Archive for the ‘Houston Astros’ category

Remembering Dave Nicholson, A Man Before His Time

January 9, 2017

With each league’s leading home run hitter in 2016 (Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter) still waiting to receive a 2017 contract, it got me thinking about slugger Dave Nicholson.  If Nicholson is remembered at all today, it is for setting the single season strikeout record of 175 in 1963, which lasted until Bobby Bonds (187) set the new record in 1969.

Nicholson had a brief major league career, mainly because everything was stacked against him.  He was probably as good a player as today’s Mark Reynolds, a player who has earned more than $27 million in his major league career.

Nicholson played at a time when players with great power, but low batting averages and high strikeout totals, were not valued for their actual contributions on offense.  Add to that the facts that the mid- and late 1960’s when Nicholson played were a terrible time for major league hitters and also that Nicholson played his prime years for two teams, the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros, that played in ballparks terrible for power hitters, and it’s easy to understand why Nicholson was drummed out of MLB after only seven seasons and 1,662 major league plate appearances.

Nicholson had only three seasons in which he managed more than 300 plate appearances, but he was better in each of those three seasons than anyone at the time realized.  For the 1963 and 1964 White Sox, teams that finished second each season behind the New York Yankees with records of 94-68 and 98-64, Nicholson’s .738 and .693 OPS numbers don’t seem too impressive.  However, this was good enough for 3rd out of eight White Sox players with at least 300 plate appearances in 1963 and 4th out of ten players with that many plate appearances in 1964.

In 1966 for the Houston Astros, a team that went 72-90, and, raw numbers to the contrary, had much better hitting than pitching, his .767 OPS was third best out of nine players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan and catcher John Bateman, but ahead of Jim Wynn, Rusty Staub and Lee Maye, the former two of whom were long recognized as major league stars.  Lee Maye had a much more successful major league career than Nicholson, as the kind of player (he hit for average but didn’t have much power or walk much) who was much more valued in his day than today.  Playing today, Nicholson’s and Maye’s career plate appearances would probably be reversed.

As the game and the popular understanding of the game change over time, different skills are more or less valued.  There are some players, most notably Gavvy Cravath, who would have been Hall of Famers if they had just been born a generation earlier or later than they actually were.

Colby Rasmus on a One-Year Deal?

December 31, 2016

There was an article today on mlbtraderumors.com about the San Francisco Giants’ remaining needs this off-season.  It has me thinking that Colby Rasmus could be an excellent sign for left field if the price is right.

I feel better about Giants’ current options at 3B (Eduardo Nunez and Connor Gallaspie as a platoon with Kelby Tomlinson and either Ehire Adrianza or Jimmy Rollins as the other back-up possibilities) than I do about the team’s third, fourth and fifth outfielders being Mac Williamson, Jarrett Parker and Gyorkis Hernandez.

I don’t hate any of these three — I’m confident that Jarrett Parker will be a major league back-up outfielder in 2017, and Hernandez could become the next Glegor Blanco or Andres Torres — but it’s hard for me to imagine that the Giants will go into the 2017 with three mostly LFers who have this little major league experience.  I also can’t see the Gints thinking that Michael Morse who will be 35 next season and hasn’t played since last April is a realistic veteran option.

Thus, Colby Rasmus, who might come very cheap off a season in which he hit only .206.  His 2016 OPS (.641) is more than 100 basis points lower than his career OPS (.744), so he’s a great bounce-back candidate at age 30, particularly given that he still runs pretty well.

Rasmus also plays good D in LF, which would be valuable with a CF in Denard Span who doesn’t cover a lot of ground anymore.

As for right-handed relievers, the Giants did sign one player this off-season which hasn’t received much attention, since it was a minor league deal.  However, this guy has up-side.

The Giants signed Neil Ramirez, who will be 28 next May.  He is a former 1st round draft pick who had a terrific 2014 season for the Cubs, when he had a 1.44 ERA in 50 relief appearances with a pitching line of 43.1 IP,  29 hits, two HRs and 17 walks allowed and 53 Ks.  He had shoulder and left abdominal injuries in 2015, and in brief stints with three different major league teams this past season he had trouble throwing strikes.  However, he was very effective in 16 appearances and 20.1 IP at AAA Rochester at the end of the 2016 season.

Ramirez definitely has up-side if he’s healthy in 2017, and he could be the next in a long line of effective (at least in the short term) right-handed relievers the Giants have signed  to minor league deals in the last two decades.

Former Cardinals Scouting Director Gets 46 months in Prison for Stealing Astros’ Data

July 19, 2016

I was a bit taken aback a few minutes ago when I read that former St. Louis Cardinal scouting director Chris Correa was just sentenced to 46 months in prison for breaking into the Houston Astros’ computer network and stealing the ‘Stros scouting reports.  I never expected it would result in criminal sentencing, as opposed to civil monetary damages.

