Saturday, December 1, 2012

Astros sign Phil Humber

The Astros announced yesterday that they have signed RHP Phil Humber to a 1-year deal with a team option for 2014. Humber, who will be 30 later this month, comes to Houston from the White Sox, returning to the Great State of Texas. The Nacogdoches native (graduating from Carthage HS), and Rice graduate, was the third overall pick in the 2004 draft by the Mets.

In 44 career starts (80 appearances overall), he is 14-14 with a 4.73 ERA/1.31 WHIP. Some have mentioned Humber as a possible reliever. But his career splits show that, in that role, he has a 5.46 ERA/1.61 WHIP, with an .810 OPS-against and a 1.48 K/BB ratio (.723 OPS-against, 2.41 K/BB as a starter).

Humber was part of the Feb 2008 trade from the Mets to the Twins for Johan Santana, and was granted free agency following the 2009 season. He signed with the Royals in December 09, and has been claimed off waivers by the A's, White Sox, and now Astros in each of the last three seasons. Of course, you remember the April 21, 2012 game in which Humber threw the 21st perfect game in MLB history against Seattle. 

Prior to the signing, Bill James had Humber projected to a 4.66 ERA, going 5-8, in 2013. 

His peripherals took a nose-dive in 2012 for the White Sox from 2011. Check it:

2011 GB/FB rate: 1.30
2012 GB/FB rate: 0.81

2011 GB%: 47.1%
2012 GB%: 34.9%

2011 HR/FB%: 7.7%
2012 HR/FB%: 16.5%

Humber threw his changeup far less in 2012 (7.5%) than in 2011 (14.6%, while his fastball (which he threw 52.6% of the time in 2011, as opposed to 45.8% in 2011) velocity stayed exactly the same - 90.5mph. FanGraphs' Pitch F/X says his fastball improved a few ticks from 90.4mph to 90.7mph. 

That said, Humber deal with an elbow flexor issue in 2012. The White Sox were 8-8 in his 16 starts for the White Sox. 

What does this mean? It's a low-risk/high-reward signing. Might it not work out? Of course. That might even be likely. But it just might. Given Goldstein, Fast, and Sig Mejdal's influence on signings, this one feels a little different. It's not Ed Wade taking a flier on Mike Hampton or Russ Ortiz. 

The immediate benefit I see is that Humber has been in the AL since 2008. He has thrown 265IP in the AL in the last two years. He's someone that is presumably intelligent (Rice, after all) who can give the pitching staff pointers on pitching to AL batters. And if he can make 20-25 starts at a decent level, while providing the younger guys time to get some more seasoning, even better.

Update: GUYS. Read this reaction from Lookout Landing

Friday, November 30, 2012

2013 Hall of Fame odds

The Linemakers at Sporting News have compiled their odds (even though, they admit, you cannot wager on Hall of Fame inductions). Their results?

Craig Biggio - 7/2 odds
Jeff Bagwell - 5/1 odds

Tom Verducci on Biggio's HOF chances

Tom Verducci took a (very) cursory glance at Biggio's career, and assesses his Hall of Fame chances. Click the link for the full write-up, but your money quote is:

It's a close call, but if he does have to wait, it won't be for very long.

Astros Inferno: Gluttony!

We are pinpointing the exact date the Astros have traveled Dante's trip through Hell in The Inferno. Read the archive here
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We leave Dante's second circle of hell (Lust) and the signings of Carlos Lee and Woody Williams on the same day, and descend further...

The Great Work Cerberus stands guard over the gluttons, who are punished by lying in a "vile slush" brought about by a permanent icy rain. One prominent Dante scholar wrote that "the surrender to sin which began with mutual indulgence leads by an imperceptible degradation to solitary self-indulgence." Because the gluttons consumed to excess, they meet their fate under the cold, dirty rain, lying unhappily in putrid mud. Dante speaks to Ciacco, who prophesies disaster for Florence.

