguez’s place on this list seems to owe itself more to the fact that he’s the longest-tenured current Astros pitcher of the MMP era, and there is some merit to that.  His 167 starts is second among Astros pitchers during this time.  But his 1.3 WAR-per-season isn’t bad – the only pitchers not on this list who can match it are Shane Reynolds (1.3) and Chris Holt (1.9).  Wandy’s been successful as an Astro largely by keeping the ball in the park – he’s allowed just 1.0 home runs per 9.0 innings pitched since coming up in 2005, and his WHIP has been on a downward trend ever since the career-high 1.60 he posted as a sophomore.  Rodriguez has also posted three seasons (2008, 2009, 2010) with an ERA+ above 100, and has had three double-digit win totals: His rookie campaign in 2005, 2009, and 2010.

6. Brett Myers.  Myers may look out of place on this list, as he’s only had one full season as an Astros pitcher, but that season ranks among the best all-time in the MMP era.  His 4.7 WAR-per-season is second only to Clemens’ 5.1, outpacing even Oswalt’s 4.2.  In his lone season as an Astro, Myers finished 10th in the Cy Young balloting and posted a career-high 123 ERA+. 

Relief Pitchers

1. Octavio Dotel.  There aren’t a whole lot of surprises on this list, but the first might be seeing Dotel ranked above closer extraordinaire Billy Wagner.  A case could be made for either of the last two in the once-vaunted Lidge-Dotel-Wagner trio that was once used to mop up opponents during the early years of the MMP era, but Dotel wins on tenure.  His 10.6 WAR over the course of 5 seasons as an Astro during this period is the best for any reliever, and his insanely-good 3.05 K/BB ratio (which does include 85.1 IP during the Astrodome era) is pretty impressive, too.

2. Billy Wagner.  When the hard-throwing lefty came up in 1995, he captured Astros nation and held it for nine seasons, five of which came in the MMP era.  The final year of the Astrodome era was his best and earned him 4th place in the Cy Young balloting, but he pitched well even in the new ballpark.  In fact, it was his final year in Houston, 2003, that saw him post his career-high 44 saves, and he earned 2 of his 3 All-Star Game appearances as an Astro in the MMP era.

3. Brad Lidge. It’s easy enough, after watching Brad Lidge struggle through the end of his tenure as a Houston Astro, to forget how dominant he could be.  But from his first full season in 2003 through the World Series year of 2005, he owned opposing hitters, striking out more than 3.75 batters for every one he walked, posting a 1.078 WHIP, and putting together a string of devastating ERA+: 122 in 2003, 230 in 2004, and 185 in 2005.  He finished 5th in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2003, 8th in the Cy Young voting in 2004, and earned an All-Star nod in 20
05.

4. Chad Qualls. Qualls was never quite as flashy as Lidge, Dotel, or Wagner, but he did post consistently-high ERA+ during his tenure as an Astro in the MMP era: 124 (2004), 130 (2005), 119 (2006), and 146 (2007).  During these four seasons, he posted a 1.236 WHIP, 6 saves, and 23 wins out of the bullpen.

5. Dan Wheeler. Wheeler has never enjoyed greater success as a pitcher than he did during the 3+ seasons he spent as an Astro during the MMP era, an era during which he posted an amazing 1.088 WHIP and a 145 ERA+ over 268.2 innings.  The 3.9 WAR he posted over the course of that time is incredible for a middle reliever, which he’s been for the overwhelming majority of his career.

6. Jose Valverde.  Antics aside, Valverde proved a useful commodity in the retooling years of 2008 and 2009, with a 3.3 WAR and a 1.159 WHIP.  He struck out 3.16 batters for every walk he issued, and 9.9 for every nine innings he pitched as an Astro – a full 139 of the 552 batters he faced (over 25%). 

7. LaTroy Hawkins.  Hawkins is much-maligned around certain (ahem, Cubs) circles, largely because he always seemed like a setup man who could never really step up and become a full-time closer.  That may well be true, but he pitched well during his Astros tenure, from midway through 2008 through 2009.  He held down a 1.71 ERA during those two years, and an amazing 244 ERA+.  Like Rodriguez, he was a guy who kept the ball in the park, allowing just 0.7 HR/9, with a 1.091 WHIP.  His 3.3 WAR for less than two full seasons is pretty remarkable for a middle reliever.