David Barron’s article in the Houston Chronicle has most of the details.  What it apparently boils down to is that the judge treated this like any other serious cyber-crime.  Obviously, big corporations have long since made sure that Congress criminalized the stealing of their valuable proprietary information.

Further, the Court obviously wanted to send a message and set an example in this high-profile case, making a point to state during sentencing that cyber-theft basically costs everyone money by forcing them to buy increasingly costly systems designed to prevent hacking.  The judge has a point there.

Also, Correa accessed the Astros’ system 60 times in a 35 day period, far more than was originally reported.  Correa was also fined $279,000.

It remains to be seen what penalty MLB imposes on the Cardinals.  I would expect it to be steep in light of the punishment Correa received.  MLB would look bad giving the Cardinals a slap on the wrist after Correa received almost four years in the can.

My guess is that the Cardinals will be ordered to pay the Astros some seven or eight figure sum, and more importantly lose one or more future first round draft picks.

Houston Astros Sign Yulieski Gourriel

July 15, 2016

The Astros today announced their signing of 32 year old Cuban star Yulieski Gourriel to a five-year $47.5 million contract.  Gourriel is definitely a major league talent, but at age 32, he’s definitely something of a risk for this much money over this many years.

Gourriel comes from a family of Cuban ballplayers who have starred in the Serie Nacional for more than one generation, and for a long time they were loathe to defect to play for the big money in the United States.  Yulieski went to Japan’s NPB in 2014, as part of a deal with the Cuban government to limit defections by top stars like him and Alfredo Despaigne, by all0wing them to make some real money playing in the next best and best paid leagues after MLB.

In 62 games and 258 plate appearances for the Yokohama Bay Stars, Gourriel was outstanding, batting .305 with an .884 OPS and playing what was reported to be excellent defense (at least at 2B — the raw numbers suggest his 3B defense was poor in Japan, although his previous Serie Nacional numbers at the hot corner look good).  Yulieski was all set to return to Japan in 2015 and bring along his younger brother, an even better MLB prospect due to his age, Lourdes Gourriel, Jr.

However, a dispute arose regarding when the Gourriel brothers would arrive in Japan.  They wanted to finish out the 2014-2015 Serie Nacional season, and Yulieski wanted to take some time off after the Cuban season to rest and recuperate from injuries, which would have cost him the first month of the 2015 NPB season.  The Bay Stars, who were planning to pay him a reported $3 million, weren’t at all happy about Yulieski’s wishes.  As a result, their relationship broke down, and neither brother went to Japan in 2015.

It’s worth noting that Alfredo Despaigne did not play in Cuba last winter, probably because his NPB team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, insisted that he deliver his talents solely to NPB.  It is not an extremely difficult choice to make in terms of the finances: Despaigne makes about $2 million a year playing in Japan this year, as compared to probably something less than one or two hundred dollars a month playing in Cuba.

The half-season spent in Japan seems to have dramatically improved Gourriel’s Serie Nacional performance.  Although injuries and his later defection limited him to only 49 games played in the 2015-2016 season, he hit an even .500 with a 1.463 OPS.

Both Yulieski and Lourdes defected from Cuba this past February while playing an international tournament in the Dominican Republic.  When it happened, I wondered whether they tacitly had the approval of the Cuban government to do so, because they seemed so unlikely to defect up to that time.

If Yulieski is getting five-years and $47.5 million, I have to think Lourdes is going to get more than twice that.  Lourdes is still only 22 years old, and while his level of play in the Serie Nacional did not approach that of his older brother, his offensive performance improved dramatically in each of his last two Cuban seasons.

With what appear to be roughly five Serie Nacional seasons under his belt (he’s played in six different Serie Nacional seasons), Lourdes should be a true free agent, but according to mlbtraderumors.com he is currently subject to international bonus pool limits, because he is not yet 23 years old.

Most likely, Lourdes will elect to sign after October 19th of this year, his 23rd birthday, when he will become a true free agent.  My guess is an announcement of his signing will be made on that date, and he will immediately be sent to play in the Arizona Fall League.

Somebody Should Sign Telvin Nash

May 27, 2016

Telvin Nash is a 25-year old slugger playing for the York Revolution of the Atlantic League, the best of the Independent-A leagues.  His 1.047 OPS leads the league by a bunch.  The next closest player with at least 100 plate appearances 34 games into the 2016 season is at an even .900.

Nash spent seven seasons in the Houston Astros organization, where he showed a lot of power.  He hit 29 home runs for the Lancaster JetHawks in the Class A+ California League at age 21, and he hit 22 HRs for the Corpus Christi Hooks of the AA Texas League in 2014 at age 23.