Gluttony. Perhaps the best word to describe the Astros from 2004-2007. Regard:

*In 2004, Richard Hidalgo was paid $12.5m. He was traded to the Mets after 58 games of hitting .256/.309/.412.
*In 2006, Preston Wilson made $4m. He was traded to St. Louis after hitting .263/.307/.423.
*In 2006, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens made a combined $28.6m (after, admittedly, some major hometown discounts).
*In the 2006 off-season, the Astros signed Carlos Lee and Woody Williams, thus ensuring that their first pick of the 2007 draft was the 111th overall pick. They selected Derek Dietrich and Brett Eibner (neither of whom have appeared in the Majors), but didn't offer enough money for them to sign. The first Astros pick in the 2007 draft to sign was 5th Rounder Collin DeLome. The Astros have had one player from that draft reach the Majors (38th Round pick Robbie Weinhardt - who pitched in 30 games for the Tigers in 2010/11). The Cardinals, just as a comparison, had 12 players from the 2007 draft reach the Majors.
*The Astros paid $180,310,503 in payroll in 2006-2007, and went 155-169.

Were you to speak to Ciacco, he would have prophesied disaster for the Astros in 2006. Mutual indulgence lead by an imperceptible degradation to solitary self-indulgence.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lopez Talks Fall Through

The deal with the Phillies for Wilton Lopez has hit a snag, and it seems to be all but dead, based on this report from Brian McTaggart. The reported deal was Lopez for Phillies prospects Sebastian Valle and Tyler Cloyd. The Phillies appear to have balked at the results of Lopez's physical.

The Astros are not in a position in their development where holding on to their closer, or any reliever for that matter, is worth passing on legitimate talent in a trade.  However, Lopez is cost controlled through 2016, and proved to be the most (only?) reliable member of the bullpen last year. I would not have been devastated to see him go, but I am glad he is sticking around for now. Unless whatever the Phillies saw in the physical does him in, which is a very real possibility.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Good for Ricky Bennett

Ricky Bennett (and former Astros scout John Kosciak) got a job as a scout for the Pirates, according to Scott Miller.

Philip Hersh is why I hate the BBWAA

This man, who covers the Olympics - yes, you read that right - is a voting member of the BBWAA, and will pass judgment on the Hall of Fame.

It started with this:
Oh, the joy I will have snubbing Sosa, Bonds and Clemens (plus McGwire and Palmeiro, natch) on my HoF ballot.

Presumably asked why the hell he would take such a gleeful stance when, after all, he was tweeting about Lindsey Vonn's stomach illness six minutes earlier, he replied:
I have a ballot because I covered baseball for nearly 20 years. And I'm keeping it just to vote against the druggies.

He'll vote for Biggio, but not Bagwell. Why? Because screw you, that's why:
Haven't voted for Bagwell. Am likely to say no again.

Hooray, BBWAA. You can kindly go to hell.

(For other, more erudite posts on Olympic Reporter/Hall of Fame Voter Philip Hersh you can read this and this.)

Oh hey. Hersh may change his mind...
To tell the truth, I am conflicted on Bagwell and may change my mind, as I have done in the past with other players when PEDs weren't in ?

Phillies are doing something with Wilton Lopez

Jim Salisbury, the Phillies Insider at CSN Philly, says the Phillies are in "serious talks" with the Astros to acquire Wilton Lopez. Ken Rosenthal has confirmed Salisbury's report. Salisbury says Lopez would be the set-up man for Papelbon.

Lopez was selected off waivers by Ed Wade from the Padres in 2009, and has spent his entire Major-League career with the Astros. From 2010-2012, Lopez has posted a 2.64 ERA / 1.13 WHIP, walking just 31 of the 820 batters he has faced over those three season. He is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter.

Brian Smith reminds us that, in order to give up a guy under team control for three seasons, Luhnow would want major- and minor-league talent in return.

Jon Heyman basically says the deal is done, both sides are just finalizing prospects. Heyman says those prospects will be "near-ML ready."

Update: Luhnow says there is "nothing to report" regarding the trade.

Updated Update: McTaggart has "a baseball source" who says the deal is being finalized. The Philadelphia Inquirer's  Bob Brookover says that Lopez is in Philadelphia for a physical.

11:06am: The New Jersey Star-Ledger report indicates that there is one prospect coming back in the deal.

11:36am: CBS Philly says there are "minor-leaguers," plural, going to Houston.

1:02pm: via Todd Zolecki, the Phillies' prospects have been agreed upon.

1:26pm: Prospect Insider says the deal is pending the physical, with two players going to Houston.

