Why you should be excited for the 2014 Astros season

You could see the Astros high fiving on the field after the game a lot more in 2014 - Rob Foldy

Heading into their second season in the American League, the Houston Astros are coming off a horrific 57-105 season.

According to Bill James' Pythagorean expectancy record, that is. In reality, things were even worse, as the ‘Stros finished dead-last on the planet with an all-time franchise-worst 51-111 record.

It was pitiful play in all aspects of the game that led to such an atrocious final tally. The Astros managed to score just 610 runs, only slightly better than the two Chicago teams (602 for the Cubs and 598 for the White Sox), and better than the stupefyingly unspeakable Marlins (512). Though there were many culprits, the team's tendency to strike out was the most glaring; with a team strikeout rate of 25.5%, the worst figure in all of recorded human history, Houston hitters failed to give themselves even a chance of getting on base more than a quarter of the time.

Stunningly though, the pitching was somehow even worse than the offense. Their team 4.79 ERA was easily the worst in the Majors, and nearly a full run worse than the league average of 3.87. They finished 28th in K/9 (6.78) and dead-last in BB/9 (3.85). Worst of all was the bullpen, which posted a league-worst 52% success rate in save opportunities.

That, however, doesn't even tell the full story; removing Jose Veras' 19-for-22 from the equation, the success rate for the rest of the slapdash relief corps drops to a ghastly 33%. Only two of the team's relievers (Veras and Wesley Wright) pitched 30 or more innings with an ERA under 4.00, and both of them were traded to other teams before season's end. Veras was the only reliever who managed positive WAR (0.6); the rest of the bullpen combined for -6.1 WAR.

And, as you might be expecting, the Astros didn't field the ball worth a darn either. Their team -61.7 UZR was the third worst mark in the Majors, ahead of only the Phillies and Mariners, who respectively have the excuses of being physically old and enfeebled, and captained by a terrible GM. The Astros, young, healthy, athletic and led by GM Jeff Luhnow, have no such excuses; they were just plain horrible.

Brandon Barnes (4.8 UZR) was the only player who logged 160 or more innings in the field last season to post a positive number in that category, and by "positive" I mean, literally, 0.0 or better; the other 19 players who played that much ranged from Justin Maxwell's -0.3 to Jonathan Villar's -8.1.

Yes, the Astros were terrible, almost unimaginably so. That brings us to the first reason you should be excited about this season...

Nowhere To Go But Up

Yeah, okay, I hear you. Granted beforehand that this isn't the most encouraging of reasons, but it's a legitimate point that should be made and kept in mind. The old thought is that, once you've hit rock-bottom, you can only improve from then on. While that's a bit simplistic, what is true is that, frankly, it's very difficult to be as thoroughly, completely and comprehensively horrific as Houston was last year. To lose 111 games, and in the way that many of them were lost, takes a combination of nearly zero talent and some back "luck," by which, in baseball, we mean "chance."

If you have a pitcher for whom 20% of his fly balls are turning into home runs, odds are he's not really pitching all that well, but odds also are that he's suffering from some bad luck, and even if he continues to pitch poorly, he's not likely to continue to get rocked that badly.

Likewise, the level of failure, in many respects, for the Astros last season, simply doesn't have historical precedence of repetition. That is to say, even teams that have been as bad for a single season as the Astros were last year, did not stay that bad. I went through all the seasons of all the franchises listed on baseball reference, both current and defunct, and only one team in history, the famous New York Mets, lost 110 or more games in back to back seasons (1962 and 1963). That's it, just one time, in over a century.

Very few teams have ever put together four seasons of 100 or more losses in a row as well; only the Washington Senators (four seasons, 1961-1964), New York Mets (four seasons, 1962-1965) and Philadelphia Phillies (five seasons, 1938-1942) have achieved a streak of failure like that.

I was surprised to find out, through all this research, just how common 100 and 110 loss seasons are. That is to say, a lot of teams have hit that low mark; the Mets, Pirates, Diamondbacks, Braves, Orioles, Red Sox, Tigers, Twins, Athletics, Phillies, Padres, Cardinals and Nationals have, at least once in their history, lost 110 or more games in a season. In total, there have been 17 other seasons of 110+ losses among the thirty currently existing franchises, excluding the Astros' 2013 season.

