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Darin Erstad: The Angel and Astros Player

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Darin Erstad, the first pick in the 1995 draft, played for both the Angels and Astros.

Bob Levey

When you think about players who are a part of both the Angels' and Astros' history, Nolan Ryan is the most well known name. But what about more obscure links between the Astros and Darin Erstad. Erstad is legendary among Angels' fans as a foundation of the 2002 World Series champions. At the end of his career, he would serve as a role player on the 2008 and 2009 Astros.

The Astros have the first pick in the draft this year, and the Angels had the first pick in 1995. The Angels selected Erstad, a three sport player at Nebraska. Erstad was the starting punter on the football team; baseball was not even his primary sport. Here are some excerpts from scouting reports on Erstad before he was drafted with the first pick.

Physical Description: Ideal build. Lean and trim with good body strength. Well proportioned. Looks like and is an athlete. Bright blonde. Punter on football team.
Type Hitter: Real Good!!!
Summation: Very hard nose player. Definitely comes to play. Outstanding athletic ability. Can swing the bat and can hit with some power. Probably the best hitter in the country.

Erstad moved very quickly through the minors. He signed with the Angels in July, 1995, and less than one year later he was in the majors. Immediately after signing, he started in rookie ball and, 29 games later, moved up to A+. He was rated the No. 4 prospect in baseball by Baseball America after posting a 1.028 OPS in 1995. Erstad was 22 years old when he was called up to the majors in June, 1996. The young outfielder hit .284 with a .708 OPS in his rookie season.

Erstad has an unusual, though not unique, career pattern. Erstad's performance is highlighted by an extreme peak season in 2000. The peak age for hitters is around age 26 - 27. In Erstad's age 26 season, he posted 8.3 WAR, which is super star level. He batted .355 with a .951 OPS and 25 HRs. In no other season did he come close to those numbers. That's not to say he wasn't a good player in other seasons---but he was just a solid player. He had a second lower spike in WAR in 2002 with 6.4 WAR on that championship Angels team. He barely crossed the .700 OPS threshold that year, but accumulated the highest defensive WAR of any AL position player. Erstad was a great defensive player, with three golden gloves (2 in the outfield and 1 at first base).

Erstad was 34 years old when the Astros signed him as a free agent before the 2008 season. Erstad realized that his skill set had diminished and concluded that he would be a better fit as a role player in the NL. The Astros wanted an outfielder who could back up recently acquired Michael Bourn in CF and provide defensive replacement duties in LF and 1b. The Astros also made it known that they hoped Erstad would act as a mentor for Hunter Pence, who exhibited an all-out style like Erstad, but seemed to fall short of Erstad's baseball smarts. By all accounts, Erstad and Pence bonded well. Erstad also became the Astros' go-to guy for pinch hitting against RHBs.

Erstad had a surprisingly good season for the Astros in 2008. His overall batting line was not exceptional (batting average of .276 and OPS of .672). But he was superb in the clutch (not a bad trait for a pinch hitter), with a .343 batting average and .856 OPS with runners in scoring position. He also provided some defensive highlights in the late innings. I recall a "walk off defensive assist," when he threw from LF and cut down the tying run at the plate with 2 outs in the 9th inning.

His most memorable contribution in 2008 occurred after Carlos Lee--seemingly having his best season with the Astros-- broke his hand in early August. The Astros had begun to move into contention in the NL Central, and Lee's injury seemed like a fatal wound to the Astros' hopes. Erstad started almost every game in August, and was more than adequate in replacing Lee. He went on a 9 game hitting streak, moving his batting average up to .292 by the end of the month. In addition, Erstad provided a major defensive improvement in LF, demonstrating how defensive WAR can substitute for offensive WAR. (I'll skip September, since the impact of Hurricane Ike on the Astros' playoff hopes is a painful subject).

Unfortunately, by 2009, Erstad was close to toast--"in the toaster," to use a Keith Law phrase. Erstad's age 35 season with the Astros was bad (.194 batting average, OPS below .600), and he chose to retire at the end of the season.

Erstad currently is the baseball coach at the University of Nebraska. Some Angels' fans wonder if he will be the Angels' next manager.