1:41pm: ESPN's Kiley McDaniel says that Lopez's physical "isn't a slam dunk," and other teams have been scared about Lopez's medical reports. Remember that back in July/August, Lopez had some elbow tightness and was "unavailable" for a period of time. Last March, Lopez also had forearm issues.And in April 2011, Lopez had neuritis in his pitching elbow.

1:50pm: CSNPhilly says:
A source said they would get two players who have played in the upper levels of the minors if the deal is finalized. That's a decent-sized "if," given Lopez's medical history. But it does look like there are two higher-level minor-leaguers in the deal, which could include 22-year old catcher Sebastian Valle.

A Veritable Wave of Rationality

Okay, maybe not. But Pete Abraham has declared he will no longer use the privilege of his Hall of Fame vote to serve as morality police. And his rationale is spot on. The role of the Hall of Fame voters has always been to select the most deserving players from every era, stains and all. They are instructed to consider integrity and character, but this has not prevented the BBWAA from electing crooks, liars and cheaters before. The Hall is full of them.

Abraham does not reveal his ballot, and he voted for Bagwell last year anyway. But I think its an encouraging sign that a prominent writer is taking this stand. If more voters adopt Abraham's view, the completely unsubstantiated whispers of steroid use won't matter much at all, and we can all start planning our trips to Cooperstown to see the the induction of two Astro greats. Maybe that's wishful thinking.

Kathleen Clark leaves Astros

Kathleen Clark, the Astros Vice President of Marketing & Strategy, has left the Astros after nine months and has returned to her old firm, Carta Marketing Strategy & Solutions.

Crane:
The Houston Astros would like to thank Kathleen Clark for her work on the successful first season campaign, strengthening the marketing staff, and the successful launch of new logo, identity and uniforms.

This is odd. Clark tweeted this morning:
Astros rebranding complete, marketing team rebuilt, season campaign ready. Best to Jeff, Bo and team in AL next year! I'll be rooting.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Astros sign two more minor-league free agents

The Astros have signed two more minor-league free agents (in addition to Valdez and Gonzalez from earlier today), with invitations to Spring Training.

OF Trevor Crowe
The switch-hitting Crowe, who just turned 29, was the Indians 1st Round pick (14th overall) in the 2005 draft. He has played in 205 MLB games (713 PAs) with a career .245/.295/.329 line - all with the Indians. Crowe saw the most playing time in 2010, when he played all three outfield positions and hit .251/.302/.333 with 20 stolen bases, getting thrown out seven times.

He has a career .275/.359/.393 slash line in eight seasons in the minors. In 2012, he played in 84 games (350 PAs), with a .281/.349/.397 line, 52K:34BB. He's mainly a doubles guy, hitting 19 doubles in 2012, and with more triples (4) than homers (3) last season.

Crowe was released by the Indians on July 16, 2012, and signed with the Angels on July 17 who granted Crowe free agency on November 3. Fun baseball fact time! Trevor Crowe was the 28th out in Armando Galarraga's Imperfect Game on June 2, 2010.

LHP Sergio Escalona
Familiar name alert! Escalona, 28, was acquired by the Phillies in 2011 in the Albert Cartwright trade. He last pitched in 2011 having undergone elbow surgery in early 2012 (from, what my records tell me, hyper-extending his elbow swinging a bat - which makes perfect sense for a reliever) . He was outrighted off the 40-Man roster on November 1 but, obviously, has re-signed with the Astros on a minor-league deal.

Escalona killed it against lefties in 2011, holding LHBs to a .188/.278/.313 line in 74 PAs. 

Bagwell, Biggio on Hall of Fame ballot

So the 2013 Hall of Fame ballots were sent out to the voting members of the BBWAA this week, and Craig Biggio will make his debut, while Jeff Bagwell will make his 3rd appearance on the ballot.

We've spent some time thinking about this. (Not Hank) Aaron looked at the "evidence" supporting the BAGWELL DID STEROIDS argument. Last month we looked at what Biggio might expect from his first ballot. As far back as last January, we started tracking some writers' views on the 2013 ballot. In short, we have a lot of rage built up, and are ready to start shaming people.

