Play Ball, Baby

A new season for the Astros, and hopefully a new team.

The win total posted in Las Vegas (because the only way you can place a sports wager in 2011 is to physically go to Las Vegas and place it in person at a betting window) for your Houston Astros is a robust 71 1/2. Let me say that how you define "interest in the Astros" is entirely up to you. If you're a lifelong fan, I understand the difficulty in choosing to bet the Astros will come in under that total; it's one thing to show up at Minute Maid Park angry that your team stinks, but it's another thing altogether actually to root against them (even for investment purposes).

In short, I get using an "Over 71.5 wins" wager as a reason to stay interested in the Astros. The season-total wager is like the "sexy nurse outfit" or "couple's massage" that puts the motor in a married couple's sex life. Sometimes you need to prime the pump. (It's nothing to be ashamed of!)

However, it is my job to warn you of a few things before you fire on "Astros OVER 71 1/2 wins":

Hunter Pence hacking away: It's not pretty, but it's effective.
Aaron M. Sprecher
Hunter Pence hacking away: It's not pretty, but it's effective.

(Geek warning: I promise this will be the only part of this preview that remotely smacks of "baseball geek" because I am not one. But this stat damn near threw me for a loop — a "Shawn Chacon going upside Ed Wade's head" kind of loop.)

There is a statistic on baseball-reference.com called "Pythagorean Win Total" for each team. I won't bore you with the calculation formula, but just know that it essentially takes a team's overall run differential and spits out the 162-game win-loss record that the team SHOULD have based on that metric. So if a team's PWT is two wins lower than its actual record, then that team theoretically overachieved by two games.

In 2010, most teams finished within three wins or less of their PWT. Some underachieved, some overachieved. A couple teams (Oakland and Arizona) underachieved by four games, while one team (St. Louis) underachieved by five games. One team had a bigger delta than everyone else — the Houston Astros. The Astros' PWT was 68. On the field, they won 76 games.

So as shitty as last season felt, the Astros actually defied the odds and overachieved by eight wins.

Whether it speaks to Brad Mills's ability to manage, the team's being exceptional in close games, or just dumb luck, the Astros' variation from their actual total to what the stat geeks say they "should have had" in 2010 was about twice that of the next closest team's variation.

In short, buyer beware on that whole "59-52 over the last 111 games of 2010" thing.

Keep in mind the following fun Astros payroll facts:

 1. Other than the very expensive waters under the bridge that is Carlos Lee ($19 million) and the team's top two starting pitchers (Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez), there is not a single Astro that the team is willingly paying more than $5.25 million. (The team was forced to pay Hunter Pence $6.9 million in arbitration.)

2. Wandy Rodriguez is the only player that the team is contractually obligated to in any material way beyond 2012.

3. The payroll, for the second straight season, continues to go down, not up.

So they've got their top two starting pitchers locked in for multiple years at the going rate, a $19 million reminder of fiscal (and caloric) excess gone awry in left field, and the rest of the roster is a bunch of cheap, (mostly) young guys. This is a team that is clearly looking to stay fiscally nimble.

 My point is, the Astros are targeting 2013 as their next window of competitiveness. They moved two franchise icons (Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt) last season at the trade deadline, so go ahead and assume that there are zero scraps in their scrapbook when it comes to moving Brett Myers or Wandy Rodriguez if it's going to make them more competitive long-term (and less expensive in the short term). They'll do it in a second.

 Catcher of the future Jason Castro went down with a knee injury before the season and will likely miss the entire year. Despite the fact that Castro barely hit .200 in virtually half a 2010 season, the injury is actually considered significant for the Astros' 2011 chances. (Bonus: We get at least one more season of J.R. Towles's reactions to striking out; nobody has perfected slamming the bat into the ground quite like J.R. He could do an instructional DVD.) Add in starting shortstop Clint Barmes going down with a broken hand for the first month or so, and it's starting to feel like one of those years.

 There is a better-than-even-money chance that Carlos Lee accidentally walks to the plate accidentally wearing a lobster bib around his neck this season. Right now, he is your cleanup hitter. Keep that in mind.

 So if you invest in the over, do so with caution. Honestly, I'll digest all of the warning signs and still fire on "Over 71 1/2" based on my faith in Brad Mills and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. And yes, going to the park rooting for them to lose would suck. (And no, I can't go the season without wagering on their win total. Sorry.)

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6 comments
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Rhonda Omberg
Rhonda Omberg

You're a very funny guy, Sean. I enjoyed the read immensely. I actually haven't been looking forward to the Astros this year as much as I would like to, but then they've surprised me before. I am a little miffed that they haven't done much in the area of improvement (a 100 million dollar TV doesn't do much to mollify the void on the trophy case) in several areas - minor leagues among them. However, the team shows some promise and as long as Drayton doesn't get a wild hair and sell everyone off 'Major League"-style, I think 81-81 is possible.

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The OSD
The OSD

Great work Sean! Gambling, Seinfeld, Carlos Lee, Star Wars, White Snake, etc. all wrapped up in an Astro's nugget! My only question is how could you leave Milo out?

ahem!
ahem!

You work in a Whitesnake reference, but not Tawny Kitaen pics? I'm pretty sure you've achieved dork status.How about The Ultimate Fighter: Drayton? I admit I just want to see Drayton wearing an Affliction tee.

Chance McClain
Chance McClain

The 800 Pound Gorilla...I totally thought you were going to the Carlos Lee card early...

I continue reading...

 
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