8. Brandon Lyon.  Though Lyon has pitched just one full season in Houston, 2010, his 2.0 WAR in that single season ranks among the best single-season WAR for any Astros reliever during the MMP era.  Never truly dominant, he did post a 125 ERA+ and allowed just 0.2 HR/9.

9. Dan Miceli.  A case could be made for lefty Tim Byrdak, but Miceli gets the nod for his 1.6 WAR in 2004 and parts of 2003, which saw him pitch for 4 major league teams.  His 375 ERA+ over the course of the 30.0 innings he pitched as an Astro that year reek of bad sample size, but striking out 3.03 batters for every walk issued is a pretty solid argument, as well.

Catchers

1. Brad Ausmus.  Ausmus wins on playing time alone.  Sure, he posted a 2.8 WAR as an Astro during the MMP era, his second stint with the team, but it took from 2001-2008 for him to do it.  He also won three Gold Gloves during this time, and much of his value came on defense, unlike:

2. Mitch Meluskey.  Meluskey took to Minute Maid Park like a pig to mud, ranking fifth in Rookie of the Year balloting during the park’s inaugural season, after which he departed, only to return in 2003 to much more dismal numbers.  That rookie season alone was enough to win the hot-headed backstop a spot on a thin roster of Astros catchers.  Despite losing 0.5 wins to his poor defense, he made up for it at the plate, where he hit .300/.401/.487.

Infielders

1B Lance Berkman.  Since getting 6th place in the Rookie of the Year balloting in MMP’s inaugural 2000 season, Berkman has been a mainstay, first as a corner outfielder (plus who remembers his 1,292.1 innings as a center fielder over parts of five seasons?) and then as a first baseman.  With five top five finishes in the MVP balloting and five All-Star selections, the switch-hitter has been nearly-synonymous with the MMP era, picking up where legends like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio left off, as one more Killer B.  His 46.1 WAR over this time dwarfs any other player.  Of course, as we all learned last night, he isn’t any less deadly in MMP as an opposing hitter, either.

2B Craig Biggio.  The consummate team player, Biggio changed positions with some regularity.  After coming up in 1998 as a catcher, he moved to second base, later to the outfield to make room for Jeff Kent, and then back to second base.  In my mind, he will always be a second baseman, a position he defined for the Astros over the course of 17,154.2 innings at the position.  His finest days may have been behind him once the move was made to MMP, but he never took a pitch off, amassing 10.9 WAR from 2000-2007.

3B Morgan Ensberg.  Though Ensberg played in MMP’s inaugural 2000 year, he didn’t work his way into being a full-time starter until three years later.  In parts of seven seasons, though, he put together a .266/.367/.475 line, including the 2005 season which saw him finish 4th in MVP voting, earn his only All-Star selection, and win a Silver Slugger award en route to leading the Astros offense that won the NL pennant.

SS Adam Everett.  Everett is another player whose value came mostly from having a longer tenure than anyone else at his position during the MMP era, but he also provided 6.9 WAR over 7 seasons as a defender alone. 

Outfielders

LF Moises Alou.  Alou was already well-traveled, having played for Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Florida before he landed in Houston in 1998 with a campaign that saw him earn an All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger award, and third in the MVP voting.  It wasn’t until he resurfaced with the team in  2000 and 2001, though, that he got to be a part of the MMP era.  And during his time in Houston, he made his mark on that period with two more MVP top-twenty finishes and another All-Star nod before departing for Chicago to blame fans for interfering with balls he would never have caught in a million years.

CF Richard Hidalgo.  Fans may have trouble remembering Hidalgo, who played for the Astros in parts of 8 seasons, including 2000-2004 in the MMP era.  Certainly, Mets and Rangers fans would have liked to have seen him continue the .278/.356/.501 line he put up during his tenure as an Astro, or the 17.4 WAR he accumulated, all but 3.3 of which came during the MMP era.

RF Hunter Pence.  It’s difficult not to think of Pence, now a team leader in his fifth season with the club, as the goofy 24-year-old that surfaced in 2007 with a rookie campaign that earned him third in the ROY voting.  He boasts a 6.6 WAR over that time, despite losing 1.1  wins on the defensive side of the ball (all in 2010), which actually ranks him third after Berkman and Hidalgo among players who have manned right field for the Astros in the MMP era. 

