Money changes everything for Astros … well, sort of


by Brian Todd

Shin-Soo Choo is still out there. James Loney isn’t. Kendrys Morales is available at a pretty high price. Want another back-end reliever? Jesse Crain and Jose Veras are still looking for a home.

All it costs is money. Jim Crane may have told us to pony up our own $10 million last year, but this year the purse strings are a bit more open. The money flows more freely. And, according to that $60 million limit the Astros announced at the beginning of the offseason, there’s still money to be spent in the budget.

There’s a lot of winter left. But thus far, money has, indeed and finally, been spent.

Dexter Fowler will cost the Astros $7.35 million. Chad Qualls runs a paltry $3 million. Scott Feldman is going to get paid $10 million a season for the next three years. And Matt Albers returns to the fold with a deal that’ll pay him either $2.25 million or $2.45 million depending on whether he is picked up for 2015 out the club buys him out at $200,000. That’s an additional $22.6 million added to the 2014 payroll not counting little moves out there like trading for Anthony Bass or signing Peter Moylan to a minor league deal.

So, what did Houston get for its Hot Stove Spending Spree? Well, it depends on how you measure it.

WAR

What is it good for? Well, it’s a decent approximation of whether you’ve done better or not. Of course, not all WAR is measured equally. I’ll use Baseball Reference’s WAR.

  • Dexter Fowler: Fowler has averaged 2.4 WAR (Wins Against Replacement) for the past three years.

Chances are Fowler will play centerfield, at least to start the season. That means if the Astros had average centerfield play last season, then this team is up to 53 wins thanks to the Fowler trade. Of course, Houston’s centerfield production was well below average last year.

  • Chad Qualls: The former Astro is a bit up and down on WAR. Over the last three seasons, he’s totaled 1.1 WAR for a grand total of about 0.4 WAR per season.

Which Chad Qualls do the Astros get in 2014? Well, that’ll determine if he’s worth $3 million or not. But if money is no object (I know some of you believe that), then picking up nearly half a win—something that doesn’t translate well for a bullpen piece—Qualls is definitely worth the money. Frankly, though, any positive WAR in our bullpen is an improvement over 2013.

  • Matt Albers: When it comes to WAR, Albers actually is a better buy than Qualls. The former Astros draft pick has posted a total WAR of 1.8 since 2011, and that includes the first year where he was the literal definition of Replacement Value. With an average WAR of 0.6, Albers is a good deal. And considering anything above “league average” is an improvement, he certainly makes this bullpen better.
  • Scott Feldman: By keeping to my pattern of looking at just the last three years, Feldman looks like a good pickup. Especially when you consider we’re not even looking at his best WAR year (or his worst). Over three years, he’s put up a 2.1 WAR. Most of that came last year, so if you believe in What Have You Done For Me Lately, he looks really great.

Like the other two we’re looking at, it’s hard to judge just who Feldman replaces. But let’s say, for example, he’s the replacement for Bud Norris. Norris’ three-year WAR is 4.2. That’s twice the WAR of Feldman. Yep, money well spent.

OPS and ERA

All that said, WAR is an advanced metric that has problems in my book. Baseball Reference and Fangraphs calculate it very differently. You pick up a player with, say, 2 WAR, and depending on where he plays, it either makes no difference or a much bigger impact that two wins.

Personally, I’m still a fan of OPS for hitters and ERA for pitchers. Both stats have more advanced analogs (OPS+ and ERA+, which are weighted for ballpark differences). That said, I’m old-school.

Dexter Fowler: From just an offensive point of view, Fowler is a HUGE upgrade in centerfield. His .776 OPS last year—his lowest in the past three years—dwarfs Barnes’ .635 OPS and the Astros’ cumulative centerfield OPS of .584. Yes, you read that right.

Chad Qualls: Combined, Astros relievers had the worst ERA in the AL at 4.92. Want a different metric? How about WHIP? The Astros bullpen was by far the worst at 1.52. Qualls, meanwhile, posted a 2.61 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Yep, that looks like better than a half game improvement to me.

Matt Albers: Last year, Albers posted an ERA of 3.14 and a WHIP of 1.27. Both are decent stats and show that he limits base runners and does his part to keep them from touching the pay station. Again, compared to the 2013 Astros bullpen, Albers looks like Mariano Rivera.

Scott Feldman: Feldman’s 3.86 ERA was pretty decent, but his 1.18 WHIP was even better. The average Astros starter in 2013 posted a 4.72 ERA (surprisingly not the worst in the AL) and a 1.47 WHIP. That’s a big improvement over the average Astros starter. If you think that Feldman is replacing Norris—one “ace” for another—then the metrics you’re replacing are a 4.18 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP.

  • How many wins are these new guys worth?
  • Do Qualls and Albers produce a ripple effect through the bullpen?
  • What does replacing the poor CF hitting with Fowler do to the lineup?
  • What about Fowler’s defense compared to Barnes’ defense?

Feldman for Norris is not a zero-sum game, but does Feldman make the Astros’ rotation better or worse than it was with Norris?

