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Pitching Well at Minute Maid Park

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So. If the big question is, "will Jason Jennings be successful as an Astro?" then the obvious follow up question is, "well, what exactly does he need to do to be successful?"

Well, first thing, as Jose Lima can tell you, is that it's all about pitching at the ballpark on Crawford Street. A lot of folks hate Minute Maid; us Astrofans love it, but it is undeniably an extreme creation that you're gonna have to deal with if you plan to pitch for the Astros.

Jennings--like all the pitchers who have put on the Astros uniform since 2000--is going to need to formulate his strategy for dealing with the bugbear that is our most unusual home park.

Maybe I'm forgetting something, but it seems to me that once Jason looks at it, he'll find that there are three things you wanna do to maximize your chances for success at MMP:

  • Avoid Getting Taken To The Boxes -- More important than numbers 2 and 3 combined I bet, that short porch is a monster waiting to devour the unwary hurler. You've got to limit fly balls and line drives to left field, because even the softest hit have a chance to land in the Crawfish Boxes.
  • Push Play Towards the Middle of the Field -- This will be a little less true this season than it has been for the last two, because Houston will no longer have insane speed and a rocket arm in centerfield, but Adam's tremendous range behind the second base bag, and the distance from home plate to the top of Tal's Hill will still be very much in effect. A pitcher that can keep the ball in the alley that runs between Brad Ausmus' nose and the flagpole is a pitcher who lets his defense and his park work for him.
  • Coax Grounders to the Left Side -- It's no secret. The Probabilistic Model of Range and The Fielding Bible both agree: Adam Everett is the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and Morgan Ensberg is solidly above average as a third baseman. On the other hand, we all love Craig, but they also agree Biggio's seen better days as a second baseman. So it makes a lot of sense: getting a lot of ground balls to the left side means getting a lot of outs.

Now, wouldn't it be great if we had a tool to see how well our projected 2007 staff has done these things in the past?

Turns out we do. And they're giving it away, too. Kudos to Baseball Prospectus and columnist Dan Fox, who are uncharacteristically allowing free downloads of Fox's updated BIPChart software*. Great stuff, it tells us in large easy to read picture graphs, the percentages and directionality of grounders, flies, popups, and line drives for thelast four years, and then breaks it down by handedness, to boot.

Here's a reduced screen shot for the departed Andy Pettitte, pitching against lefthanders in 2006:

So, once I got my grubby paws on the software I set about to seeing who has been the best at doing the things it seems would lead to success at Minute Maid. The percentages you see are of all balls in play:

Crawfish Protection
(Flies and Line Drives To Left) 2006 2003 - 2006
Qualls 9.60% 11.72%
Borkowski 10.10% 13.05%
Lidge 10.86% 11.68%
Clemens 12.16% 14.63%
Jennings 13.03% 14.16%
Sampson 13.46% 13.46%
Wandy 14.25% 14.23%
Oswalt 15.35% 13.56%
Williams 16.53% 16.72%
Wheeler 17.28% 14.27%
Nieve 18.59% 18.59%
Keeping It In the Middle
(All Balls to Center) 2006 2003 - 2006
Borkowski 27.88% 25.85%
Clemens 27.70% 25.49%
Jennings 26.22% 23.74%
Williams 24.15% 24.81%
Wandy 23.67% 25.25%
Sampson 23.08% 23.08%
Wheeler 23.04% 23.96%
Lidge 22.29% 22.77%
Nieve 21.56% 21.56%
Oswalt 20.62% 22.61%
Qualls 18.40% 19.48%
Left Side of the Infield
(Popups and Grounders to the Left) 2006 2003 - 2006
Qualls 32.40% 30.69%
Oswalt 30.08% 28.29%
Borkowski 27.40% 26.11%
Wandy 26.81% 26.73%
Nieve 24.91% 24.91%
Lidge 23.43% 21.46%
Clemens 22.30% 23.33%
Wheeler 21.99% 26.87%
Williams 21.82% 21.81%
Jennings 21.82% 23.11%
Sampson 19.23% 19.23%
Line Drive Prevention
(All Line Drives) 2006 2003 - 2006
Qualls 14.40% 16.03%
Clemens 14.86% 18.40%
Nieve 15.99% 15.99%
Borkowski 17.79% 18.28%
Wheeler 18.32% 16.03%
Jennings 19.15% 21.54%
Wandy 19.81% 20.54%
Lidge 20.00% 21.17%
Oswalt 20.16% 19.75%
Williams 22.88% 21.14%
Sampson 23.08% 23.08%

The prevention of line drives is a skill that will serve you in good stead not only at Minute Maid but everywhere else, too, and it was easy to figure while I was compiling all the other stuff, so I figured I'd include it.

I dispensed with the notion of handedness, figuring if you give up a jack to the boxes, it doesn't really MATTER whether the batter was a righty or a lefty, and I took a look at the four-year trend, as well as 2006. Clemens' and Wheeler's numbers include their 2003 seasons in New York, and Borkowski's numbers include his work for Baltimore in 2004.

What we see is kind of interesting, I think. Our best pitcher isn't all that great in three of the four categories, but he's very good at getting them to hit the ball at Adam. So maybe that's the most important of all.

While I understand the power arm, Nieve and the home run scare me, and the Crawfish Prevention chart ain't soothing me none. But how does Wheeler allow so many flies to left, while allowing so few balls to leave the park?

I'm gonna keep looking at this stuff, maybe I can figure out any clues as to why Lidge struggled in '06, or why Jennings took a step up.

For now, I invite your comments and thoughts.
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* Some of you might need to install Microsoft's .NET Framework 1.1 to make the software work on your computer. I think the way it works, is if you have Windows XP, you're good, otherwise you need to download the .NET update.