The Off-Season Primer

added 11/2/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Hello Astros fans everywhere. I thought about jumping right in feet first into the 2006 position by position outlook, but it occurred to me that I should probably dissect the 2005 season first. Let me say this right now: I’m not really concerned with what went right at this point. We cannot spend a lot of time on that because why would the team go after big time free agents in areas where they are already strong?

I’ve been doing some research on different aspects of the offense trying to find statistical evidence of our clutch hitting problem. I looked at hitting stats with the bases empty versus hitting statistics with men in scoring position. I looked at how efficiently we scored runs (percentage of base-runners that came home to score). I found only one area where there was some evidence: hitting statistics in games labeled “close and late”. Like any scientist should, I decided to abandon the idea of clutch hitting because I could not find evidence to support that as the primary problem. The final solution ended up staring me right in the face (and probably something we all knew): this team wasn’t a bad offensive team in certain situations, when the game was close, or when runners were on third with one out. They were just a bad offensive team.

             Astros   NL Rank	
Hits           1400      14th
Walks           481      13th
Total BR       1953      14th
EBH             474       9th 
TB             2228      12th
Strikeouts     1037       6th
SO/BB Ratio    2.19      13th
GIDP            116       3rd
AVG            .256      13th
OBP            .322      15th
SLG            .408      12th
OPS            .730      12th
Runs            693      12th

What I find most interesting is the fact that the two categories people point to the most when rallies get killed (strikeouts and double plays) were the only two statistics where the Astros were better than the league average. Go figure. The biggest category in my mind is the total base runners category. There were two teams worse than the Astros in the National League. It’s kind of hard to question a team’s clutch hitting acumen when they simply didn’t have enough base-runners.

To be perfectly fair, the Astros finished in the middle of the pack of clutch hitting efficiency (percentage of base runners that scored). A playoff team should be more efficient that that because you need that efficiency in the playoffs (when base runners are fewer and further between), but we’re nitpicking at this point. The reality is staring us right in the face: this was a bad offensive team. The Bottom Line

October’s pessimism is November’s optimism. I find this revelation to be truly liberating. The Astros don’t have to dig deep to look for that elusive clutch hitter. If one were out there they’d be nice to have, but what they really need are better hitters. If the reality is clear to us then it must be clear to the Astros and it must be clear to free agent hitters as well.

Sure, most baseball players are out for the huge payday. I hate to disappoint Astros fans out there, but if there is a huge payday to be had, it ain’t coming from Drayton McLane. Roger Clemens is the highest paid pitcher of all-time, but McLane is a master at getting players to sign for 90 cents on the dollar. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with that. No matter how much you think he is worth, McLane can’t afford to throw around 150 million a season for a ballclub. 110 million might not be out of the realm of possibility and if there are players out there looking for the ring, the Astros are an extremely attractive destination.

Think about it, you don’t have to stretch to convince a free agent hitter that he could be the difference next season. Usually, that kind of pitch is hogwash, but it isn’t in our case. If Roger Clemens comes back, the team could bring the exact same pitchers back and still have the best pitching in the National League. A lefty reliever might seal the deal, but it doesn’t take that much imagination. When you add no state income tax and a cheaper standard of living you have a really good poker hand going.

The Anatomy of a Good Clutch Hitter

I’m going to lay it on the line. I don’t believe good clutch hitters exist. I believe good hitters exist. Lance Berkman didn’t dominate in the playoffs because he is our best clutch hitter. He dominated because he is our best hitter. Good hitters have characteristics they share in common that make them successful when the score is 10-1 just as often as when they score is 1-0.

1. Plate discipline

This is what killed the Astros in the post-season, but it killed them just as often in the regular season. You can see plate discipline in the number of pitches a hitter takes and in their strikeout to walk ratio. Even Phil Garner describes it when the offense is struggling. Which pitches do you choose to swing at? Good hitters swing at the hittable pitches more often.

                     SO    BB   Ratio
Craig Biggio         90    37    2.43
Willy Tavares       103    25    4.12	
Lance Berkman        72    91    0.79
Morgan Ensberg      119    85    1.40
Jason Lane          105    32    3.28
Mike Lamb            65    22    2.95
Brad Ausmus          51    48    1.06
Adam Everett        103    26    3.96

Ask any Astros fans who the two best post-season clutch hitters were overall and they would probably answer Lance Berkman and Brad Ausmus. There’s a very good reason for that and it has nothing to do with intestinal fortitude or luck. They had the best command of the strike zone throughout the season. Morgan Ensberg was third, but as his strike out total indicates, he had some serious lapses.

2. Knowing the situation

There is a big difference between clutch hitting and situational hitting. The art of situational hitting is gone from this team. When hitters got two strikes in the good ol’ days they would choke up and make contact. The Astros hitters swing for the downs. Brad Ausmus is the obvious exception to this. If Mike Lamb and Lance Berkman would have played a full season they both would have likely struck out 90 or more times leaving everyone but Ausmus with more than 90 strikeouts.

3. Going back to basics

Phil Garner mentioned something in 2004 that resonates as profound. Like most Garnerisms, things don’t sound that profound until you give it some time to think it over. He said that the key to the 36-10 turnaround wasn’t better clutch hitting but more opportunities. Leaving a key base runner on third with less than two outs is maddening, but it is far less maddening when you know you will four or five more opportunities. Having those additional opportunities also helps hitters not to grip the bat so hard.

				 OBP       LG AVG	    Ratio
Craig Biggio       .325     .330     .984
Willy Taveras      .325     .330     .984	
Lance Berkman      .411     .330    1.245
Morgan Ensberg     .388     .330    1.175 	
Jason Lane         .316     .330     .956
Mike Lamb          .284     .330     .861
Brad Ausmus        .351     .330    1.064
Adam Everett       .290     .330     .879
Composite          .336     .330    1.018

This may seem okay on the surface, but we have to remember two things. First, the league average includes pinch hitters, bench players, and pitchers. Secondly, five of the eight regulars were below the league average. Chris Burke was also considerably below the league average, so it doesn’t matter what combination you threw out there. It wasn’t good. They didn’t give themselves enough opportunities to overcome whatever inefficiency they may have had.

The Final Analysis

When you have a situation like this you can hang your head or you can hold your chin up. Yes, it might look bleak for a team that just made it to the World Series, but there a lot of areas we can improve. I feel sorry for those teams that look at their pitching staff and hang their head. All we need is an additional 100 runs and we’re in great shape. They need the starting rotation of the 1970 Orioles.

Now, this means I have to be brutally honest with not only our players but the potential free agents that are coming in. The temptation is to look at the other side as having greener grass, but sometimes they have the same chimp bugs our grass does. So, we will look at the free agents with the blueprint described above, or as some people have begun to say, “I’m down with OBP (yeah you know me).”

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