Astros County will link to those writers dumb brave enough to post their thoughts on the Hall of Fame and who "is deserving" of the honor of being encased in glass in Cooperstown, and put on display like David Blaine. These columns should start coming out shortly, so we'll just have one post and update it (and move it to the top) whenever we run across them.

Let the "fun" begin...

Astros to add Rule 5 player

Next week as the Winter Meetings wind down, we get the Rule 5 draft, where teams can add unprotected minor-league players to their 25-Man roster. The Astros have been active in the Rule 5 draft in recent years, bringing the team Rhiner Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Aneury Rodriguez, and Wesley Wright. A player selected has to stay on the 25-Man roster for the entire season or be returned to the original team.

Given that the Astros had the worst record in baseball in 2012, they'll get the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, and Jeff Luhnow says they expect to take a player:

There are definitely players of interest to us. It’s just a matter of how they fit on our roster compared to our other alternatives.

Luhnow went on to say that he expects to add one or two players in the Rule 5 portion, which takes place December 6.

Astros re-sign Edgar Gonzalez, Jose Valdez

Optioned off of the 40-man roster last week, the Astros have re-signed pitchers Jose Valdez and Edgar Gonzalez to minor-league deals with an invite to Spring Training.

Valdez, who will be 30 in January, threw 12IP for the Astros in 2012, with 12H/3ER, 10K:8BB for a 2.25 ERA/1.67 WHIP. He spent most of his time at OKC, where he threw 43.2IP, with 53H/24ER, 59K:12BB.

Edgar Gonzalez, who will also be 30 on Opening Day 2013, was somewhat of a surprise for the Astros in 2012. In six starts for Houston, he threw 25IP, 23H/14ER, 18K:8BB, for a 5.04 ERA/1.23 WHIP. Though he never made it out of the 6th inning, He posted Game Scores over 50 (which is average, which the Astros weren't) in four of the six starts.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Debunking the Bagwell/Steroids Connection

Jeff Bagwell is entering his 3rd year of Hall of Fame eligibility, and received 56% of the vote last year. The general consensus is that his numbers are deserving of enshrinement, but that his vote totals are depressed from whispers of steroids use. (I'm assuming everyone here knows how incredibly deserving he is of enshrinement. If not, I'm sure one of us at AC would be happy to outline that). There has been no direct evidence of use, but there are some who have built a case based on what could loosely be described as speculation and conjecture. This is faced with consistent and clear denials of use from Bagwell himself. I am aware that many users have denied, and its perfectly legitimate to disbelieve a denial when faced with conflicting evidence. However, disbelief of someone’s unequivocal denials without any evidence seems misanthropic. I'd like to take a look at the case presented, to see how it holds up.

A quick caveat. I don’t know whether Bagwell used steroids. I personally do not believe he did. However I am not naïve. If evidence of use is discovered, I will be disappointed, but not shocked. However, mere accusations without evidence amounts to nothing more than a witch hunt.


 Physical Evidence


This is probably the most commonly used evidence, and essentially posits…”well, look at him.” There is no doubt that, in his prime, Bagwell had a weight lifter's body. A comparison of Bagwell’s rookie card to shots from the mid to late 90’s shows someone who had bulked up considerably, or so they say. Seems like this shot of Bagwell in his Red Sox minor league days shows some significant muscles. Not that much different that this guy. But still, there really is no denying that Bagwell got much stronger in his mid to late 20’s.

This is where not being naïve comes in. In the 90’s, many players bulked up and many of them have been linked to steroids. Once a player is linked to steroids, I think it is perfectly fine to look at body changes to help corroborate the accusation. It just can’t be used the other way around. You know another way of getting a weight lifter’s body… lifting weights. Bagwell was a noted gym rat.  A 21-22 year old kid, especially one already sporting the muscles shown in the above picture, who gets on a legitimate workout regimen, is going to add muscle into his late 20’s. Heck, I added (very limited) muscle in my 20’s, and I never touched a weight. For Bagwell’s physique to offer proof of steroid use, it would have to be accepted that he could not have gotten that way naturally, even on the workout regimen he was on. Which is of course preposterous.

Stats


Steroid accusers often point to Bagwell’s explosion of power in 1994, compared with his middling power in the minor leagues and in his first several seasons in the majors. In his minor league career he hit a total of 6 homeruns. In his first year in the majors, he hit 15, then 18, then 20 and then 39 in the strike shortened 1994.

