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Thursday's Three Astros Things....

AUGUST 29: Hunter Pence hits a three-run home run in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
AUGUST 29: Hunter Pence hits a three-run home run in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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1. Multi-Position Players

Bill James On-line has a mailbag column where the iconic sabermetrics writer answers questions from his readers. Recently, he was asked a question about Rays manager Joe Maddon's practice of playing Ben Zobrist at multiple positions, even though advanced defensive metrics indicate that he is a premier fielder at 2d base. This part of James' reply was interesting:

There is immense value in having a player who can play two or three different positions. It prevents holes from opening up in your lineup. Your right fielder goes down; you can put Zobrist in right. You come up with a hotshot rookie right fielder, you can put him at second. The value in this is difficult to measure, because the production is supplied by the right fielder who gets to play after the second baseman gets injured, so you tend to attribute that production to the right fielder. But. ...give me a Kevin Youkilis or a Ben Zobrist anytime; I'll even take a Willie Bloomquist. Those guys will get you through the season.

Ben Zobrist has been a unique player in terms of his versatility; his career inning break down: over 2,000 in the outfield; over 1,000 at shortstop; and over 2,500 at 2d base. Maddon has used Zobrist skillfully this season to cover for injuries and keep a guy like Keppinger in the lineup against LHPs. Similarly, prior to trading Youkilis, the Red Sox in the Epstein/Francona era used the "Greek God of Walks" at 3b, 1b, and in LF. Tony LaRussa and the Cardinals liked moving multi-position players around, as shown by the use of Matt Carpenter, Skip Schumaker, and Allen Craig.

All teams have utility players, but the uniqueness of a Zobrist, Youkilis, or a Chone Figgins during the better part of his career, is that the they were key offensive cogs who had to be in the lineup everyday, even thought it would be at different positions. These versatile players give the front office a hedge in constructing their roster and allow managers to play more match ups on a daily basis.

And so far, it seems like Jeff Luhnow has particularly favored players with multi-positional flexibility on the major league roster. Some of this may be related to finding out which positions can be handled acceptably by players like Scott Moore and the recently traded Steve Pearce. If Tyler Greene can show that he has the offensive ability to be a regular in the lineup, he has the multi-position versatility to play different positions on a daily basis.

I have questioned Jimmy Paredes' liklihood of long term major league success without a major improvement in his walk rate. But, maybe Paredes does enough things well that he could become a super utility player like Zobrist. Paredes' multi-position capability is a premium which may compensate for his weaknesses. He may be capable of playing all three outfield positions, third base, and second base. Even if Paredes carves out a Geoff Blum-like career, that can be very valuable.

Oh, and now that I think about it, if the White Sox decline Youkilis' 2013 option, would he be an interesting veteran addition to help out the young Astros' players?

2. Keuchel vs. Pence

Did anyone else have a feeling that Pence would come alive for this match up? Pence hit a big 3 run HR in the 1st inning, and later scorched a line drive off Keuchel that would have been a double or triple--if Paredes hadn't made a great leaping catch near the wall. My lasting memory of Pence, the Astros hitter, is that he could explode against lefthanded pitching. And Pence also seemed especially tough on soft tossing lefties.

As for the soft tossing part, Baseball Reference says that Pence has a .922 career OPS vs. finesse pitchers, compared to a .733 OPS vs. power pitchers. If Keuchel wants to emulate a successful soft tossing lefty, Mark Buehrle would be a good model. Buehrle is one of the most successful lefthanded starters over the last ten years. What are Pence's numbers against Buehrle? 7 hits in 9 at bats with 1 double and 2 HRs.

We know that Pence is having a bad year--by far his worst year ever. And, looking at his 2012 stats, I notice something strange. Pence's offensive woes are primarily against LHPs this year. Pence is hitting .216 with a .646 OPS against lefties this year. His numbers against RHPs are closer to normal: .275 BA and .775 OPS. Pence's OPS against LHP, starting with 2011 and ending with 2007: .995; .835; .895; .722; .993. His sophomore season, 2008, was Pence's previous low year, and his only other season with reverse platoon splits (.722 OPS vs. lefties). It's interesting that Pence's two worst seasons (2012 and 2008) are also the only seasons with reverse splits. But Pence's OPS vs. LHP this year is more than 70 points lower than his previous worst OPS against lefties. I wonder what's up with that?

Keuchel, for his part, stabilized after the nightmarish first inning. But it wasn't enough, as he left with another bad ERA (over 7) for this game. At the end of the game, Keuchel's overall ERA and FIP are exactly the same: 5.54. When we say a pitcher's ERA will regress toward his FIP, that apparently has happened.

3. More Money on the Way for Astros?

"Rany on the Royals" makes some interesting points about MLB's national broadcast contracts. He points out that ESPN signed a new contract which doubles the amount paid to MLB. He estimates that each MLB team will receive about $12 million more in annual shared revenues from ESPN. He notes that the Fox and TBS contracts are also up for negotiation at a time when NBC Sports is likely to make a run at baseball broadcasting rights. He thinks it's a good guess that each MLB club will have perhaps $30 million in additional annual revenues by 2014 due to renegotiated national broadcast contracts. He says:

...every team in baseball will be earning $30 million a year above and beyond what they’re already making – just from their national TV contract. This is margin-free cash – same product, same expenses, vastly increased revenue.

In the Astros' case, the team will also have new revenues from the Comcast sports network deal. In theory, this should provide significant amounts of additional revenue to the Astros. But, given that the Astros are part owners of the network, the profitability of the new arrangement for the Astros will depend in part on the television ratings of the Astros' team. But, given the Astros' current struggles on the field, the Astros' television ratings are down by 25% from 2011. That decline is particularly bad, considering that it is compared to the team's ratings for its worst W/L season ever. Given the importance of the new sports network to the Astros, one has to wonder if the Astros will attempt to improve the quality--or maybe just the star-power-- of the current team next year.

As Rany points out, the new CBA has limited the amount of revenues which can be spent on amateur talent, leaving the major league team as the remaining area which can accept growing expense. He suggests that the Royals should be capable of spending $90 - $100 million on major league payroll, given the increased national revenues and CBA limitations.

This leads me to wonder what the Astros will be willing to spend in 2012 on improving the on field product at Minute Maid. Certainly, the attendance at MMP has been dropping this month---like a rock off a cliff.