Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Morning Hot Links

Big thanks to Flick for taking over on some Hot Links while I took a little break in order to sacrifice ten bulls to Base Ba'al and gear up for the 2nd Half (if by "half" you mean "the remaining 38.9% of the season").

Remember the Astros? They haven't played since April. Tonight they start the final push for the playoffs. They're 64-35 with a 5.0-game lead on Seattle. Before we get into it, here's your Playoff Odds check:

FanGraphs (103-59): 98.5% to win division, 100% to make playoffs, 23.1% to win World Series
FiveThirtyEight (103-59): 92% to win division, 99% to make playoffs, 22% to win World Series
Baseball Prospectus (102-60): 96.9% to win division, 99.6% to make playoffs, 17.5% to win World Series.

It's worth mentioning that the Astros' World Series percentages for all three of the major projections are the highest in baseball.

FanGraphs projects the Mariners to win 90 games, which is a .494 win% for the rest of the season, but with a 64.7% chance of playing the Yankees in the Wild Card Game. Oakland is projected to win three fewer games than Seattle. WE WILL SEE ABOUT THAT.

*Brian McTaggart writes that, while the Astros could look to get greedy at the Deadline, the Astros aren't willing to part with their top prospects or dig into their minor-league depth.

*Jake Kaplan wrote in The Athletic about how the upcoming schedule will allow the Astros to manage the rotation's workload. Hinch:
I think the schedule's been very kind to us. Every team has this new schedule of five or six days off in one month. Ours happens to come in August, which is pretty much where I would draw it up if I had to choose myself. You don't really want that kind of rest in April and May. July, we get the natural off days with the All-Star break. August is a picture-perfect time for our players. 

Having played 41 games in the 45 days leading up to the All-Star Break, the Astros are due for some rest, and since 24% of the active roster was a part of the All-Star festivities, they may enjoy some more. In fact, the Astros are off for four of the next 21 days.

*Chandler Rome: Alex Bregman's obsession with baseball perfection.

*Apparently J.D. Davis is on his way up.

*Heard from a #source that Carlos Correa is in traction in Ibiza.

Minor-League Snapshot

*Fresno scored six of the final seven runs of the game in an 8-7 win over Sacramento last night. Derek Fisher was 2x5 with a grand slam. Antonio Nunez was 1x3 with a home run and 3RBI. Ken Giles threw a perfect inning, striking out two in a 12-pitch inning.

Every website is conspiring against me to get the PCL standings. Screw 'em.

Corpus is 18-9 since winning the 1st Half division title, two games up on Frisco. They're 61-35 overall and have already guaranteed a playoff spot.

Buies Creek is 17-11 since their All-Star Break, a half-game behind Winston-Salem. They're 54-43 overall.

Quad Cities is 13-13 since their All-Star Break, 5.5 games back. They're 53-43 overall.

Tri-City is 19-14, tied for the Stedler Division lead with Lowell.

The GCL Astros are 14-13, 5.5 games back of the GCL Cardinals.

*ESPN's wonderfully-named Bradford Doolittle writes about the most common mistake teams make at the Trade Deadline. Doolittle:
When you are acquiring a player at or near the trade deadline, you are acquiring his baseline performance, not his season-to-date performance. To make a decision on a potential deal based on the current season's numbers is borderline malpractice. 

*FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine asks if the Mariners can end their 17-year long playoff drought this year.

*The Ringer: The Last Days of Blockbuster Video. Maybe I don't have to feel so bad about moving out-of-state with a copy of the Ethan Hawke/Angelina Jolie classic "Taking Lives."

It's after 10am. I'm calling it a day.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Thursday Morning Hot Links

Flick's Hot Links. Day 2.

I understand why our fearless leader decided to take these few days off. There were very very very very VERY little sports that happened yesterday, thus potentially making new Hot Links hard on the poor intern. I have no idea how this is going to go but nevertheless, it is 1:22 a.m, I have my bottled water and a bag of freshly popped microwave popcorn in hand. Let's see what we can conjure up.

Well, the ESPYs were last night. I didn't watch..or vote..or know what I should be upset about. Sure it was our "sports fix", but I think I made the right decision in unwinding with some video games instead. I do know we won Best Team. That's cool. Dallas Keuchel delivered our speech. Altuve and Bregman were being the goofballs we know them to be. You can watch the 73 second speech here.

