Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on May 24, 2001.
“Leading off for the Houston Astros… Number 7… Second-baseman… Craig… Biggio.”
It’s been awhile since we’ve heard those familiar words. They’re warm and fuzzy and they feel like home… and it will help the Astros win if we hear them again.
The Astros’ current leadoff man is shortstop Julio Lugo. He’s an exciting young hitter, with a good career average of .280, surprising power and excellent speed. What he brings to the table offensively is more than anyone has a right to expect from a shortstop, but it’s setting the table that’s at issue right now. Is Julio Lugo what the Astros need in the leadoff spot, or is he only there because there seems to be little alternative?
A leadoff hitter should be good at several things, but primarily he must get on base. Lugo’s on-base percentage is .338 for his career. That’s not good for a leadoff hitter, and so far this season it’s gotten even worse. His current .317 OBP is not just disappointing, it’s downright unacceptable in a leadoff capacity. Lugo’s hitting is not that bad – though he is treading at .270 right now – it’s what happens when he doesn’t hit the ball that’s a problem. He’s got only 12 walks through more than a quarter of the season and he’s on pace for 130 strikeouts.
On the plus side is the pop in Lugo’s bat. He’s got a slugging percentage of .458, and his 8 homeruns trail only Hidalgo, Bagwell and Berkman for most on the club. Some of that slugging is coming with no one on base though, when he leads off games, and it’s wasted to some degree. Not to knock his longballs and the much appreciated runs – it’s just that with only five doubles and one triple on the season, it’s tough to argue that it’s okay for him to get on base less because he’s farther along when he does get on. He isn’t.
It’s okay if he only gets to first as long as he’s there constantly or can advance himself via the stolen base. Last season Lugo swiped 22 bags and was caught 9 times. That’s a little better than a 2-to-1 ratio, which is the break-even point according to baseball theorists. Less than 2-to-1 and you should not bother, greater and you should go when the situation is favorable. Of course it takes some time to learn which side of 2-to-1 you’re on, and the threat of stealing alone has enough value to warrant giving it a shot when you can. This season Lugo has stolen 5 and been caught 4 times – another disappointing stat that suggests he is miscast in the leadoff role.
Right now Julio Lugo’s hitting numbers look very similar to those of another player with the “exciting” and “surprising power” labels, Jose Hernandez, and not like a leadoff man’s. That’s not an indictment of Julio Lugo, but a question of whether he’s ready, able, or suited to fill the role he’s being asked to for this team. Houston fans have been spoiled by Craig Biggio in the leadoff spot – he hasn’t had an on-base percentage below .380 since 1993 – but even St. Biggio had on OBP around .350 in his first 3+ seasons. He just wasn’t a leadoff hitter then, and Julio Lugo should not be now.
But if Lugo is not the man to lead off, who is? A general lack of speed on the Astros makes it a difficult question indeed. The obvious answer seems to be Biggio – he’s been doing it well for years and his on-base percentage is a robust .395 right now. Speed is an obvious concern for a 35-year-old in his 14th season who is coming off major knee surgery, yet speed is seemingly a non-factor anyway since Lugo has not been effective on the bases. Whether through ability, guile, favoritism from Joe Ump, or all of the above, Biggio would be definitely be on base much more often than Lugo. Even absent a strong stolen base threat, the Astros need the consistent ability to reach at the top of the order that Biggio brings. And it’s not as if Bidge is exactly slow. He can still advance two bases on singles and score from second on doubles.
Biggio also offers the patience and experience to let his pitcher get a spell on the pine after his AB, and to force the opposing pitcher to show more than one type of pitch to start off the game. Are those things actually valuable? Some say yes, some say no; they’re probably just the last few straws on the camel’s back.
If Biggio were to lead off, Larry Dierker’s probable lineup would have Lance Berkman moving up to hit second, Richard Hidalgo fourth, and Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou staying in the third and fifth spots. It’s also possible Lugo could hit second. He had some success there last season and his power would be more advantageous than at the top, but on balance the same problem with his on-base percentage persists in that scenario. Also, if Berkman is hitting second the Astros might be able to put Biggio in motion for the switch-hitter – something they would be leery of with the hit-or-miss Lugo at the dish.
Tilting at Windmills…
A statistic has reared its head repeatedly over the last few weeks, seemingly as some sort of defense against Enron Field’s ESPN-aided reputation as a homerun park. Varied sources have offered it up, but the best known culprit is Astros broadcaster Alan Ashby. He has repeatedly pointed out that the Astros have launched more big flies on the road than at home. After 42 games, 21 on the road and 21 at home, he was right – the ‘Stros had 32 yard-jobs at Enron and 35 on the circuit.
So what’s the problem with repeating those numbers? There really isn’t one if you are just yammering out statistics to fill up airtime or if you’re trying to say Houston’s lineup can probe the bleachers of any stadium in the land. It’s when you use those numbers to make implications about Enron Field that you run into trouble.
We start with the obvious: teams get more at-bats on the road than at home. Sometimes they will have a lead at home and not bat in the ninth inning. For that reason, additive statistics like homerun totals should be converted to rate statistics like homeruns per at-bat. That levels the playing field, and as long as the samples are similar, dispenses with the need to base it on an equal number of games.
Converting the Astros’ homerun totals over the first 42 games to homeruns per at-bat tells us they homered about once every 22 at-bats at home and once every 21 at-bats on the road. That isn’t much of a difference, especially through just a quarter of the season, but the numbers seem to hold up, right? Enron Field is not a homerun hitter’s dream.
Not exactly. The Astros are not the only team on the field when they play, so their performance alone is only half the story. Open-Star opposition has gone yard 34 times at Enron, but only 25 times on the road. In case you’re curious, that means Astros pitching allowed a homerun roughly every 5 2/3 innings at home versus every 7 2/3 innings on the road. The opposition’s total was +9 homeruns at EFUS, which easily outweighs the -3 the Astros tallied. All told, the Astros and their opponents combined to hit 66 homeruns at Enron compared to 60 on the road through 42 games.
We don’t have to stop there. We could compare Enron to other parks around the league to see whether it is one of the easier spots to go deep – it is – but the point is clear. Just because the Astros have hit homeruns more easily on the road to this point in the season doesn’t mean Enron is not a homerun park.
That said, Ashby’s statistic is far from worthless. While it says almost nothing about Enron Field, it does scratch at an important issue for the ballclub – whether the Astros have the kind of team that can take advantage of their home park.
One idea is that they do not need to stack their lineup with power hitters and out-slug the opposition. True mashers won’t get much of a boost from the dimensions at Enron, their taters will just go further beyond the fences than they would at Ted Turner’s Vanity Field, but line drive hitters with warning-track power could see a real boon. Right now it appears the average hitter around the league is getting more homerun benefit from Enron than the average Astro hitter.
It’ll be interesting to watch as the season wears on. For now the best bet is to accept that Enron Field is a pretty good homerun park – and realize that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides, isn’t everyone happy with all the media attention Houston is finally getting?
Note: The Astros have played three games since this piece was prepared – all losses at the hands of facial-hair artist Ryan Klesko and the Padres. In those games, the Astros allowed 6 adios muchachos to the Friars and tallied just 3 of their own, 2 of those by Jeffrey Robert Bagwell. That is 9 more yacks at Enron in three games, which makes the park seem homer-friendly, yet the Astros rate of one/game for the series continues to make them look better on the road.