Archive for July, 2011

Hunter Pence Gets Called Up to Varsity

The weird, sort of co-dependent player pipeline between the Phillies and the Astros has risen to the next level with the trade of Hunter Pence to the Eastern seaboard for prospects. It makes two Astros icons shipped to Philly in the last two years. Roy Oswalt was, at least, in the twilight of his dominant years, and Brad Lidge needed to try out his volatile talents on a different stage. Hunter Pence, however, is playing in his prime, bandying around the bases in the bloom of youth. Which means that we sent a player to Philly who will be a prominent part of their lineup for the next two years and possibly more. Pence is not a salary dump who may have a few good games left in him. He’s a really good player who could take the Phillies back to the World Series and be a fantastic third best hitter on a big time contender.

There is general agreement that this was a good trade for both teams. I tweeted awhile ago, though, that I would have preferred a trade with another team, just for the sake of variety. Instead, it feels like Hunter Pence got called up to the varsity squad, leaving us down here at JV to get by as best we can with the talented but raw freshmen. Ruben Amaro pursued Pence with uncommon determination, which is flattering but a little unsettling, like he can’t quit Ed Wade and the Astros. Not a real pleasant sensation, especially for a city with such strong ties to its baseball stars.

Astros fans grow more attached to great Houston players more deeply than the fan bases in any other baseball town I’ve lived in or near. We have trouble, I think, even imagining an Astro icon in another uniform. When I saw Lance Berkman playing for the Yankees–and even now when I see him as a Cardinal–I think I feel more emotionally vulnerable about it than, say, Red Sox fans felt seeing Nomar elsewhere. Astros fans have trouble letting go, and understanding when a player’s time in Houston has come to an end. The last few years of dismal baseball have whittled away at this tendency, though, and if there is a height of unsentimentality for this franchise, we reached it yesterday when we traded away the closest thing to a great player this team has.

It’s true that Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio spoiled us with their commitment to a single franchise, and to Drayton McClane’s commitment to them. We defended Craig Biggio as he moved to center field and as his OBP plummeted, because he was an Astro who could do no wrong in the city. Few fans get the chance to enjoy the stability that the Bs provided, and there is a generation of Astros fans, of which I am one, who feel a slightly deeper sting when a player we consider to be an Astro on the strata of those two leaves town. We’ve never been shy about accepting the temporary assistance of icons from other franchises. Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran contributed their stardom to two thrilling half-seasons in exchange for young talent. But when it comes to giving up our own, you’ve got to pry them away from us fighting.

Houstonians are friendly people, who enjoy the comforts of rich food, jovial company, beer from bottles with Texas flags on them, and leisurely conversation with elbows propped on the edge of the bed of an old pickup truck. In the past these comforts, like knowing that Craig Biggio would retire an Astro, trumped the discomfort of fading ability and the gnawing awareness that it didn’t make the team much better. A subpar performance didn’t necessarily justify the undignified jettison of a player like Biggio. Patience is a new muscle for Astros fans as the McClane era comes to a close, and the maturity with which the Astros fan base, and the online Astros community, have accepted the trade of Hunter Pence, shows that we have entered a new stage in the life of the franchise. It’s a hard stage, but a necessary one. The Astros have been great, and these are the growing pains if they are to be great again.

On a Hot Wandy Night, the Astros Beat the Cardinals for the Second Time…in a Row!

July 29, 2011 – Houston Astros 5, St. Louis Cardinals 3

The Astros are in limbo right now. Every good play by an established veterans–excluding the untradeable but, let’s admit it, lovable Carlos Lee–comes with the caveat that this could be their last “X” or their final “Y” with the Astros. Bill Brown’s voice quaked like Madame Bovary’s bidding farewell to her dashing lover as he wistfully described Hunter Pence’s hard-nosed style of play after he legged out a bouncing double over the head of the St. Louis Cardinals’ third baseman.1 Let’s consider Pence’s ringing double in the top of the 8th inning a metaphorical waving of the handkerchief out the train window while the Pence enthusiasts among us choke back a tear. For my part, I’m happy to see him stay, and I’m happy to see him go. He’s a fine player, but he’ll benefit and the receiving team will benefit if he is the third best player on the team, not the face of the franchise.

Wandy Rodriguez, for his turn, reminded Astros fans why he’s been one of the least regarded really good pitchers of the last five years or so. Even at the height of the trade season, stories have emerged that Wandy is paid too much, that the Astros would need to eat some of his contract, that he’s too old, and other of the tired tropes that have defined his career. What he does is pitch, and against the Cardinals, as Jim Deshaies pointed out, he channeled the heat and the sweat and performed at the top of his ability. His fastball caught the best of the Cardinals hitters off guard even late in the game, jamming Pujols2 and quieting Matt Holiday. The scouting report on poor Ryan Theriot must consist of an otherwise blank piece of college ruled notebook paper with “HIGH FASTBALLS” scrawled across it in bright red Sharpie marker.

I’ll curb my enthusiasm a touch by saying that Wandy’s not a full-on ace. He’s Pence-like, in that if he’s your number two pitcher, you’re doing great. The Astros are better off with some young arms to fill the absence that the man with the magic first name would leave.

Escalona and Melancon were able to hold down the two-run lead established by Carlos Lee and his home run prowess.3 The Cardinals did not score after the third inning.