I heard that the U.S. Women's National Hockey Team took home Best Game over Game 5 of the World Series. Remember, you don't need ESPN to tell you Game 5 was the best game of the year. We know the truth. (In case you forgot everything that happened, I happen to have a 15 minute Youtube video to jog your memory...or if you have some time on your hands, the full four and a half hour broadcast). I know there were other Astros nominees but honestly I have no idea who they were and I have talked way more about the ESPYs than what I wanted to so lets move on.  

Somebody spend a lot of money to make this jersey. I checked around and the cheapest place to make a custom jersey from a site that doesn't sound like they are trying to steal your credit card info is Fanatics and it cost $105. Somebody likely spent AT LEAST $105 to make this jersey. Mad respect. 

Kyle Tucker is up. Could Forest Whitley be next

CBSSports gave us a roundup on the trade rumors, which includes the Brewers targeting Dozier, the Dodgers not being done yet, and the official shooting down the Ramos-to-Houston thought that crossed all of our minds.

Greg Rajan gave us some things to watch for the second half of the season here.

Fox Sports is just as excited as we are to get this 2nd half rolling, so our weekend preview can be found here.

I have one of those popcorn kernels stuck in my throat now. This was a bad idea. 

Here are some Hot Links of some Hot Lynx. Wow, you just don't see kind of humor anymore! Please don't stop reading yet.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb finally answers the age old question of if almonds lactate. “An almond doesn’t lactate.”

Some of your earliest memories aren't real, but your later memories are are, but some other ones may also not be real, and it is your job to figure out which are real and which are not real. Confused? Don't play Kingdom Hearts.

Well, this is all I could muster up for this edition of Hot Links. I hope you enjoyed this read and if I don't post Hot Links for Friday, I hope to think of something creative that I can share of this website sometime in the near future. Thanks for reading!

The popcorn kernel is still there. ugh

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Wednesday Morning Hot Links

Hey guys. Flick Nickem speaking. You may remember me from my last post on this website 2018 Astros as Birds (LOOK MY FIRST EVER HOT LINK IS A SHAMELESS PLUG) or if you follow my antics on my Twitter @FlickNickem (OOPS I DID IT AGAIN).

Your normal provider for Hot Links, Mr. Astros County, is taking a few days off to rest and recharge so instead of going without Hot Links completely, I decided to throw some together myself so we don't have to suffer without them. I am going to try and make them pretty similar to the format that we all know and love, but this is also a completely new author and I am known to be quite the little goofball so expect a little bit of a different personality in the next couple of daily posts. 

Lets start with the All-Star Game. How'd our Astros do?
-Altuve 1-3 with a strikeout, but that one hit was his first hit in the All-Star game in his sixth showing.
-Bregman also went 1-3 with a strikeout, difference being he hit the go-ahead HR to win the whole dang thing and then later was named the Ted Williams All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award and given a car for doing so, giving it to his mom. You can peep his postgame interview here.
-Springer batted 1.000, going 2-2 and also hit a HR a couple minutes after Bregman did. So that was fun.
-Morton did not have a great showing, giving up 2 earned runs on 2 hits in 2 innings (HRs by Trevor Story and Christian Yelich). He also struck out 2 and walked 1.
-Verlander and Cole did not pitch, but they made the team and thats all that matters! *happy emoji*

Other notable All-Star game-y things:
-The AL won again, because duh.
-It did not rain, but every team still needs a retractable roof.
-Rich Dauer got to participate in his first All-Star Game, months after recovering from an emergency brain surgery following a collapse at the championship parade last November
-There were a combined 10 home runs hit last night, and the pitching staffs combined to strike out 25 batters.
-We found out about the lifestyle of 17 year old Josh Hader in between innings. It's..uh...not that awesome. But hey good news! Turns out the Astros won the trade!

In Other News:
-The Astros are doing a 4th World Series giveaway. I don't have one yet and I live in the Midwest, so if you want to get another one to send one my way, you'd be my favorite! <3
-Charlie Morton does not want to use injuries as an excuse for not being an all-star until age 34, because he is a sweetheart who is impossible to hate I love him I have his jersey okay next
-Here is our hitting coach talking about being a hitting coach, why AJ Hinch is one of the smartest people he's ever met, and talking about how to assess Kyle Tucker and George Springer's first halves.
-A New Astros Prospect Stock Report is up on the Crawford Boxes, for your viewing pleasure.
-Brent Strom thinks Keuchel might be back and here to stay.
-Buy Astroball.
-The Astros are not happy with Papa John, but they are still subjecting the fans to Papa Johns. I'm sorry.
-But Venus owned the moon the other day and folks let me tell you, THIS is the Moon news I am here for!

