The 2005 Astros were a rare species of pennant-winner. They finished 11th in runs scored, the first National League team since the 1973 Mets to claim the flag with so lowly an offensive output. Consequently, improving the batting order was an offseason priority for general manager Tim Purpura.
While signing Preston Wilson may not have been a blockbuster move, and although the Astros made no other significant additions, Houston nonetheless has reason to hope for better fortunes at the plate this season. Two sets of figures in particular tell why. Here they are:
Pos Avg OBP Slg 2B 3B HR R RBI BB RC ---------------------------------------------------- 1B .266 .363 .461 33 1 28 92 101 93 102 LF .244 .310 .388 34 6 14 71 57 53 74
These are the performances by Astros first basemen and left fielders, cumulatively, in 2005. That last column is runs created and is a simple estimate (OBP times slugging percentage times at-bats) of how many runs the player or players generated offensively.
Astros first basemen were 11th in batting average, seventh in OBP and home runs, eighth in slugging percentage and RBI, fifth in runs and sixth in runs created among National League teams ? a middling performance. Meanwhile, Astros left fielders were 15th in batting average, OBP, slugging average, RBI and runs created and 14th in home runs and runs among National League teams ? among the worst in baseball.
First base last season was a combination of four players:
Player PA Avg OBP Slg ------------------------------------ Lance Berkman 368 .317 .440 .567 Mike Lamb 202 .204 .243 .361 Jeff Bagwell 108 .250 .361 .398 Jose Vizcaino 32 .200 .250 .233
Only Lance Berkman performed at a level a team would hope to get from perhaps its most important generator of run production. The likely career-ending resolution of Jeff Bagwell?s situation at least has the silver lining of giving the Astros a chance to gain significantly from what should be their biggest source of offensive output.
The Astros got an estimated 102 runs created out of first base last season. Trade that .363 OBP and .461 slugging percentage for Berkman?s .425 OBP and .535 slugging percentage over the last three seasons, and that translates into an estimated 139 runs created in 609 at-bats, or almost 40 more than Astros first basemen produced in 2005.
Left field was an even more motley assortment, with nine different players seeing action:
Player PA Avg OBP Slg --------------------------------------- Chris Burke 302 .253 .312 .375 Lance Berkman 142 .231 .345 .405 Orlando Palmeiro 83 .293 .354 .427 Luke Scott 71 .167 .225 .242 Mike Lamb 46 .279 .304 .535 Jason Lane 12 .250 .250 .500 Todd Self 9 .333 .333 .444 Charles Gipson 10 .000 .000 .000 Eric Bruntlett 9 .250 .333 .750
Among that gang, nobody was particularly spectacular. Berkman?s time was spent there right after coming off the disabled list. Orlando Palmeiro was a solid performer, but for only a fraction of plate appearances.
Enter Wilson. His averages over the last three seasons give an idea of what he might provide the Astros in 2006:
Split Avg OBP Slg AB 2B 3B HR R RBI BB ------------------------------------------------------------ Total .268 .332 .487 1322 83 3 67 191 260 116 Coors .289 .357 .542 581 41 2 34 100 138 55 Elsewhere .251 .315 .444 741 42 1 33 91 122 61
Even with more modest numbers outside Coors Field, Wilson?s .315 OBP and .444 slugging percentage suggest an estimated 86 runs created in 613 at-bats, or a dozen more than the Astros got out of their left fielders last season.
And while Wilson?s three-year averages should be viewed in light of the effects of the significant time he played in Coors, it should be noted that his other home park for almost half a season, RFK Stadium, was particularly brutal on Wilson.
A dozen runs may not sound like a lot ? just an extra run every 14 games ? but for a team that often struggled to score at all last season, any addition helps. And the estimate for Wilson is conservative ? it does not consider whether he might see better numbers in Minute Maid Park than he did mostly on the road the last three years.
Of course, Berkman and Wilson probably will not play every game at first base and left field. But even if Mike Lamb takes some throws at first and Chris Burke and Palmeiro shag some flies in left, the lion?s share of playing time will belong to Berkman and Wilson, absent injury, and that should bring stability and added productivity to both positions this year.
The Astros also have to worry about whether they can rely on comparable performances at other positions in 2006. They might lose a little at second base (101 RC), as Craig Biggio ages, and third base (124 RC), as Morgan Ensberg comes off a breakout season. But then Willy Taveras in center field (83 RC) and Jason Lane in right field (93 RC) each now have a season under their belts as full-time players.
At catcher (53 RC), Brad Ausmus might tail off after a slight resurgence in 2005, but, at shortstop (61 RC), Adam Everett has almost nowhere else to go but up, particularly with a worrisome family problem (surgery on his infant daughter) behind him.
And there is the benefit manager Phil Garner will enjoy of not having to pencil his bench players (pinch-hitters, 29 RC) so often into the starting line-up this season, giving him added flexibility late in games.
If these eventualities at other positions balance out, and if Berkman and Wilson put up numbers that result in extra output on the magnitude described above (admittedly, neither of those are a given), the Astros might find themselves more formidable offensively. An extra 50 runs last season would have put them fifth, rather than 11th, in the National League in scoring. It also might have given them five or six more wins, making that final stretch in September less nerve-wracking.
To expect that in 2006 may be wishful thinking, but it sure beats having no reason to be hopeful for improvement. Pitching is another matter, dependent largely on whether the best pitcher born since 1900 decides to take another turn in the rotation.