Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Comparing Astros Aces

One of the benefits of researching this staff ace series is that I've had a chance to dig into the numbers for some pitchers who I remember vividly from my earliest days as a baseball fan and, in doing so, quantify or challenge assumptions I've made about these players for as long as I knew why the IP column on the back of my baseball cards sometimes included numbers with decimals.

Mike Scott is one such pitcher. I remember (inaccurately, as it turns out) Scott and Nolan Ryan striking out 300 hitters each in the same season more than once when, as it turns out, Scott "only" struck out 300+ once in his career (in his insanely dominant 1986 season), and the two never struck out 300 in the same season. In fact, Ryan never struck out 300 in an Astros uniform at all! The closest he ever came was 270 in '87 (though he struck out 301 in his very first season with Texas). I remembered Scott as the dominant pitcher he was on the back of the baseball cards I collected as a kid, not as the pitcher who had a short but amazing run and then faded, as so very many players do. It's a good thing I'm not, say, a Hall of Fame voter who abhors research and votes based on impressions I formed of players ten, fifteen, or even twenty years ago.

That said, both Scott and Ryan absolutely belong in this discussion. Scott came up with the Mets before being traded to Houston and breaking out in the mid-80's and enjoying a stretch of five years as a top-flight starter. I assume Ryan needs no introduction. Rounding out the Final Four are J.R. Richard, the former first-rounder who appeared to be on the fast track to super-stardom before a stroke tragically ended his career, and Roy Oswalt, the underappreciated ace of the current Astros staff.

The elephant in the room, at least from recent years, is Roger Clemens, but although he was absolutely lights-out in two-and-a-half seasons with the Astros, he didn't pitch in Houston long enough to merit consideration, and his ridiculous 2006 and 2007 decision holdouts hamstrung Houston significantly (even in 2006, when Clemens eventually joined the team midseason and pitched brilliantly).

With the contenders established, let's start by looking at each pitcher's Astros WAR as it fits into his overall career path:

Scott's peak is far-and-away the most impressive when measured by WAR, but all four pitchers enjoyed peak seasons in the 6.0+ WAR range, so when it comes to career WAR, consistency and longevity will win this race. Since all four pitchers were with the Astros for 9-10 years, longevity is essentially out the window. As for consistency, both Oswalt and Ryan were worth ~2 wins to the Astros at minimum each year, but Oswalt's low end and high end WAR values were better than Ryan's, making him the favorite. Graphing each pitcher's WAR in descending order from best season to worst season makes Oswalt's edge obvious:

Oswalt, as the second graph illustrates rather vividly, blew away the competition in an extraordinarily talented field with 36.4 WAR as of last season, and his lead is only going to increase. Ryan was over ten wins behind with 26.2. Scott and Richard, on the strength of their brief but brilliant peaks, were just behind Ryan with 23.5 and 22.4 career Astros WAR, respectively.

Since the Astros began play in 1962 (as the Houston Colt .45's), every single season in Houston is covered by Baseball Projection's wonderful WAR databases, which means that Oswalt, while certainly not the best pitcher the Astros organization has every sent to the mound, has done more than any other Astros pitcher in franchise history to add to the "W" column. And he's a damned fine pitcher in his own right, lest cries of "compiler!" be made. In eight full seasons, Oswalt has thrown 200+ innings six times, struck out 200 twice (and dipped below 150 only once), never had an ERA+ of less than 120, and only once had a WHIP over 1.250. He has a career ERA of 3.20 for an ERA+ of 136 (that's 36% fewer earned runs than the average pitcher over his entire career!), a 1.205 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 3.57 K/BB, and 0.8 HR/9 (Crawford Boxes be damned!). He's even won 20 games twice and 19 games once, for those who care about wins.

And yet, Oswalt seems to be perenially overshadowed by flashier stars in his division or even on his own team (Clemens and Andy Pettitte, anyone?). Hell, he couldn't even take home RotY honors in 2001, despite a fantastic rookie campaign, because some jerk named Pujols decided to put together one of the greatest rookie seasons in history.

So if somebody starts talking NL Central aces and doesn't mention Oswalt (or, if he remains in the division, Ben Sheets for that matter), remind him or her just how good the Astros ace really is. And if any of you Houston fans see Roy Oswalt on the street, give him a hug and thank him for his unparalled contributions to your team. He deserves it, the big lug...


  1. Just wanted to say how ridiculous Scott's 2006 was: 0.923 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 161 ERA+. Criminy.

  2. (1986.)

    But yeah, Scott was downright BEASTLY that year, and sustained his level of beastliness for 275.1 IP (!).

  3. Wow. I have no idea how I did that.

    Now you get to do the fun ones. Enjoy.

  4. Hey, the rest of the division is plenty fun. For example, did you know that the most valuable Reds pitcher was in fact Joe Morgan? Details tomorrow.

  5. Awesome Mike Scott tidbit: he won the 1986 NLCS MVP despite the fact that the Astros lost the series. He started Games 1 and 4, going the distance in both and giving up a combined total of 1 run on 8 H and 1 BB while striking out 19 and picking up two wins. That's an ERA of 0.50, a WHIP of 0.500, 4.0 H/9, 0.0 HR/9, 0.5 BB/9, 9.5 K/9, and 19.0 K/BB.

    Had the Mets not won Game 6 to clinch the series, Scott would have pitched Game 7, most likely entering the ballpark astride a flaming, skeletal horse and pulling an elaborate battle wagon fashioned from the broken forms of his vanquished foes and dotted with grim totems of his dominance--broken bats, tear-stained batting gloves, tickets to Norfolk, and so on. Mets players brave (or foolish) enough to meet his eyes would spend the rest of their haunted lives speaking in hushed whispers of the howling void they saw swirling behind his pupils and threatening to draw them screaming into the abyss, doomed for all eternity.

    So it's not surprising that the Mets seem to have played Game 6 with a certain sense of urgency...