Just More Bourn Baseball

Was it a weekday or a weekend day? Well then, that must mean that Michael Bourn clocked in with one of his typical amazing baseball games. On last night’s menu, it was another double, another stolen base, a beautifully executed drag bunt down the first base line, and, because wonders will never, in fact, cease, two walks. I like Hunter Pence as a ballplayer. He’s very solid despite a few faults, you can’t fault his effort and his production over the last few years. But, to be honest, I’d rather trade him away for some great prospects and keep our center fielder, who has matured into one of the more interesting, dynamic, and emotional players the Astros have had since Biggio wheeled around the bases.

The Head is Jaime Garcia

The St. Louis Cardinals have, for a long time now, been a team that pieces together high quality teams that fight hard for playoff spots in the NL Central and occasionally win championships, despite losing an ace pitcher with a blown arm here or a studly young outfielder with miles of promise there. Like the mythical Hydra, when one head is lopped off, two more Jaime Garcias grow in its place.

Garcia, who isn’t going anywhere for a while, incidentally, after signing a long extension recently, is a better pitcher this year than he was in his breakout rookie season last year, when only the Posey-Heyward rookie juggernaut prevented him from winning the Rookie of the Year award. Had he faded away after coming out of nowhere, few would’ve remarked. But his WHIP is down a significant amount from last year, his walks are down by a full base on ball per nine innings. He’s given up a few more hits and home runs per 9, those fewer walks make a big difference, and his FIP dropped from 3.41 last year to 2.91 this year.

Watching him for just a few minutes, it becomes clear why. Garcia throws a sinker that slides away from right-handed batters like it was a ball bearing on a slanted steel table top. Delivered, as it is, from a lanky three-quarters delivery, left-handers must feel like Garcia’s sinker is a duck pin bowling ball rolling at their shins. The sinker is one of those discomfort pitches, that seems downright unpleasant to bat against with the constant threat of breaking your bat or hitting it in on the handle. 4

  1. Speaking of third base, that general area was a Bermuda Triangle of supernatural baseball activity on the sweltering Thursday evening. The aforementioned Pence double should have been a fieldable ground ball, but instead it clattered off of the dirt around home plate and bounced high over the third baseman. Jason Bourgeios, a bit earlier, drove in Wandy Rodriguez when he drive down the line bounced off of the base. Third baseman David Freese left the game in the sixth to, as the St. Louis Dispatch put it, “protect his leg,” but I’d bet that he left to protect his established impressions of proper gravity and propulsion.
  2. Sure Pujols hit a couple of doubles, but after each the damage was mitigated by closing down Matt Holliday and subsequent hitters.
  3. Check out the video here to witness El Caballo’s locked-in swing.
  4. Kudos to the nice camera angle at Busch Stadium, with the straight-on view of home plate, which gave the best view not only of the Garcia sinker, but Wandy’s curveball, too.

Astros Fall to the Cardinals’ Bearded Legions, but Don’t Blame Michael Bourn

Michael Bourn: single, double, stolen base, walk

Despite the best efforts of Michael Bourn–whose hitting is so interesting and impressive these days that in these troubled times I’m near ready to invite him down to the castle and crown him the King of All Astros–the space men couldn’t score more than a run against the legions of bearded Cardinals pitchers. The Cardinals bullpen must look like a Coachella cool down tent for its sheer volume of indie beards. I realize that Dave Duncan is the Redeemer of Dead Pitching Careers, but is he running a witness relocation program up there in St. Louis for those who’ve seen unspeakable acts of crappiness?

In any event, nobody will confuse starter Jake Westbrook with Justin Verlander any time soon. The bewhiskered veteran has an awkward semi-sidearm delivery, and the throws with all of the grace of the kid from Rookie of the Year. The odd arm slot gives him a little sink on his fastball, though I found it kind of Jim Deshaies and Bill Brown to refer to it, without qualification, as a sinker. Brandon Webb, in his healthier days, threw a sinker; Jake Westbrook throws a fastball with a little tail.

Westbrook has pitched some good games, and he’s capable of solid starts, but the Astros are king-makers, granting unwarranted power to undeserving candidates. Six innings and just one run scored against Westbrook, who entered the game with an ERA over 5 and just a skitch more strike outs than walks. The aforementioned Michael Bourn and Carlos Lee tried their hardest to show the rest of the team who Westbrook really is, the pitcher behind the beard, but it didn’t take. Hunter Pence missed out on another few RBI opportunities, both of which were set out there by Michael Bourn, who once doubled ahead of Pence and once stole a base to get into scoring position late in the game. The lone Astros run came on a Carlos Lee single to score Bourn, which Pence had helped modestly by grounding out and advancing the runner to third. Pence struck out in the latter situation.

That one run would be the total tally on the Astros side. The beard parade was a joyous affair for the hometown Cardinals, and it ended with a Matt Downs strikeout against the reliever Salas with some guy named Michael Bourn on base ahead of him. Seventy losses sounds like a lot when you see it on paper, and that’s because it’s a lot of losses.

