Moneyball is about taking advantage of market inefficiencies. It's not about walks, it's not about Billy Beane, it's not even about the Oakland A's. It's about innovation, daring to look where others won't look. It's about maximizing the value on your big league roster to win as many games as possible. This by and large is something the Astros have lacked this season and the past several seasons. With that in mind let's look at some of the inefficiencies on the Astros roster in 2011 and see what they need to improve for 2012.
The Astros have been a below average team defensively this year. Thanks to the likes of Michael Bourn, Clint Barmes and Hunter Pence, they have not been the worst defensive team in the majors. Yes, Pence's defensive numbers were down this year, but his career numbers would suggest he's an above average defender. With the trades of Bourn and Pence, you'd expect the team defense to slide but it may have actually improved. Both Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic are proving to be adequate replacements, sending down Chris Johnson was a huge upgrade defensively and getting Carlos Lee out of left field was also huge.
Speaking of El Caballo, he's been one of the biggest defensive inefficiencies for the Astros since 2007. In three of the five season in left field with the Astros, Lee has posted well below average defensive numbers. Interestingly enough, the other two season where he wasn't absolutely horrible was when he had under a thousand innings in the outfield. Coincidence? I think not. With Wallace's well documented struggles at the plate, it allowed the Astros to move Lee to first base where he appears to being doing a pretty good job.
The other big defensive inefficiency was Johnson at third base who for the past two seasons has posted the worst defensive numbers at that position. Like Wallace, his struggles offensively and defensively punched his ticket to the minors and in swooped Jimmy Paredes who has had some issues of his own but has been far better and has way more defensive potential.
The Astros surprisingly have done a good job this season of improving the defense with what they have; of course that improvement has been more due to struggling players rather than their own desire to do so. For 2012 there's not much they can do to improve the defense outside sacrificing offense or signing a defensive wiz off the free agent market. At the catcher position they look to improve with the return of Jason Castro who is very likely an upgrade over Humberto Quintero who is solid but not elite defensively. The other outstanding position is the shortstop position where unless they're willing to allow Jonathan Villar to play regardless of offense they'll want to make a strong push towards re-signing Barmes.
I've already discussed with much disdain Angel Sanchez getting over 300 plate appearances, so I'll spare you, but the other major issue has been Johnson who got almost 400 plate appearances while posting below average offensive numbers. There's also the issue of Wallace who still has potential but will need to show more power and cut down on the strikeouts before he can reclaim the starting first basemen gig.
There are some hidden inefficiencies that the Astros need to be mindful of, the biggest being Jimmy Paredes. Yes he's hitting over .300 but there are some pretty alarming red flags and they're the same red flags we had last year with Johnson. First is the unsustainable .389 batting average on balls in play (BABiP) average is typical around .300. Paredes does have the speed which works in his favor and if he can post a positive line drive percentage he could sustain a higher than normal BABiP. The other red flag is his strikeout percentage which is similar to Johnson's in both the majors and minors. With the unsustainable BABiP Paredes is only a league average hitter when the other shoe drops (and it will happen) and his statistics begin to normalize he'll be a below average offensive third baseman. Obviously his speed and defensive ability could still make him a valuable starter and I'm not dooming him offensively either, but he still needs to improve his offense and starting him in the minors next season might not be such a bad idea.
The only other player to keep an eye on is Bogusevic whose .349 BABiP is a bit high but when normalized would probably make him an average to slightly above average hitter. Platooning him with Bourgeois probably wouldn't be a bad idea and would probably help to keep his BABiP a bit higher than normal. Also his outstanding defense should ease any drop in his offense numbers and honestly the Astros don't really have a better option. Which really doesn't make him much of an inefficiency...I just like talking about him.
Overall this team really needs to work on taking walks, they're last in the league and they won't be closing that gap before the season is out. Getting men on base is key to any good team. More men on base means more opportunities to score runs, meaning more opportunities to score runs meaning more runs scored, more runs scored means a more competitive team. It also helps the team avoid making outs which brings us to two other important thing this team needs to do: Quit bunting and quit batting Sanchez second...you have 27 outs, so cherish them.
The difference in wins above replacement (WAR) between the Astros pitching staff (last) and the Phillies pitching staff (first) is 22.4. I don't think the pitching has been that bad and if you look at their fielder independent pitching (FIP) they're not the worst but still in the bottom five. The pitching staff's xFIP, which normalizes home runs, is even more forgiving and indicates that they've been middle of the pack. So what gives? The problem has mainly been the long ball. They're dead last in home run flyball percentage (HR/FB) tied with the Colorado Rockies at almost 12%. Last year with a top ten HR/FB rate they had a top ten FIP and a middle of the pack WAR.
The worst non-reliever in regards to giving up the long ball has been Brett Myers, Bud Norris and Wandy Rodriguez. Yup that's right the top three starters in the rotation. Looking at career numbers we can expect Myers and Norris to continue to give up a pretty high amount of home runs. With Norris however it's very possible he could take another step forward in his development and improve on that home run flyball rate (barring any injury concerns from last night). The curious one is Rodriguez who we haven't seen this high of a home run rate since his rookie season in 2005, I'd expect him to improve next year.
Jordan Lyles, J.A. Happ and Henry Sosa have all had issues as well with marks above 10%. There's room for improvement there, but they also pitch in a park that's pretty nasty down the lines so stay tuned.
The bullpen itself has been one big inefficiency and Ed Wade is going to have his work cut out for him <-insert bullpen obsession joke->, at this point he could be saying "I told you so." The only worthy names to mention as far as productive bullpen arms are Mark Melancon, Wilton Lopez and Fernando Rodriguez. The Astros do however have some interesting arms with Juan Abreu, Sergio Escalona and Josh Zeid. Brandon Lyon will be making his return next year and the best you can probably hope for is a partial return on the Astros investment in the final year of his contract. The Astros should have enough interesting arms to avoid putting him back into the closer role or even setup role, if he even does actually return.
Overall there's not much you can do when three of five starters are still developing and the bullpen is filled with a majority of inexperienced arms. All we can really do is pray and hope that the pitchers take a step forward in their development and hopefully provide some stability in the pitching department.
The Astros have done well stumbling into correcting their inefficiencies. They still have a couple more areas they can improve upon, but the defense is probably as good as it's going to get with the current personnel. The pitching looks to improve next year but could be just as bad next year if the homerun rate doesn't drop and the bullpen isn't fixed. That leaves the offense needing the most work. A lack of walks, power and a wasteful strategy is really hurting this team. Without even half a year of Bourn and Pence the Astros are really going to have to be at the top of their game if they want to avoid losing another 100 games.