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The Astros in September, Jeff Bagwell vs. The Big Hurt and Chris Sampson wastes little effort

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Zach Levine's latest blog post in The Houston Chronicle details the Astros' schedule month by month, keying on a possible September run. Our opponents in the season's last month include the Nationals, Reds (twice), Pirates, Cubs and Brewers. Of course, unless the Astros can win a few games early, a September run won't mean very much. Looking back at recent seasons, September hasn't been kind in the post-World Series years:

Year September Record
2006 16-11
2007 12-15
2008 15-9
2009 10-17

 

One of the most feared hitters of the 1990s/2000s called it a career this past Thursday. Frank Thomas announced that he is retiring after a 19-year career that saw The Big Hurt play for the White Sox, Athletics and Blue Jays. For Astros fans, surely our memories of Thomas are twofold: 1) he was part of the 2005 White Sox team that ruined our dreams of a World Series championship (though Thomas did not play in the postseason), and 2) that he shares a birthday (5/27/68) with Jeff Bagwell.

Side by side, the two slugger's numbers are similar, although Thomas has the advantage in counting statistics because he played in 172 more games. Before I did the math, I thought Thomas played in closer to 400 games more than Bags, simply by virtue of those four extra seasons played. That wasn't the case. Using categories that HOF voters may find important, Bagwell more than holds his own with a 500 HR club member:

Player Career OPS+ All Star Game Appearances
MVP(s)/Top Ten Finishes 20 HR/10 SB Seasons Seasons of Badass Facial Hair
Jeff Bagwell 149 4 1/6 10 15
Frank Thomas 156 5 2/9 0 0

 

Bagwell was more well-rounded, with 10 seasons of 10+ SBs and one Gold Glove, but Thomas' advantage in games played, home runs and a ridiculous 1667/1397 BB:K ratio make it a close call on who had the better career. WAR has Bags squeaking out a victory over Thomas 79.9 to 75.9, not surprisingly on the strength of Bagwell's superior base-running and defense.

Now, I'm not an expert on the Hall of Fame.  Frankly when Bagwell is up for induction in 2011, it will be the first year I really care about who gets in. However, recent inductee Jim Rice has a career WAR of 41.5 and played 16 seasons. I realize that statistics aren't and shouldn't be the one criterion on which to judge a baseball player, but a per season WAR of 2.6 seems a tad low for someone in the same club as Ted Williams and Honus Wagner.

Pitchers from the Astros have made a habit of making some obscure lists this offseason. Felipe Paulino and Bud Norris are great at inducing swings and misses, as is Samuel Gervacio. Last week, Chris Sampson took his turn as list maker, but in a surprising role: efficient strikeout pitcher.

Basically, during the past three seasons, Sampson is among the best at keeping his pitch counts relatively low in at bats that resulted in strikeouts. The best in baseball in this range from all-time greats like Greg Maddux and Trevor Hoffman to journeymen like, well, Sampson. There are strikeout pitchers and finesse pitchers, veterans and semi-prospects. So on and so on. There's not a great deal of correlation between any one stat and this statistic, which was introduced by the author of the post.

Taking a look at Chris' plate discipline statistics, my puzzlement only grew. Paired against league-average rates, Sampson's contact rates since 2007 were all higher than average. His highest contact rate was in 2007, when his 87.8 percent rate compared to a league average of 80.8 percent. That 7 percent difference is nothing to sneeze at. Since 2007, he's been moving closer to parity with the league, but this does nothing to show how Sampson has proven to be as efficient as he has in striking hitters out.

Perhaps not surprisingly, hitters are more aggressive at swinging at his pitches in the strike zone, since nothing he throws is going to leave a hitter shaking in his cleats. Maybe the fact that Sampson induces his fair share of ground balls has something to do with his proficiency in keeping his pitches/K low?

Again as the author states, although a full pitch separates the best from the worst in this category, the average of 4.8 pitches/K has a standard deviation of only .15 pitches. Not a whole lot, and for the most part, not something to really get that excited or upset about. The fact that Chris Sampson made the list at all is both surprising and oddly satisfying.