Wild Snipe Hunting: Reviewing the Pujols Home Run Review

I don’t mind the incorporation of technology into umpiring to a certain degree, but when the umpiring crew returned from a tedious five minutes of sequestration in some bat cave behind the visiting dugout with the incorrect call, I could have canceled Operation Replay for the rest of time right then and there. I wouldn’t cancel it because they got it wrong, per se, because no system is perfect and we’re all human etc. etc., but I would cancel it because it’s still possible to get it wrong, and the cost is the rhythm of the game, which is to me one of the most sacred aspects of a baseball game. To me, it is not worth that cost just so that the occasional home run call can be corrected. I don’t like when the gentle river of a game is dammed up to serve some amorphous sense of justice and accuracy that, the team last night proved, doesn’t actually exist. Everybody repeat after me: there is no such thing as the truth. Every action on this planet is relative. I don’t like having to interrupt my baseball game while the snipe hunt moves through.

If I had to guess, I’d say the umps went ahead and gave Pujols the home run on account of him hitting so hard that the street lights in Louisville flickered.

RBI Guys

Much sabermetric effort has been expended to debunk the idea of the RBI guy, and to cut the legs out from under the old school idea that some hitters are clutch hitters and others fold in tight situations. I understand these ideas, and for the most part I embrace them. But it’s a heck of a thing that happens when you watch every baseball game of a particular team: either you notice patterns, or you become entirely convinced that you are noticing patterns, to the point that you’ll argue over beers at the local watering hole that a certain guy is an RBI guy, and that another guy doesn’t ever drive in runs even when there are ducks on the pond.

Judging on my own assessment over the last several weeks that I’ve been watching the Astros on the regular, Carlos Lee is an RBI guy, and Hunter Pence is not an RBI guy. Lee sees men on base and squares up the ball and gets the single or the grand slam that it takes to bring them around. Pence takes messy swings at bad pitches and grounds out with the man on second. In a tight situation, I’ll take Carlos Lee.

Now, of course, this flies directly in the face of what I know to be true about El Caballo and Hunter Pence. Or what I thought I knew, anyhow. For all of the talk about trading Pence away for a boatload and that Pence is our best player and that he’s the face of the franchise, he and Lee are actually having pretty similar years based on WAR, with Pence at 2.5 and Lee at 2.3. Maybe that’s a flash in the pan for the aging Lee, but his average has gone up each month since a rough March and April, and his OPS has stabilized nicely. So it turns out that my instincts are fairly correct in this case, at least when it comes to El Caballo. In the last month his OPS is .932 with 15 RBI. Pence, in that time, has 9 RBI and an OPS of .753.

RBI are, of course, flawed, and I’m not arguing their value in evaluating actual player performance all too aggressively. What RBI do, though, is reflect what has already happened with some accuracy, meaning that I have witnessed Lee drive in more runs than Hunter Pence because he has driven in more runs than Hunter Pence. Does this mean that he is a far superior hitter? No. But do I have a much more rosy picture of him than I expected to in returning to Houston? You betcha.

The man without as many RBI as either of these bulky fellows, yet who brings the most value to the team, is Michael Bourn. But that’s obvious.

Myers Lemonade

I’ve said before that I’m not much of a Brett Myers fan. Against the Cards, though, I was able to see the effectiveness that appealed to Ed Wade and led him to extend the pitcher. Myers’ curveball was biting and stayed low, and his fastball had enough of the vaunted X factor to stay effective through his eight strong innings. There, I said it: he pitched well.

Links:

Zachary Levine on the Pujols non-home run at Ultimate Astros

Joe Pawlikowski at FanGraphs argues why the Astros should trade Hunter Pence

“We’re not seeing the real Hunter Pence right now” from Austin at Astros290

Hittable Happ and the Joy of Altuve as the Astros Lose to the Cardinals on Monday

On Sunday, against the Cubs, a natural phenomenon–arguably the natural phenomenon of the human experience–the sun, vexed Hunter Pence in the outfield at a pivotal moment when it veiled the flight of a Marlon Byrd out-turned-triple that would make all the difference.

Against the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday, it was another force of nature that jinxed Pence and several other members of the snake bit Houston Astros: Bono. Hunter Pence will not be using Beautiful Day for his walkup music anytime soon, after a U2 concert a week ago called for the Busch Stadium brass to uproot the grass, and lay down of the green stuff that had yet to settle in by the time the boys in brick commenced to catterwall across it on their way to a 10 to 5 loss to their NL Central opponents. Here’s a rundown of the turf-related incidents:

- Hunter Pence slipped while attempting to throw on the brakes to catch a line drive straight at him, leading to a Nick Punto triple.
- Michael Bourn skidded around in the outfield.
- Jose Altuve missed out on extra bases when he spun out rounding first.
- Jason Bourgeois booted a base hit when the ball took a slightly gamey bounce and passed by his outstretched glove.

“We really didn’t expect all the slipping,” Pence told the Chronicle. I don’t suppose we could say the same thing about the season. More from Zachary Levine on what the Astros had to say about the grass.

Incidentally, the Cardinals didn’t seem to have any problems on the slippery surface. I don’t recall a single instance in which they surfed it to trouble. Maybe they had some more time on it to get used to its feel. You’d think that if it were so terrible it wouldn’t matter how familiar a player was with it.

All the Cardinals did was win, even without one of my favorite players, Lance Berkman, who I can admit I was looking forward to seeing. There’s something so fresh and so clean about the Cardinals, their fresh whites and vibrant cardinal red, their classy stadium. Their cameras seem of a higher quality, even, with a crisp picture and brilliant sunlight. Maybe it’s the golden glow of competence that’s sparking my wistful perception of their home field. Maybe it was the promise of Lance, a rendezvouswhich, alas, must deferred.