The problem is Nash didn’t hit for much of an average, and he strikes out an enormous amount, 198 times in 449 plate appearance in 2012 and 112 times in 321 plate appearances in 2014, the two years he hit all those home runs.  Still, his career minor league slash line of .241/.336/.479, suggests that Nash had some potential as a hitter.

Nash didn’t improve in 2015 back at Corpus Christi, batting .228, but with a .774 OPS, and the Astros cut him after he had played in 30 games.  Nash also appears either to have missed a lot of time with injury, or he was being platooned in several of his minor league seasons.  I also have to assume that his defense is not very good.

Nash hit well in 64 games for the Revolution last season after getting cut by the Astros.  However, he’s hitting a lot better this year more than 30 games into the 2016 season.

Nash is still young enough to have an MLB future, and his power is very real.  Somebody should sign him soon and give him another shot at AA ball, the sooner the better.

The Time for Long-Term Extensions

May 15, 2016

Jose Altuve is off to a tremendous start this year, even if the Astros are not, and it’s got me thinking about the almost embarrassingly team friendly long-term contract he signed with the ‘Stros a few years ago.

As everyone knows, the Astros have been at the forefront in trying to lock up their young stars with long-term team-friendly deals.  There was far more screaming from other players and the players’ association when the team signed Jon Singleton to a five-year $10 million deal even before Singleton had played a day in the majors, in order to lock in Singleton to three more seasons at relatively reasonable team options, than there was about Altuve’s contract.

If you will recall, people complained that the deal was “black mail” because the Astros had kept George Springer in the minors just long enough to ensure that the team would get an extra year of control after Springer refused to sign a team-friendly long-term deal the previous September.  Also, people complained that Singleton should have “bet on himself” and his baseball future, rather than sign this deal.

Well, as it has turned out, the deal Singleton signed looks like its going to be better for him than for the team.  He hasn’t established himself as a major league player and isn’t playing particularly well so far at AAA in 2016, the third year of the deal.

In fact, the whole purpose of this deal was give Singleton an upfront guarantee in order to lock in one or two free agent seasons at a bargain price.  However, even if the Astros exercise all three options, Singleton won’t become a free agent until the contract is over and done with.

Don’t feel too sorry for the Astros, though.  The $10 million committed to Singleton isn’t a particularly big hit in light of current team salary amounts, even if Singleton never plays another game in the majors.

In fact, even if Altuve gets hit by a bus tomorrow, the Astros may already have saved $10M simply by virtue of the fact that Altuve couldn’t  take advantage of salary arbitration after his terrific 2014 and 2015 seasons.  If Altuve stays healthy, the deal only gets better as the Astros won’t be paying him more than $6.5 million per year through the 2019 season.

(Don’t feel too sorry for George Springer, either.  He’s healthy, playing well, and the Astros called him up early enough in 2014 to ensure that he will be a super-two and eligible for salary arbitration after this season.  I very much doubt that Springer will be giving the Astros any discounts anytime soon.)

The reasons why the Altuve deal worked out better for the team than the Singleton deal seem fairly obvious.  Altuve had almost two full years of major league service at the time he signed his extension, while Singleton had yet to play in the major leagues at all.

Also, as a player from Venezuela, he likely comes from a poor family, and the Astros had initially declined to sign him as an amateur because of his small stature.  He came back to try out again a year later and signed for a very modest $15,000 bonus.

In short [no pun intended], Altuve was likely particularly susceptible to a contract offering him immediate security, and I suspect the team fully took advantage of the player’s insecurities about his size and the fact that his status as a major league star was still somewhat up in the air.  Never mind that 50 years ago the Astros had another under-sized 2Bman who went on to become the greatest 2Bman ever.

When Altuve signed in July 2013, he was batting around .290, but his OPS was down from the year before, in a place where he might well have thought he was only one extended slump from being sent back to the minors.

The lesson to be learned from Altuve’s contract, perhaps, is that best time to offer a young player a long-term extension is during or immediately after his “sophomore slump” season, when the player’s value and self-confidence are temporarily down but are much more likely than not to rise again.

I would guess that more than half of young position players who establish themselves as major league regulars by their age 23 season have a down year in their second or third full major league seasons.  The conventional wisdom is that it takes the league’s players about a year to find the flaws in a young but talented player’s game, and then it takes about a year for the youngster to make the counter-adjustments necessary to eliminate or minimize those flaws.

