Last week saw the release of the 2019 Hall of Fame ballot, and there are quite a few one-time Astros on the list. From holdovers like Billy Wagner and Roger Clemens, to newcomers like Andy Pettitte and Miguel Tejada, But when we’re talking about players associated with the Astros, there are really just two that stand above the rest: longtime stalwarts Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, both of whom will be making their ballot debuts this winter.
There will be a lot of time to discuss how they fit into that crowded and complicated mess over the next few months, but I want to focus today on something a little more Astros-centric. I believe their appearance on the ballot is a good time to campaign for a different sort of recognition: the team should retire both Berkman and Oswalt’s numbers.
I decided a few years ago to write about retired numbers across the league, breaking down every single team’s history and future on the matter. The end result was novel-length and spread across two and a half years, and it’s something I’ve often thought about revisiting or updating in some way or another. And a big part of what inspired me to tackle that question originally was moving to Houston and seeing all of the team’s retired numbers in Minute Maid Park.
The Astros have been one of the more active teams in retiring numbers, with nine under their belt (not counting Jackie Robinson’s 42, which is retired league-wide). That’s far more than any other expansion team, and even more than some of the teams that were around at the beginning of the twentieth century. I know some people get touchy about the possibility of retiring too many numbers, but personally, I love the team’s policy.
I think it’s a good introduction to the team’s history (I know that I was inspired to look up the players I was less familiar with when I saw their names), and a good way to give back and honor people who have meant a lot to the organization. I know some people have their concerns about running out of numbers or watering down the honor, but I think both possibilities are so far off (we’d need to see over 40 more numbers retired to run out, and we’re currently running at just over one per decade the team has existed) that they aren’t really worth worrying about at the moment. More teams should look to the Astros’ standards when setting their own club’s retired number policy.
Of course, concerns of “watering down” the team’s standards definitely don’t apply to Lance Berkman or Roy Oswalt in particular. One thing I liked to look at in particular when writing my Retired Number Series was the statistical standards that teams had created based on past retirements. I primarily focused on using Wins Above Replacement (both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference), since it’s a quick reference point that allows us to easily compare batters and pitchers. I also think it’s important to look at both what players have done in their overall career and what they’ve done with the team in question.
With those factors in mind, let’s look at the nine numbers the Astros have retired so far (stats with “HOU” represent only their output on the Astros):
Astros Retired Numbers
It’s worth noting that these numbers aren’t necessarily the full story. Larry Dierker also served as the team’s manager for five years (making the playoffs four times). Wilson and Umbricht’s numbers were both retired after they tragically passed away in the middle of their careers (similarly, Darryl Kile’s 57 hasn’t been worn since his death, although this same policy wasn’t extended to J.R. Richard, who had his career prematurely ended by a stroke, despite numbers similar to Wilson’s).
With that in mind, let’s look at how #17 and #44 measure up against those. I included both the average and the median for those nine retired numbers, as well as both of those figures while setting aside Umbricht and Wilson as special cases.
Retired Number Averages vs Berkman & Oswalt
Neither Berkman nor Oswalt seems to be too out of place, by any standard. They’re a little on the lower side of things going by total career value, but both clear just about every bar based on value while in an Astros uniform. Additionally, Berkman looks a little better than Oswalt overall, but Oswalt has a strong case for being the best pitcher in Astros’ history (different from “the best pitcher to play for the Astros”, mind you), while Berkman is at best just top three given Bagwell and Biggio’s careers.
Of course, while I think how they hold up against other stars in Wins Above Replacement is important, there’s also a lot more to their cases than just that. The two served as the homegrown faces of the team in the 2000s, as Bagwell and Biggio’s careers wound down, and they were key players in the team’s run of success in the middle of the decade that brought home Houston’s first pennant. Both are ubiquitous on Houston’s all-time leaderboards, with Berkman turning up 36 times on Baseball-Reference’s Batting Top Tens and Oswalt appearing 25 times on the Pitching version.
They were also pretty well recognized across the league. Berkman picked up six seasons with All-Star appearances and seven with MVP votes (finishing third twice), while Oswalt made the All-Star Game three times and picked up Cy Young votes six times (finishing third in 2004), while also having a good track record in high-pressure games and finishing runner up in Rookie of the Year voting in what may be the strongest rookie class in MLB history. Just about the only argument I can imagine against them is that neither is likely to make the Hall of Fame, but that pretty clearly hasn’t ever been a standard the team has stuck to in the past, so it seems like a bit of a moot point.
Of course, there are indications that the team has considered this move previously, at least in the case of Berkman; no player or coach has worn his number 17 since he was traded to the Yankees in 2010. That’s usually a good sign for a player’s candidacy, although it does leave a question of what the team is waiting for to take the next step. Maybe it’s an appearance on the Hall ballot, and they have an official announcement planned in the next few months?
However, this doesn’t apply to Roy Oswalt, who’s seen his number 44 handed out half a dozen times since he was traded that same summer. Maybe appearing on the ballot at the same time as Berkman will get some extra attention on his case, but it also risks him getting overshadowed depending on how the discussion goes. In either case, I think the two of them are strongly linked as the leaders of the Astros in the 2000s, and I feel like you can’t recognize one without the other.
No matter what ends up happening in the next few months, Hall ballot or otherwise, I believe that any retelling of the story of the Astros that doesn’t include on Berkman and Oswalt’s exploits is incomplete. Retiring their numbers and formalizing that fact is a good next step, and their increased relevancy appearing on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot is as good a time to get the ball rolling on that front as any.