• •• ••• •• • 

Brian Todd lives in Rochester, Minn., where Hot Stoves are appreciated and Astros’ fans are thin on the ground–unlike the snow by Christmas. 

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23 comments on “Money changes everything for Astros … well, sort of

  1. For a bullpen, blown saves means as much as any stat. But especially for the Astros. For example, the Lancaster Jethawks had a lot of blown saves last year, but they did not lose a ton of those games because their bats had a habit of coming back. You can have a blown save and still win, if your team can score runs. But if you have a bad bullpen and can’t score, a blown save results in a loss most of the time.
    I think we will have a much improved bullpen and less blown saves, but we still need to score a lot more runs to make it easier on our pitchers to get a win, especially if they produce a well pitched game.

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    • Agreed. I’d like to see Springer start the season in Houston. I don’t care about his major league service clock. He’s 24 this year. Tick tock.

      The Mariners now have an abundance of first basemen. Surely we can get one of them who is better than Brett Wallace … and will give us the option of leaving Singleton in AAA where he belongs until at least July.

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  2. Thanks for letting me play “moneyball,” Chip.

    My personal opinion is that the average combined 1 WAR we picked up in the bullpen is worth way WAY more than one win.

    First, there’s the “addition by subtraction” rule. These positive WAR guys are replacing relievers well below replacement value.

    Second, I believe in synergy. Albers and Qualls (and, still, hopefully Veras) make the pieces around them better.

    Finally, when you consider Houston’s one-run-game record last year (we lost two for every win we got), this bullpen looks like it could be worth eight to10 games difference. Do I have a metric to back that up? No. But of our scores of blown saves last year, how many would have turned out differently if we had two better-than-average relievers to turn to? Frankly, eight to10 looks like a conservative estimate.

    Here’s something else I noticed while perusing Baseball Reference. Houston’s Pythagorean record last year (how many wins and losses we should have had based solely on runs scored vs. runs allowed) was something like 57 and 105. So, if we could just have luck turn even instead of against us, we pick up six wins.

    Six wins here, eight more from the bullpen. Does Fowler make us two or three wins better? What happens when we add Springer or a decent first baseman? Another three wins. Let’s split the difference and say we get five more wins. Now we’re up to 69 wins. That’s if we don’t do anything else beyond calling up Springer no later than the end of May.

    I’ll miss Barnes’ highlight-reel catches, but this team is better. And, yes, money made the difference. Another 16 million spent properly would make an even bigger difference. Now we’re looking at 70-plus wins. And that’s not even counting on a bit of synergy in the lineup.

    2014 will be a better year. And by 2015, this ship will be turned around and looking to pick up speed.

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    • I agree the bullpen moves should make them much better over the course of 162 than what we broke camp with last year. They probably improve Bo Porter’s WAR as well as the decisions by the book are more likely to pan out. I’m not sold that Fowler is that much better than Barnes in CF or offensively. A .678 OPS (.343 OBP, .335SLG) away from Coors Field isn’t that inspiring.

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  3. I’ve always believed that the bullpen performance is very important psychologically to the team. Blown saves seem to lead to a hangover of poor performance the next game which can spiral.
    And frankly, young bullpens can run really “tight” – they can all feel the pressure of a string of bad performances and pile on with more worse performances.
    I think adding Qualls, Albers and potentially Veras will help the whole pitching staff – other relievers have older shoulders to lean on, and starters know that a good performance has a good chance of being rewarded.
    I like the improvements to the bullpen more than anything else they have done.

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    • It’s all part of that synergy. (I feel so 2002 saying that word over and over). But, yes, Dan, I think a solid bullpen–and we’re getting darned close to the definition of a solid bullpen here–makes this team much better than just the difference in WAR values.

      The same can be said of the lineup. Fowler makes this team better. Add a first base bat that can be counted on to produce, and suddenly Altuve and Castro don’t feel like they need to press at the plate all day. Maybe some boneheaded baserunning mistakes are avoided because Altuve or Villar don’t think they have to try for that extra 90 feet all the time.

      I’m not saying it’s going to be all unicorns farting rainbows from here on out, but these additions have been very encouraging.

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  4. It’s Christmas time, so I’m pretty much filled with cheer and good will to all. But as for our Astros, I’m still a bit cynical, loyal as I continue to be.

    We still might lose 100. The rotation has got to keep us in games for the pen to matter all that much. I personally don’t think Feldman is going to give us a whole lot for his 10 million, but on the flipside, I think we’ll see encouraging work from some of our young guys. So I’m counting on a better overall performance from the rotation. And certainly, the pen simply can’t be as bad as last year.

    I also firmly believe that if Springer is to be the first real face of our future, he should remain in centerfield, and he should be there on March 31.

    We’ll also see a significant number of additional moves prior to Opening Day. That’s what I’m most looking forward to, even if Santa does not make a delivery in time for Christmas..

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    • How about Luhnow gives you an empty box on Christmas morning with the promise to fill it with a first baseman who can put up an OPS over .780 and strikes out less than 16 percent of the time? You know, like how Kenner offered the empty boxes when it couldn’t gear up production of Star Wars figurines in 1977.

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      • Brian, we’ve already got that guy. That’s why I keep saying Stassi is a big key this year. If he hits, then Castro can rest his sore knees at first. And what happens if Singleton finally makes a grand entrance? I don’t know, but it certainly gives Luhnow more options.

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  5. Looking at the Astros stats is amazing. The pitching staff allowed a league high .792 OPS against, 22 points higher than the #29 ranked team. That is astounding. It means that every batter that faced Houston pitching “averaged” a .792 OPS.
    To show how astoundingly bad that was, the Astros only had one player who’s OPS was higher than every batter averaged who faced the Astros, and that was Jason Castro.
    The Astros ERA last year was more than one full run higher than the Astros total runs per game 4.92 vs 3.76, and does not account for the unearned runs that the worst defense in the league added on top of that differential.
    What I’m getting at is the monumental task the Astros have to do this season to change what happened last year. Talk of spending money is not just talk, It has to happen this offseson if another disastrous year is to be averted.
    What won’t show up in the money is the change in pitching coaches, which could have a huge impact on this team

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      • Steven, interesting you saying that. Last week I ran across an old “prospect” article from 2010. Saying the Astros may have struck gold with Castro. Lyles, and Mier.

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  6. I’ll second Brian’s synergy statement. Bullpens are very unpredictable. I would guess that unpredictability comes down to a few factors. Most of the guys in there are good arms – they have to be to get this far. They have some hitch in their game – either they can only throw a certain pitch with location, maybe they only have two pitches, whatever the reason, they struggle at multiple looks through the lineup.

    Synergy in the bullpen isn’t just about the pitchers – it’s also about how the manager uses those very specific positives a bullpen guy has to match up in very particular situations. If I have runners on 1st and 2nd and one out in the 7th, the starter is getting pulled, I would probably look for a ground ball guy. If it’s second and third with one out, I am looking for a strike out guy, and this is even before they have to consider WHO they are throwing too.

    I always thought in my mind the best way to evaluate a manager was his use of his bullpen and the matchups he could create using them. Ever wonder about the mystique of LaRussa? Go back and look at the bullpens he had. Guys you never heard of throwing 60 of the best innings of their careers – because he was an artist at finding the best matchup. I think Qualls and Albers will give Porter better options – and giving him better options gives opportunities that probably can’t be measured in WAR. The only way to explain it – SYNERGY!

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  7. One thing to remember about the 2013 bullpen – especially towards the end of the season is the experience factor. Dan P was tied with Josh Fields, Jose Cisnero, Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, Chia-Jen Lo and David Martinez (which was basically our whole bullpen down the stretch) with zero major league experience before last season.
    The results were predictable…hoepfully this will be a better season.

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  8. Like any Unified Theory, WAR tends to break down at the quantum level. Relative WAR does not translate, even closely, to actual team wins. “Replacement wins” for the Astros and Orioles last year vary by sixteen. So to say that Albers with his +0.6 WAR will be improve the record by one win over the guy whose -0.4 WAR he replaced is a myth. (Not that you said that, Brian). For instance, R. Pitcher comes in and walks the bases loaded and then records an out for the save, with little or no effect on his WAR. The next day he gives up a HR, records the next out for a save and his WAR diminishes. Both are team wins. R. Pitcher is not a guy I want to count on in the ninth.

    I subscribe to the String Theory of baseball, whereby, baseballs represent one-dimensional “strings”, vibrating in multiple dimensions. These vibrations manifest themselves in wins and losses depending on how and where they vibrate. If Albers can come in and get a weak grounder to short, and the next day follow that up with the same sans the HR, the team, and Albers, will play with much more confidence, and hopefully, continue the make those baseballs vibrate in the proper dimension.

    But in all seriousness, I think the bullpen will be improved and that alone should result in 10+ more wins for the team

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  9. Here comes a report from the glass half empty guy –

    Fowler 2013 home stats – .311/.478/.874
    Fowler 2013 away stats – .214/.335.678

    Fowler 2012 home stats – .332/.553/.984
    Fowler 2012 away stats – .262/.381/.720

    Let’s hope the stats are lying and it’s not about those home games at Coors field.

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    • And in 2011
      Fowler home stats .245 BA/.360 OBP / .451 SLG / .811 OPS
      Fowler away stats .286 / .367 / .415 /.787

      So at least once in his life he could hit while breathing heavier air….

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  10. Had a “take a flyer” question for the group. Any word on what’s with former Brave Jair Jurrjen? Is it injury problems with him?
    He was good to very good in 2008 and 2009, mediocre in 2010, very good in 2011 and bad or in the minors the last two years.
    Any thoughts?

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  11. And his 2011 season, as a whole, is something you hope he doesnt duplicate though. It’s not that he hit well on the road in 2011, its that for some reason he was horrible in 2011 at home.

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