Bench

1B Jeff Bagwell.  Bagwell played five full seasons, and part of a sixth, during the MMP era, and though he might not have been the force he’d been earlier in his career, he did amass three seasons (2000, 2001, and 2003) with numbers good enough to finish in the top 15 of MVP voting, including a 1.039 OPS in 2000.  From 2000-2003, he posted four consecutive seasons with an oWAR over 3.5, and all told, he added over 20 wins from 2000-2005.

2B Jeff Kent.  One of two future All-Stars to man the second sack for the Astros in the MMP era, Kent had already solidified his career in Toronto, New York, Cleveland, and San Francisco by the time he landed in Houston from 2003-2004, where he posted a .293/.350/.521 line and 5.9 WAR.

3B Ken Caminiti.  Caminiti had already spent 8 years in Houston during the Astrodome era before parting for San Diego in 1995, but he would return in 1999 and play his final year for the Astros in 2000, the inaugural year of MMP.  The 1.5 WAR he posted that season was far from the best of his career, even of his Astros career, but the fading slugger did well enough that year to warrant a spot on the thirty best.

UTIL Ty Wigginton.  After the Rays dealt Wigginton to the Astros in 2007 for Wheeler, he put together probably the best stretch of his career, going .285/.347/.506 in 161 games, split between third base, first base, and both corner outfiel
d spots.  The 2.8 WAR he put together in such a short time is the best of any team he’s played for.

OF Michael Bourn.  Bourn’s still got a lot of holes in his game, but the All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner has amassed 7.1 WAR over the last two seasons, after a disastrous first year which saw him give away 2.1.  He led the league in dWAR, Total Zone Runs, and Stolen Bases in 2010, and seems to be maturing before our very eyes. 

OF Carlos Beltran.  Beltran played just 90 games for the Houston Astros after a midseason three-team trade that saw John Buck go to the Royals and Octavio Dotel to the Athletics, but he made his time here count, putting together 3.5 WAR and leading the charge deep into the playoffs, where he posted an OPS over 1.5.  Only Lance Berkman has carried this team on his back better than Beltran did in the second half of 2004 during the MMP era.

The First

It’s a silly thing, being proud of the day you were born.  Maybe if you were Calvin Coolidge: A U.S. President who was actually born on the same day (July 4) as the country you lead.  You can say it was your destiny, I suppose.

In a way, I think it’s fair for me to say that it was my destiny to be a baseball fan.  That sounds a bit ridiculous, I’ll admit, but in a way I feel like my birthday – April 15 – was the day that baseball was really born.  Baseball the way we understand it and play it today.  Because it was April 15, 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers played the Boston Braves in Ebbets Field and batting second for the Dodgers was first baseman Jackie Robinson.

Yes, I’m proud to share a birthday with modern baseball.  With a Major League Baseball that incorporates people from around the world.  People of all colors.  Because as much as people want to rave about Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb or any player before 1947 being the best ever, the truth stands that they did not compete on an even playing field with the best players in the world.

Jackie Robinson was a very special player and a very special human being, and I’m proud to be tied – even in such an indirect way – to what he accomplished.  

Happy Jackie Robinson Day, everybody.

When No Press Is Good Press

There’s a fairly brilliant article over at MLBTradeRumors.com featuring the Astros’ former lefty reliever, Tim Byrdak, who now pitches for the Mets.  In the article (which you should read in full,) Byrdak talks about following every minute whiff of a story involving a left-handed reliever.

For those of us who follow trade rumors, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are some people who are very interested in these rumors: The players themselves.

ByrdakPitches.jpg

When one lefty gets signed, it can have a dramatic influence on other lefties.  The difference between a major league signing and a minor league invite are major – they are, literally, the difference between getting a job offer and getting an offer for a job interview. 

Byrdak, who pitched pretty well for the Astros over three years, wound up in New York.  But the way he tells it, it sounds like a cyclone, spinning you around and around with no idea where you’re going to land until you wake up the next morning and take stock of your surroundings.

Excerpts below, but you should read the entire article.

“I thought we’d have more of an opportunity to secure a big-league job,” Byrdak continued. “So you have to keep watching the wire, MLB Trade Rumors, all these sites to see who is going where, who has interest in guys. So it became a pretty valuable tool for me to keep an eye on other lefties that were still on the market, and how that market was developing.”

