The late-aughts Astro teams were sort of a cautionary tale for baseball franchises everywhere. They were filled with clunky, declining veterans signed to unwieldy contracts that came from excessive spending at the expense of the farm system. In my mind, they had Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, and then Carlos Lee played every other position during those years. They muddled along through increasing irrelevance, finishing 12 games back in the Central in 2007, 11 back in '08, 17 back in '09, and 15 back in 2010. You didn't have to know a ton about baseball to get the sense that this wasn't going in a good direction.
But all cautionary tales need a victim, someone who strayed from the beaten path, or tasted a forbidden fruit, or, in this case, paid a 34-year-old Miguel Tejada $30 million over two years while their farm system wilted and died. The 2012 Astros are that victim, suffering because of the failings of the teams before them. The Astros of the late 2000s didn't wear their safety goggles...and look at them now.
The Astros are 34-59, which includes losing 16 of their last 18. They don't have a hitter with an OPS over .800, or a starting pitcher with an ERA below 3.75. There's some decent young talent there, and the early returns from their new front office suggest that the team is moving in the right direction. But they aren't going to get there this weekend, which is presumably all the Diamondbacks are concerned about.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
The Astros have a collective slash line of .240/.307/.373. Ryan Roberts has a slash line of .248/.297/.360, which is worse, but not by a whole lot. If you've watched Ryan Roberts play this season, you'll see instantly how that's a problem. And their pitching staff hasn't been awful so much as just generally lackluster. Their starters and bullpen have virtually identical ERAs around 4.50. No one's been simply awful, other than a couple of mop-up relievers, but nobody's been terribly impressive either. The Astros' pitching staff has just sort of been one beige blob of mediocrity.
Have you ever simmed through about three or four seasons of Franchise Mode on any sports video game, only to find that there's only like one real player left on your team, and the rest of the team is filled with simulated players with blandly generic names? That's how I feel about this lineup right now.
Jose Altuve! He's 5' 5" of fun. He was a decent prospect, but never a stud, and he had played all of 35 games above A+ ball before the Astros' front office said, "Screw it, we're the Astros, what do we have to lose?" and called him up. This year, he's been one of their better offensive weapons, with an OPS+ of 104, which is not too shabby for a 22-year-old second baseman. He has struggled of late, however, posting an OPS of just .496 in July.
The rest of the lineup is rather less inspiring. I was prepared to write all sorts of love letters to Jed Lowrie, talking about how good he's been, and how the Astros were reportedly shopping him to teams like the Dodgers, and hey look at that the Diamondbacks will need a shortstop for next year. But he's out for 4-6 weeks, so we get to see Marwin Gonzalez instead. I'm not sure whether his parents were going for "Marvin" and someone just screwed up on the birth certificate, or whether his parents actually wanted to name a child "Marwin." Now that I think about it, I'm not even sure which is worse.
Scott Moore has apparently bounced around baseball for a while now. He's made major league appearances on the 2006 Cubs (66-96), the 2007 Orioles (69-93), the 2010 Orioles (66-96), and now the 2012 Houston Astros (34-59). So either Scott Moore is an awful clubhouse cancer who single-handedly makes every team he comes into contact with terrible, or only really bad teams have use for Scott Moore. I'm inclined to suspect the latter.
J.D. Martinez was freaking awesome for about 125 PAs in July and August of last year, and hasn't really recreated the magic since then, with an OPS of .709 this season. Chris Johnson is only still around to troll Houstonians who are still angry that a really good running back by the same name plays for the former Houston Oilers. Jordan Schafer starred in one of the best Dugouts of all time. Chris Snyder is somehow still only 31. This has been your cutting-edge analysis of the Houston Astros' lineup.
Insightful Commentary: I didn't realize until Jim mentioned it in his recap, but Cahill has posted an ERA of 7 in the first inning of games this year. It's easy to dismiss that as a product of small sample size, especially when you consider that his career ERA in the first inning is 2.68, but it might be something to keep in mind. Just from watching him, it looks like Cahill sometimes needs about an inning to find the release point of his sinker, and he's allowed noticeably more walks in the first than in any other inning. And that's a pattern that shows up throughout his career, with a noticeably lower K:BB in the first than in any other inning. Maybe Cahill has always needed some time to find his command, and is simply getting punished for it more this season?
I spent such a large chunk of last season being enamored with Bud Norris that I really should have noticed his age. He's already 27, which obviously isn't ancient, but he isn't the young, budding (pun intended) ace that I thought he was, either. And he's taken a step back this year, as his ERA has jumped by almost a full run. His strikeouts have risen, but so have his walks. His true-talent ERA is probably a bit lower than that, but crowning him the ace of the Next Great Astros Team was probably a bit premature as well.
Insightful Commentary: Miley looked like a very different pitcher in the last 3.2 innings of his start against the Reds than he did in the first two. Wade Miley v1.0 was tentative, slow-working, and clearly very hittable. Basically, everything people have criticized him for being for his last couple of starts. But once he settled down, he looked composed, he worked fast, and he gave up very little solid contact the rest of the way. It's obviously a tiny sample size, but here's hoping it represented a turning point for Miley.
So remember when J.A. Happ got serious consideration for Rookie of the Year? I mean, that happened right? Baseball-Reference says I didn't dream it, but it still feels rather foreign. At the time, everyone was wondering how he was succeeding with mediocre peripherals. Was he just getting lucky, or showing some innate ability to cheat BABIP like few others have? Nah, dude was just lucky. Although in an odd statistical quirk, his strikeout rate has risen every year he has spent in the majors, and he's actually been above average this season.
Insightful Commentary: As long as you're remembering things, remember when Collmenter was dismissed to the bullpen with an ERA of nearly 10 at the end of April, and we held a wake for his career as a starting pitcher? Well, he's back, presumably to stay, after posting 1.30 ERA since then as a long-reliever and spot-starter. Will it work? I'm still nervous about his numbers after the first time through the order, but I think that if this team is still trying to win this year, Collmenter is a better option than Corbin or Bauer at the moment.
And speaking of Bauer, Jordan Lyles is a 21-year-old first round pick who was the consensus best prospect in the Astros' system when he made it to the majors last season. His ERA since then is 5.33. His K/9 is an unnervingly low 5.56 in 2012. Sometimes really good pitching prospects aren't good right away. Sometimes, 21-year-olds aren't quite ready (gasp!) to handle major league hitters. The hype we place on them is entirely of our own making as fans, and it's astonishing that we're still surprised when prospects don't immediately live up to it.
Final Verdict: The Diamondbacks are a combined 0 for their last 6 against terrible teams, so the presence of another bad team isn't necessarily cause for encouragement. Still, the Diamondbacks are more talented than the Astros, and should be favored in all three pitching matchups. I'm still not calling a sweep, because there's bound to be at least one game where a pitcher gets lit up or the Diamondbacks inexplicably score just one run on three hits or something, but I think they buck the trend and win the series two games to one.
Head over to The Crawfish Boxes if you want the Astros' perspective, but be polite. Poor guys just saw their team get one-hit by Edinson Volquez.
(Stats via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs)