Don't Blame The Rotation

added 4/9/2008 by Bob Hulsey

When the season began, the overriding concern of Astros fans was the starting rotation after Roy Oswalt. Getting their brains bashed in daily by the Tigers and Indians all spring certainly did little to calm the fears of Houston supporters. Read any prognostication from near or far and the starting pitching was the presumed suspect for a sour summer.

Yet, nine games into the season, the starting pitching has been the least culpable for the Astros' 3-6 start. Going into Wednesday's contest, here's how the rotation shapes up:

Pitcher               ERA  QS
-------               ---- --
Chris Sampson (0-0)   2.70  1
Wandy Rodriguez (0-0) 2.92  1
Brandon Backe (0-1)   3.27  2
Shawn Chacon (0-0)    3.75  2
Roy Oswalt (0-2)      6.00  0

The "quality start" (QS) is defined as the starting pitcher working six or more innings and allowing three earned runs or less. Ignore for a moment that a pitcher can work six innings, allow three earned runs and finish for the night with a seemingly less-than-quality 4.50 ERA, but what it does mean is that the starting pitcher left the game having put his team in contention to win the contest. The cause was not lost before the relief corps entered.

Note that the starting pitchers have posted six quality starts so far - none of them by the unquestioned staff ace - and yet have a large goose egg so far in terms of wins to show for it.

We didn't know what we had in terms of a bullpen this year but the early returns have been underwhelming. To be honest, Houston fans were spoiled for several years when we could trot out throwers like Billy Wagner, Octavio Dotel, Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls with a reasonable expectation that no runs would cross until the offense could save the day.

The latter three fell off in 2006 and 2007 so Ed Wade cleaned out the pen and replaced it with a new closer and new set-up guys. Collectively, the new crew is 3-3 with 5.48 ERA but two of those wins were leads closer Jose Valverde blew before the offense rescued him. The starters could use some better support.

The "quality start" also presumes the offense will do their job and score runs to help the team win. So far, the Astros are 3-1 in games where they have scored four or more runs. They are 0-5 when they have not.

While most of the hitters have had their moments, none of the regulars currently hit higher than Carlos Lee's .278 batting average and nobody has more than four RBIs yet this year other than Miguel Tejada. Through Monday, the Astros team batting average was a sickly .227 and their team OPS was an uninspiring .702.

The shame of it all is that the starting pitchers aren't likely to keep this up all season. While Oswalt can be expected to round into form, the others are likely to fall back to their career norms. Which means the Astros are wasting opportunities to win ballgames when the starting pitching has been good enough to win. Their teammates can't count on such a luxury all year.

All the pressure this spring was on the starting pitching to hold it together. So far, they've done just that. It's the bullpen and the offense that haven't pulled their weight. A month from now, that may change. But, for now, don't blame the rotation for the team's poor start. The national media may continue to make the rotation their whipping boys but, presently, that abuse has been undeserved.

Bob Hulsey writes game recaps and various history pieces for AstrosDaily.com. He also chimes in with a column from time to time.