What may seem like a minor post to a reader about a team’s interest in a middle reliever is seismic to someone like Byrdak, and he found it hard to avoid getting frustrated by some of the things he read.

“There were a couple [of times],” Byrdak said. “You would hear from a couple of different teams, and you thought you’d be starting the negotiation process. People have asked me, ‘How come I don’t play for the White Sox’ [Byrdak is from nearby Oak Forest, IL], and I tell them, ‘Well, you know, they’ve never offered me a job.”

“I read somewhere, Chad Durbin said the same thing, that you’ve got to take what was out there,” Byrdak said. “There wasn’t a big-league job out there for us to get. I’m a guy who usually is coming into camp – you’re in shape – but it’s about getting your arm strength, getting everything together without the pressure. It was different this year. You have to compete, put up zeroes as early and often as you can.”

Rosenthal Weighs In

Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal included a blurb about the Astros in this article:

The Astros are at their payroll limit, but would like to add a left-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Jason Michaels if they go with Carlos Lee over Brett Wallace at first base, which is hardly a sure thing. Wallace is hitting .362/.388/.617 this spring.

The team’s greater need is a replacement for catcher Jason Castro, who is out for the season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. The Astros like the Royals’ Brayan Pena, but the Royals won’t trade him with Jason Kendall still recovering from shoulder surgery.

I know I’ve been something of a J.R. Towles fanboy, and I understand that the team might be reluctant to give him another shot to translate his skills to the Major League level, but if going .344/.382/.594 in Spring Training, with more at-bats than any other player at your position, doesn’t earn you a chance to be the starting catcher, then I don’t know why we even have Spring Training. Of course, I understand that Humberto Quintero and Chris Corporan have posted comparable, and at times better, numbers. But Towles’ minor league production backs up his spring numbers, and I just happen to think he’s due one last chance to either be the starting catcher or to be traded or released.

As for the speculation about Carlos Lee, I think Brett Wallace has to be installed as the everyday first baseman to start the season. You have to believe that he’s going to find his power stroke at the major league level, and the thought of platooning Jason Michaels with any other options isn’t promising. Brian Bogusevic, the obvious in-choice left-handed outfielder, isn’t performing well this spring and needs to swing the bat a few more times in Oklahoma City before he should be called up. That means going out and getting a free agent, which more or less is limited to Ryan Church, as every other option with big league experience is right-handed, to my knowledge.

So, really, it just makes much more sense to me to put Lee and his diminished defense in left field, with Wallace and his potential big bat at first; rather than Lee at first and a combination of Jason Michaels and any other human being in left field.

Backstop

It seems like an annual Astros’ Spring Training rite: Determining who the starting catcher will be.  This year, and for the foreseeable future, you can blame Ed Wade and the gang for assuming that they’d locked the question up.  Jason Castro was going to be given the reins of the team.  That much, then, was settled.

Until it wasn’t.

Castro’s season came to a screeching halt when he tore the ACL in his right knee, leaving the Astros once again fielding the question: Who will start at catcher?

Defensive stalwart Humberto Quintero is an option, if not a great one on the offensive side of the plate; former top prospect J.R. Towles is also lingering around, after a few unsuccessful major league stints.  

There are a few options that may be available via trade, but in my opinion, a rebuilding team like the Astros would be foolish to give away any piece of merit for what amounts to being – at best – a one-year stopgap behind the plate.

Then there’s Bengie Molina.

Molina, a thirteen-year veteran with the Angels, Blue Jays, Giants, and Rangers, is leaning towards retirement, but has said that he would be open to signing with a team where he could get full-time employment.

He would certainly become the number one option behind the plate, probably with Quintero filling in from the bench.  He would no doubt be available at a reasonable price, similar to the Ivan Rodriguez deal.

Though last year was not a good one for Molina, it was the first time since 2003 that he slugged below .400.  The last time the Astros had a catcher with over 150 plate appearances who slugged .400 or better, the year was 2001 and the catcher’s name was Tony Eusebio.  Molina also brings a veteran presence to a team that seems to get younger by the minute.

