Are the Astros Turning the Corner?

Fowler and Springer Know the Answer - Bob Levey

In which the excitable author, for the sake of consistency, ignores the small sample size, turns on a dime from sharpening knives and calling for heads to heralding and welcoming -- in a very groovy and enlightened manner if he does say so himself -- the glorious new age that is clearly upon us. Or something like that.

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

-Buffalo Springsteen, For What It’s Worth

You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life.

-Bill Murray, Groundhog Day

It's only when caterpillarness is done that one becomes a butterfly. That again is part of this paradox. You cannot rip away caterpillarness. The whole trip occurs in an unfolding process of which we have no control.

― Ram DassBe Here Now

What is in fact happening here? Are we witnessing the initial fruits of the rebuild efforts or are we being suckered into a long-lost euphoric state with a temporary smattering of success? Since starting the season 5-14 (.263) and being outscored by 2.1 runs per game, these Astros have gone 11-14 (.440) while being outscored by less than a half run per game.

Though a .440 pace over 25 games would not generally be something to write home about, it is certainly something to write here about. There have been times during this long Westeros-style winter that I would have given my third-born non-bastard male heir for a chance to sniff .440.

Before entertaining the possibility that winter is indeed over, let's briefly recap our misfortunes. From April 2011 to April 20 2014, the Houston Astros were .333. This, as I have mentioned before, is as bad as an MLB team can possibly be according to the great Tommy Lasorda, who famously philosophized, "No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference." We've been bottom feeding for well over 500 games now. That bottom feeding has, unfortunately, placed us in very selective historical company. It is really rare to be this bad for this long.

A quick look through historical yearly records gives the strong impression that very few teams have been this bad, ever. For a while there it seemed that there were the 1962 to 1965 Mets and then there was everybody else. I've slowly come to view us as having entered that same worst of the worst category. As is my wont, I did just enough research to A) make my point and B) be dangerous.

Using Fangraphs and other sources, I compared the pitching and hitting team stats for the Astros from 2011-2013 and the Mets from 1963-1965. I skipped the fielding as the only fielding metrics that matter aren't of course available for those Mets.

As some of the stats I was interested in are counting stats, I wanted to compare an equal number of games. Granted, the Mets were very lousy for a solid five-plus years and we have only been at it for just over three. At the same time, the Mets were an expansion team; as a result, their awfulness comes with a large enough asterisk as to make this not entirely unreasonable.

Sure, the Astros were in a way starting from scratch but while we can argue all day over which owners and GMs ruined the Astros, at the end of the day, the Astros are the Astros and, as an organization, have nobody to blame but themselves. A quick glance at a few broad, high-level metrics indicates our futility is closer to those lowly Mets than normality.

As mentioned, through Friday's game, these Astros were sitting at exactly .333. The Mets were not that much worse, at .319.We were outscored by 1.29 runs/game (2438-1808) while the Mets lost on average by 1.51 (2302-1565). Once again, we fared better but probably not categorically. I then, on a whim, tallied up total batting and pitching WAR. In news that will likely surprise no one, the Astros were truly terrible at pitching (12.2 cumulative WAR over those three seasons) and almost as bad batting (21.8), actually finishing higher than the poor Mariners (20.9).

Adding those together, our 34 WAR was by far the worst in MLB, with the Twins coming in at 55.9 then the Mariners third from the bottom with 64.7. And the 63-65 Mets? 20.6 total with a measly 3.5 from pitching. So we were closer to the Mets than the Twins, suggesting we really might belong in exclusive company.

In order to determine whether or not this is a true ‘corner turn', we should make sure we know what that indicates. What does it mean ‘to turn the corner'? Apparently, the idiom comes from, as so many things did historically - the sextant and syphilis alike - sailors. One was said to have ‘turned the corner' upon successfully getting past the infamously dangerous Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. So the very worst is over, with relatively smooth sailing ahead.

Could the worst in fact be over? Will our sailing be smooth and syphilis-free? The anecdotal evidence is piling up and suggests that in fact it may. We've gone from the entire team flirting with the Mendoza line to only two hitters with 100 or more ABs below it (Carter at .196 and Krauss at .190). Our team wRC+ is up to 95, putting us at 16th in the league. Our collective 4.02 xFIP is good for 7th in the league.

This resurgence, however, is a very small sample size. Even terrible teams have hot streaks on occasion, leaving all of us left to make our own decisions. This could be an actual corner turn or it could be a mirage. Here is how I made my final determination: by once again ignoring the logic of small sample size.

It's a wonderful trick, actually. My mental algorithm for dealing with small sample size is as follows: understand what it is, recognize it is likely applicable in theory, determine implications, ignore implications, move forward with bold assertions.

But you know what? It just doesn't matter. Because, in accordance with the deplorable human condition, we tend to focus on the past and future, never relishing the process of the present. Winter may or may not be over. The butterfly may or may not be popping out of its cocoon and for all we know, the groundhog is firmly settled in his hole while the Wildlings and White Walkers rampage through Westeros, plundering, looting and mixing their metaphors with reckless abandon.

But for now we're playing like a real baseball team so let's enjoy it while we can. No description. No prediction. Just enjoyment. This is why we watch.

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