Well, I hope you enjoyed Hot Links Flick Edition Vol. 1. I'll be back tomorrow (I think) with more piping hot hot links! (I get paid every time I say hot links) ((This is not true but it is probably the best excuse I can use that you guys would actually wait.......shoot.....))

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Astroball Review: Book Cuts Against Conventional Wisdom About Astros Rise

The 2014 season was the low point of the Astros rebuild. While the on-field play of the team improved--the Astros won 70 games for the first time since 2010, and Jose Altuve won the franchise's first batting title. But a series of off-the-field stories raised real doubts about whether or not the team would ever get back to the playoffs. The Astros internal database Ground Control was leaked, and with it, a year's worth of internal trade notes. Bo Porter was fired with a month left of the season. And a bad MRI result for Brady Aiken meant that the Astros did not sign the top pick in the draft. 

But possibly the worst off-the-field story that season was a May 23 article in the Houston Chronicle by Even Drellich that described and derided the "Jeff Luhnow's radical...dehumanizing, analytics-based approach."  

This article is most well known for its quote from former Astro Bud Norris describing the Astros as "the outcast of major league baseball." That quote is featured in the third paragraph of the article and is included as part of the headline chosen by Chronicle editors ("Radical methods pain Astros as 'outcast')  

But the quotes inside the article are more pointed in their criticism of the Astros analytical approach. Jed Lowrie, then of the Oakland As describe the Astros approach as "purely statistical analysis. I think you can't that have approach and expect to have good personal relations." An anonymous player agent said "the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria...They plug players into it to see what makes sense."

Drellich also asked the rhetorical question "If a young Astros player or his agent feels mistreated today or is just turned off by the organization's actions, why would he stick around...if comparable opportunities exist elsewhere?"

The thesis of Ben Reiter's new book Astroball: The New Way to Win It All argues that the conventional wisdom described in the article was not all it was cracked up to be. The key to the Astros victory in the 2017 World Series--and to building a team that leads the league in run differential in 2018 and is on its way to another post-season appearance--is the ability of Astros management to understand the psychology of players. In short, Jeff Luhnow and his management team understand the human side of their players, and that gives them an advantage over their rivals.

Of course, the Astros do not lack for analytical firepower, devotion to sabremetric principles, or the ability to run complicated predictive algorithms. Reiter's book highlights each of these elements of the Astros front office and their decision making. The book spends a great deal of time focusing on Sig Mejdal, who worked with Luhnow with the Cardinals and them came to the Astros as the Director of Decision Sciences. Mejdal, who has been promoted to Special Assistant to the GM, Process Improvement, has developed a large set of models and algorithms that the Astros can use to not only predict the future baseball performance of each player, but also to understand his value relative to the rest of baseball.

Yet, Reiter argues, the Astros algorithms, with all of its complicated math calculations and formulae, take into account factors well beyond just "numbers."  These models take into account a wide variety of "soft" factors that focus on the psychological makeup of players and their ability to put aside personal needs for the betterment of the team.

Reiter discusses how the Astros look for a "growth mindset" among their prospects, their willingness to train, eat, make baseball decisions, etc. In short, it's the willingness of a player to improve. The Astros look for this trait in drafting players, and were drawn to Carlos Correa not because he dreamed as a young boy of playing in the majors, but because he put in countless hours of work to become one--rousing his father who had worked two jobs to go out to his local baseball field every night. Reiter identifies Kevin Gausman, Mark Appel, Mike Zunino, and Byron Buxton as the other candidates for the top selection of the 2012 MLB draft. The Astros obviously chose wisely.

Alex Bregman impressed the Astros by being "the right kind of confident; not performatively cocky, a quality that could evaporate during snowballing slumps, but genuinely so, a quality that didn't."  Reiter then concludes this assessment of Bregman by writing something that as an LSU baseball fan, I've known for a long time and as Astros fan, we definitely learned when he threw home in Game 7 of last year's ALCS to retire Greg Bird--"He didn't give a shit about anything but playing."

