So it took me an excessively long time to get this up. School is beating me handily at this point (full load, plus an absurd LSAT prep course...plus Astros baseball 6 nights a week). My apologizes for all who were waiting with baited breath for this, but better late, than never.
This final section is probably the most interesting, in which Zachary Levine really sheds some light on issues that only someone with knowledge of the day-to-day affairs of the Astros could. Again, I thank Mr. Levine for his time and patience with me during this process.
Crawfish Boxes: Alright, another issue kind of related to Coop, but also to Dewey Robinson. When I read your Father’s Day article about our home runs and walks, it was one of those Eureka moments in my head. I remember reading about Coop lambasting the pitcher’s during Spring Training for allowing walks and it being emphasized that we weren’t going to walk guys. Do you think that was maybe a strategy that could have been employed with someone with a little more control, like Roy or Wandy if they’re exhibiting it, but just trying to make it a blanket policy across our entire staff is something that should have been avoided? And do you think that you’ve seen a shift in emphasis since that observation?
Zachary Levine: I think that was a talking point. I think that he simplifies things when he talks to the fans and the press. I don’t think that the Astros are telling their pitchers to avoid walks at all costs. I think that the truth lies somewhere in between. I think that there are still guys that they want them to be careful with, especially when it comes to lefty/righty match-ups which Cecil Cooper has really taken too. He likes to talk to the press about numbers he notices. He seems to be interested in the numbers. I’m not convinced yet of how much a grasp he has on it, but his favorite statistical thing is the lefty/righty match-up. Especially the last month. You’ll notice that David Newhan is starting against righties and that Ty Wigginton is leading off against lefties, which for someone who I didn’t have a lot of good feeling for statistically when he came in, that’s encouraging to see. His pitching is the same thing and you saw it work to such perfection when the Mets came to Minute Maid. When he would do those lefty/righty switches and every button he pushed worked. When he sent three pitchers in to face the Mets in one inning once they loaded bases in the, I think it was a seventh inning in one of the games, and he really managed his way out of the inning really well. I think that it sometimes on this team dictates strategy and it burns him when you have Wesley Wright walk the righty David Wright and he gives up a home run to Carlos Delgado -- but, I mean what’s the difference between 6-0 and 7-0? Somewhere in the middle is where the truth actually lies. I don’t think that they’re discouraging walks any more than any other major league team. Every major league team will tell you “pound the strike zone, pound the strike zone.” I was reading the other day that Roy Oswalt leads the NL in strike percentage, which is something I’d never really looked at before, but he throws the highest percentage of his pitches for strikes out of any NL starting pitchers with qualified plate appearances (I think is what the stat was). I think it was something like 65% or 67%.
CFB: About Roy Oswalt: He had the terrible the start, there was the groin that wasn’t really the groin and then the hip later, I know he said publicly that he wasn’t dealing with anything at the beginning and he wasn’t hiding anything, but having done some of the work with the pitch/fx data, his struggles and most of his home runs allowed came with men on base. He had a ridiculously low LOB%. Do you get a feel that maybe he was hiding a nagging something and he just doesn’t want to use it as an excuse because he was just fighting through it trying to be a competitor? Or do you think it was just fluke?
ZL: I don’t think it was fluke. I think there was definitely something wrong. You see that when tried to take the mound in Washington when he clearly wasn’t ready, you saw his bravado. He’s a competitor, he wants to be out there. I didn’t pick up on anything specifically based on the overall numbers that was drastically different. His strikeout numbers are back and that’s usually an indicator of good things to come, but I think that there was reason for his struggles early on. Whether he wasn’t comfortable on the mound because of injury or what have you -- I don’t think it was a statistical fluke.
CFB: I know that Roy has a history of trying to gut these kinds of things out, but do you think that there was any kind of internal pressure for him to take the mound “we’re still in it, you’re our ace,” that type of stuff? Or do you think it was all self-motivated?
ZL: It was a lot of self-motivating. I think he’s, more than of these guys, sort of his own boss. He dictates his own schedule -- not to say he’s above the manager in this organization -- but I know a lot of the times, Cecil Cooper, with Roy Oswalt, would freely let Roy Oswalt his schedule, “when he’s ready he’ll tell us.” I think, at least to an extent, it’s self motivated. If this had been the last year of his contract, I could see it coming from within, but when you have so much committed to him for the next few years, it’s an even better sign that it wasn’t from within -- which is something I would have believed anyway just having been around the clubhouse.
CFB: As a follow up to that: do you think that this sort of a dangerous approach to take with such a valued commodity? Should there be a little more oversight?
ZL: Yes, there should be a little more oversight and caution. Especially when it’s been nagging for awhile. I think that that’s the approach they’re taking with Kaz Matsui, who they’ve committed a whole lot of money to over the next three years. Each time the time table has taken longer than they’ve expected it to. They tell you one thing and then they get so cautious with him -- they only had him taking ground balls yesterday and I think that yesterday was day thirteen of the DL.
CFB: We made some moves at the trade deadline, but we gave few minor league guys (maybe low ceiling? maybe high?) for Randy Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins. So essentially we pretty much stood pat. Do you agree with the call to stand pat? Do you think we should have tried to trade for someone, maybe a younger guy for next year? Or a bigger name?
ZL: I would definitely not have tried to acquire a bigger name. First of all I don’t think we had anything that anybody wanted. [betraying my bias, I interject with the Red Sox interest in our bull pen guys] I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think that the Astros had anyone minor-league-wise to bring in a big league name. I think that not only would have been foolish, but out of the question. As far as getting rid of a guy, I guess there were two schools of thought on that: get rid of a guy who has years left on his contract and the other was to get rid of a guy who doesn’t have years left on his contract. I don’t think I would have gotten rid of a guy who has years left on his contract, because I think that this team is not that far away -- with the willingness that Drayton McLane has shown in bringing in big pieces. Berkman, Lee, and Oswalt are a pretty big foundation to build around if they show the willingness to bring in someone like they did with Roger Clemens in the ’04-’05 run. I might have shown the willingness to get rid of the one year guys. I know that Darin Erstad is a guy that they can get for relatively cheap as insurance policy for injury or real struggles for Michael Bourn next year. I’d kind of like that they kept him around and have a better opportunity to resign him [note: this interview was conducted before we resigned Erstad]. I’m not sure that there would have been any harm in getting rid of some of the other “wise-men.” I’m not going to sit here and really knock them for not getting rid of them -- you’re not going to really get too much for a guy to come off the bench for two months. I think that standing pat, was maybe not the best option, but it was close. It wasn’t so far from the best option that I don’t consider it a big organizational failure.
CFB: To wrap it up, there’s already a lot of speculation about how the Astros are going to do this off-season. How do you think the organization will actually move?
ZL: Uh...I have no idea.
CFB: Ok, how do you think the Astros should move then?
ZL: I know one of the names being tossed around is CC Sabathia and I don’t think he’ll be an Astro next year. I think Ben Sheets is a much better choice and we have a much chance with sort of the recruiting and the lower price tag. It’s obviously a risk with his injuries, which makes me think that someone is going to overpay for him, but I guess that’s the theory with pitchers: you overpay for the end to get your money’s worth in the beginning. I think that as long as the years aren’t crazy on Ben Sheets’ contract, then I think it’s a worthwhile thing. I can see a rotation Oswalt, Sheets, Wandy, and Brandon Backe.