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Men at Work: The Astros' MVP, Who can it be (now)?

As painful as the Astros' offense was to watch much of the season, there were some nuggets of value in our lineup. Sure, there was no Pujols or Werth or Votto, but a few Astro hitters did have themselves some relatively successful 2010 campaigns. But how to separate the wheat from the chaff?

To start, I think the award has to go to someone who had at least 350 plate appearances. So goodbye, Humberto Quintero, Tommy Manzella and Angel Sanchez. Not that they could have been our MVP this season. But, they did get a whole lot of plate appearances for us. That should tell you something about what we have to work with here. Moving on!

That leaves us with six guys in the running: Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn, Jeff Keppinger, Chris Johnson, and Lance Berkman. Not that I'm not grateful to Lance for being the face of this franchise for half a decade, but I just can't give the award to a man who no longer plays for the Astros. Fun fact though: Lance led the Astros in total BB. Not so fun fact: The Astros were last in the majors in BB taken. So thanks, Lance, but even your plate discipline can't help you here.

So were left with our trio of starting outfielders, a second baseman who never strikes out, and the third baseman with an enviable BABIP.

Note: Pitchers have their own award to win on TCB, so I left them out of the MVP discussion.

Let's start with Carlos Lee, the anti MVP.

When we last left Carlos Lee at the end of 2009, the left fielder had just finished a Carlos Lee-esque season: .831 OPS, 26 HR, 102 RBI. He struck out very little and walked even less. That's what Carlos Lee does. He's not worth 16 million dollars, but very few players are, and at least we could count on him to hit like a major league left fielder. Then this season came and hit Astro fans like a ton of bricks. Lee's BABIP sank to below .240, depressing his batting average more than 50 points. When that happens to a career .300 hitter who doesn't walk, his ability to be productive is negated almost completely.

His stats on the season are what you would expect them to be. Very few line drives, lots of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone (2010 was a career season for Chuck in this regard), and offensive numbers that are even more painful to look at considering just how poor he is defensively.

Heading into 2011, the big question surrounding Lee is whether or not the Astros will try to use him more at first base. Alyson Footer commented at one point this September that maybe keeping Lee in the game mentally more will help him with the bat. I don't know about that, and his September statistics (the month he saw the most amount of time at 1B) don't exactly indicate that he was any better of at first base than in the outfield. True, his girth can't hurt the team as much in the infield, but unless he can get back to his old self offensively, he won't be able to justify playing there in terms of what a first baseman should produce. That's without throwing in the development of rookie Brett Wallace. But that's a discussion for another forum.

Bottom line is that Carlos Lee was a drain on an already dreadful offense this year. If Ed Wade can figure out a way to get him off the books (at least partially) this off-season, then we should name a street after him in downtown Houston. Odds are, we will be forced to reexamine his presence again in 2011. Boo.With El Caballo mercifully out of the way, we move on to four hitters who actually were positives.

True MVP Candidate number four, Chris Johnson saved the Astros from a season of Pedro Feliz and gives the team a great deal of hope for future successes at the hot corner. Part of CJ's value in 2010 really was forcing the Astros hand by hitting so well in AAA and thereby forcing Ed Wade to call him up in June. The requisite "Yea, but" with Johnson is the fact that he found good luck immediately in the majors, to the tune of a .388 BABIP to finish the season. What's more, he walked next to never (4.7%) and was a poor defensive third baseman. At 26, Chris' 2011 season will be the last before the fabled peak year of 27. So before I turn this into another negative review, let's see what Chris Johnson did well in 2010.

For starters, he managed to hit 35 XBH in his shortened season. This isn't a super human mark , but it's a far cry from Aaron Boone/Geoff Blum/Pedro Feliz. It's that ability to hit for power that should leave Astro fans wanting to see more from Johnson. A high line drive percentage (21%), and a rather low FB% (35.1%) leaves me hoping that some of that BABIPipy goodness was justified because he hit the ball hard. What if he could alter his swing like Jose Bautista to maximize his power? I don't know how feasible that would be, but that FB% is awfully low for someone who is billed as a power hitter.

Heading into 2011, CJ is the starting third baseman barring an unforeseen injury, trade or free agent signing. What to expect from CJ when he gets on the field is something much less certain. Does he hone his already defined skill set to develop into an above average third baseman? Or will his limited plate discipline stunt the tail end of major league development to the point where he is a stop gap and nothing more? My guess is something closer to the former, and for Ed Wade to sign a veteran on the cheap to soften the boom if CJ falls back to earth.

Now we've reached the medal round of the Astros' MVP race. Winning the bronze is Jeff Keppinger. As tempting as it was to give the MVP to Kepp, I just couldn't do it. One of the best decisions Ed Wade and Brad Mills made this past season was to cut bait on Kaz Matsui and install JK as our full time second baseman. In a 76-86 season, a move like this may not have amounted to much in the standings, but it did signal a shift in the decision making structure of this team. It was a long time in coming, and the return to competency was tremendous to see for Astro fans.

