The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Houston Astros”

The Future of Innings Not Yet Melted

Years ago, a friend of mine and I were making lists of the best players who played for each of our favorite teams.  Mine, of course, was the Mets.  His was the Red Sox.  We made our lists in the L.L. Bean warehouse, Zone 21, amidst the cardboard dust and broken yellow straps that littered the floor.  We had another two hours until the end of our shift.  No windows through which to notice the snow.

His list had many of the predictable names:  Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, Fisk, Clemens…he even added Babe Ruth to his pitching staff.  I granted him that one.  The old pig-farmer was once a kid lefty with promise.  Then, panic-stricken into silence, I noticed that his list of the greatest Red Sox of all-time included Tom Seaver.  He had shoplifted Tom Terrific right out of the store under his coat, much as the Reds had done in ’77.  This couldn’t stand.

Yagottabefuckinkiddinme, I blurted out.  Seaver?  He threw what, maybe 90 pitches in his entire Red Sox life?  That’s like me accidentally walking into a wedding ceremony, and emerging with a ring.  It just don’t work that way.  I slowly crossed Seaver’s name off his list.  Looking up at him, I said, “try again.”  I wrote, “Calvin Schiraldi” in small, neat letters over smudged Seaver.

But rules are rules, and we had none when we set up our lists.  My friend saw the loophole, and pounced.  That’s how winners happen.  When the Reds scammed Seaver from the Mets for a broken harmonium and a box of confiscated Turkish porn films, Mets fans knew they’d been had.  But losers always find a way to lose; it’s as irresistible as running a tongue over a broken tooth.  Still, Dan Norman?

Up to that point, I had left Nolan Ryan off my list of Mets, along with Ken Singleton, Amos Otis, and Paul Blair, as well as Snider, Mays, and Ashburn. I topped off my updated list with Bret Saberhagen.  But then so did he.  Going for the kill, I scribbled Jimmy Piersall’s name down, Mets class of ’63.  Clearly, that was below the belt.  My friend groaned.

Nothing left to do but gloat as I leaned on the pallet jack, waiting for the fork-truck driver to come back around.  Forty more cases of fleece jackets to load, then home to an Old Thumper and some chow.  Should be about 4:30 by now.  Not that it mattered.  The cold apartment on Spring Street was dialed up to December Maine Cold, frost on the handrails and black-slick death ice on the stairs.

The click of cleats on hardwood floors was still months away.  Leather glove smell of organic dirty perfume hidden in closet under box of wide-ruled college notebooks, stats of ’73 Mets in the margin of Sociology 101 scribbles.  Invertebrates and Mollusks in red notebook between columns of stadiums I’d meant to see.  Most are gone now, but the notebooks remain, hostage facts squeezed and forgotten in boxes.

My friend on my second-floor landing now, semaphore scorecard waving like a warning, his evidence of a 1986 Houston Astros ballgame.  Mike Scott and his vanishing split-finger optical illusion.  Beat the Mets twice in the playoffs. Not pitching, but counting coup.

I added Mike Scott to my list.  Drafted by the Mets in 2nd round, 1976.

My buddy just shook his head, but he had brought along an extra pair of six-packs and some egg rolls, so we were good for the evening.  Steel winter morning was still twelve hours away, and the inside of our souls were calm with pencil-mark scorecards and dog-eared almanacs, becalming order to the ordinariness of existence, waiting for the next hot prospects to melt in toaster-oven future, promise of a 44-double season mounting with the death of each winter day.

Was spring really true?  Who could say?  Future inning snow-flakes shadowed the night sky, blinding us from the moon’s faint light.  Floating to earth, all of next season, a snow carpet, tranquil and smooth, yielding nothing but the quietness of expectation.





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Baseball’s Next 20-Game Loser

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a pitcher lose 20 games in a season.  There are, of course, several possible reasons for this.  One reason is that starting pitchers, in general, now accumulate fewer decisions at all because they start fewer games than pitchers of old, and they tend to pitch fewer overall innings as well.  A pitcher who lasts into the 8th inning is simply more likely to gain a win or a loss than a pitcher who is normally removed after six innings.