100 loss seasons are even more common:

Piechart_medium

Just about everyone has utterly stunk from time to time, most of them multiple times.

The surprises continued; the average improvement following a 110+ loss season is 20.7 games (I.E. a team coming off a 110+ loss season loses 20.7 fewer games next year on average). With few exceptions, teams have generally improved rapidly following their worst seasons (note that "improved rapidly" doesn't mean they started to win, just that the turnaround, in terms of the win-loss record, is often dramatic).

Also notable is that the Mets, Pirates and Twins are the only still-existing franchises to have more than one 110+ loss season in their histories (two each for Pittsburgh and Minnesota, three for New York). Some teams' record books are rife with 100+ loss seasons (as you've seen, the A's have 16 and the Phillies have 14), and yet just one of each them is a 110 loss disaster.

Speaking of those Phillies, do you know just how awful they were back in the day? From 1919 through 1948 (thirty seasons), they went a combined 1,697 - 2,874 with just one winning season (78-76 in 1932) and twelve 100+ loss seasons. Their winning percentage was .371 for three straight decades. Despite that, they lost 110 or more games just once during that unfathomable stretch.

All this is to bring you back to the original point; there's nowhere to go but up. Historically speaking, teams simply don't do as poorly as the Astros did last year in back-to-back years (again, just once in history with the Mets), and the large majority of teams that do as poorly as the Astros did last year never do so poorly again in their history (only Pittsburgh, Minnesota and New York with multiple 110+ loss seasons). Historically speaking, the chance that the Astros don't improve this season is almost non-existent. You can almost say that being that bad is just as fluky as it as a product of poor play.

But that's likely of little comfort to some of you. After all, simply being less than utterly, historically terrible isn't the goal. We know it's almost impossible to be 110 loss bad two years in a row, and therefore improvement in the win-loss column is almost assured. However, by the same token, that begs a question; if Astros simply regress, as is natural, have they actually improved?

Presumably, to be excited about this team, you need to believe that some level of significant improvement to the team will take place, as well as seeing a different statistical result come September's end. And so to the second reason you should be excited about 2014...

Young Players Improving

Methodology Note: when you see me refer to a "third of a season," I'm counting 54 games and 183 plate appearances for position players and 11 starts for a starting pitcher as a third of a season (having a requirement for both games and PA for hitters eliminates guys who got in a lot of games late and weren't really getting regular starting time). All WAR projections use Fangraphs version.

Last season, 12 position players and six starting pitchers played at least a third of the season with the Major League club; Jose Altuve, Matt Dominguez, Chris Carter, Brandon Barnes, Jason Castro, J.D. Martinez, Carlos Pena, Jonathan Villar, Robbie Grossman, Brett Wallace, Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Corporan, Erik Bedard, Jordan Lyles, Dallas Keuchel, Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris and Brad Peacock. Of those 18 players, eight had met those same requirements in at least two other seasons in their careers (Castro, Altuve, Martinez, Pena, Wallace, Bedard, Lyles and Norris). Of those eight, only Castro and Altuve remain.

Castro3rhr_medium

This means that the large majority of 2014's roster will be composed of fresh blood and/or rising young players. Dominguez, Carter, Villar, Grossman, Keuchel and Peacock will all return, have upside, and have been in the league a short enough amount of time that you have to consider them as still having real upside. Altuve, due to his age, and Castro, due to being hampered by injuries early in his career, can also be considered to still have upside, despite now having a significant level of playing time under their belts in multiple seasons.

L.J. Hoes, Marc Krauss, Dexter Fowler and Jesus Guzman will be the batch of new position players who figure to get significant playing time out of the gate; Krauss and Hoes are both young with projection remaining, and Fowler is much more of a known good quantity, rather than being in the class with Bedard and Pena from 2013 as veterans barely hanging on.

