Did the Astros get any bang for their batting-buck?

On Frdiay I wrote the following:

[T]he anomaly [of the Astros season] dealt more with the aberrant trajectory the Astros' won/loss record tacked to, relative to the personnel orienting it. Prior to trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkmanthe Astros posted a .422 winning percentageAfter the trade, they posted a .550 winning percentage

Yes, arbitrary end points produce somewhat arbitrary results, but the point is demonstrated nonetheless.

With all this said, I am not actually going to focus on the anomaly, per se. I will, however, tackle the components that underlie the anomaly: the on-field production the Astros received. As a look to the future, I will also context that on-field production in light of the cost the Astros paid for it. I will attempt this over the next few days. In doing so, I will cover the Astros' pitching, hitting, and the draw from both sides of the coin to give a full perspective.

What I gleaned from looking at the return on the Astros pitching-investment is that the Astros' got the most bang for their pitching-buck from their top five starters and two late-inning relievers. Obviously, investing smartly in those two categories should produce strong results. However, pitching comprised roughly 1/3 of the Astros on-field investment in 2010.

Today, we'll take a look at the other side of the coin, the thicker side, hitting.

As with pitching, the WAR numbers reported below are fWAR. As it was with pitching, their utilization stems from the ease of data collection rather than an implicit approval of fWAR over bWAR. In all honesty, I'm not entirely sure what the difference in fWAR and bWAR besides UZR and TZ for the defensive components. There are certainly pros and cons to both defensive metrics, but, again, time being a luxury I opted for the easier to obtain of the two WARs.

Again, where contract information was not available from Cot's Baseball Contracts, I substituted my best guess and there is probably a $1.5 million MOE surrounding the payroll numbers.

Name WAR Dollars Salary Difference
Michael Bourn 4.2 $16.80 $2.40 $14.40
Hunter Pence 3.2 $12.90 $4.25 $8.65
Jeff Keppinger 2.4 $9.60 $1.15 $8.45
Lance Berkman 2.1 $8.60 $11.00 ($2.40)
Chris Johnson 1.6 $6.40 $0.40 $6.00
Jason Michaels 1.1 $4.30 $0.80 $3.50
Humberto Quintero 0.5 $2.00 $0.75 $1.25
Jason Castro 0.4 $1.40 $0.40 $1.00
Jason Bourgeois 0.3 $1.30 $0.40 $0.90
Geoff Blum 0.1 $0.60 $1.50 ($0.90)
Kevin Cash 0 $0.00 $0.40 ($0.40)
J.R. Towles 0 ($0.10) $0.40 ($0.50)
Anderson Hernandez 0 ($0.20) $0.40 ($0.60)
Brett Wallace 0 ($0.20) $0.40 ($0.60)
Brian Esposito -0.1 ($0.30) $0.40 ($0.70)
Angel Sanchez -0.1 ($0.60) $0.40 ($1.00)
Brian Bogusevic -0.1 ($0.60) $0.40 ($1.00)
Matt Downs -0.2 ($0.70) $0.40 ($1.10)
Oswaldo Navarro -0.2 ($0.90) $0.40 ($1.30)
Cory Sullivan -0.3 ($1.00) $0.70 ($1.70)
Tommy Manzella -0.6 ($2.30) $0.40 ($2.70)
Carlos Lee -0.7 ($2.90) $19.00 ($21.90)
Kaz Matsui -0.7 ($3.00) $5.50 ($8.50)
Pedro Feliz -1.5 ($6.20) $5.00 ($11.20)
Total: $44.90 $57.25 ($12.35)

If you're like me, your head just slammed onto your desk. The list starts off so pleasant to read, and then it takes such a terrible, terrible turn for the worst.

What is interesting to note, though, is that the players who will return in 2011 were strong performers, on the whole. Bourn, Pence, Keppinger, Johnson, Castro, and Quintero provided roughly $40 million in surplus value in 2010. The combined raise in salary to all three players in 2011 shouldn't exceed $4 million. Having such a young, cheap, potentially productive core of hitters is something the Astros haven't had in a very long time. That is the positive news to take away.

The other positive to note from the hitting standpoint is that Brett Wallace likely has room to grow (not physically...those thighs...). As a near league-minimum guy, Wallace doesn't have to produce like the his predecssors at 1B to provide value. Rather, he just has to perform as a league average first basemen to provide multi-million dollar surplus.

(The same can also be said of the vacuum at SS: Tommy Manzella and Angel Sanchez. Although, I temper my hopes for multi-million dollar surplus and simply hope for replacement level service.)

The negative news comes in two waves. The first wave is that Chris Johnson's BABIP-fueled production sends up a bright-red warning flag. A large part of the Astros' second half success derived from their offensive turn around. Johnson hitting over his head is included in that. From a return on investment stand point, Johnson will not be an expensive player in 2011, and therefore only needs to play slightly above replacement level to provide value. But, from the stand point of winning the most games possible, Johnson is a big, kind of chubby question mark at the hot corner.

The elephant in the room (pun intended), though, is Carlos Lee. The $19 million man could potentially man first base in 2011; thereby depriving Brett Wallace of a job, experience, and utility to the 2011 Astros. In the alternative, the $19 million man could simply wallow in LF. fWAR probably penalizes Lee excessively because of the wonkiness results its park-corrections yield sometimes, but the truth of the matter is that Carlos Lee is a terrible left-fielder.

What happens with Lee will likely dictate a lot about how the Astros of the future pan out. To keep Carlos Lee as an everyday player necessarily deprives players like Bogusevic, Shuck, Wallace, and Clemens from big league opportunities. The only real middle ground I can see to balance the opportunity costs is to rotate Lee around first base and left-field. This would provide regular playing time for Bogusevic and Wallace, but I foresee this being a tenable strategy in 2011 only.

I am, however, getting too far a field of evaluating what I am seeking to evaluate: how well did Ed Wade invest in the Astros offense. The result above, clearly, demonstrates poorly. Feliz, Matsui, and Lee where huge negatives and nothing can be done to rectify those mistakes.

What is interesting, to me at least, is that if we exclude Feliz and Matsui from the evaluations, the Astros' offense produced about $9 million in surplus value. So, there is a lesson available to Ed Wade: more selectivity, and perhaps a healthy dose of sabermetric inquiry, could go a long way in selecting future in-field free agents.

Looking to 2011 in isolation, the Astros likely to make it back in 2011 produced $10.65 million in surplus value in 2010. I think the essential message in all of this is that Ed Wade should not look to the free agent market to cure offensive ills. Instead, Wade needs to get with Brad Mills and determine how they might maximize the output of the players already under the Astros' control. Otherwise, it becomes difficult for the Astros not to see net losses on their batting investment.

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