A baseball column. Stranger yet, a Houston Astros baseball column.
Had hardly noticed the Astros since their previous owner allowed, and then abetted, the team’s steady decline from excellence, to mediocrity, to total futility, after they had gone to the ’05 World Series. Have yet to read a persuasive (or even cogent) analysis of why that owner, Drayton McLane, precipitated the race to the bottom, but nearly everything written on the topic seems to mention money.
Under new ownership since 2011, and with an owner (Jim Crane) and general manager (Jeff Luhnow) who appear to have a strategy and to be devotees of the “sabremetrics” school of baseball analysis, the Astros began the Jim Crane era by completing the team’s decline into oblivion by disposing of the few remaining players who possessed major league skills. With aplomb, they quickly achieved the distinction of having both the worst team in baseball and the lowest-paid. All the while, to an aviary chorus of “cheap-cheap-cheap,” they stuck to their version of the Billy Beane/Theo Epstein model of incessant roster changes, while playing astonishingly bad baseball: they outdid McLane’s final, 105-loss season by losing 107 games in 2012 and 111 in 2013. The fans responded appropriately: when the team rallied to lose a mere 92 games last year, one heard no sound in the Astros’ stadium but crickets.
But here we are in 2015 and, voila! The Astros are the hottest thing in baseball, best record in the American League, looking like they might have to be taken seriously. Naturally, there is abundant analysis of the sudden reversal. Analysts point to their unique distinction of leading the league in home runs, stolen bases, and strikeouts, a rare and seemingly bizarre combination that somehow occurs only with highly successful teams. Seems especially odd considering that the team’s batting averages are shockingly low – the Astros swing only for the fences, as though mere singles were beneath their dignity. Some mention the upgrade of their bullpen, which is less observed because less eccentric.
Here is my two-cents’ worth. Check out the Astros’ outfield. Maybe the most interesting aspect of the Astros’ strong defense is their outfield: all three starting outfielders are natural center fielders. In modern baseball, as in Babe Ruth’s day, the only genuine outfielder on most teams is the center fielder, the only one who combines speed, range, ball-hawking skills, and a good arm. Yes, the right fielder often has a good arm, but generally, left and right fields are where you stick the fat guys who can hit. The real outfielders are center fielders: think Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Kirby Puckett, Tori Hunter, even the immortal Jim Busby. Where did the best hitter of all time play? Ted Williams was a left fielder – limited speed, range, and arm. Ty Cobb played center, but Babe Ruth played in right – the proper place for a fat guy with a big bat and a great arm.
There is irony here. These Astros were built on statistics. Their offensive strategy is the baseball equivalent of the basketball strategy of their Houston neighbors, the Houston Rockets. The Rockets’ model is built around James Harden and other players who score most of their points on either layups (the ultimate high percentage shot) or 3-pointers (where 30% accuracy scores more total points than 40% accuracy from 2-point range). The Astros’ model is built around guys with a .220 batting average with lots of strikeouts but lots of extra-base hits, which they consider more productive than a .270 average with fewer long balls. Pure analytics/sabremetrics. But their defensive strategy does not come from Billy Beane or Theo Epstein, it comes from an old-fashioned idea, that outfield statistics are misleading, that it is better to make a few more errors while chasing down a ton of balls that would fall for hits if your outfield were only average, defensively. There is really no reliable, objective way to identify balls that one outfielder would catch but another would not; this involves subjectivity, not data.
This issue has been debated for decades, in terms of infielders, where teams used to go for little guys who covered a lot of ground (say, Luis Aparicio or Ozzie Smith) rather than bigger guys with limited range who made few errors and were very good hitters (Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez). But it is rarely applied to outfield play. What the Astros have done is to field an entire outfield of guys with questionable offensive skills but who are very fast and have excellent range and ball-hawking skills. One must assume that their theory is that even if such guys make a couple dozen more errors in the outfield in a season, they more than compensate by running down dozens, maybe hundreds, of balls that would fall for hits (maybe extra-base hits) in a more conventional outfield. And this writer, for one, absolutely loves the strategy – just as he loves watching a pure center fielder run down a likely triple and turn it into a rally-killing out.