Another reason is, perhaps, that the stigma of losing so many games seems to have grown proportionately with the amount of cash a potential free agent pitcher can earn on the open market.  A resume featuring a 20-loss season will make it harder for the Scott Borases of the world to milk a given owner out of X amount of dollars.  Presumably, avoiding the magic 20-loss mark will aid a client’s marketability.

Yet another reason, closely tied to reason #1, is that there are so many more relief pitchers available to use, including specialists who often come in to face but a single hitter.  There are only 162 decisions a season to spread around.  Divide that number by an increasingly crowded pitching staff, and each individual pitcher is likely to see fewer decisions, both wins and losses.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Mike Maroth during a Ti...

Detroit Tigers pitcher Mike Maroth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baseball’s last 20-game loser was Mike Maroth of the Tigers in 2003.

Aside from his 9-21 record, Maroth was a really bad pitcher.  Now, it’s true that the 2003 Tigers, with their 43-119 record, were one of the worst teams of all time.  But Maroth’s 5.73 ERA (ERA+ of 73) provided lots of combustible fuel for the raging inferno that was the Tigers’ pitching staff.  To be fair, he had plenty of help.  Teammate Jeremy Bonderman posted a 6-19 record and a 5.56 ERA, and Adam Bernero finished the year 1-12 with a 6.08 ERA.

Before Mike Maroth, you have to go all the way back to A’s pitcher Brian Kingman in 1980 to find another 20-game loser.  Kingman finished the year 8-20 with a more respectable ERA+ of 98, so he was basically a replacement level pitcher with especially bad luck.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, you don’t have to be a terrible pitcher to lose 20 games in a season.  Plenty of fine pitchers have notched 20-loss seasons.  The list features several Hall of Famers, including Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Ed Walsh, Red Ruffing, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro.  Other fine pitchers on the list include Jerry Koosman, Luis Tiant, Wilbur Wood and Mickey Lolich.

In fact, the 20-loss plateau has been reached 204 times since the year 1900.  Here’s a list of the number of 20-loss seasons per decade over the past 113 years:

1900-1909:  73

1910-1919:  32

1920-1929:  22

1930-1939:  20

1940-1949:  12

1950-1959:  11

1960-1969:  16

1970-1979:  14

1980-1989:  1

1990-1999:  0

2000-2009: 1

As you can see, except for the Expansion Era in the 1960’s and ’70’s, the historical trend clearly shows that 20-loss seasons are becoming as common as listenable U-2 albums.

This begs the question(s), will there ever be another 20-loss season, and, if so, which pitcher will be the culprit?  I believe that, though it may be many years in the offing, we have not yet seen the end of the 20-game loser.  Not that long ago, many pundits and writers had written off the possibility of ever seeing another Triple-Crown season for a hitter, yet Miguel Cabrera pulled off this feat last year.  There’s no reason a future pitcher might not join Mike Maroth and company among the infamous 20-game losing clientele.

Who, then, might be a possible pitcher on one of today’s teams that could conceivably post 20-losses?

As I said previously, he would not necessarily have to be a terrible pitcher, though he’d probably have to pitch for a terrible team.  The pitcher would also have to be durable enough to make somewhere between 32 and 34 starts in a season. (No pitcher made more than 34 starts last season.) He would also have to pitch well over 200 innings to be able to go deep enough into games to actually earn his team’s decision in those starts.

So which pitchers come to mind on current MLB rosters?

English: Bud Norris

English: Bud Norris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bud Norris of the Houston Astros comes to mind.  Norris pitches for an Astros team that won just 55 games last season, and which could be every bit as bad this season.  Moving from the N.L. Central to the A.L. West certainly won’t help the Astros win more games.  Also, Norris is slated to be the Astros Opening Day pitcher, which means they will be counting on him to make at least 30+ starts, and to pitch at least 200 innings (a level he hasn’t yet reached.)

