SHL Expansion One: Houston in the Hunt
In the Expansion One division of theÂ Seamheads Historical League, common wisdom holds that theÂ MetsÂ are in a class of their own, whileÂ Houston,Â TexasÂ andÂ CaliforniaÂ are fighting for second place. Nearly a third of the way through the season, however, the Astros, thanks to power pitching and hitting, are only two games back of the Mets going into a three game head-to-head series.
The Astros are as interesting for what they haven’t done as for what they have.Â On offense, they’re in the bottom half of the league in batting average, on-base percentage, runs, hits and walks. Despite these major flaws, though, Houston batters have actually been a key component of the team’s success. They’ve done this with the long ball. Amazingly, Houston has 61 home runs,Â good for third in the entire SHLÂ behindÂ Arizona/ColoradoÂ andÂ Baltimore. Leading the way are Killer B’s Bagwell (11), Beltran (10) and Berkman (9). Never was this force on such obvious display as in last week’sÂ comeback victory over San Diego, capped by a walk-off three run homer off the bat of Moises Alou. Without this power source, the Astros’ offense would be an unqualified failure. As it stands, it has at least kept them competitive, and in contention for the division title.
As singular as the Astros’ offense may seem, theirÂ pitching staffÂ more than matches it for sheer unidimensionality. Houston hurlers are last in the SHL in walks allowed, second-to-last in runs allowed, and not much better in hits allowed, E.R.A. (5.25) or opponents’ average (.287). Incredibly, however, they’ve struck out 418 batters in 52 games, an average of 8.03 per game that places them second in the league, behind onlyÂ SeattleÂ (434). This, of course, is thanks to the presence of three of baseball’s legendary power pitchers, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson. The Big Unit has been laid low with a herniated disc in his back, but both Ryan and Clemens are putting up customary numbers, with a combined 143 strikeouts.
Also worthy of mention is the easily forgottenÂ J.R. Richard. Unless you followed the Astros in the mid-to-late 1970s, you may not realize that Richard was one of the most dominant starters in the game. In his peak from 1975-79, he averaged over eight K’s a game, by far the most in the bigs. Happily for Houston, he’s rediscovered this form in the SHL, fanning 61 batters in 84 innings. The trend even extends to the bullpen, where Joe Sambito, Octavio Dotel, Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge all have more strikeouts than innings pitched.
As a cautionary tale, however, Houstonians should recall their 2005 pennant winning team, which also benefited from standout performances by Clemens and Lidge. That team was third in the National League in strikeouts, and led the league in runs, hits and walks allowed, but still lost the World Series. The SHL version of the pitching staff, which is much less diverse in its talents, cannot expect to experience extended success based on its current model.
What can be done, then, to address the problem in Houston? As it happens, much help is available inÂ Triple-A Round Rock. Offensively, Jose Cruz has done everything that Lance Berkman has not: hit for average, get on base, avoid strikeouts. In fact, he’s walked far more often than he’s whiffed (35 to 20). Additionally, his defense is markedly superior. The Astros would do well to relegate Berkman’s admittedly powerful bat to the bench and allow Cruz to play every day. That would help diversify the lineup, and Berkman would still be available to pinch hit.
As far as the pitching is concerned, Jose Valverde has the best numbers in relief for the Round Rock Express, with 23 strikeouts and nine walks in 24.7 innings. He could help stop the base-on-balls merry-go-round at the big league level, possibly as a replacement for Dotel. Among starters, Joe Niekro has allowed only a .240 opponents batting average.
Though questions like these are always important, they are especially pressing for the Astros this week, as they prepare for a three-game set with the division-leading Mets. A sweep would put them in first place, a development envisioned by few on Opening Day. The series should feature several interesting match-ups, and will go a long way towards answering some key divisional questions:
–Can Tom Seaver and the veteran New York pitching staff exploit the Astros’ free-swinging tendencies, or will strikeout artists Doc Gooden and David Cone challenge hitters with their fastballs? Mets pitchers have allowed 45 home runs this season, 12th in the league.
–Will the Houston staff succeed in overpowering overeager Mets hitters, or can New York outlast them on a steady diet of walks? The Mets have drawn 183 free passes thus far, tied for fifth in the league. Allowing that many runners on base for the likes of Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson and David Wright may prove fatal for the Astros.
As they certainly realize, the Astros’ high-risk, high-reward strategy can either propel them to the top of the division or lead to a complete unraveling. Thus far, they’ve been able to weather the bad times while overmatching lesser opponents. The series with the Mets will be a key test for them. A strong showing would be a major confidence boost, while losing two or three games would not only set them back in the standings, but shake the very foundations on which the franchise is built.Â