The rotation also has more potential. Norris was a known quantity destined for the deadline, Harrell was old for his experience level, Bedard was the mediocre, cheap veteran, Lyles was off to a rough start in his career and Paul Clemens is a mediocre prospect. This year, Scott Feldman, who is solid, healthy and four years younger than Bedard, headlines the rotation. Following him are Cosart and Oberholtzer, both young, one a top prospect, and both with 10 successful starts under their belts from the end of 2013. Brad Peacock, another former top prospect who improved dramatically near the end of 2013, will follow them, along with Keuchel, the youngster with excellent command who was one of the best groundball pitchers in the Majors last year.

Let's take a look at some projections:

2014_warprojection_inhouse_medium

I went ahead and included Oberholtzer, Cosart, Stassi and Krauss, since they are in-house, young options, even though they didn't play a third of a season last year.

The overall improvement isn't huge, and it's hurt a lot by the projected fall offs from Castro and Oberholtzer, but individually, we see projected growth from 13 of the 18 players. Carter and Dominguez, in particular, look like their poised to make some significant strides, and Villar and Harrell as well, though the later two would be moving up from much lower starting points.

It should also be mentioned again that Castro, Dominguez and Grossman have all been engaged with the front office in possible extension talks, and Jose Altuve has already been locked up. The "where there's smoke, there's fire" argument isn't always the strongest, but one would assume that extension talks, especially with players as unproven as Dominguez and Grossman, means the front office is particularly high on them.

If you trust the front office's judgment, then you wouldn't need to feel as if you're going out on a limb to project significant improvement in the near future for those players in particular.

However, with the major star prospects still anywhere from two to twenty-four months away, going with just in-house options and hoping the all improve enough individually for the team to improve as a whole would be silly. Fortunately, the front office made some notable moves in the off-season to pump some real talent into the team...

The Cavalry

Houston also picked up centerfielder Dexter Fowler from the Rockies in a trade that sent Lyles and Barnes off to the Mile High City. For the rotation, they signed veteran hurler Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million contract which, given some of the other deals handed out this off-season, is certainly a fair-market deal; that, in and of itself, is a win, as solid players generally don't line up to play for historically bad teams unless they're paid above-market salaries to do so.

The cataclysmic bullpen from 2013 was also bolstered with three free agent signings; former Astros Matt Albers and Chad Qualls returned to Houston on deals of one and two years respectively (and each with a team option for an additional year afterwards), and University of Houston alumnus Jesse Crain joined up on a one-year pact. Houston also picked up Anthony Bass and Jesus Guzman from the Padres in separate trades, and inked Jerome Williams to a one-year deal.

Some more projections:

2014_warprojection_acquisitions_medium

Fowler will be replacing Barnes and his 1.0 WAR, Guzman for Pena's -0.5 and Wallace's -0.1 (Carter played more 1B last year, but he's still on the team and moving to DH). While none of these are massive upgrades, according to the projections, they are incremental ones, and it all adds up. That's not to mention that projections are usually very skeptical of young talent (as they should be); often times breakouts that can't be projected or expected happen and things get even better.

Using WAR for relievers is, admittedly, not the best way to look at them, since WAR is based on playing time and they get significantly less than starters do. However, keep in mind the problem that the bullpen had last year converting saves. Even with Veras, they had just a 52% success rate on 61 opportunities. The league average rate was 69%; if the Astros had been league average in that regard, therefore, that would have been a full ten fewer blown leads.

Even with all of that, some of the best moments to happen for the Astros in 2014 could very well come from players who won't even be on the opening day roster...

The Harvest Festival

What was first begun in 2008 with the drafting and signing of Jason Castro out of Stanford, and begun in earnest with the trading of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman in 2010, is finally starting to pay off six years later. The Astros' farm system, the best in baseball depending on who you ask, is just starting to turn out a crop of new, young, talented players who are ready to take their crack at The Show, and more are soon to follow.

The big name right now, of course, is George Springer, and by GM Jeff Luhnow's own admission, the question about Springer being in the Majors during 2014 is a question of "when," not "if." While he may struggle initially (and, indeed, as a prospect, we can't be certain he'll be really good or have a long career), he will provide a plus glove, arm, speed and power, even if he does end up striking out 30% of the time.

