For a team that is 11-21, taking note of their set up man and closer is a little like a car dealer praising the brakes on a car with a faulty engine. Unless the car can get going, the brakes never come into play. Like a sputtering auto, the Astros have had all sorts of trouble scoring runs and ultimately winning baseball games. Games have been frustrating to watch of late due to the overall level of incompetence offensively. It's tough to have much faith in a team when a two run deficit feels like 6 or 7 (with the exception of last night).
This is a shame, because there are players on this team that are actually playing well. Not surprisingly, most of these players are on the pitching staff. Matt Lindstrom in particular was given the task before the season began of closing out games for the Astros, after our previous closer, Jose Valverde, had a great deal of success in 2008 and 2009. The fact that Ed Wade gave up more minor leaguers for Lindstrom didn't ease the amount of pressure/expectations the duo would face this season. After a rocky start, Lindstrom has come into his own and has performed as well as we could probably hope.
As a closer, Matt Lindstrom has been able to do two things which are positives for relief pitchers protecting small leads. Thus far Lindstrom's stats have come full circle from his 2009 campaign which saw fluctuate from being ineffective to extremely ineffective. For starters, his ground ball rate has been an outlier as compared to the rest of his career in 2010. A steady rate in the mid 40% range has seen a dramatic uptick through 15.1 IP with the Astros, up to a career high 56.8%. This could be a function of the small sample size, or perhaps the increased usage of his slider has helped to keep balls on the ground rather than in the air. After pitching for the same organization during the first three seasons of his ML career, a move to Houston and change in pitching coaches to Brad Arnsberg may be a reason as well. Could Arnsberg have seen something in Lindstrom's slider during the off season which caused him to emphasize the pitch once Spring Training began?
The other outlier which I noticed for Mr. Lindstrom is that he has walked batters at a career low rate. Really though, that's not fair to say. In truth, Lindstrom has blown away his previous walk rates with impunity. Jumping down to 1.8 BB per nine innings from his 4+ walks/9 IP in 2008 and 2009 is truly impressive. Our closer is really making hay in throwing first pitch strikes more frequently than in his Florida Marlin days. Getting ahead of hitters 0-1 is especially important for a closer because opposing hitters know that you're coming with either a fastball or slider and not much else. Falling behind means the fastball is more likely to be thrown and that can lead to trouble. His throwin strike one early and gaining the upper hand has surely been a factor in batters expanding the zone and swinging at pitches outside the strikezone almost 10% more this season (34.3%) than last (24.4%). Again, I don't know for sure that Brad Arnsberg and the other Astro coaches have played a role in this change, but it would be tough to argue that they haven't had some effect on this improvement.
Could all this come crashing down at any moment? It could. Given Lindstrom's track record of inconsistent play, a career low BABIP and a LOB% of 90.2%, rough times may yet find the last man in the Houston pen. Despite these potential pot-holes, there have been noticeable and quantifiable improvements in his game which have shown through in his time on the mound. If the Astro offense is ever able to score even an average amount of runs on a consistent basis, Lindstrom should be able to get on the field more frequently and show off his impressive arsenal and improved game plan.