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Series Preview #38: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Houston Astros

This picture pretty much sums up the Astros' season.
This picture pretty much sums up the Astros' season.

The last time the Diamondbacks played the Astros, I wrote a few words and eventually concluded that the 2011 Astros were "a bad team that's actually better than they first appear." More than two months later, it seems I was half right: the Houston Astros are indeed a bad team, but they've done nothing to demonstrate that they are better than they first appear.

By the end of May, it was already clear that 2011 would not be the Astros' year. Their 19-31 record put them among the dregs of the NL, and there weren't any signs that it would turn around any time soon. But what we didn't know at the time was that the Astros still had some digging to do before they finally hit rock bottom. Since we last saw Houston, they've gone 18-45, good for a .285 winning percentage. This included an almost unthinkable 8-31 stretch leading up to the trade deadline, where Astro fans were rewarded for their devotion by getting to see Jeff Keppinger, Hunter Pence, and Michael Bourn, their three best offensive players (by OPS), traded for prospects.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

Hitting (wRC+): 95 91
Pitching (FIP-):
100 115
Fielding (UZR):
44.6 -31.0 Arizona

The Astros have a pretty bad offense, as that wRC+ is tied for 21st out of 30 teams, sandwiched between the likes of the Athletics and Cubs. This has translated to the team scoring even fewer runs than you would expect, with their total of 425 ranking them 26th. And with Keppinger, Pence and Bourn all wearing different uniforms, one would expect that it will get even worse before it gets better.

Luckily, Houston compensates for their bad hitting with their terrible pitching. That FIP- is the highest in baseball, which you will recall is a bad thing. This is partially because they allow more home runs than any staff outside of Baltimore's, a stat that becomes even more impressive when you consider that Minute Maid Park is a pitcher's park. The suck is pretty evenly distributed between Houston's rotation and bullpen, as the former has an FIP- of 117, while the latter is "only" at 113.

It is also important to consider that FIP stands for "Fielding Independent Pitching," meaning that all of those stats above don't even take into account Houston's abysmal defense. That UZR is the second-worst in baseball, leading to a higher BABIP and, ultimately, more runs scored. All told, the Astros have allowed the second-most runs while having the third-highest ERA in baseball while playing in one of the more pitcher-friendly environments in baseball. Their team ERA+ is 82, just slightly better than Zach Duke's 80. When your whole team pitches like Zach Duke in 2011, you're in trouble.

So, to recap: the Astros have bad hitters, who also happen to be awful fielders, which only serves to make their objectively horrid pitching look even worse by comparison. Move over, Philadelphia: the Astros are the most well-rounded team in Major League Baseball.

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Willie Bloomquist, SS
2. Kelly Johnson, 2B
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Chris Young, CF
5. Miguel Montero, C
6. Ryan Roberts, 3B
7. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
8. Gerardo Parra, LF

Houston Astros

1. Jason Bourgeois, CF
2. Jose Altuve, 2B
3. J.D. Martinez, LF
4. Carlos Lee, 1B
5. Jason Michaels, RF
6. Jimmy Paredes, 3B
7. Clint Barmes, SS
8. Hunberto Quintero, C

The Houston Astros starting lineup has an fWAR of 6.4, which would be incredibly impressive if it were accumulated by one player, but is somewhat less so when it belongs to eight. Only three players who started the last time we faced the Astros are still part of the starting lineup, with the rest either getting traded or demoted. In that last series, I made note of some promising young players, such as Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace, and Angel Sanchez, who have proceeded to all play themselves out of the lineup by putting up a combined fWAR of -0.9. Way to make me look good, guys.

The first three hitters in this lineup have fewer career at-bats than most starters get in a season (388), which makes me feel slightly better about the fact that I haven't heard of any of them. Jason Bourgeois is having a solid season, with a proletariat-suppressing 111 OPS+ in 149 PAs. However, he doesn't walk much or hit for much power, and at 29 he probably doesn't really fit into the team's future plans. Behind him, rookies Jose Altuve and J.D Martinez slide into positions vacated by traded players. Neither is really considered a can't-miss prospect, but neither player has really looked overmatched so far in very limited time.

Wastes of salary Bearers of veteran presence Carlos Lee and Jason Michaels fill the primary RBI slots. Lee's OPS of .742 is decent enough, while Michaels' .563 is somewhat less than decent. Clint Barmes has a perfectly league-average OPS+ accompanied by solid defense, which makes him the most valuable position player by fWAR who is still with the team. The Astros keep waiting for some talented young catcher to rise up and seize the starting job from Humberto Quintero and his career 62 OPS+, but it hasn't happened quite yet.