Norris, at age 28, is in the prime of his career, and has generally proved to be a durable pitcher.  With the career ERA+ of 89, playing on a team that isn’t likely to provide him with significant run support, Norris might be just the man to lose 20 games.

Ricky Nolasco of the Marlins is another possibility.  There is every reason to believe that the Marlins should lose as many as 100 games or more in 2013.  In the off-season, they traded away Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes.  Their only significant player at this point is Giancarlo Stanton, who should expect to be pitched around all season.

Nolasco, entering his age-30 season, has been a durable pitcher for the past few years.  He’s made at least 30 starts in a season four times, and has logged over 200 innings in a season twice, falling just 9 innings short last year.  Nolasco’s career ERA+ is 93, so he’s been just good enough to stick around the Majors to this point.  But his K’s / 9 innings have decreased for four straight years, from 9.5 / 9 innings down to just 5.9 / 9 innings in 2012.  If Norris is pushed up to 33 starts and perhaps 215 innings, a 20-loss season would seem to be within reach.

Edwin Jackson

Edwin Jackson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Edwin Jackson is projected to be the Cubs #2 starter this season.  Now entering his 11th season, 29-year old Jackson will now be pitching for his eighth team.  His career ERA+ is 98, virtually perfect for a potential 2o-game loser.  Jackson has started as many as 33 games in a season, and has topped 200 innings a couple of times (he also pitched 199.2 innings in 2011.)

Jackson has been durable and occasionally excellent, but mostly he’s just an average pitcher on a below-average team.  While it is unclear if the Cubs are capable of losing a hundred games this year, you should never sell your self short underestimating the Cubs ability to be worse than you could ever imagine.  Edwin Jackson might be a potentially sneaky 20-game loser this year, if things go badly enough in Chicago’s North Side.

While no one is rooting for any of these pitchers to lose 20 games in 2013, it should come as no surprise if any one of them join Walter Johnson in at least this one dubious accomplishment.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Craig Biggio

It won’t be long before Craig Biggio comes up for Hall of Fame voting.  The former second baseman / outfielder (he caught a little, too) of the Houston Astros was one of the finest infielders of his era.  Though this post is not specifically meant to be an argument in favor of his HOF induction, the stats we will be looking at today certainly do nothing to diminish his case.

Acknowledging the appreciation of the fans aft...

Acknowledging the appreciation of the fans after a double against the Reds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it comes to middle infielders like Biggio (and he was primarily a second baseman), the usual expectation as far as offense is concerned is a player with around a .300 batting average, good bat control (meaning few strikeouts and a reasonable ability to bunt), and decent, if not spectacular, speed.  Durability and solid defense are obvious pluses as well.

What we don’t necessarily expect from a middle infielder, (though there have been some notable exceptions) is solid power.  Most middle infielders survive with the occasional homer, breaking into double digits in the odd season.  Some push a bit further than that, into the 10-20 home run range.

When I was first studying Craig Biggio’s stats, there were several that impressed me a great deal.  First of all, in his amazing 1997 season, he grounded into exactly zero double plays in 744 plate appearances.  That same year he led the N.L. by being hit by 34 pitches, one of five seasons in which he led the N.L. in that statistic.

I was also impressed that when he led the N.L. in stolen bases in the strike-shortened 1994 season with 39, he was also caught just four times.

Perhaps most impressively, Biggio’s 4,711 career total bases are just one short of Rogers Hornsby’s record of 4,712 among players who primarily played second base in their careers.

And how about those 668 doubles, fifth most in baseball history?

English: Jeff Bagwell (left) and Craig Biggio ...

English: Jeff Bagwell (left) and Craig Biggio (Right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It occurred to me, then, almost as an afterthought to take a closer look at his home run numbers.

So here’s an exercise for you.  (In the spirit of the upcoming school year), take out a piece of paper and a #2 lead pencil.

Now write down the following players’ names in the order you believe they had the most to least 20 homer seasons.

Bobby Grich, Alan Trammell, Joe Morgan, Joe Gordon, Tony Lazzeri, Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, Ryne Sandberg, Frankie Frisch, Bobby Doerr, Jeff Kent, Rogers Hornsby, Charlie Gehringer, Lou Whitaker, Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio.

I know that you know where this is going, but hell, play along anyway.

Finished yet?

The now obvious question for this post is, then, “How Many 20+ Home Run Seasons Did Craig Biggio Accumulate in His Career?”

Here is the list of players in order from most 20+ homer seasons to fewest:

1)  Jeff Kent – 12

2)  Craig Biggio – 8

3)  Joe Gordon – 7

3)  Rogers Hornsby – 7

5)  Ryne Sandberg – 5

6)  Joe Morgan – 4

6)  Lou Whitaker – 4

8)  Roberto Alomar – 3

8)  Bobby Doerr – 3

8)) Derek Jeter – 3

11) Bobby Grich – 2

11) Barry Larkin – 2

11) Alan Trammell – 2

14) Charlie Gehringer – 1

15) Frankie Frisch – 0

15) Tony Lazzeri – 0

As you can see, few middle infielders in baseball history consistently hit as many home runs as Craig Biggio.  Yet ten of the players on this list are already in the HOF, and Derek Jeter will surely follow them in when the time comes.

Biggio retired after the 2007 season at age 41.  He hit 291 home runs in his career, the same number as “Toy Cannon” Jimmy Wynn, and just ten fewer than Rogers Hornsby.  He hit more homers than did first basemen Will Clark, Steve Garvey and Ted Kluszewski.

Craig Biggio’s eight 20+ home run seasons are also as many as Don Mattingly and Roberto Clemente  accomplished, if you put them together.

The point here is that if you are looking for a hole in Craig Biggio’s potential Hall of Fame resume, you’ll have to look elsewhere, for hitting for power was a relative strength of his.

All statistics, of course, are, to a certain extent, arbitrary.  I am not arguing that Craig Biggio was the best player on this list  (though few on this list were clearly better.)

There is no doubt, however, that Craig Biggio’s power was an underrated, and perhaps surprising, facet of his game.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 27 – The Houston Astros

The Bad News Bears

Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps it says something about my shameless immaturity, as well as the uniquely mind-warping experience of having been weened on 1970’s pop culture, that whenever I think of the Houston Astros, Walter Matthau’s “Bad News Bears” come to mind.

I have to admit that I thought Tatum O’Neal (the best pitcher on that team) was pretty cute back then.

This was 1976, when she and I were both just 13-years old.

The movie ends, more or less, with the foul-mouthed, youthful Bears spraying beer (!) all over each other upon finishing the season in second place (they had been expected to finish last.)

In 1977, “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” follows the Bears all the way to the Houston Astrodome (minus my gal Tatum,) which was still considered an impressive monument to modern engineering in those days.

I remember Cesar Cedeno, the Astros center-fielder, had a cameo role in that film.  While the Bears enjoyed yet another successful season in ’77, the Astros finished 81-81, good for 3rd place in the N.L. West.

Meanwhile, 26-year old Cesar Cedeno — already in his eighth big league season — enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular, year.  He batted .279, stole 61 bases, stroked 36 doubles, and scored 92 runs.

But Cesar Cedeno’s Best Forgotten Season was in 1972.

Just 21-years old, Cedeno led the N.L. in doubles for the second time with 39 (after swatting 40 the previous year), he scored a career high 103 runs, stole 55 bases, and added 22 homers, eight triples and 82 RBI’s.

Cedeno batted .320 and slugged .537; he would post precisely the same two percentages the following season.

Cedeno’s 8.2 WAR is still the fourth best in Astros history.

