What They Did: 55-107, 6th Place NL West.
Actual Runs: Scored 583 runs, Allowed 794.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 58.7 (3.3 below actual)
Restated: Scored 605 runs, Allowed 783.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 62.3 (7.3 above actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Astros, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 62 games.)
Hanging (unspoken so far) over the previews for all teams in the AL West is the fact that there is a new member in their previously smallest-in-the-league fraternity. By moving the Houston Astros from the National League to the American League, MLB, from a fairness perspective, has eliminated two vexing disparities, one obvious and one hidden, that have existed for years. The obvious inequity was that a team in the NL Central had to finish ahead of five other teams to win its division and make the postseason while a team in the AL West only had to outplay three other teams. That problem has now been permanently eradicated.
Less obvious is a problem that I, following the lead of many analysts, wrote about last year. Teams in the same division, battling for a postseason berth, played meaningfully different schedules over the course of the season. In the NFL, the unbalanced schedule is transparent and, in the stated interest of year-over-year parity, celebrated. However, MLB’s scheduling was capricious and opaque and as a result, patently unfair. (In the most egregious example, NL Central teams didn’t even play their fellow division opponents the same amount of times.) Using the AL West as another example, take the Angels and the Rangers schedules last year. Thanks to playing the Dodgers instead of the Astros six times, plus two additional games against the Yankees and Orioles but two less games against the Indians and Red Sox and some other differences, Angels opponents had a winning percentage of nearly 2% more than Texas. Over 162 games, that equates to more than a 3-game advantage for Texas. The Rangers, of course, finished four games ahead of Los Angeles and if they swapped schedules, you’d have to assume the Angels would have been a Wild Card entrant, not the Rangers.
Although I haven’t seen anyone else address this topic, as a result of the Astros realignment, the scheduling imbalance across all of baseball largely disappears. MLB has reduced the interleague “rivalry” series from six games a year to four and, even better, matched intra-division schedules, almost, but not exactly. For instance, every AL West team plays 76 games against the AL West (19 against each team), 20 interleague games against the same opponents (with only a one team, four game exception), and identical schedules against the other two divisions in the AL, again with only minor, one game exceptions. It’s not perfect, but it’s much, much better.
For each of the last nine years the AL has outplayed its NL counterparts in interleague play – often in dominating fashion. Therefore, the thinking is, if the Astros lost 107 games in 2012 (and 106 in 2011) playing in the NL they’d have been a lock to lose at the barest minimum 110 games – and possibly many more – playing in the AL. In a piece I wrote last year examining the AL’s advantage over the last decade, (http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2012/6/29/why-the-nl-must-adopt-the-dh-for-its-own-good.html ) I discovered the AL had a mammoth advantage in games played in AL parks. In NL parks there was some evidence that the AL was the better league overall but it certainly wasn’t conclusive. In short, the AL’s superiority resulted from roster construction designed to reflect the need for a designated hitter. NL’s teams simply don’t prepare their rosters to have a competent DH for the nine games they play each year under AL rules. (More proof of this: they spent in 2012, on average, around $5 million less on payroll. Run production, after all, costs money.)
The Astros have addressed that deficiency, not by moving a back-up catcher to DH, as so many NL teams do in interleague play but by actually signing a competent DH in Carlos Pena. Pena is on the downside of his career, and his production with Tampa last year marked a six-year low (off a well-above-league-average base) but he’s still a competent addition to the Astros lineup. If he can maintain his on-base skills, (thanks to an elite batting eye – 5th in MLB in walk rate in 2012) and his power (25 HRs a year on average, last three years) – and those are two skills that are most-resistant to the aging curve – he will offset the Astros move to the AL.
I know that conclusion probably comes as a shock to readers so as long as you’re in that state of mind, let me toss a couple of other surprising facts at you as well:
- The Astros, the 55-win Astros (!), tossed eleven shutouts in 2012, tied for 9th in the majors. The Tigers (with Verlander, Scherzer, et al) had eight. The 86-win Nationals (Gonzalez, Strasburg, etc.) had nine. The previous year, the Astros had just six.