Jonathan Singleton might not be long for AAA either. His warts have become more than apparent over the off-season, but he also appears to have righted himself, both baseball-wise in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and in his personal life. If he gets off to a hot start and convinces the brass that he's ready, he could come up on the same day as Springer. With 30 home run and .900 OPS potential in his left-handed stick, he could end up being the best bat this team has had since Berkman's departure.

Singletontriple_medium

On the pitching side, there's that Folty guy. There seems to be a thought among some that we're hard on him here or don't like him, but nothing could be further from the truth; we're merely concerned that command issues may keep an exceptionally-talented pitcher like him from reaching his full potential. Hopefully they won't, and if they don't, well, consistently-located 100 MPH heaters and sharp curves tend to play well against any level of competition.

And then, after Folty, is a virtual cornucopia of talented young pitchers. While none of them light up radar guns or scout's eyes, all have the potential to be solid, valuable members of a Major League rotation; Asher Wojciechowski, who's starting career took off again after getting a fresh start with Houston; Nicholas "Nitro" Tropeano, who's improved fastball, good changeup, strong command and bulldog mentality should make him a perfect platform for new pitching coach Brent Strom to build on; or Rudy Owens, a crafty lefty picked up by Luhnow from the Pirates who returned from injury by posting a 2.68 ERA in Winter Ball.

Alex White, a former top prospect of the Indians and then the Rockies, is a ground ball machine with a history of good control in the minors, not to mention significant experience in the Majors' most brutal hitter's park already; his return from surgery is near and he could be a factor later in the season. The list goes on; Jake Buchanan, Paul Clemens, Kyle Weiland and Bobby Doran could all be ready during some point in 2014.

And so with that all said...

Can We Win?

Is winning possible this year? With all the above said, will it really make that big of a difference? Well, if you define winning by making the playoffs, then it's almost certainly not; after all, the "worst" team to make the playoffs in 2013 was the 90-72 Cincinnati Reds. That's a pretty high benchmark to hit after 111 losses; it would certainly be the greatest turnaround in baseball history.

But they will be improved, and the prospects will play, and we'll see long bombs and diving catches and cannon throws, and who knows what other kinds of special moments. It's been a tough battle just to stay enthusiastic, heck, just to stay interested, in this franchise. Even if you're not among the legion of people who seem to be convinced that Jim Crane is the antichrist, it's hard to not feel beaten down after the last three years, and indeed the last eight years.

Do you even still remember the 2005 season? The comeback? The moments? The World Series and Biggio and Bagwell in uniform? Roy Oswalt dealing, Morgan Ensberg looking like the next Ken Caminiti? I get it; I had only just started following the team then, and was so new to baseball I could barely appreciate it. Now I've grown into a stout fan of the game, yet I've really only known defeat and crushed dreams. Some days, the good times seem like a distant dream.

But we're in a better place than we were five years ago, when, despite Oswalt and Berkman, the roster was old and the farm was barren. Back then, we were standing on the cliff, about to plummet into an abyss we thought reserved for the Pirates and such; those lesser teams, those without the stars, those without the state of competitiveness and relevancy Houston had become accustomed to for over a decade. We probably didn't even realize it then, but disaster was on the horizon. Now, it's behind us. The worst has past, and we have a brighter future to look forward to. The struggle isn't over, but the burden has been lightened. The oasis shimmering in the distance is becoming less and less a mirage.

Look at the Phillies and Brewers, old houses built on quicksand; the Mariners and Angels, quickly spending themselves into oblivion; the Rockies and Diamondbacks, spinning their wheels as their questionable-at-best leadership groups continue to floor it and wonder why the car isn't moving; the White Sox and the Marlins, doing heavens-knows-what (not winning, though). Record-wise, few, if any, teams will be worse than the Astros when the 2014 season comes to a close this September. But I would argue categorically that it's a better time to be an Astros fan than it has been for quite a while.

The only question now is exactly how soon the party is going to start. I'm excited to see if it's 2014.

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