Reiter devotes a later chapter of the book about the positive influence of Carlos Beltran in the Astros clubhouse in 2017. Using psychological research that examines find that the ability to overcome and transcend clubhouse divides around nationality, language, position, and temperament can add up to six wins of a baseball team, Reiter's reporting highlights the importance of Beltran to creating a focused and together clubhouse in the 2017 season, through a combination of informal friendships and more detailed set-pieces, such as the belts the players handed out to the batter and pitcher of the game.

This book is an update on Moneyball, which of course traced the decision making of the 2002 Oakland As and its General Manager Billy Beane. And while it is unlikely that Astroball will turn into a movie (but hey, if Brad Pitt is willing to trim his hair a little bit, he could make a very good Jeff Luhnow), it does show how baseball management has advanced over the past 16 years. The models and the math are much more complicated, but it is also much more manageable, as teams have beefed up their analytical staffs; the Astros analytics staff works in the "Nerd Cave" in the offices at Minute Maid Park. All 30 teams have amped up their understanding of the numbers part of the game, reducing the advantage that teams like the As through statistical understanding and innovation.

Yet, for the analytical firepower Jeff Luhnow and his band of sabrmetric warriors have brought to the table, Astroball argues that their greatest advantage over other their competitors is their understanding of the human factors that make up the game. In making this argument, Reiter's book provides a valuable contribution. It extends upon the conventional wisdom about the Astros to more successfully describe the methods that allowed the team to put the best team in baseball on the field. In focusing on the so-called "soft factors," Astroball also details where the Astros developed an information advantage over their opponents.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

All-Star Break Reading List

So it's the All-Star Break. I'll be watching the Home Run Derby because I ride or die with Bregs, but I probably won't watch a minute of the All-Star Game. The Astros don't play again until Friday at 9:07pm. Because I have an inflated sense of self-worth, here are my favorite books, baseball and otherwise, for you to fill the time...that is, if you're not just rewatching playoff games. (NOTE: I'll spend the evening watching 2017 Postseason highlights on YouTube. THEN I'll get some reading done.) If you read Astros County regularly, I'm assuming that we have similar tastes - or you at least put up with mine.

Baseball Division

Joshua Prager: The Echoing Green
Chad Harbach: The Art of Fielding
Jonah Keri: The Extra 2%
Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work
Jeff Passan: The Arm
Jerry Crasnick: License to Deal
Dirk Hayhurst: The Bullpen Gospels
Matt McCarthy: Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit
Joe Posnanski: The Soul of Baseball
William Kennedy: Ironweed

Non-Baseball Division

Justin Cronin: The Passage
Stephen King: 11/22/63
Joe Pernice: It Feels So Good When I Stop
Nick Hornby: High Fidelity
Neil Gaiman: American Gods
Jon Krakauer: Into Thin Air
Amy Stewart: Wicked Plants
Drew Magary: The Postmortal
Norman Ohler: Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich
Steven Martin: Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction
Jeffrey Toobin: Too Close to Call
Jill Lepore: The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Sam Kean: The Disappearing Spoon
Anthony Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential
James Swanson: Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer
James Swanson: Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis
Vincent Bugliosi: Four Days in November
Don Winslow: The Force
Benjamin Wallace: The Billionaire's Vinegar

Sunday Morning Hot Links

Note: If you're reading this, I'm already dead. Yesterday morning was my daughter's birthday party. It was a Rainbow Unicorn party and I wore an Astros shirt, Astros flip-flops, and spray-painted my hair orange. She turned six earlier in the week, but I thought I might be able to sneak it in before having to run an insane amount of errands. No go. I'm going to leave what I had, as Astros County is the paper of record for the Houston Astros.

*The Astros whooped the Tigers for the second straight game with a 9-1 win yesterday afternoon. They are 64-34. Houston's 8-run margin is the largest margin of victory since the 11-3 win over Kansas City on June 24. The Astros have held the Tigers to one run over 18 innings. AL Central teams have scored 75 runs in 25 games against the Astros. Eighteen of those runs were scored by Cleveland  on May 26-27.

*Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer said the strike zone yesterday was "god awful."

*Gerrit Cole needed 107 pitches to get 17 outs, allowing 3H/1ER, 8K:4BB. Cole has allowed 3+ BB in six of his last eight starts. Yeah but he has 8+ strikeouts in 14 of his 20 starts this season. Cole has 45 swinging strikes - 77 non-contact strikes - in his last two starts. That's insane.

*Chris Devenski threw 2IP, 0H/0ER, 2K:0BB. It's his 2nd six-out 0H/0ER/0BB outing of the year.

