Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on May 17, 2001.
With a fifth of the schedule complete and no real production from third base since the early weeks of the season, the Astros began to examine ways to solidify the starting eight. Despite his maturity, great attitude, and a healthy homerun binge to start the year, at .217/.289/.450 with an error every five starts, Chris Truby just was not getting it done.
That essentially left the Astros with three options. They could reduce Truby’s playing time and give more starts to Charlie Hayes, they could promote minor league third-sacker Morgan Ensberg, or they could look outside the organization. Then Tampa Bay waived Vinny Castilla, remaining on the hook for this final season of his contract. The Astros were able to pick him up for just the league minimum for the rest of the season – along with the promise he’d get a genuine shot as a starter, to prove his value as he enters the free agent market after the season. So what made the Astros choose that route?
Giving more time to Charlie Hayes was problematic, primarily because he was born in 1965. That is a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away. Hayes’ age may not be a hindrance exactly, but it certainly suggests he won’t be surprising anyone. It’s been five years since he was an everyday starter, eight since he put up his career-best numbers in a Coors-aided 1993 campaign. His glovework has never been superior except when charging the bunt, and his best offensive skill is fouling off pitches until he gets something he can handle. Best for the Astros that he continues to provide an experienced bat that can execute in close-and-late situations.
The Astros’ other option, Morgan Ensberg, seemed like a no-brainer to many. Ensberg did not do a ton of hitting in his two A-ball seasons, but he showed an excellent eye, with on-base percentages more than a hundred points greater than his batting average. That got him promoted to Round Rock in 2000, and he pounded Texas League pitching to the tune of .300/.416/.545 with 28 homers, 95 runs and 90 RBI in 137 games. This year he has advanced another level to Triple-A New Orleans. As a Zephyr, Ensberg is hitting .287/.356/.581 with 11 homeruns, 24 runs and 27 RBI through 34 games. That is fine production at the zenith of minor league competition, so what gives?
Despite those excellent numbers he’s built up now, Ensberg had a difficult start to the season and has what for him is an unusually high strikeout-to-walk ratio, eerily similar to Chris Truby’s. If he suffered the same start for the Astros, they would not get the injection of offense they were looking for in making a move in the first place. Further, reports had Ensberg a little erratic on defense at New Orleans, though the Astros are not concerned about that aspect of his game in the long-term.
There is also nothing at third base immediately behind Ensberg in the Astros system that looks like Major League material. If he were to come up and flop, Houston would have used its last bullet before the All-Star break, possibly harming the development of the young man they feel can be their next third baseman along the way. Inserting rookies as everyday starters is best done at the start of a season or in an absolute no-lose situation, neither of which applies to the Astros right now.
Yet the biggest single thing holding Ensberg back was that the Astros were not fully committed to giving up on Truby until Castilla became an option. It likely would have taken at least another few weeks with no improvement from Truby for Ensberg to get his shot, and even then it is difficult to gauge the potential reaction of Astros veterans to getting attuned to still more new youth on the left side of the infield.
Astros brass had to be mindful of all these issues and more in not promoting Ensberg, then the availability of Vinny Castilla nipped the decision-making process in the bud. But was Chris Truby something of an innocent in all this?
Larry Dierker is on record believing “He did nothing to deserve going to the minor leagues.” Had the Great Bill Spiers been available to hit the tough right-handers, maybe things would have been different. Had Brad Ausmus gotten off to a better start offensively or the pitching staff shown any acumen with the bats, maybe the bottom of the lineup would not have looked so weak.
Some of the numbers Truby accumulated compare nicely with other third basemen around the league. Just three had more longballs and six had more RBI on the young season. Driving in 22 runs is not easy with just 26 hits, though it is certainly helped by the on-base percentages of the guys that hit in front of him. Plenty of established players had disappointing starts in terms of batting average, and it’s plausible that given time Truby would have picked it up. He was not yet a fixture on the Astros though, and with a somewhat limited ceiling he did not have the luxury of time to sweat out a poor start – not with a free shot at Vinny Castilla.
In the Matter of Neyer v. Ausmus
ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer recently turned his attention to the Astros, specifically to whittle at the notion that Brad Ausmus is helping the Astros pitching staff and to suggest he is actually hurting the team with his bat.
First things first. Brushback usually finds Rob Neyer an interesting, thought-provoking read. True, he criticized this column at one point, but it was, in all fairness, not as organized and coherent as it might have been. So no axe to grind beyond the current issue. And if he did not so famously use his space to critique other writers, Brushback might not be comfortable running his words about the Astros through the grinder. But he does, and Brushback is.
On to the matter of Neyer v. Ausmus. To back up his assertion that Ausmus is not making a difference with the pitching staff, Neyer presents the following:
Pitcher 2000 2001 Diff
S. Elarton 4.81 6.22 +1.41
W. Miller 5.14 3.02 -2.12
J. Lima 6.65 7.04 +0.39
K. Bottenfield 4.50 4.88 +0.38
O. Dotel 5.40 4.72 -0.68
The first thing you might ask yourself is why Kent Bottenfield was so utterly available after putting up that ERA last season. It’s simple – he didn’t. His actual ERA for the season was 5.40. Maybe Neyer just got his numbers crossed, and maybe he accidentally used only Bottenfield’s 8-game ERA with Philadelphia, but turning a decline into a decent-sized improvement for 20 percent of his sample changes things a lot.
Now we turn to Scott Elarton, the biggest culprit on the list with an ERA of 6.22. At this same point in 2000, 8 starts into his season, Elarton’s ERA was 7.17. He did not get below 6.22 until his fourteenth start, so it could pretty easily be argued he is ahead of his pace from last season.
Obviously the same argument holds with another bad guy, Jose Lima, who was shellacked in his fifth start of 2000 and never recovered. Last season he had seven starts in which he allowed 7 or more earned runs and 2 with double-digit earned runs. This season he has allowed 7 once, probably only because he’s been yanked more quickly. If that’s true though, it’s still Larry Dierker doing the yanking. Who is telling Dierk to stick a fork in Lima?
Anyway, quibbling with the samples probably takes away from the real argument, sample size. Not in the statistical sense – Brushback is mathematically-challenged – but in the “it’s still early” sense. It seems logical that if a catcher indeed has impact on a pitching staff, that impact will reveal itself more clearly as time passes, not starkly at the beginning. The catcher learns (or relearns) the pitchers’ tendencies, strengths, and mechanics; the pitchers get familiar with how the catcher works and what he expects.
In short, Neyer sets up a straw man – that Ausmus has “some sort of magical, staff-improving ability” that should work overnight and become evident to numerical analysis if it exists – then proceeds to clumsily knock it down with stats that come from small samples or are just plain false.
As far as offense from Ausmus goes, Neyer gets that one for now. But it is only fair to note that there are players all over baseball who’ve gotten off to bad starts. A student of the statistical analysis of baseball should understand the symmetry involved. For every Albert Pujols there will be a Brad Ausmus. His career says he will eventually gravitate to better numbers, unless folks willing to react to blips get him out of the lineup first.