My First-Ever Mailbag

I got an intriguing email from a fellow Astros fan today:

RR15: Why weren’t the Astros buyers at the trade deadline?  They’ve been playing over .500 since late May, they’re still within conceivable striking distance from the top of the division, and there’s a pretty good team out there available for bargain prices: Saltalamacchia, Lopez, Ludwick, Maholm, Church, Edwin Jackson, Tejada, and Haren, just to name a few.


There’s a lot here to digest, so let me try to break it down piece-by-piece.

The Astros may be playing over .500 since late May, but they’ve failed to rise above fifth place in a six-team division since April 25, when they were briefly in third place after sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates at home.  Consecutive sweeps by the Reds and Braves put them at the bottom of the standings, and they haven’t resurfaced since.
Even if the Astros were to continue to play above .500, the hole into which they’ve dug themselves is a gaping one, and would require fantastic flame-outs by several teams to translate into making the playoffs.  In this case, certainly, the cake is a lie.
As for the players you mentioned (and others), even if the Astros had the payroll flexibility to grab several of these marquee names, and even if all of them happened to play to potential, and even if all of them happened to jell as a Major League team, who would you suggest trading to get them?  It’s not news that the farm system is short of guys who can conceivably perform at the Major League level, and even if they did have those guys, continuously trading them at every deadline serves to do nothing but further deplete the minor leagues, creating an endless cycle that must be fed by more and more expensive free agents.
The upside to the Astros’ current approach is that they will get to see their younger players in action and determine whether or not they will serve as viable big league players in the future.  If they don’t work out now, the front office will know that they need to look elsewhere to solve their needs.  Meanwhile, scoring low in the standings might dishearten casual fans, but it makes for higher draft picks.  Not the sexiest sell on the planet, but it does lead to good baseball teams, as the Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, and Philadelphia Phillies can attest.
It’s going to be an ugly team to watch sometimes.  They’re not going to win a lot of ballgames.  But it does explain Bagwell’s recent promotion: He’s been helping to develop kids for the Astros for quite a while now.  Well, that’s exactly what he’s going to be asked to do at the Major League level.  Help these youngsters transition into the Majors.
The only real question I have at this moment is: When does the Brian Bogusevic era begin?

Stung

It doesn’t matter that I’m largely pleased by the trades Houston has made this week, even if they mean two of my favorite Astros – Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman – will be finishing their careers elsewhere.  

It doesn’t matter that I think General Manager Ed Wade has this team headed very quickly in the right direction.
It doesn’t matter that I love that owner Drayton McLane seems to finally be ceding the fact that the Astros’ current roster isn’t a piece or two from being competitive, but needs to be blown up and made younger, with strong direction by Wade and scouting director Bobby Heck.
None of that matters tonight, because it still kind of hurts to see this:
OswaltPhillies.jpg
Sometimes you just have to let yourself be a fan.

Jeff Bagwell, Hitting Coach to the Stars

Last year, Houston fans were quick to point to hitting coach Sean Berry and label him as one of the biggest reasons why the Astros weren’t successful.  This year, as the offensive woes intensified, many fans’ wish came true.  Berry was let go this morning and replaced by former superstar first baseman Jeff Bagwell.

The question, then, is this: Are the Houston Astros a better baseball team for having a formerly-more-solid hitter as their batting coach?
To be sure, Sean Berry was never an amazing hitter.  His career .272/.334/.445 hints at a pretty good hitter who was impatient at the plate and was capable of hitting some gaps, but never tore the cover off of the ball.  This year’s edition of the Houston Astros, under his tutelage, are last in the National League in walks (233), OBP (.295), and SLG (.348), and only the Pirates rank below them in Batting Average (.237).
In 2009, also with Berry as the hitting coach, only the Giants had fewer walks (though only the Mets had fewer strikeouts) than the Astros did.  And Houston ranked in the bottom half of the NL in both OBP and in SLG.
For whatever reason, with Berry as the hitting coach, the Astros were not putting together good at-bats.  There is a common rationale that a hitting coach can only do so much; that Major League hitters are pretty much set in their ways.  I’m inclined to agree, but I also wonder, if that were true, why would a professional baseball team spend money on a hitting coach at all?  It seems that, if you’re going to pay somebody, then you might as well pay someone who’s effective.
The top team in the National League this season in OBP is the Atlanta Braves, coached by Terry Pendleton.  The top slugging team in the National League this season is the Cincinnati Reds, coached by Brook Jacoby.  Both were All-Stars in their own playing days, and Pendleton was an MVP.
The casual observer might simply say, “Well, there you go.”  But not me.  Pendleton’s career line is not fantastic at .270/.316/.391.  In fact, it pales in comparison even to Berry’s career line.  Berry – never an All-Star; never a serious awards contender – boasts a career OPS 72 points better than Pendleton, who won the batting title in 1991.  
It seems safe to say, then, that the caliber of player has little to no relation on how they’ll perform as a hitting coach.  Which is too bad, because if it did, Bagwell’s .297/.408/.540 would look awfully good right now.
So, then, what advantage – financial considerations aside – does Bagwell’s promotion give the Houston Astros?  It remains to be seen, to be sure.  All we can do is hope that it translates into better at-bats, whether or not it makes anyone on the Astros a better hitter.  Because this year’s offense is one of the worst I’ve ever seen, especially when adjusted for Minute Maid Park.
The only way to go, it seems, is up.