Looking closer at his minor league numbers shows that his power numbers are misleading. Yes, he only hit 4 homeruns in his 22 year old year at New Britain. But he hit 34 doubles, in only 136 at bats. His slugging percentage, as a result, was .457. He would not top that in the majors until his third season. In addition, his league, and his home ballpark, was notoriously tough on power. None of his teammates hit over 5 home runs, and the league leader (Rico Brogna) hit only 21. Bagwell led the league in doubles and was in the top ten in slugging. Bagwell’s power potential was evident even in the minors. 

But what about the jump in 1994? That kind of power surge was abnormal, right? There is no doubt that Bagwell was having an all-world season in 1994. At the time of the strike, he had 39 homeruns, and had a reasonable chance at 50+ (although he had just broken his hand, so the strike might have actually clinched the MVP he would have lost had the season gone on.) He never really approached those numbers again, at least in the Astrodome, topping out at 43 in 1997. So, is a huge jump in homeruns between your third and fourth seasons, at the age of 26, a sign of steroid use?

Well, Hank Aaron jumped to 44, from a max of 27, in his third full season at the age of 23. Willie McCovey jumped to 44, from 20, in his 5th season, at the age of 25. Willie Stargell saved his breakout 48 homerun binge for his 8th season,  at 31. He had never hit more than 31 before. Mike Schmidt jumped from 18 to 38 in his third season at the age of 24. Stan Musial had never hit more than 19 homeruns before he hit 39 in his sixth full season at the age of 27. Carl Yastrzemski hit 44 at the age of 27, his seventh full season, despite never even hitting 20 prior. I'm sure we could find more, but I've now gotten to Bagwell on the all time homer list, so it seems like a good place to stop. If a huge rise in your homerun totals from one year to the next, in your late 20’s, is a sign of steroid use, these players have some explaining to do.

Guilt by Association


I am not using this in the general sense, i.e. that all players in the 90’s are under a cloud. This is used very inconsistently, and has not held mid 90’s superstars such as Roberto Alomar from entrance. No, I’m referring to the claim that Houston was a hotbed of steroid use, and that adds extra suspicion to Bagwell. I have seen this in various places, but most notably from Jeff Pearlman, who claims that the Rangers and Astros were well known to have the most connections to steroids in baseball. He has never provided any evidence of this, as many of our readers are very familiar. So let’s just analyze the facts we know.

One of the most prominent steroid users in baseball was Ken Caminiti, who openly admitted that he used steroids. That is many people’s a-ha moment. Bagwell and Caminiti were close friends, and played together in Houston for several years. The steroid connection is made. But that ignores what Caminiti actually admitted to.

Caminiti openly acknowledged steroid use beginning in 1996, in his MVP season with the Padres, after injuring his shoulder. So two seasons after Bagwell had his huge power increase, a former teammate began using steroids while playing for a different team, and this is supposed to implicate Bagwell? I can’t really see the connection. Other notable connections include Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, who were both accused of taking steroids while with the Yankees in the late 90’s and early 2000s. Pettitte admitted HGH use in 2002, although he denied use any other times. The Mitchell Report alleged Clemens used from 1998 through 2002. Many assume Clemens was using when he played for the Astros in 2004 through 2006, but this was after testing began. Clemens, of course, denied all of those allegations, even defeating charges of perjury in a recent trial. Regardless of whether you believe Clemens used or not, its hard to tie that back to Bagwell.  Several other former Astros were named in the Mitchell Report, but none, except Caminiti in 1999, were tied to use at the time they played with the Astros. I know the Mitchell Report is flawed, but unfortunately, it is the best evidence we have.

Did the Astros have a steroid’s problem in the late 90’s? Sure. Its fair to say every team did. However, was it so significant that no Astros player’s denial can  reasonably be believed? I have seen no evidence of that.

Bottom line, Bagwell's career arc was consistent with sluggers throughout history, and his physique was easily explained by an intense workout regimen. It has been 8 years since Bagwell's retirement, and he has been under Hall of Fame scrutiny for three years. I believe if anyone had evidence of use they would have come forward by now. Besides, Morgan Ensberg doesn't think Bagwell used. And if we can't trust Morgan Ensberg, who can we trust?