Debriefing

added 10/5/2005 by Scott Barzilla

I’ve written columns for many years for different publications, so there have been quite a few things I’ve learned over that time. The biggest challenge any columnist (in any walk of life) faces is balancing the need to be consistent with the need to remain open minded. There are many instances where this tension overwhelms all of us in our line of work. This baseball season has been a huge challenge for me personally in that regard. Those of you that have read my column religiously know that I’ve been saying the Astros couldn’t make up the ground. Well, the ultimate day of reckoning has arrived.

I have to decide whether to do the wishy-washy thing and say, “I knew they could do it all along” or simply say they surprised me and proved me wrong. I’m not going to try to fool anyone. Coming into the season, the best we really could have predicted was a wild card finish. We go into the divisional series with a decent chance to win just like last year. Last year I said I’d be happy with any result and I’m saying the same thing this year. The funny thing about the playoffs is that any scenario is possible with our team. We can be four and done with our shaky offense or World Series champions with our pitching. I’m not making any predictions because predicting the outcome of a seven game series is really impossible.

The second challenge of column writing is to balance personal style with making sure I don’t pull a Geraldo Rivera. Rivera is infamous for making himself the story. So, what I’m going to do is focus the rest of the column on people within the organization that have been trashed in the local press, message boards, by the national media, and myself. I have to remain honest about what I think, but a big part of honesty is giving credit where credit is due.

Tim Purpura

The full scale of opinions on Purpura manifested itself this week. Richard Justice wrote a column extolling Purpura’s “patience” and the Chronicle printed a letter from a fan that insinuated that Purpura sat on his butt and stole a paycheck. When someone hasn’t done much its hard to define the difference between patience and incompetence. In Watergate, the famous question was, “what did he know and when did he know it?” We could ask the same of Purpura.

If Purpura really knew it all along then he’s more than competent. Why make any moves when you know you have a team capable of winning the wild card without upsetting the applecart? The difficulty is believing he knew that when the club was 15-30. Yet, that is the company line and there is no reason to get petty over details during our happiest hour. There will be plenty of time to judge Purpura and his willingness to make the moves necessary to help the team in the off-season.

Drayton McLane

Drayton is one of the harder people I have to talk about every time he comes up in discussion. He is a complex man. On the one hand, he is the most fan friendly owner this team has ever had. He has a natural knack for public relations that has allowed him to skate through a lot of difficult situations. On the other hand, he was a baseball novice when he bought the team and was not necessarily familiar with the way the Houston fan ticks.

Even Sunday he showed this lack of knowledge when he asserted that extending Biggio’s contract another season was proof of the club’s commitment to winning. Most of us are more cynical than that, but he is the same owner that approved the signings of Doug Drabak, Greg Swindell, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Jeff Kent. He also approved the trades for Moises Alou, Randy Johnson, and Carlos Beltran. So, McLane is simultaneously Scrooge and the spendthrift. This year he spent most of the time as Scrooge, but if agrees to get more offense this off-season he will become the spendthrift again.

Brad Ausmus

I have been one of the biggest critics of Ausmus through the years. Those that know me well will tell you I haven’t been a fan of Ausmus for as long as he’s been an Astro. Ausmus traditionally has put together the two traits I detest the most: lack of patience and lack of power. However, this season has been a great one for Ausmus at the plate. Now, this is where the honesty comes back. A great season for Ausmus is still below average at the position.

The key for Ausmus this season was an adjustment Gary Gaetti had him make with his hand position. He suddenly saw his average “skyrocket” to .260 and his on base percentage reach new Houston highs at close to .340. Ausmus’ strength has always been his ability to call a game and that came in handy this season as pitchers young and old came together to form the best pitching staff in Houston in quite sometime. Make no mistake, Houston still needs to improve its catching situation for 2006, but Ausmus should be a part of that picture.

Craig Biggio

I was a huge critic of Biggio returning to second base in Spring Training. I felt the job should have been Burke’s. Looking back at the facts that were available I stand by the decision. According to the fielding numbers, Biggio was nearly average defensively, but in his last two seasons as a second basemen he was sub-par. Biggio has been sure handed, but his range is sub-par. Burke has better range.

However, we cannot ignore the huge difference between the offensive numbers. Biggio set a career high in home runs and collected 40 doubles for the third season in a row. Yet, Biggio hasn’t had an OBP better than .350 since 2001 and appears to be moving in the wrong direction (he had a .325 OBP this season). Biggio signed a one year deal for 2006. It will take him two years to get to 3000 hits, but the club is playing it smart. He is coming back as long as he’s productive.

Jason Lane

He finished the year with a .265 average and 26 home runs. I remember the good ol’ days when those numbers would have made you an all-star. For Lane, he didn’t even earn an everyday job until August. Admittedly, he came on strong in the end, but it’s amazing how times have changed. In the aughts, everyone wants their corner outfielders to hit 30 home runs and hit .300.

Peter Gammons cracks me up, he mentioned on two separate occasions that Lane had an .888 OPS in the second half. Yes, Gammons, we are all impressed by your extensive knowledge of sabermetrics. Yes, we would have loved to have had an Adam Dunn, a healthy Ken Griffey Jr., or a healthy Jeff Bagwell in the fifth hole, but having Lane behind Ensberg and Berkman has been good enough in the second half.

Phil Garner

Garner has gotten very little play for manager of the year. When the Astros made the decision to hire Garner I thought they could have made a better hire based on Pythagorean records. We’ve all learned that there is a lot more to managing than that. Terry Collins, Larry Dierker, and Jimy Williams either did not have to deal with this much adversity or they did not deal with it well. More important than the day to day strategy was Garner’s ability to keep this club in the race psychologically.

It’s one thing to think that things can improve and it’s another to deny credit when it is due. Reaching the playoffs six times in nine seasons is remarkable for any organization outside of New York and Atlanta. Of course, those teams and their success dictate that we continue to strive for improvement as well. That is another of our delicate balances.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Balances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”