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The Two Seasons of Jason Michaels

Those late 90's Astros teams always seemed to bring in a new guy that was going to be the super pinch-hitter off the bench, the super sub that was worth a little more money. One year, it was Dave Clark and the next Charlie Hayes. One time,  it was Orlando Merced and Jose Vizcaino.

That seemed to be the line of thinking Ed Wade used when he signed Jason Michaels to a two-year contract after the 2008 season. Michaels had been with him in Philadelphia, but had bounced around to a couple different teams after that and never really owning a starter's role.

I know fourth outfielders aren't a huge draw when talking about the makeup of this team, but I don't want to miss touching on how Michaels has done this season. No fourth outfielder should make over 1 million for a team that's not a playoff contender. But, it's hard to deny that Michaels has been a valuable part of this team in 2010. Did you know that Michaels has played in the fifth most games of any Astro this season? That shocked me, slightly.

Much like timmy did with Jason Bourgeois yesterday, let's look at Mr. Michaels.

First off, Michaels has been better than he was in 2009. His WAR (1.0) is solid for a guy who only managed 196 plate appearances. His batting average isn't great, but a low BABiP suggests he was actually unlucky this season (something that would have corrected itself with regular playing time). His isolated power average was up almost to a career high and he's only hit more home runs in a season twice in his career.

What I never gave him credit for was his decent defensive skills. Michaels saw an uptick in his UZR this season from last, but in comparing it to his track record, it's hard to pinpoint how Michaels has improved. He hasn't played more of a particular position than another, though he had primarily played in right field before joining the Astros and has since been stationed mainly in center and left. He has made far fewer plays the past two seasons than he did in previous years, but made a good amount of Out of Zone plays this season. He's athletic enough in the field but probably isn't fast enough to play center at MMP regularly.

So, what has he been? A straight-up pinch hitter. His value the past two seasons has rested entirely on his bat. More accurately, in his ability to hit for power. In the past two seasons, he's had a higher slugging percentage than at any time in his career (besides his rookie season). With 21 extra-base hits this season and 17 last season, he's easily one of the best hitters for power off the bench. His walk rate and batting average have varied wildly, but that's to be expected with so few plate appearances.

Looking over his seasons, he hasn't had many with as many games played (102) and as few PAs. That's a guy who comes in for one at-bat a game. That's a pinch hitter. The Astros collected 56 pinch hits this season and had 14 extra-base hits. MIchaels has 11 of those hits, including five of the XBH and has 55 appearances out of those 102 games as a pinch hitter. The rest of his time was spent playing caddy for Carlos Lee in left.

Now, the question becomes, do the Astros need a pinch-hitter like Michaels on the bench? I will grant that his value is predicated on his power and that's a nice thing to have on your bench. But, that may not be something the Astros need. Couldn't Brian Bogusevic fill that job just as neatly and for less money?

The other issue is that of roles. What exactly does it mean to list Michaels as the "fourth outfielder"? To me, that means he's the first sub off the bench when a guy needs the day off, that he gets the most at-bats and can be a late-inning defensive replacement. He's not good enough to start, but he's a valuable guy to have around. I don't think of that role as being the primary pinch-hitter, but that's just me.

If that's the role the Astros are laying out for their fourth outfielder, why couldn't Michaels be brought back as the fifth guy? As the fifth outfielder, he'd be the primary pinch hitter without affecting defensive replacements, etc. He'd lengthen the bench some, but still allow Brian Bogusevic to fill the role of the fourth outfielder and take those starts for Carlos Lee. Basically, you'd be cutting Michaels games in half. Does Bourgeois provide more value in that fifth outfield spot over a pinch-hitting Michaels?

I'm not sure what the right answer is, but after looking through the numbers and thinking a bit about how this roster is constructed, I wouldn't be broken up if Michaels is brought back into a diminished role for diminished money. What about you?