Happenstance

J.A. Happ’s first inning hinted at a mild recovery from his general innefectiveness (is there a more kind word I could use in this situation than “ineffective”? I don’t think so). His fastball seemed to have a little more run on it, and he was working the edges of the strike zone. At one point in the first inning, Happ threw a change-up low and away that caused Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies to gasp audibly, suggesting that the duo didn’t consider the lefty capable of such a fine-looking professional baseball pitch.

The funny thing is, in later innings Happ didn’t seem to pitch worse than he did in the first. In fact, he seemed to continue pitching away from the middle of the zone, working low with his breaking pitch and showing some movement on his fastball. The Cardinals just hit the ball. Happ was doing what he was supposed to, it just wasn’t good enough. In the bottom of the 4th, punchless catcher Yadier Molina took one of the aforementioned well-located sliders over the left field wall to increase the St. Louis lead to three.

Happ was gone before the end of his half of the fifth.

Can it be said that we’ve seen all we need to from Happ? I think that, given enough starts even when he stinks, he’s got the location skills and the general pitcherliness to eke out a win here or there. But, barring some hidden injury, he’s just not a very deceptive pitcher. He lacks the unquantifiable deceipt or wrinkle or mojo to force big league hitters off balance. I don’t think that he’s a hopeless case. I think he could adjust. But in his current state, Astro oppoenents can feel pretty good about their odds when he takes the mound.

Altuvian Delight

My wife asked me, around about the 7th inning, how someone can invest themselves in such a bad team. There have been many such conversations online lately, to wit the morose conclusion to this Crawfish Boxes post. “Hey!” I said to my wife a few minutes later, as Jose Altuve walked up to the plate. “He’s about five-foot-five,” I said. “Young guy, a real sparkplug.” My wife is the sort whose attitude about life in part derives from her relatively diminutive stature. “I like him!” she said as Altuve dug himself into the batter’s box. He promptly lined a double, extending his arms gracefully through his backswing and bursting out of the box into his kinetic stride. “I love him!” she yelled. Altuve smacked his hands together and proceeded to bounce around on second base.

Our record is 33-69. Who cares when Altuve’s at bat? My wife didn’t give a darn, and neither did I.

Rhythm and Blues

Chris Johnson hasn’t hit much lately. To my eye, he’s got no rhythm. A batting stance and the pre-pitch load-up is like the verse of a rock and roll song. It establishes the tempo, and creates the blend of tension and mirth that build perfectly to the chorus–the swing–such that every fiber of anticipation is unleashed in perfect harmony with what comes before and what comes after the swing.

Josh Hamilton, to use areally great hitter as an example, practically drops the bat head to the plate just before the pitch, in one of the more extreme displays of swing rhythm. He can get away with it, and he sets the tone for the swing by moving from the height of looseness to the pinnacle of tension.

Chris Johnson, on the other hand, stands stock still. He doesn’t move while the pitcher rocks and prepares to fire a pitch the only intention of which is to throw off the rhythm of the hitter before him. So basically Chris Johnson is doing the pitcher’s job for him, but erasing any rhythm from his pre-swing load-up all by himself. By the time the pitch gets there, Johnson had to start himself up and get a swing off at the last second like the baseball game had just startled him awake.

My prescription for the young hitter is three hours per day on the James Brown Pandora station.

Summer in the City: Astros Drop Third in a Row to the Cubs

When the temperature nudges up towards three digits in hottest days of the summer in Chicago, the pace of the city slows down and the bleary population forgets the joy of the Spring thaw and leans towards the cold expanse of Lake Michigan like the beaches have their own ethereal gravity. Heat waves ripple where the lake meets the horizon, and the buses crawl along Lakeshore Drive like big dogs panting in the heat. In Houston, by the way, that’s what we call just another Sunday: we close the roof and turn on the A/C.

As the sun sets on such a summer day in Chicago, the city ticks like a big 70s sedan that’s just been parked in the shade along Foster Ave. The angle of the set casts an orange light, not unlike the hue of a game used Major League Baseball with a tint of ballpark dirt. In fact, if a baseball were hit in such a way that it passed between that setting sun and someone trying to catch it, like, say, a right fielder for the visiting Astros, that baseball would sure be tough to see, much less catch. Hunter Pence looked fine in the light of that sun. The picture of youth and vigor, a tonic for the torpor of the summer city, racing to meet the path of the sun-dappled baseball. Until, of course, he looked to Michael Bourn to solve his terrible problem: he had lost the ball, and he was lost, and the game would soon be lost.

This Sunday, July 24, at Wrigley Field in Chicago, fans waved promotional fans shaped like cartoon hands, which they fluttered around the edges of the TV image of the Astros-Cubs game like horseflies. The Cubs themselves had a little extra starch in their pinstripes given their two-game winning streak against the Astros. I missed the first two day games of the series, each of which floated past my attention in the brightness of summer like a weekday lunch hour. By the time I caught up, the Astros had hit some 27 singles without an extra base to be had. Sunday, Clint Barmes ended the streak quickly enough, sending a Matt Garza pitch over the wall in the first inning, from whence it was returned to sender as per tradition, though the sun baked fans would’ve been forgiven if they hadn’t taken the effort. Trading runs, this was a game, a worthy battle between Central Division duds, and as even a match up as the Astros can hope for these days.