The Kids Are Alright

It wasn’t the first hit of Chris Johnson‘s career, but it may have been the most important one.  For when the young third baseman hit a sharp line drive to center field off of the Giants’ Tim Lincecum, it may have signaled the beginning of an era.

Johnson (26) was called up after the Astros’ mind-numbing series sweep in Texas, and it seems that this time, it may be for good.  After a year of speculation that he might become the regular starter at third base – a year that saw such luminaries as Aaron Boone and Geoff Blum man the third sack for the big leaguers, Johnson largely stayed in Triple-A Round Rock, where all he did was go .281/.323/.461 while improving defensively and battling a hand injury.

But if the Houston Astros are going to move forward as an organization, Johnson is going to be a key component of the transition from old to new.  For a team weak on minor league depth, it was important that he show he could produce as the starter.  And for the foreseeable future, he is the Astros’ third baseman.
Castro.jpg
Another key player in the Astros’ future, catcher Jason Castro, was also called up and started today’s game.  In just his second plate appearance, Castro ripped a Lincecum curveball into center field for his first big league hit.
Despite his ranking as Baseball America’s #41 prospect in all of baseball, Castro was slow to win me over.  I still think that first baseman Justin Smoak, now of the Rangers, would have been a better draft pick; and I still think that Koby Clemens is getting kind of a raw deal; but Castro has won me over – while I still think that there’s a future for Clemens in the organization, it won’t be as the everyday catcher (the Astros have tried him out at many positions in the minors, including left field and third base – his natural position – and now first base).
Because Jason Castro, in addition to playing a solid game behind the plate and producing at the plate, brings a very good batter’s eye to the game, as evidenced by an OBP that has never fallen below .362 for a season at any level of professional baseball.
This year in Round Rock, 23-year-old Castro has walked 32 times in 244 plate appearances.  That’s 7.625 trips to the plate for every walk.  Compare that to last year’s big league club, where only 1B Lance Berkman (5.794) did better.
So welcome aboard, boys.  I’m sure you’re just the first of several who will get called up this season.  But we’re sure glad to have ya.

National League No-Stars

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game has no equal, at least as far as I’m concerned.  Sure, we could complain about fan voting, and I certainly have.  The very fact that voting is allowed as early as April should give you some indication that statistics play very little part in the choice of fans.