As far as what Keppinger actually did once he got the opportunity, his performance was just what you would ask of a second place hitter. He drew walks at a career high rate (8.9%), and led the league in lowest strikeout percentage (7%). In 514 ABs, Jeff hit into only 15 double plays, a key when hitting behind a speedster like Michael Bourn and in front of hot second half hitters like Hunter Pence and Chris Johnson.

Defensively, Kepp was below average at second base, a drain on his overall WAR value of 2.4. I don't know how much we can quibble about his shortcomings in the field when he has given the Astros as much value as he has. One of the most commented on articles ever written here at TCB was when we found out that Drew Sutton was the player we traded to get Keppinger. A majority of the comments were negative, and who could blame us at that point? The trade was just another drop in the bucket of seemingly shortsighted decisions made by Astros management. After two years of having Kepp at second base, I don't think anyone would take back the trade at this point. Dependability isn't going to win him many awards, but it is easier to sleep at night knowing what to expect at second base after the era of Matsui.

As we reach our top two choices for MVP, I don't anyone is surprised that Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence find themselves in the rarified air of both offensive and defensive competency the likes of which are not matched by any other Astro. These two may shape up to be the veteran influences heading into 2011 if Carlos Lee is somehow traded, and from everything said about them they are hard workers, good teammates and most importantly solid big league talents. The shape of this team is ever changing, and this past year saw many old faces exit and new ones enter. Pence and Bourn look to be a part of the rebuilding of this team, and we're lucky to have them.

The runner up in this MVP discussion is Hunter Pence. I think with Pence we all have to understand that he is what he is: a good baseball player, but not a great one. Coming off his second full season in the majors in 2009, Hunter really struggled out of the gate in 2010- not hitting for much power and drawing walks at a 2.4% clip. I found myself watching him at the plate and expecting him to fail. After two plus years of watching him play, I stlll wasn't used to his unorthodox approach (or lack thereof). He was supposed to be our star, the next Berkman to some. After thinking more and more about it, I came to grips with the fact that Pence has probably hit his ceiling. An .800 OPS probably won't land him in many All Star Games, but the Astros could be doing a lot worse.

After the Astros traded away Lance Berkman on July 31, Pence was permanently moved to the three spot in the batting order and his season took off. He led the team to it's best month of the season, and was at his best in the clutch. Perhaps this success was due in part to his aggressiveness in August- Pence struck out in a season high 21.5% of his at bats that month. It would be interesting to find out if Hunter felt any increased pressure to carry the team offensively after the exit of Berkman. For whatever the reason, the Astros started to play better baseball when  Pence started on his tear. There's something to be said for knowing what you're going to get from a player, and with Hunter Pence the Astros have got to be happy with where they are in right field.

Finally, we've reached our team MVP for 2010: Michael Bourn. It speaks to both the Astros' offensive ineptitude and to Bourn's all around game, that a team MVP could finish the season with 2 home runs and an OPS of below .700. For a hitter like Michael, whose offensive value is tied to closely to BABIP, when his batted balls hit the other way or his grounders up the middle aren't finding the soft spots in a defense, he is in big trouble. Michael was more aggressive in 2010 than in 2009 at the plate, swinging much more at balls outside the strike zone than in any season prior. His contact skills did improve, as evidenced both by his higher contact rate and lower K rate, but it certainly didn't help him any. Heading into 2011, it would be great if Bourn could continue to hone his plate discipline while finding some of that 2009 BABIP good fortune as well. If he can, we may witness a guy who can creep up to the 5 WAR mark.

If Michael Bourn ever does reach the lofty plateau of the game's elite outfielders, he can thank his defense even more than his offense. While he was a great defensive outfielder in 2009, Michael was a top five defensive outfielder in 2010, and the best centerfielder in the NL. If his name was Torii Hunter his 2010 performance would have garnered comparisons to Mantle and Mays. That's not the case though, so Bourn will have to live with being a top shelf player who flies a little under the radar.

To put things in perspective, Michael Bourn was more valuable this year than Brandon Phillips, David Wright and Adam Dunn. Bearing in mind that Michael was essentially a replacement level hitter, the other facets of his game: defense and baserunning really come into focus. One of the few players in baseball who won his team a full game on the basepaths, Bourn was the top overall base runner in the in NL. That speed score is a component score- taking into account four different methods to evaluate a baserunner. As much as we love to decry bad baserunning, the truth of the matter is that baserunning is a relatively small part of a player's value. On the whole, a team's good or bad baserunning can amount to a couple games in the standings, but on the micro level, an individual player doesn't contribute or detract all that much from the aggregate team baserunning. MB is an exception to this rule though, and we probably didn't need advanced statistics to tell us that.

So congratulations to Houston's own Michael Bourn. You are the Crawfish Boxes' 2010 team MVP selection. Thank you to all the Astros that participated in this year's competition...even Pedro Feliz. (Not really Pedro Feliz).