If the “sophomore slump” season happens in or before the youngster’s age 24 season, I suspect that it is much more likely than not that the young player will go to bigger and better performance in his peak seasons from age 26 through 28 or 29 than he had in his first big seasons.  The Astros are a team that reportedly puts a lot of weight on analytics, so I am sure they were well aware of what the actual odds are when they made their offer to Altuve.  The lucky part for the ‘Stros was that they were dealing with a player who put a particularly high value on security at that age and stage in his career.

 

 

 

The Best and Worst Hitters’ Parks in MLB Baseball 2016

April 8, 2016

Back in the summer of 2012 I discovered that espn.com provides stats for what it calls “park factor”, which for purposes of this post means the ratio between the number of runs scored at a ballpark in any given season divided by the number of runs scored by said ballpark’s occupant (and its opponents) in away games that same season.  I’ve written several posts on this subject, which have proven quite popular, the last about two years ago, so it feels like a good time for an update.

As we enter the 2016 season, below are the average park factors for all major league ballparks over the last six seasons, 2010 through 2015 (four seasons for Marlins Park which opened in 2012).

1.  Coors Field (Rockies) 1.427.  Coors Field remains far and away the best hitters’ in MLB by a wide margin.  Every other stadium had a season or two between 2010 and 2015 well out of line with its overall average position except Coors Field.  It was the best hitters’ park in MLB five of the six seasons, usually by a lot, and a strong second in the sixth season.

2.  Globe Life Park at Arlington (Rangers) 1.144.  Globe Life Park remains the best hitters’ park in the American League.

3.  Fenway Park (Red Sox) 1.107.

4.  Chase Field (Diamondbacks) 1.093.

5.  Camden Yards (Orioles) 1.083.

6.  Miller Park (Brewers) 1.072.

7.  Yankee Stadium 1.059.

8.    U.S. Cellular Field (White Sox) 1.058.  One of the more variable parks in MLB, U.S. Cellular Field was a pitchers’ park in 2015, but a strong hitters’ park in 2010 and 2012.

9. Rogers Centre (Blue Jays) 1.047.  A pitchers’ park in 2015, Rogers Center was a hitters’ park every other year of the last six.

10.  Great American Ball Park (Reds) 1.045.

11.  Wrigley Field (Cubs) 1.034.  Long regarded as one of the best hitters’ parks in MLB, Wrigley was a pitchers’ park in 2014 and 2015, bringing it’s six year average down considerably.

12.  Comerica Park (Tigers) 1.026.

13.  Kauffman Stadium (Royals) 1.027.  25 or 30 years ago, Kauffman Stadium was one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball.  However, the newer parks built starting with Camden Yards in 1992, have for the most part been much better hitters’ parks than the ballparks they replaced.  The casual fans want to see offense, and the modern parks have largely catered to that desire with resulting attendance increases.

14.  Target Field (Twins) 1.013.  The Twins’ new ball park looked like it was going to be a pitchers’ park after the first couple of seasons of play there.  However, it now looks to be a slight hitters’ park.

15.  Citizens Bank Ballpark (Phillies) 1.005.

16.  Nationals Park 1.004.

17.  Marlins Park (2012-2015) 1.000.  The Marlins’ new park appears to be as close to a perfectly level playing field for pitchers and hitters as currently exists in MLB, at least based on the first four seasons of play there.

18.  Progressive Field (Indians) 0.992.  Progressive Field was the second best hitters’ park in MLB last year, after five consecutive seasons as a moderate pitchers’ park.  2015 was almost certainly a fluke.

19.  Minute Maid Park (Astros) 0.987.  Once known as Ten-run Park, when it was named after failed energy company Enron, Minute Maid Park varies wildly between a hitters’ park and pitchers’ park from season to season.

20.  Turner Field (Braves) 0.972.

21.  Busch Stadium (Cardinals) 0.957.

22.  Oakland Coliseum (A’s) 0.941.  O.co isn’t as much of a pitchers’ park as it once was, more or less switching places with Angel Stadium, another now antiquated multi-use stadium from the 1960’s.

23.  PNC Park (Pirates) 0.927.

24.  Dodger Stadium 0.906.

25.  Tropicana Field (Rays) 0.894.

26.  Angel Stadium 0.877.  The fact that Angel Stadium is now one of the worst hitters’ parks in MLB gives one additional appreciation of just how good Mike Trout is as an offensive player.

27.  Citi Field (Mets) 0.876.

28.  Petco Park (Padres) 0.857.

29.  Safeco Field (Mariners) 0.842.  The Mariners and the Padres moved their outfield fences in before the 2013 season in order to goose offensive production.  It hasn’t helped a whole lot, as both parks remained among the worst hitters’ parks in MLB from 2013-2015.

29.    AT&T Park (Giants) 0.842.  AT&T varies a lot season to season, but in 2011, 2012 and 2015 it was a strong pitchers’ park.