But overall, most of the right guys get in, and MLB has one feature that I absolutely adore: At least one player from every team is guaranteed a spot on the final roster.
I’ve long used my own formula to determine not only my own votes for starters, but to determine the entire roster for both leagues.  It leans heavily on my own Runs Created (RC) scale, as well as WAR for pitchers.  My favorite part, each year, is usually trying to find the guy from each teams who most deserves to be on the squad.  Sometimes, it’s hard.  There is usually one or two teams with extremely unimpressive rosters, and finding the one guy who stands out can be hard.
I hate to admit it, but this year no team was harder to crack than the Houston Astros.
In these cases, there’s usually at least one guy who’s in the top five at his position.  This year, however, there are no Astros that meet that qualification:
C: Humberto Quintero paces Astros catchers with 53.09 RC, good for eighteenth among all NL catchers.  To give you an idea how far off this is, there are two teams within our own division (Milwaukee and Cincinnati) who have more than one catcher ahead of Q.
1B: Lance Berkman ranks fifteenth among all NL first basemen with 88.79 RC – directly in front of the Giants’ Buster Posey.
2B: Jeff Keppinger is at least in the top ten at his position.  He’s ninth among NL second basemen with 119.60 RC.
3B: Pedro Feliz is fourteenth among NL third basemen with 74.18 RC.  Only the Pirates’ Andy LaRoche and the Cubs’ Aramis Ramirez have been worse this season.
SS: Tommy Manzella is number 17 among NL shortstops, with 50.05 RC.
OF: Hunter Pence is twenty-third among NL outfielders with 121 RC.  Clearly the best performance on the team, but well off the pace, set by Cubs’ OF Marlon Byrd (167.41).  Michael Bourn isn’t far behind, at #27 with 113.99 RC; Carlos Lee is thirty-third with 98.21 RC.
Pitchers: No Houston Astros pitchers are in the top five in any meaningful category, though Roy Oswalt is ninth in WHIP, tenth in K/IP, and fifth in K/BB.
hunter-pence-girlfriend.jpg
Hunter Pence poses with someone who is as likely to be an NL
All-Star as he is.
So what it boils down to is whether you prefer Oswalt or Pence as an All-Star.  I chose Pence, but the case could certainly be made for Oswalt.  One thing’s for sure: Neither particularly deserves the nod.  For the first time since I’ve been keeping my own stats independently, the Houston Astros have absolutely no All-Stars.
For the record, here are my choices for the entire rosters:
National League
C: Brian McCann (ATL)
1B: Albert Pujols (STL)
2B: Martin Prado (ATL)
3B: Scott Rolen (CIN)
SS: Hanley Ramirez (FLA)
OF: Marlon Byrd (CHC)
OF: Ryan Braun (MIL)
OF: Josh Willingham (WSN)
Bench
C Miguel Olivo (COL)
1B Adrian Gonzalez (SDP)
1B Joey Votto (CIN)
1B Aubrey Huff (SFG)
2B Brandon Phillips (CIN)
2B Kelly Johnson (ARI)
2B Ricky Weeks (MIL)
3B Ryan Zimmerman (WSN)
SS Troy Tulowitzki (COL)
OF Andrew McCutchen (PIT)
OF Shane Victorino (PHI)
OF Andre Ethier (LAD)
OF Jason Heyward (ATL)
OF Ryan Ludwick (STL)
OF Hunter Pence (HOU)
Pitchers
Ubaldo Jimenez (COL)
Roy Halladay (PHI)
Josh Johnson (FLA)
Yovani Gallardo (MIL)
Mike Pelfrey (NYM)
Livan Hernandez (WSN)
Adam Wainwright (STL)
Tim Hudson (ATL)
Jaime Garcia (STL)
Matt Cain (SFG)
Matt Capps (WSN)
Dan Haren (ARI)
Clayton Kershaw (LAD)
American League
C: Victor Martinez (BOS)
1B: Justin Morneau (MIN)
2B: Robinson Cano (NYY)
3B: Evan Longoria (TBR)
SS: Derek Jeter (NYY)
OF: Alexis Rios (CWS)
OF: Ichiro Suzuki (SEA)
OF: Chin-Soo Choo (CLE)
DH: Vladimir Guerrero (TEX)
Bench
C Joe Mauer (MIN)
CJason Kendall (KCR)
1B Kevin Youkilis (BOS)
1B Miguel Cabrera (DET)
1B Daric Barton (OAK)
2B Dustin Pedroia (BOS)
3B Mike Young (TEX)
3B Adrian Beltre (BOS)
SS Marco Scutaro (BOS)
OF Josh Hamilton (TEX)
OF Vernon Wells (TOR)
OF Carl Crawford (TBR)
OF Ben Zobrist (TBR)
OF Jose Bautista (TOR)
Pitchers
Francisco Liriano (MIN)
John Danks (CWS)
Andy Pettite (NYY)
Ervin Santana (LAA)
Ricky Romero (TOR)
Rafael Soriano (TBR)
Jon Lester (BOS)
Jeff Niemann (TBR)
David Price (TBR)
Jeremy Guthrie (BAL)
Jered Weaver (LAA)
Cliff Lee (SEA)
Jon Rauch (MIN)
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.