There was one shining opportunity for the star of this team, Hunter Pence, of the trade rumors and All-Star game, to provide a lead at the game’s most crucial juncture, when he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the ninth inning of a tie ballgame, facing a struggling Carlos Marmol, whose fastball wasn’t its former glory and whose slider seemed to lack the two feet of lateral movement it once had. Pence, in this definitive high leverage moment, struck out on three pitches, flailing at each one like a Little Leaguer facing the big kid who learned how to throw a curveball before everybody else. When Pence looks bad on a pitch, it appears as though he’s forgotten how to play baseball at all, that an accountant has momentarily occupied his contorting, unbalanced body. His dramatic failures can’t help but microcosmically link the team’s overall flailing and the uninspiring weird hacks of its leader.

Which Lyles This Time?

Jordan Lyles allowed four hits in a row in the bottom of the 2nd inning, one of which was a ringing RBI single from .028 hitting pitcher Matt Garza. Three runs answered Barmes’ home run, and it threatened to be a short night for Lyles. But, in the end, he found his confidence and produced a start of some quality. He quarreled with the edges of the strike zone, and the home plate umpire employed a zone as tight as a the Oakleys clamped onto Mike Quade’s face, but there was enough action on Lyles’ change-up, and enough deception on his fastball to prevent another awful inning like that second. Only three runs scored in his six innings, and it was the bullpen that squandered a lead late in the game gained on an eighth inning, 2-run Carlos Lee home run of a fading vintage.

Game Notes

- I was happy to see Jason Bourgeois, even if it was only to pinch run and get caught stealing. I would trade ten Jason Michaels for but a single Bourgeois.

- After he hit a double early in the game, Marlon Byrd looked to somebody off camera, presumably a teammate, and did a quick riff on a tiny, imaginary keyboard, mocked a small baseball swing, then cheered at his mime’s base hit with raised arms worthy of a Japanese anime character. If last year’s trend was the Antler and Claw, let’s home this year’s is this Byrd brand of Comic Con reenactment.

- There was a fellow behind home plate who looked like Joe Torre wearing one of the Astros navy blue and gold caps from the 90s.

- Jose Altuve reached first after burning it down the line for an infield single. Is there a Dynamo-style chant we can start for this guy?

- Michael Bourn is after my own heart. He continues to pepper hits to the left side of the infield. I didn’t see him pull a ball this game.

- Matt Downs is a near ringer for Morgan Ensberg, from his face to his batting stance and the heavy looking bat that he swings.

- The Cubs botched two separate sacrifice bunts that would’ve put runners at third with less than two outs. Both times, the runner was pegged at third rather than first. Deaden those bunts, Cubs! That’s why you suck too!

Jason the Dream: Astros’ Michaels Squashes the Nats with an Extra Frames Hit

There is an off chance that I disparaged Jason Michaels in a recent post. I may have questioned, in a very simple way, his presence on this team. The implication just might have been that such a non-descript, mediocre, slightly long-in-the-tooth journeyman 4th outdfielder is not the kind of player that we should bother with at this point in the team’s development, especially as a starter. The simple question, “Why Jason Michaels?” may have been the kind of vague, snarky pot shot that gives the Internet a bad name.

Well, I’m sorry. You hear me, Michaels, I’M SORRY. I didn’t think you had it in you to elevate your game in a tight situation, when the hopes of a team and a city were on your shoulders. Clearly your ability to hand-flip a single into shallow right-center field like a , just ahead of the pulled-in outfielders justifies your spot on the roster. This time, Michaels. After the euphoria of the afternoon dissipates, I will once again call on you to do something other than pop out.

Days Of Bourn

Between yesterday and today, Michael Bourn has displayed some Ichiro-esque dynamism, popping some nice hits to left field against Jordan Zimmermann and Todd Coffey, and abusing Coffey a little more today with a poke up the middle that made Jason Michaels’ game-winning hit possible (and probably should have scored the runner had it not been Q, which when he rounded third seemed to stand for quicksand). Three for five yesterday, and two more hits today, should it come as a surprise that the Astros are enjoying back-to-back wins?

Trade Winds

My plumber asked me today if I would trade away Hunter Pence for a few young players. I hesitated, because I still consider Pence to be young. The caveat is that to admit that he’s no longer young is to admit that I am no longer young. Trading away a player like Pence would be to admit that he is not a franchise foundational player, that he isn’t necessary for long term success. It took a long time for Astro fans to admit that Roy Oswalt or Lance Berkman should be traded because their presence was deemed crucial for anything to happen. That simply may not be the case for Hunter Pence. He’s a very good player, but he’s not really the Berkman that we wanted him to be.

Keppinger hit a few solid home runs and slipped away to San Francisco. Where he’s a puzzle piece for the World Series champs, his departure leaves an inordinately large hole in the lineup. There are few other teams that could trade away their three hold hitter with so little remark from anybody.

Lyles Actually: A Young Pitcher and His Love Affair with the Strike Zone

Consider, if you will, the romantic comedy. The key to any decent rom-com lies in the tension that builds between the main characters, let’s say for the our purposes a man and a woman. Whatever the extraneous circumstances, there is always an elaborate dance between these two, with bickering and insults that slowly morph into quality time and then affection, on this journey from hate to infatuation to love, and often back to hate again, then some more love.*

Which brings me to Jordan Lyles, and the strike zone. The two are wrapped up in a love-hate imbroglio worthy of Crystal and Ryan.