His .921 OPS, 162 OPS+, and 300 total bases would all represent the highest totals he would reach in those three categories in his career. 

Cedeno also played in the ’72 All-Star game, won a Gold Glove (one of five he would win in his career), and finished sixth in the N.L. MVP voting.

I always find it interesting when a player like Cedeno peeks at such a young age, remains productive for an extended period of time, but never again produces an MVP caliber season. 

Why is that?  Is there a certain amount of luck involved, coupled with peak physical performance, that accounts for this phenomenon?

True, many players reach their peak-performance years when they are about 27-years old. But baseball history is littered with ballplayers who had careers similar to Cedeno’s: Vada Pinson and Ruben Sierra are just two players who come immediately to mind.

Cedeno enjoyed 17 big league seasons, finishing with a career batting average of .285, 550 stolen bases (26th all-time), 2,087 hits, 1,084 runs scored, 436 doubles, 60 triples and 199 home runs.

His career Win Probability Added (WPA) is 31.7, 77th best in baseball history.

Meanwhile, Tatum O’Neal, after having  dealt with drug and alcohol issues in the past, has made a comeback in recent years starring as Maggie Gavin in the hit T.V. show “Rescue Me,” playing Tommy Gavin’s (Denis Leary) sister.

Going back even further in Houston Astros history, though, back to a time when they were known as the Colt-45’s, and Tatum and I were yet to be born, you may come across the name Turk Farrell.

28-year old Turk Farrell, a big right-handed pitcher born and raised in Massachusetts, had been taken in the 1961 expansion draft by the Colt 45’s after having been left unprotected by the L.A. Dodgers.

Turk Farrell’s Best Forgotten Season was 1962.

For a pitcher on a first-year expansion team, Farrell performed quite well.  In a club-leading 241 innings, he struck out 203 batters, posted a 3.02 ERA, tossed eleven complete games, including two shutouts, and posted a solid WHIP of 1.097, which was second best in the league.

For all of that, Farrell was rewarded by his teammates with a final win-loss record of 10-20.  There were three other 20-game losers in the N.L. in ’62; two of them played for the expansion Mets.

Farrell ended his 14-year big league career after the 1969 season with a career record of 106-111.  His career ERA+ of 104 indicates that he was typically your standard issue, average major league starting pitcher.

His 1962 season has led me to consider starting a new (shorter) series about players who perform well, often for bad or mediocre teams, but whose statistics don’t always tell the full story of their relative success.

That’s another way of saying that this 27-part series “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons,” has finally come to a merciful end.  After slogging it out for about six months, I have certainly learned a lot more than I ever thought I would about each teams’ forgotten stars.

If you’ve been with me the whole time, or even part of the time, thank you so much for being kind enough to follow along.  For those of you who have left kind comments along the way, I always appreciate the ego-stroking sentiments.

If you are interested in reviewing any of the particular posts from this series, or if there are some you missed along the way, I have included links to each segment of this series below.

Part 1: The New York Mets
Part 2: The Chicago Cubs
Part 3: The New York Yankees
Part 4: The Montreal Expos
Part 5: The Phillies
Part 6: The Brooklyn Dodgers
Part 7: The Los Angeles Dodgers
Part 8: The Cincinnati Reds
Part 9: The Boston Red Sox
Part 10: The Atlanta Braves
Part 11: The Cleveland Indians
Part 12: The Kansas City Royals
Part 13: The Baltimore Orioles
Part 14: The Detroit Tigers
Part 15: The St. Louis Cardinals
Part 16: The Oakland A’s
Part 17: The Pittsburgh Pirates
Part 18: The San Francisco Giants
Part 19: The Seattle Mariners
Part 20: The Minnesota Twins
Part 21: The Chicago White Sox
Part 22: The Texas Rangers
Part 23: The San Diego Padres
Part 24: The Toronto Blue Jays
Part 25: The Milwaukee Brewers
Part 26: The Angels

Meanwhile, have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Bill Miller

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