- In 135 less plate appearances than in 2011, the 2012 Astros hit 51 more home runs – and somehow scored 32 less runs.
- In 2012, the Astros and the Mariners were the lowest scoring teams in each league. The Astros had a higher batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (without a DH, mind you) but somehow scored 36 less runs than the Mariners.
- The Astros started the year 22-23 and finished it 15-15. Those wins weren’t fluky either, as Houston outscored its opponents by five runs over those two strings totaling 75 games, or nearly half the season.
That last bullet point reeks of “selective endpoint” sampling. But I’ve taken a look at the six other 100-loss teams since 2008 and, while not unprecedented (Seattle in 2010 had three separate, non-consecutive months where they essentially played .500 baseball) it is unusual for a team that bad to play league-average baseball for such an extended period of time.
It’s obvious I’m implying Houston, unlike 2011, wasn’t as bad as its record in 2012 might lead fans to think. To help me support that premise, I even have an area of hidden strength for you and it’ll be familiar to anyone who read the Oakland A’s preview: Houston’s defense, 18th in the majors with a 70.4% efficiency when starters were on the mound, was the worst in baseball (67.3%) when its relievers were in the game. The smaller sample size nature of the latter observation suggests Houston’s true level of defensive efficiency is closer to league-average overall – which could save about 50 runs in high-leverage situations this year. That’s a big contributing factor as to why I’ve got Houston allowing less runs in 2013 than in 2012 despite the move to the higher-scoring league.
Even better news is that lineup changes for Houston this year strengthens the team significantly and replaces the weakest fielders – the outfielders – from the 2012 squad. I’m a big fan of Tyler Greene who shined (7 HRs, .460 SLG) in his month-and-a-half with Houston after he was the victim of a crowded middle infield in St. Louis. He’s an attractive last-round fantasy pick if you want to hold off drafting a shortstop. The emergence of exciting corner outfielders and first basemen in Oakland made Chris Carter another casualty of an organizational numbers game and Houston is the beneficiary here as well. Carter is a very patient hitter with loads of power (.864 OPS in 2012) right out of the Moneyball mode. He’ll represent a massive upgrade over the production of last year’s corner outfielders J.D. Martinez and Brian Bogusevic and their respective .685 and .596 OPS. Fernando Martinez, off a promising 130 plate appearances last year (.766 OPS) should upgrade the other side of the outfield. Finally, but by no means least importantly, the Astros released their anemic-hitting centerfielder from last year, Jordan Schafer who actually had a slugging percentage (.294) lower than his on-base percentage (.297). Justin Maxwell will provide the upgrade.
If you’re trying to finish .500, let alone compete for a postseason berth the Astros starting rotation would be a big problem, but it does not look 100-loss bad to me. That’s especially true because Erik Bedard and Phil Humber will replace Dallas Keuchel, who sported a deadly K/BB ratio below 1, and a combination of other year-end spot starters with 5.00+ ERAs. Bedard and Humber represent considerable upgrades.
Looking over last year’s Astros preview, I wrote that in any season, thanks to regression, it’s hard to forecast a team to lose 100 games in a year. Despite that, I continued in projecting a 100-loss season, “Houston’s collection of hitters and hurlers looks so bad that it has hit the triple digit milestone.” Curb your pessimism this year though because even after moving to the AL, that’s not the case in 2013.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: While it may seem incongruent, the Astros are, by a comfortable margin, the team most likely to finish in last place in the majors and yet still offer considerable value to anyone backing them in the futures market. That’s because the Astros total wins opened at 60 wins, and based on early comments I’ve read out of Vegas, the under is a very popular bet. That suggests the number will drop. I, on the other hand, enthusiastically back betting the over especially if the market drops into the 50s.
66-96 – Fifth in AL West
635 Runs Scored 778 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. It is available for pre-order from a number of on-line booksellers. Here are three you can currently choose from:
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