*Cionel Perez got the 9th and needed 10 pitches to get three groundball outs in a perfect outing. I have a Very Good Feeling about Cionel Perez, which makes me a scout now. He has Plus Facial Hair - seriously, the willingness to trot out in front of 35,000 people with that facial hair shows he has huevos.

*The Astros held Detroit to three hits. It's the 7th time this season Houston pitchers have held their opponent to three or fewer hits. Houston is 26-7 when holding their opponent to five or fewer hits.

*George Springer was 2x4 with an RBI double. He back. Springer has been on base twice in a game in four of his last six games (7x24, 1K:2BB). The double was his first extra-base hit since June 26. Springer hasn't hit a home run since June 20. It's 20 starts and counting since his last home run - a new career-high.

*Josh Reddick was 2x4 with a double and a home run. It's his 4th multi-XBH game of the season, and his 2nd in July.

*Evan Gattis broke an 0x20 slump with his 19th home run of the year. He's one away from his fifth 20HR season of his six-year career. I'll never understand how he got eleven triples in 2015.

*The Astros hit three home runs, including their 5th back-to-back set of the season. It's the 11th 3+ HR game of the year. They're 9-2 in those games.

*Alex Bregman was 1x2 with 2BB. He has nine 2BB games on the year.
Alex Bregman games with at least one walk: 46
Alex Bregman games with zero walks: 49

*Tim Federowicz went 1x4. True story: The Astros are 5-0 when Tim Roger Federerowicz gets a hit.

*Mike F. Fiers and Francisco Liriano got their World Series rings prior to the game.

*Chalk this up in the "I Wish I Wrote This" section: Jay Jaffe on How Ken Giles Became a Minor-Leaguer.

*Charlie F. Morton: All-Star pitcher, All-Star human. Hinch, via Jake Kaplan:
[Morton] genuinely was concerned about who the other snubs were. 'Who didn't get in? What was happening with Collin McHugh?' The mechanics of how he became an All-Star and if that cost somebody a spot. The guy is tremendous at pitching, but he's a tremendous human.

CFM better never have to buy a drink in Houston and the surrounding areas for the rest of his life.

Three-fifths of the starting rotation is in the All-Star Game. The six All-Stars tie a franchise record, set last year. So, 12 All-Stars in two years. Houston had 13 All-Stars from 2008-2016.

2008: 2 - Lance Berkman, Miguel Tejada
2009: 2 - Tejada, Hunter Pence
2010: 1 - Michael Bourn
2011: 1 - Pence
2012: 1 - Altuve
2013: 1 - Jason Castro
2014: 1 - Altuve
2015: 2 - Altuve, Keuchel
2016: 2 - Altuve, Will Harris

*Jose Altuve will bat 2nd in the All-Star Game on Tuesday, and Hinch is doing his due diligence on which of his guys should play and when, though he did say that all first-time All-Stars (Bregman, CFM included) will absolutely play. In there we also find that there's no real timetable for Correa to go on a rehab assignment.

*Billy Beane told Tim Kawakami that Oakland is preparing to be buyers at the deadline.

*Go visit Terry Puhl Drive in Melville, Saskatchewan. It's about 60 degrees cooler there than it is here.

*Congratulations to Justin Verlander, who successfully knocked up Kate Upton.

*Abraham Toro made FanGraphs' Fringe Five.

*The Rockies beat the Mariners, so the Astros' lead is at a season-high five games. The Mariners are 58-38 with a -1 run differential.

*For the 12th time this season, official attendance at Minute Maid was 40,000+.

*The Futures Game is today, featuring Yordan Alvarez. The Athletic's Cliff Corcoran looks back at 20 years of Futures Game data to try to predict what it tells us.

*SI's Jon Tayler: Has Chase Utley done enough to warrant a plaque in Cooperstown? Then read Jay Jaffe's piece. I say yes.

From 2005-2014 - a ten-year peak - Chase Utley put up 57.8 fWAR, just 0.2 fWAR behind Albert Pujols for the best of any position player in baseball. It's 16.7 fWAR better than the 2nd-best 2B over that span, Robinson Cano. Even accounting for the last two and a half seasons, Utley is 6.8 fWAR better than Cano. There's a point at which you have to recognize the best of a generation of baseball, and Chase Utley is among the best Second Basemen to play the game in the last 15 years.

*1954's West Germany v. Hungary: The most important soccer game ever played.