What They Did: 56-106, 6th Place NL Central.
Actual Runs: Scored 615 runs, Allowed 796.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 62.2 (6.2 above actual)
Restated: Scored 632 runs, Allowed 791.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 64.7 (8.7 above actual)
The staff at Baseball Prospectus released their pre-season predictions yesterday. The 27 staffers submitted an expected-order-of-finish ballot for all six divisions and there was only one unanimous selection. Only one team was placed in the same slot by every voter. Last place for the Baltimore Orioles? 22 out of 27 votes. First place for the Detroit Tigers? 26 out of 27 votes (K.C. got the 27th, which should bring a smile to the face of readers who hate, hate, hated my Royals’ preview.) The team that everyone has exactly the same outlook for? The Houston Astros, even in the largest division in baseball, were a unanimous pick for last place.
I’ve never been one to resist peer pressure; let me cast the 28th vote.
You can look at the box at the top of this essay and see that while Houston may now have played a good bit better than the 106-loss tally it posted, it doesn’t matter because the Astros were essentially a 100-loss team anyway. A 65-win team, as I classify the Astros, only generates about 19 Wins Above Replacement across its entire roster. How bad is this? Well, led by the Red Sox with 38 WAR, 13 different teams created more wins solely with its bats. The pitching staffs of fourteen teams created more than 19 WAR in 2011, with the Giants leading the pack at 30.
Here’s how the Astros compared to the league in each category:
WAR Contribution MLB Average
Starting Pitchers 3.7 10.4
Relief Pitchers 2.2 6.7
All Hitters 13.8 18.9
While the hitting approached respectability, ranking 22nd overall and 12th in the NL, it’s actually bad news for a 2012 projection because two of the three largest contributors to that ranking, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, were traded mid-season last year. That left only Carlos Lee as an above-average player; by the end of the season, no one else was even close to average. Jed Lowrie, acquired for pitchers in a trade with Boston, projects to be a mildly-above-average-hitting shortstop, which immediately makes him the Astros’ second best hitter. That’s a problem. Baseball’s other low scoring teams in 2011, the Mariners, Giants, and Padres, all took significant steps to upgrade their offenses meaning the Astros are a near-lock to be the lowest scoring team in baseball. Unlike those other three teams, which dipped into a surplus of pitching depth to acquire hitting, Houston’s spare pitching parts only rate a Jed Lowrie-type bat.
Since 2000 (at least) only one team, the 2010 Mariners, has failed to score at least 550 runs in a season. I fear Houston has a very real chance of being the second team.
There isn’t any better news from the corps of starting pitchers. This winter Houston moved Brett Myers from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Myers, arguably Houston’s best pitcher, has provided the Astros with an average of 220 innings a year worth of 3.79 ERA pitching the last two years. As a closer he might pitcher 70 innings. His spot in the rotation is being taken by 37-year old Livan Hernandez who should consider 2012 a successful season if his ERA finishes below 5.00. I’m not suggesting Hernandez should be closing, but how many potential wins is Myers possibly going to save? Unless this is a plan to get some contending team to trade a prospect for Myers mid-season, this is a ludicrous decision. Hernandez for Myers in the rotation will cost the Astros at least 25 runs allowed, or close to three wins.
There should be some positive regression from the bullpen as Houston collectively had the worst relievers in baseball last year, but there is no need to dive deeper into the Astros’ projection. This roster is a mess, and help doesn’t appear to be on the near-term horizon because the players acquired for traded stars like Pence, Bourn, and Roy Oswalt haven’t panned out.
Since all projections have an element of regression in them for outlying performances from a prior year – whether good or bad – it’s pretty hard to forecast a team as either winning or losing 100 games. But Houston’s collection of hitters and hurlers looks so bad that it hit the triple digit projection milestone. Believe it or not, the news gets worse. As a whole, the National League is weaker than the American League, having finished under .500 in interleague play every year since 2004. I see no chance at all that trend reverses this year, as sluggers Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols have taken their collective 12 wins of value from the NL to the AL. Houston, by agreement with the player’s union, will be moving to the American League West next year which will balance all of baseball divisions. As a result its schedule will get much harder. By my estimation, if the Astros had to play the Seattle Mariners’ schedule this year instead of its own, Houston would project to a 104-loss team. There definitely is a problem in Houston and it’s only going to get worse in the coming seasons.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Last year, before the season started, oddsmakers were fooled by how bad both the Astros and Twins were, overlooking the severe lineup weaknesses of both. Across the majors only Houston appears to have a truly wretched roster this year and no one is fooled this time. The Astros total wins over/under is 62 ½ and it just might be a suckers bet wagering Houston won’t lose 100 games.
62-100 – Sixth in NL Central
573 Runs Scored 748 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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