Every pitcher has a relationship with the strike zone, and each relationship is unique. Wandy Rodriguez, for example, often has a passing relationship with it, nicking it at its lowest extremity while passing with a hard curve. Jason Marquis, who pitched for the visiting Washington Nationals last night, gets rejected, shunned, and emotionally beaten around by the strike zone so often he’s ready to helm the next Revenge of the Nerds sequel.

Jordan Lyles, who was pitted against Marquis, is living out his own rom-com plot. Just a few games into his big league career, the stage has been set, with the promising, competent, but inexperienced protagonist, Lyles, seeing the alluring strike zone from across the room, trying to catch its eye. He does, and they meet, maybe go out for a drink. But something goes wrong. The strike zone ducks and weaves, gets coy and elusive. Maybe it just got out of a long relationship with a lefty from the Padres, maybe its got something more sinister to hide. Next thing you know, Lyles can’t find the strike zone anywhere, and he ends up running down an empty street in the middle of the night, drunk with a black eye, calling out the strike zone’s name.

But then, last night, the clouds parted. Hope rose like a morning sun. The strike zone, perhaps coming to terms with the promise of its burgeoning bond with this talented kid, gives him a wink. Lyles responds. Fastballs graze the strike zones sides playfully. A change up brushes its cheek. For three innings, perfection. What Jordan Lyles lacks in velocity, in raw firepower, he is beginning to make up for with this courtship, with subtlety and charisma. Jordan Lyles is figuring out the strike zone.

Lyles has impressed for short stretches already before. But last night, he threw a slew of strong innings that speak very well of his chances going forward. He has control–not only of his pitch location, but of his body. Confidence is a physical manifestation of a psychological state, and the body exudes confidence. The Lyles posture is a confident posture. Last night, I thought to myself, “he will be good.” He may already be good. The Astros lost, but I don’t care. I’m in love.

*If you are looking to off-load some of your free time, check out the work done on Romantic Comedies over at TV Tropes.

Game Notes

- I haven’t come to think of this team as particularly strong on defense, or even very good at all. I’ve noted Carlos Lee’s seeming balance issues, and I’ve witnessed a few egregious gaffs. However, last night the Astros made a few really good plays on defense, starting with an Angel Sanchez dive over the middle and glove scoop which Jeff Keppinger smoothly translated to first for a double play. At the time, the play supported the fine early work by Lyles.

- Ryan Zimmerman is a pro hitter, and one of Lyles’ mistakes was a change-up that wasn’t quite low enough, which Zim hit to dead opposite field for a home run.

- The Lyles curveball was back last night, after sailing in every which direction but over the plate his last time out. From side show fluke to legit major league pitch, Jordan will need to figure out how to bring the latter every start.

- Why Jason Michaels?

- At this point, I’m happy with 7 strong innings from the Astros. The bullpen is such a wild card, on most teams, and can change so dramatically from one year to the next, that I’ve decided to leave it for later on. In 2011, let’s look good for at least ¾, Astros. I’ll get a jersey with the number ¾ on it, how about that?

- Jim Deshaies is a very, very good broadcaster. Not that I’m an Einstein of the field, but most times I make an observation I feel is sound, he’s right on top of it, expanding on it, and making it funny.

- I greatly enjoy watching young, hard-throwing relievers from far-flung cities, and the Nationals version of that is the shaggy Drew Storen, who struck out the last three Astros of the night.

A Look at the Pirate Series

As the Astros prepare to face another opponent from the Eastern seaboard, here’s a look back at the last couple of games from the Pirates series, which featured some good baseball against what is now, remarkably, a worthy opponent. The Pirates left the series in a breathless first place and the Astros broke a 5-game losing streak before starting a new one, to maintain their kung fu grip on the last rung of the ladder.

Sunday Funday vs. Pittsburgh

At no point was this game a foregone conclusion, and that’s saying something.

Jeff Keppinger refuses to play the laughing stock of a third-hole hitter that I expect him to be, pulling another home run over the Crawfish Boxes. You’ve never seen a more vanilla home run swing, but the runs still count, and Keppinger’s work gave Houston the lead early, and started a tie-building rally in the 8th inning.

Sadly, though, this weekend-ender couldn’t end in a tie.

The last definitive moment of this well-contested came in the top of the 11th inning, and it featured some poolroom English and textbook Carlos Lee bumbling, when Xavier Paul bounced a fair ball that first passed between his legs, which Mark Melancon promptly booted before Carlos Lee took a poke at it but failed, instead plopping down onto his rump like Winnie the Pooh at the end of a honey binge. I can’t recall a play with more oddities packed into it, each of which was as subtle as a bee alighting on a flower.

Later, in a rather pitiful 11th inning, Lee’s inexperience at first base left him floating perilously in front of Andrew McCutchen, who was inconveniently sprinting full bore down the first base line. Lee, instead of leaping from the side to attempt to pull in a high throw, jumped from right in the middle of the base line. El Caballo had the wind knocked out of him, and McCutchen, whose health frankly I was more concerned with even as an Astros fan, seemed fine. By the time the last notes from the organ grinder faded, the Pirates were three runs up. Even an Humberto Quintero home run in the bottom half couldn’t erase the awkward.

