So this is part two of a three part interview with Chronicle writer Zachary Levine. The first installment was a get to know you piece, today's installment presents a general overview of some of the big picture issues we talked about in regards to the Astros in 2008. Again, my thanks to Zachary Levine.
Crawfish Boxes: Ok, we’ll segue more into the Astros, I guess. What are your thoughts on how the season has gone so far?
Zachary Levine: I know it’s a failure when you don’t make the playoffs. But the way I like to think of it is that the average team in Major League Baseball gains zero wins from year x-1 to year x and the average team in Major League Baseball gets a positive contribution from its minor league system. The Astros have had a positive number of wins with zero contribution from its minor league system. So I have a hard time deeming this year failure. I guess you could say that the contributions that they’ve gotten from their minor league system are Miguel Tejada, because they traded part of their farm system for him, and Jose Valverde, but I don’t think that they traded away their long term future to get some of these guys. I don’t think that we’re going to look back on it – there wasn’t a lot of high ceiling prospects that they were giving away. I’m very encouraged, I’ve never seen any of the guys actually play, but from what I hear about the guys that they drafted – and how high a percentage of them they got to wear Astros’ minor league uniforms – I’m very encouraged with the way draft went. So I think this year was a net positive at the major league level without losing too much at the minor league level.
CFB: Speaking of the draft, you already said you liked a lot of the moves, what do you think about the Ross Seaton signing – all the incentives, paying over the mark, the scholarship, etc. – do you think that there is any long-term ramifications for how our draft goes because of that? Do you think its set an expectation for people that we draft?
ZL: That’s a good point. It’s very easy for me to say that it’s a good move and they should pay whatever they have to pay to get these guys in, when it’s not my signature on the checks. I think that if Drayton McLane is willing to acknowledge that whatever he paid to Ross Seaton is going to save him. In say four years Yovanni Gallardo is a big pitching free agent and he would go for $20 million and that year Ross Seaton comes up to the big leagues and you’re paying him the league minimum. If [Drayton McLane] realizes that it’s that gamble that’s going to make this team smart with its money, then I have no problem with it. I think that – everything that I’ve read has said – the way to build your franchise is around the younger guys, instead of waiting around for those sixth year guys who are going to break the bank.
CFB: Definitely. Ok, well, let’s talk about the younger guys for a second. A lot of people though that the Hunter Pence we saw last year in 400 AB’s was the guy we were going to see this year, that Michael Bourn would be your ideal lead-off hitter, and JR Towles would replicate his little cup of coffee from last September. They’ve largely been disappointments this year, but do you think that we should count them out? Or do you think that we just need to give them a little more time?
ZL: No. I don’t think counting them out does any good. Something kind of interesting I’ve noticed about Bourn [note: click that link] is that if you divide up the field for him, he has a SLG higher than the average NL lefty when he pulls the ball – and this is despite having a SLG that’s 30% lower than the average NL lefty even when you include pitchers. To me, that tells me two things. One is that he has some of that power that they were talking about. When they brought him, they were talking about how good of a lead-off hitter he would be, but also that he was a guy that is capable of putting a charge into a few balls. I mean if you watch his home runs, they’re all right down the RF-line, but they’re all legitimate home runs. I think that a lot of it has been inexperience and that if I were a Michael Bourn fan or an Astros fan that I’d be encouraged by that. The other thing it tells me is that his averages are so high when he puts the ball in play compared to his average, which means that he strikes out too much – I think that well all know that. Whether that’s a discipline thing or something that can be taught, I think, will be a good way to evaluate the coaching staff. I’m encouraged to see that he’s going to play winter ball this year, though.
CFB: Ok so what about Towles?
ZL: I mean you can’t read the statistics on him when he has the numbers he has. The numbers are just so low, it just makes me think that he wasn’t ready. Especially how well he is hitting in AAA -- I just think he was up too soon. I didn’t notice that he has one really obvious hole that the pitchers couldn’t find last year, that everyone has found this year. I think last year was a little bit fluky.
CFB: I’m going to lead a question that starts with Pence, but kind of opens up to the organization as a whole. At the end of last year, Pence (I think I can recall of hand) had like a .380 BABIP, which for a 24 year old kid is pretty impressive since that is the numbers you’d expect from a Manny Ramirez or a Pujols. So he seemed due for a little bit of a drop-off, but over the off-season, it seemed like the front office and the team just kept saying that “He’s gonna be Hunter Pence. We’re going to have this huge threat in the middle. We’re going to have five hitters who are power hitters.” [Pence’s decline] was something you could see coming, somewhat. Do you think that Pence will bounce back? And do you think that these kind of advanced statistics and forms of economic analysis are used in the talent evaluations in the front office?
ZL: With Pence, I looked at the number after you sent it to me yesterday [note: I sent ZL a list of potential questions a head of time], so I appreciate you sending that to me. With Pence, it’s half and half. His ground ball numbers are so high compared to the NL average. I measured them at 52%, compared to the NL average, which is 44%, as a whole. He was hitting a LD ever 5 PA last year compared to 8 this year. So it’s half that and it’s half that his BABIP, or really his BA on ground balls has gone down. .320 last year and .286 this year. I don’t know if .320 on ground balls in play is something that you can replicate. I don’t know how much to read into that as being luck and how much to read as he just hits the ground balls harder. It’s not just a natural drop off, it’s definitely something he’s doing differently this year. He’s being pitched different. He’s being pitched much better this year. The pitchers are figuring him out more and more.
As for the front office, I know that Tal Smith is a big, big statistics guy. Just in his background there’s just so much of the numerical analysis. With Ed Wade I kind of tell that he’s into – somewhat. It mostly came up around draft time, when I had the most conversation with him and Bobby Heck about talent evaluation. They said that they use statistics to a limited extent in the college evaluations. They didn’t strike me as real high on it, or that it was the basis of their philosophy.