Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Comparing 2005 to 2016

With the implosion of the Astros last night there were numerous calls on #AstrosTwitter for the Chronicle to run the infamous Tombstone graphic they ran to (ultimately prematurely) note the end of the Astros season after a 15-30 start to follow up a playoff appearance.

There are numerous comparisons to draw here, no? Let's draw them.

The 2005 Astros were a season removed from the 2004 Astros (who were better than the 2005 Astros) deep postseason run that saw them fall to the Cardinals in the NLCS. The 2014 Astros are also coming off a postseason run, albeit not as deep. Still, expectations for both teams were high.

The 2005 Astros saw the departures of some key players: Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent, namely. The 2016 Astros didn't really have that problem, unless you think of Scott Kazmir and Chad Qualls as having the same importance of Beltran and Kent. You shouldn't think that, provided you do.

So let's get to how the two starts to the season are related, or not.

Overall Record

Through 21 games the 2005 Astros were 8-13, enduring a six-game losing streak in which they got swept at St. Louis, lost both games of a 2-game series at Pittsburgh (both 2-0 losses), and dropped the first game of a three-game series against the Cubs at Minute Maid. Eight of those first 13 losses were by one run, and the 2005 Astros were 4-10 in games decided by one or two runs.

The 2016 Astros are 6-15 overall, having lost eight of their last ten games and seven of their last eight. They are 2-4 in one-run games and 3-8 in games decided by one or two runs.

Verdict: RELATABLE.

Hitting

The 2005 Astros featured some non-existant early-season hitting. Consider that three of the first 13 games ended in extra-inning walk-off 1-0 losses. #AstrosTwitter would have had a collective coronary had this happened in 2016. As a team, the 2005 Astros were hitting .248/.320/.389 after 21 games, with 151K:70BB and 13 home runs.

There were struggles with hitting, but not like what we've seen so far in 2016. Following the 2005 G21 3-2 loss to the Cubs the Astros were hitting .248/.320/.389. Jeff Bagwell was hitting .236/.341/.424. Brad Ausmus was hitting .204/.278/.245. Mike Lamb was hitting .212/.316/.424. But the lineup trotted out by Phil Garner on April 29, 2005 saw every hitter except Ausmus with an OPS over .700. Jason Lane went 0x4 to drop his slash line to .298/.333/.560. Craig Biggio was 0x4 to drop his line to .282/.341/.462.

It was the typical struggle to which we've been used the last 162 games: situational hitting. The 2005 Astros - through their first 21 games - hit .254 with runners in scoring position (44x173 - yeah, I went through the box scores of every single game), and that included a 6x13 game w/RISP against the Reds on April 15. The 2005 Astros had left 157 men on base, an average of  7.48 per game.

The situational hitting for the 2005 Astros did improve. They hit .261 with runners in scoring position over the course of the next 142 games. Overall the 2005 Astros would hit .258/.323/.411 from Game 22 through the end of the season, an OPS increase of 25 points. Considering the League Average in 2005 was a .262/.330/.414 slash line, the 2005 Astros were a slightly below-average offensive team. This is something we knew.

Overall the 2016 Astros are hitting .237/.314/.421. The 2016 Astros' struggles w/RISP are well-documented. With runners in scoring position they're now hitting .180 (33x183) on a .215 BABIP, and they have left 141 men on base, an average of 6.7 per game. This number feels too low by about 20 baserunners per game. Maybe it's low because of all the TOOTBLANs. That said, the 2016 Astros' .735 OPS is 27 points higher than the 2016 American League's overall OPS of .708. This feels unbelievable, but it's true. It just shows how poor the Astros have been when they've *really* needed that hit.

As a whole, the American League is hitting .244/.321/.376 with runners in scoring position on a .289 BABIP. The Astros have 33 hits in 183 At Bats with runners in scoring position. Just to hit League Average, the Astros would have already collected eleven more hits with runners in scoring position. That would present a big difference in the standings, given the number of close games they've played to this point.

Verdict: The 2005 Astros lineup - to this point in the season - was more solid top to bottom, save for the catcher position, a comparison which has already been made. The Astros' situational hitting in 2016 has been atrocious, and turning this around is crucial to saving this season.

Pitching

2005 featured a rotation that included Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte. You had Good Lidge, Decent Qualls, Russ Springer, Dan Wheeler. Pitching was not the Astros' problem. After 21 games the overall pitching staff had a 3.44 ERA/1.21 WHIP, with a 2.75 K:BB ratio. Eight of the first 21 starts resulted in Game Scores over 60 and 14 of the first 21 had Game Scores over 50 for the starters. The only real blips came in an 8-7 loss and an 8-5 loss at St. Louis in Games 16 and 18.

The bullpen was solid, too, those first 21 games. Lidge had a 0.93 ERA/1.14 WHIP. Chad Qualls, in his second season in the Majors, had a 2.25 ERA/0.75 WHIP with nine strikeouts to one walk. Dan Wheeler had a 1.64 ERA/1.27 WHIP. Russ Springer had a 2.89 ERA/1.18 WHIP, even if the 6K:5BB were concerning. Chad Harville had one rough outing against Milwaukee (1H/2ER in 0.2IP) but still had a 3.60 ERA/1.40 WHIP.

From Game 22 to the end of the season the Astros' staff as a whole posted a 3.52 ERA/1.23 WHIP. The 2005 Astros had a remarkably consistent rotation, headlined by three major starting pitchers and a good bullpen.

This is where the concern lies, because the 2016 Astros' starting pitching has been atrocious to this point. The good news, in theory at least, is that surely Collin McHugh's 7.56 ERA can't hold up (his FIP *is* 2.92, after all). The lowest ERA in the rotation is Dallas Keuchel's 4.41. Overall, the pitching staff's 5.02 ERA is the worst in the American League. So is the amount of hits allowed, runs allowed, and earned runs allowed. The 28 home runs given up is next-to-last in the League.

Maybe Chris Devenski is the answer. Maybe Lance McCullers' shoulder will pull a Lazarus and he can be inserted into the rotation mid-May. Maybe Mike Fiers can be more effective than his 5.73 ERA/5.51 FIP would indicate. Ken Giles needs to figure his crap out and there should probably be less Michael Feliz in our lives right now.

Verdict: If you would prefer the 2016 Astros' pitching staff to the 2005 Astros' pitching staff, you are likely headed to an inpatient rehab stay.

Conclusion

The 2005 Astros ended the month of May with a 19-32 record and finished out the season 70-41 to clinch a playoff spot in a Game 163. But they dug themselves such a hole that they didn't reach .500 until July 9 (G87). After 21 games the 8-13 Astros were already seven games out of the division lead but got an 81-60 finish and a National League-best 45-30 record after the All-Star break to make the playoffs. There are some similarities between the two teams, but the 2005's correction came in continuing pretty great pitching with steady hitting and improved luck.

The good news for the 2016 Astros is that the fixes that need to be made are obvious: the starting pitching needs to get where it was last year, and the hitters need to take advantage of the opportunities presented.

That said: Keuchel, McHugh, Fiers isn't exactly Oswalt, Clemens, Pettitte. And while there are bright spots on offense (Altuve, Rasmus) mixed with promise (Correa, Springer), there's enough dragging the offense down (Gomez, Castro, Valbuena) that these corrections need to start happening soon, or they're going to run out of time...like the 2005 Astros almost did.

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