Curve Appeal

Wandy Rodriguez’s curveball is both big and sharp, which suggests that the sucker has a lot of break on it. It has the looping break of a curve, but gets the results of a slider. I’m late to this game, obviously, but I just wanted to note the pleasure that I’ve elicited in the last few weeks watching the NL’s best kept secret confound really good hitters.

 

Saturday Special, Astros Overcome a Bad Bud Inning By Just Hitting Against the Pirates

Houston showed that scoring runs is not as complicated as they make it seem. You get a hit here and another one there, put the ball in play to induce errors and move runners over, and you hit a single with runners in scoring position. In the 8th, down by a run, the Astros performed that modest yet crucial feat, and they took the lead, and they gave the bored Mark Melancon something to do.

Bud Norris threw some good innings, and as I haven’t watched him pitch much in this his breakout year, I was happy to enjoy his sharp, short-armed fastball and his magician’s slider, which appears to be a particular sort of straight pitch for about 58 feet before changing attitudes and abandoning its apparent path to the strike zone. Norris–and Wandy Rodriguez for that matter–illustrate nicely that fastballs of the same velocity are not all equal. Some fastballs have different life on them, to different effect. I suspect that there are secrets of delivery angle, deceptiveness of the pitching motion, and other deeply mysterious factors that distinguish one from the next. Norris, to our good fortune, possesses a fastball with some personality distinguishable from that of the average reliever with 91 or 92 mph of velocity.

Norris, of course, wavered from his strong start, with the burgeoning Astro killer Neil Walker yanking a hard home run off of him in the middle of the game, then finishing off a three-run 6th (albeit his hit came off of Norris’ replacement, Wilton Lopez, though it’s Bud’s run) with a single, adding to the home run tallies of Brandon Wood and Lyle Overbay.

(Norris’ Pirates counterpart, for the record, Paul Maholm, has a soft-throwing, short-arm style of his own, with a crooked-winged curveball that would’ve fit nicely in one of the 1990s Atlanta Braves starting rotations.)

The typical Astro response to losing a lead is, of course, a failure to respond, so it was with some optimism that I watched Hunter Pence reach on a walk, then move to second on a Caballo fielder’s choice. Pence then, remarkably, stole third! His jump was not great, and it was a dubious strategy when he was already in scoring position late in a one-run game, but he slid in without incident when the catcher, McKenry, failed to grip and throw the ball at all. With less than two outs, all that Brett Wallace had to do was hit a fly ball to the outfield. He met the bare minimum of requirement instead, grounding to the shortstop and forcing Pence to sprint home, where he just beat the throw, if he beat it at all, but in either event the call went his way and the run scored to tie the game.

In a recent post, I called out the Astros for their lack of swagger. Hunter Pence has swagger, in that he plays well and forces the other team to play as well as he, whether by pushing through a steal of third, or charging home on a close play. The margin of error is slim, but the deciding weight often falls on the side with more confidence, more swagger.

An error would extend the inning, allowing Humberto Quintero to single home Wallace’s running substitute Brian Bogusevic, and Michael Bourn to single home another run. A rally, that’s what that is! A late game rally that has an actual impact on the winning of a baseball game! Multiple exclamation points are not justified in many circumstances, but this rally to re-enter the night’s fray is worthy of a giddy, irrationally pleasure-filled gesture.

Mark Melancon dusted off his closer’s mentality and induced several non-descript results and the game was over. Walks, errors, base hits: these are the things that baseball teams do to score more runs than their opponents. That’s what the Astros did on Saturday.

Wobble Lee

I’m starting to doubt Carlos Lee’s basic physical coordination. On several occasions, whether in the field or on the bases, he’s simply toppled over when called upon to display basic balance. On Saturday alone, he fell over getting up from a slide into home, and he fell down catching a throw at first base

Anonymous Swagger: Astros Loss to PIT and Andrew McCutchen, in Person

Last night, a Friday night tilt against the overachieving Pittsburgh Pirates at Minute Maid Park, I had the good fortune to watch the Astros from seats that were pretty close to the action.

Watching a game from down near the field has drawback and advantages. On the down side, a sense of the whole field is diminished, with the sublime vastness of the green grass field retracted to a deceptive silhouette. On the plus side, you get a great sense of the speed of the game, the strength and quickness of the great players, and the human aspect, the subtle interactions between players, coaches, and umpires. When Hunter Pence, for instance, drove a hard single up the middle, I could feel the smack he put on it, and from the impact I could feel on a visceral, physical level that he was the best hitter on the team.

Your Model Pittsburgh Pirates

A good amount of conversation has touched on the idea that the Pirates are where the Astros could be at some hazy moment in the future. It seems more like an argument for the odds finally catching up with a team than a critique of team management.

For example, Pittsburgh’s success is not a foregone conclusion, given that their lineup is bookended by anonymous youngsters and middle aged middling talent. Their lineup featured players called Harrison, McKenry, d’Arnaud*, and Presley. On the mound, Jeff Karstens swam in yards of fabric, putting all of his purported 185 pounds behind some supercharged 89 mph fastballs. Karstens of the 2010 4.92 ERA who this year has worked out a mid-2 number with great control, to match career years from some equally uninspiring rotation mates. I suppose I’m suggesting that this year is a fluke for the Pirates. It may be or it might not be, but there’s nothing to suggest a relationship between a crappy team and a formerly crappy team having some success. The Pirates team has little about it to hint at sustained brilliance.

