Talking about minor league lessons learned, Carlos Pena's incredibly slow pace and Travis Hafner...
Some things to talk about while we root through Ken Caminiti's goodie bag...
1) Minor League Ball's Lessons Learned
All you TCB readers are smart, right? That's why you're here in the first place. Since you're such intelligent, well-rounded individuals, I can also surmise that you know all about John Sickels' series where he looks back at prospects who have made it big in the majors to see if we can learn anything about prospecting.
Thus, he has an index of every retrospective he has published in 2013, replete with lessons we can glean from them. There aren't that many from this year yet, but we've already got some good ones, like this:
****Rapid improvements aren't always illusionary and can make a big difference (Example: Doug Fister)
****If a pitcher throws strikes and gets grounders, he has something to build on. (Example: Doug Fister)
Oh, you sneaky, crafty readers, you! You already went the same place I did when I read that, didn't you? Strike-throwing, grounders and a rapid improvement. Are there any pitchers in the Astros system who fit that mold?
Why, yes, yes there are. One Nicholas Tropeano certainly hits both of those categories. He throws strikes, gets grounders and had a breakthrough season in 2012. Sure, his fastball velocity gain may not be sustainable, but there are plenty of past examples (Fister and others), which says it could be real.
I'm not saying that Tropeano will suddenly be a major leaguer this year. It's just a good sign that two of Sickels' lessons can be applied to him. It's encouraging if nothing else...
2) How slow can Pena go?
When we were putting together scouting reports and analysis, did I miss the memo on how he's the slowest batter in the league? By a good margin?
Yup, turns out he is. FanGraphs has even been publishing a series of articles looking at how the slowest batter in MLB looks against different pitchers. This time, they looked at Pena vs. the slowest working pitcher in the league, Jonathan Papelbon. The results were not pretty, as seen in this gif below:
Mmm, that's going to be fun to watch...
So, how will Pena's slow approach fit into the Astros lineup? Well, the average Astro hitter last season took 22.2 seconds per pitch. The MLB average was 22.1, so they were right in line with with that, but still significantly slower than Pena's 28.0 seconds.
What does that mean per at-bat, you ask? Well, Pena saw 4.14 pitches per plate appearance last season, meaning he spent an average of 116 seconds at the plate every plate appearance. The Astros, as a whole, saw 3.84 pitches per appearance, which means an average at-bat lasted 84.8 seconds.
On the balance, assuming he sees four or five plate appearances per game, the addition to Pena to the lineup only lengthens the average Astros game by maybe two to two and a half minutes. When he's going through that extended bit of pre-swing ritual, though? Could feel like 20 minutes...
Remember, as Jeff Sullivan says over and over, Pace doesn't predict anything. It doesn't mean anything about performance, it just gives us a measure of something we already intuited about how the game was going.
Incidentally, for all those woe-is-me types who thought the AL move was going to mean Houston would be stuck with every game lasting five hours and being just interminable. Well, the average pace for AL teams last season was the exact same as the NL and there hasn't been much difference between the two since 2007. In fact, in 2011, the AL was actually a bit faster than the NL, batter-wise. Food for thought.
3) Why Houston didn't sign Travis Hafner
Been thinking about this one a lot lately, and a reader emailed me a very solid point asking why Houston hadn't gone after guys like Travis Hafner in favor of a Carlos Pena. See, Hafner or Jim Thome or a few other players havee much more offensive upside than Pena.
However, they are also bigger risks. Hafner is an injury waiting to happen and hasn't topped 600 plate appearances since 2007. Thome is ancient and only saw 850 plate appearances in the last three years combined. Even a Lyle Overbay, who signed a minor league deal with Boston, is two years removed from making 600 plate appearances.
For the Astros, who needed a starter at designated hitter, durability was going to be a concern. They can't predict who would get injured and who wouldn't, just like the term "injury risk" is thrown about too often for players who have just been unlucky.
But, they did need to limit their risk. With a guy like Hafner or Overbay, there's a ton of risk that those guys wouldn't get to the 600 PA threshold. Pena, though, looks like a very good bet to do just that.
So, they weighed the good with the bad and found a player who could be reasonably expected to play a lot while providing slightly lowered offensive potential. The Yankees can afford to sign Hafner, because they don't need a guaranteed number of plate appearances from him. Anything they get positive out of him is a bonus.
It's not the most elegant solution, and probably not one that's popular with fans, but it's yet another move where Luhnow limits his risk. Was this guy a titan of industry in another life or something?