Overall, this lineup reminds me so much of the 2004 Diamondbacks in terms of general hopelessness and obscurity that I half-expect Juan Brito to make a guest appearance in this series.

Pitching Matchups:

Monday: Daniel Hudson (11-7, 3.67) vs. Wandy Rodriguez (7-8, 3.69)

Insightful Commentary: All Daniel Hudson did in his last start was walk into a charged, hostile stadium and out-pitch a two-time Cy Young winner in a game that the Diamondbacks needed to win. Hudson went eight, allowed one, struck out five, walked one, and dispelled concerns about his workload after giving up nine runs in his previous two starts.

Wandy Rodriguez was bandied about in trade rumors quite frequently before the deadline, and Arizona was rumored to be one of the most likely potential destinations. Rodriguez's ERA is more or less in line with the past few seasons, but he's allowing more homers this season. Additionally, his contact rate has jumped up to almost 82% after hovering around 79% the past few seasons and, in a related note, his swinging strikes are down from last season. These are concerning peripherals for a 32-year-old pitcher, and this is one potential trade that I suspect we will look back on and be glad that the D-Backs didn't make.

Tuesday: Jason Marquis (0-1, 15.75) vs. Jordan Lyles (1-6, 4.36)

Insightful Commentary: The Giants hadn't scored more than six runs at home all season, but just four innings against Jason Marquis cleared up that particular ignominy. The popular opinion of Marquis' start against the Giants is that he was victimized by his defense, and that was certainly true to an extent. However, at the same time Marquis gave up some hard-hit balls to an offense that doesn't exactly specialize in hitting the ball hard, and his 1:1 SO:BB rate could stand to improve a bit. Marquis' struggles were due to a mix of shoddy defense, generally bad BABIP luck, and poor pitching. Two of those things will improve without him doing anything, but he'll have to work to make sure the third doesn't happen again.

Jordan Lyles has had an up-and-down season, as befits a 20-year-old rookie with solid stuff. After twelve starts, Lyles finally recorded his first win in the major leagues last time out, going seven innings and giving up three runs to beat the Reds. So far, he has nice control for a rookie (BB/9: 2.18) but doesn't seem to have the strikeout numbers to be an upper-echelon starter, with a K/9 of 6.30.

Wednesday: Josh Collmenter (6-7, 3.58) vs.

Insightful Commentary: And just like that, Josh Collmenter has gone from ROY consideration to potentially pitching to stay in the rotation. But I suppose giving up 11 runs in 4 innings over two starts will do that to a guy. It's been true since the beginning, but I'm finally admitting it: when Josh Collmenter pitches, I have no idea what's going to happen. It's best to just hold on and try to enjoy the ride.

For my money, Brett Myers is the hardest thing to watch in baseball: an aging, mediocre starter on a terrible team. With guys like Lyles, Bud Norris and even J.A Happ, Astros fans can watch and imagine a brighter future, but Myers offers none of that optimism. He will be long gone by the time the Astros are any good, and exists only to eat innings before someone younger, cheaper and hopefully better takes his place. As fans of a team that let Rodrigo Lopez pitch 200 innings last year, we all saw first hand just how depressing it can be to watch the guys who fill in the cracks of the rebuilding process.

Thursday: Joe Saunders (8-9, 3.61) vs.TBA

Insightful Commentary: This would be J.A. Happ, but his 6.26 ERA eventually became too much for even the Astros to watch every five days, and he was demoted to the minors.

I've spent seemingly the entire season complaining that Joe Saunders walks too many batters, and doesn't get enough ground balls or strikeouts, and that eventually he get hit hard if it continued. Well, he finally took my advice against the Dodgers, getting ten grounders and posting a nice SO:BB of 4:1. The result: Saunders' shortest and worst outing in a month. Freakin' baseball, man.

Final Verdict: I've spent 1500 words describing to the best of my abilities just how bad the Astros are this year, and yet they still spook me. It's a team full of young players who are excited to be in the majors and are playing for a spot next season. It's not impossible that they could get some solid pitching and surprise us. But the Diamondbacks are the better team by a large margin, and none of the above pitching matchups scare me, so I'll say Diamondbacks three games to one.

Head over to The Crawfish Boxes to see what the prisoners of war formerly known as Astro fans think of their team.

All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.