One player acts as the exception: Andrew McCutchen. The young All-Star struck a triple with more electricity than the entire Astros lineup mustered. The hit was still on the rise when it pegged the wall on the right edge of Tal’s Hill, and before I had the chance to glance at him, McCutchen was rounding second base with a head of steam worthy of the Union Pacific railroad. He walked into third. Power and speed never worked together so well on a batted ball, and in most parks the hit would’ve left the yard. In addition to results, McCutchen has what I think the kids call SWAGGER. Success is his assumption, and failure is an affront on that expectation.

The Astros, right now, are absent of SWAGGER. Failure is the expectation. They could learn, not from the Pirates, but from McCutchen.

*Forming the small d in d’Arnaud appeared to be a letter “P” turned upside down.

Game Notes

I was sitting at the game nearby a vocal ten-year-old kid, who decided that Brett Myers should be yanked after he threw three straight balls to start the ballgame. Myers responded with 11 strike outs, though I’ll admit that without TV commentary and in person, the performance hardly seemed so extraordinary. What it seemed was that Myers gave up some runs early and that the feeble Astros lineup would have trouble making up the difference.

And, in fact, the half-innings with the Astros at the plate passed quicker than the weekend, and Zachary Levine later pointed outthat the slight pitcher Karstens put down the Astros more efficiently for a shutout than anyone did this year.

Later in the game, after I returned from a trip to the concession stand, the ten-year-old reported with exasperation that I hadn’t missed a thing. He called for management to be replaced. His favorite player was Craig Biggio, whose jersey shirt he wore, and he hadn’t taken the time to find a new favorite player, though he was willing to admit that Hunter Pence was pretty good.

After the quiet conclusion to the game without an Astro whimper, the kid declared that they needn’t have brought the train out of storage for this one.

Postscript: the Friday fireworks, set to a Queen soundtrack, were awesome.

The Long Haul: Why the Astros are Like an Old Ford Pickup Truck

“Don’t lock it,” says my dad as he hands me the keys to his old Ford pickup truck. “If you lock it you won’t be able to get it open again.” With the abundance of Mercedes Benz and BMW models on the Houston roads, leaving this old beater, with its rusted out bed, mismatched or missing hubcaps, and tattered upholstery open to vandalism seems a paltry game. My dad has earned the right to kick around town in a great old truck, as he’s fought to hold onto it while others in the family badger him to let it go. Neighbors have declared it an eyesore, but it’s a fine sight for me, who so desperately needs a second car to get around in.

The old engine takes a couple of tries to get it started if it’s sat idle for more than a half hour and the steering is as loose as the helm of a ship, but I don’t care. The truck’s shortcomings, the little nooks and crannies that need a special twist or a secret turn to get it working, that’s where the charm has gathered, like veins of gold through rock. Without those annoying quirks, its rickety workings and worn out shocks, it would be just another Honda Civic (not there’s anything wrong with a car that starts and keeps you in your seat going over a pothole).

Just today, in fact, the truck’s absurdly outdated trappings led to a minor adventure. There’s nothing but a tape deck in the thing, and seeing as I haven’t even seen a tape in a million years, I rumbled over to the Sand Dollar Thrift Store to see what kind of cassettes I could scare up to ward away the terrible Houston radio (Ichiro is not the only reason I miss Seattle). Next to the records was a scrappy collection of tapes, most of them Christmas music or classical. Tucked behind some Frank Sinatra was a beige little number by the one and only Billy Idol. “Rebel Yell” would save me from the Matchbox 20 marathons.

I climbed back into the cab of the pickup and slid the tape into the deck. The slide and snap is a muscle memory buried deep in the reptile brain, and there isn’t a CD player around that can reproduce the satisfaction of sinking the tape into the machine. I turn the engine over, wait for it to die, and turn it over again while Idol lets it go. Did Billy Idol go through a reggaeton phase? Did Billy Idol get to enjoy any kind of phase during his career? There were hints of ska guitar riffs. Perhaps this was an experimental album.

Ten minutes down the road, it hits me: the Billy Idol has been taped over. I’m listening to somebody’s Spanish pop music mixtape. The mystery of Billy Idol’s creative journey now solved, the Latin beats are fast and fun, the vocals joyful and full of life. I jam out, in full acceptance of the switcheroo that caused me to alter my expectations and enjoy what was given, rather than what I desired.

The midseason Astros are like my dad’s pickup truck, and the Billy Idol tape represents all of the strange, amusing, and interesting things that can happen to a terrible baseball team that the rest of the world is oblivious to. This is our team, now more than ever. We are free to enjoy it whichever way we choose, whether it’s “White Wedding” or “La Chica de Ayer,” whether the A/C works or the sweat pours, and whether the doors lock tight or if they are open to the world.

It’s a liberating feeling to leave the doors to your truck unlocked in a busy parking lot. To paraphrase Janis Joplin, freedom is having nothing to lose. The Astros have nothing to lose, and much ground to gain, with young players who can develop and some interesting trade chips if it comes to that. The engine is just starting to warm up with the trip half over, but the salsa beat is picking up, and it’s up to us to sing along.