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Writers: Astros Rapping on Cellar Door

Writers have been predicting for years that the Astros would sink into the NL Central cellar. Is 2011 really the year?

I was going to write about this topic last week, but Andy Pettitte's retirement distracted me from the topic. If there is one thing that makes my blood boil it is off-season previews. 

I could stare at another team's 2010 statistics and fumble through 600 words to try and fathom how they will do in 2011. But I do not engage in the scurrilous practice of writing about topics I know nothing about like pedigree Cocker Spaniels or Taylor Swift. 

If only the same could be said for a large proportion of baseball writers. So, before you continue take five minutes to read Exhibit A: Alex Remington's article on the 2011, and Exhibit B: Full Count Pitch Magazine's article on "Cellar Dwellers."

These two pieces are hardly representative of the state of off-season baseball reporting, but they had the fortune to crawl across my twitter feed over the past week and half, and thus have got my special attention. Alex Remington, as an established writer should know better, but I feel bad ripping into a relative rookie, especially since he is a fellow Brit

Still, the criticism of the second article can be rattled off very quickly. If you look at wOBA and focus most of your attention on that one statistic then, yes the Astros will look pretty bad. Pence, Lee and Johnson are all free-swingers and the two guys with the highest amount of walks in 2010 won't be in the Opening Day lineup - Lance Berkman and Jeff Keppinger. But there's also no reason they cannot improve on their dismal on base rate from last year, as the young trio of Castro, Johnson and Wallace have the potential to get on base a reasonable amount of the time. The worst OBP offenders Kaz Matsui (.197!) and Pedro Feliz (.243) have been cut while Humberto Quintero (.262) and Tommy Manzella (.267) will see marginal playing time in 2011. 

After listing Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers in the front of the rotation the following statement is made:

The rest of the pitching staff is a fairly uninspiring and inconsistent bunch, and if you're willing to bet on success from any of them you're either a braver or a richer man than I. 

 How J.A. Happ and Bud Norris must feel to be described thus. Norris is a raw pitcher who still has much to prove in the majors, but the exclusion of Happ into the realms of 'uninspiring' is more puzzling. There is a belief in certain quarters that Happ has been pitching far above his peripherals so far in his major league career and it is only a matter of time before his ERA crashes down to where his FIP is (Fielding Independent Pitching). 

At some point however you have to recognize that there is some amount of skill in pitching to the fielders behind you, and also maintaining a low HR/FB rate. Matt Cain, who always seems to maintain a massive gap between his ERA and FIP, has been the focus of much debate over the past week, which prompted David Cameron to ask:

What is Cain doing to cause his low HR/FB rate? Location, movement or something else?

And then got the classic response of:

The honest answer here is: I have no idea. 

Is it voodoo? I'll go with voodoo. 

My assessment of Happ is that he is an above average major league starter who provides the Astros with stability in the middle of the rotation. Nothing more. I don't think that's an unreasonable assumption and claims that he fluked his way through the 2009 season are over-egged. Arguments that overrate Happ are far too overrated. The only alarming statistic was his 4.84 BB/9 in 2010. 

The next howler is the author's lazy (which is a mild criticism) comparison of Pence to Shin-Soo Choo.

Hunter Pence is sort of a lesser version of Shin-Soo Choo, only without the plate discipline.

I don't think you could find a more boneheaded comparison, though they do have similarities. They both play baseball professionally. Neither is actively serving in the Korean military; Choo because he gained exemption, Pence because, well, he isn't Korean. 

After that it becomes less clear. I would love to have Choo on my team. His bWAR of 7.3 for 2010 checked in at second in the AL behind Evan Longoria, he hits for a high average, steals bases, gets on base a lot of the time, hits for decent power and plays solid defense in the outfield (DRS seems to like his defense more than UZR). Their ISO an RBI totals might be similar, but that's about all there is to the comparison. 

As for Remington's piece, he loses me when he quotes Jack Moore, a FanGraphs writer who takes any and every opportunity to bash the living daylights out of the Astros. It boils down to -- the Astros were bad in 2010, they'll be even worse in 2011 because, err, they got lucky in 2010. And yes they were lucky, as their Pythagorean W-L record would have had them at 68-94 considering the runs they scored and conceded. 

Remington predicts a record of 64-98 for the Astros and that would mean the team (in terms of runs for and against) would probably have to be far worse than last year's team. Yes they have lost Oswalt and Berkman, but who on the roster is going to regress from their 2010 level? 

And then finishing in the cellar would require the Pirates to play better than us, with, shock horror, most of the players they had last year, along with a few offseason acquisitions of Kevin Correia, Scott Olsen, Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz. My god, they'll blow us away in 2011! But then again, I'm not an expert on the Pirates. 

But considering the amount of crud they cut off their roster and predicting moderate growth from Castro, Wallace and Johnson, even a slight improvement from Carlos Lee and something offensively from Bill Hall and Clint Barmes the outlook really is not as bleak as it is made out to be.

The rotation is as settled as it has been since Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte left Houston, and it could be even better if Fernando Abad continues his blistering form from the Winter Dominican League into Spring Training.

They may lack any show stoppers to draw the sell-out crowds Drayton McLane used to love, but there are enough grinders to believe they could orbit .500, if, and I say if they navigate a tricky early schedule much better than they did last season. 

Like the first caveman discovering fire, the two writers featured have pressed the buttons on their keyboards and delighted in the realization that letters and words magically appear on screen. And they aren't particularly good. 

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.