Monday, June 23, 2014

Card #66: Houston Astros Team Leaders

Who Can It Be Now?
It's Astros team leaders Art Howe and his .296 batting average and future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan for his 1.69 ERA from 1981.

Coming in to 1982, the Astros had high hopes.  They had lost out to the eventual World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers in Divisional Series in an epic five-game series in which the Astros blew a 2 games to zero lead.  Whether the team in 1982 suffered from a year-long hang over, or whether they simply got a year older without getting a year better, their 1982 was a year to forget.  

They started their season with Nolan Ryan on the mound against the eventual champion Cardinals at home in the Astrodome in front of just 33,521 fans.  Ryan promptly gave up 6 runs, 8 hits, and 2 walks in three innings before the immortal Gordie Pladson replaced him. To be fair, they rebounded and won the final two games of that series, and were 1 game over .500 -- which was their high-water mark for the season.  They dipped as low as 14 games under .500 on August 8, and "rallied" to finish 8 games under .500 by the end of the year -- a 77-85 season.

The season unraveled for the Astros at the plate.  In 1981, the team finished 9th (of 12 NL teams) in runs scored, 5th in batting average, 6th in OBP, and 8th in SLG.  In 1982, all those numbers regressed -- 11th in runs scored, 11th in batting average, and dead last in the National League in OBP and SLG. 

For its part, the pitching did not help matters either.  The team's ERA jumped from an NL-leading 2.66 in 1981 to a fourth-place finish at 3.42. Strikeouts per nine stayed about the same, but the team regressed in its league standing in batters struck out -- moving from 1st to 6th.  The big problem here came from the bullpen -- by the Wins Above Average ranking, Houston had the worst bullpen in the National League.  Further, the team did not perform well either in one-run games -- 22-29 record, a .431 Pct. -- or in games that were blowouts (winning margin of five runs or more) -- 8-16, .333 Pct.

The only real change of note that had happened from 1981 to 1982 was that the team jettisoned long-time first baseman Cesar Cedeno, trading him to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Ray Knight.  In the end, that trade was pretty much a wash.  Perhaps the biggest problem offensively was that CF Tony Scott proved that his 1981 numbers with Houston -- .293/.338/.396 -- were a smaller-sample-size mirage and that Tony Scott really was the .249/.297/.327 hitter where his career numbers finished.

Mustache Check: Nope, neither Howe nor Ryan sported a hairy upper lip.

Don't You Want Me
On August 10, 1982, Astros chairman of the board John McMullen fired manager Bill Virdon. At the time, Virdon had been the manager of the Astros longer than any other manager in the National League.  The next longest tenure at that time was shared by Pirates Manager Chuck Tanner and Dodgers Manager Tommy LaSorda, each of which was in their sixth season as manager in 1982. 

According to the story about his firing, Virdon predicted at the beginning of the season that the 1982 team would be "the best team I ever had in Houston." Oops.

On his way out the door, however, Virdon diagnosed the team's problem as being exactly what the statistics said it was: the bullpen.  He noted that injuries had decimated the bullpen -- as the Astros lost Joe Sambito to an elbow problem and Dave Smith to back issues while Frank LaCorte was ineffective.  He added in a quote: "we couldn't close out anyone.  The seventh, eight[sic] and ninth innings have been misery."

Virdon landed on his feet, though, as he was named manager of the Montreal Expos just days after the regular season ended and on October 11, 1982.

Totally Gnarly
I don't really like Danny Sheridan of USA Today.  I feel like his statistical models are created in a way that he builds in his own inherent biases to the exclusion of relevant information.  I really did not like how his numbers were used for the BCS College Football determinations either.  

Now, my bias out of the way, it's funny to me to look back when he was making baseball predictions in 1982.  According to his numbers, the Yankees and the Houston Astros should have reached the World Series.  Some other numbers that were off: he said Milwaukee was "good on paper but haven't produced" and that the abysmal Texas Rangers were "deep everywhere, but not overpowering; best third baseman in baseball -- Buddy Bell."  I think George Brett would beg to differ with that assessment.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Since 1982 is a decade and a half before the onset of interleague play, the Astros and Brewers did not play one another.  Looking at the Astros for whom they did play, it is interesting to see against which clubs they played well or struggled.  Keep in mind: the scheduling in 1982 was done at the league level rather than at the Commissioner's Office level.  So, while the 14-team American League had fairly even scheduling -- 13 games against each divisional opponent, 12 games against each team in the other division -- the 12-team National League had weighted scheduling.  That meant playing divisional opponents 18 times during the year versus 12 games against the teams in the other division. 

The Astros had losing records against five opponents, winning records against four teams, and .500 records against two teams. Their two worst records came because the Astros really struggled against the San Francisco Giants (who finished 87-75; Astros went 5-13 against them) and the Chicago Cubs -- with the Astros having a 3-9 record against a team that finished 73-89.  Turn those records around, and the Astros pick up fourteen games against .500.  

Now, it's time for the Brewers Countdown.

Former Brewers on the Checklist
No one appearing on this checklist had pulled on a Brewers jersey prior to 1982.

Former Brewers Who Played in 1982 for the Astros
The Brewers and Astros made a trade at the end of August in 1982.  So, coming to the Astros from Milwaukee and appearing in 1982 for the Astros were two players who had appeared previously for Milwaukee:  outfielder Kevin Bass and pitcher Frank DiPino.  Otherwise, the Astros stayed away from former Brewers, it appears.

Future Brewers on the Checklist
As I mentioned, the Brewers and Astros made a trade at the end of August in 1982.  Going to the Brewers -- and becoming an integral part of the September and post-season rotation -- was thirty-seven-year-old Don Sutton.  Sutton stayed in Milwaukee through 1984.  After that season, the Brewers traded Sutton to the Oakland A's for two minor leaguers and Ray Burris.

Another future Brewer was shortstop Dickie Thon, who finished his career with an 85-game stint in Milwaukee in 1993.

And, while he did not play for the Brewers, Phil Garner spent eight years -- from 1992 through 1999 -- in Milwaukee as the Brewers manager, finishing with a record of 563-617 (.477 Win Pct.). His first season saw the Brewers enjoy a 92-70 record and a second-place finish in the American League East behind the eventual World Series Champion Toronto Blue Jays.  

Future Brewers Appearing but Not on the Checklist
He did not get a card in the 1982 Topps set, but second baseman Bill Doran got 100 at-bats in September of 1982.  He finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1983.  Then, in 1993, he capped off his career with a 28-game stint for the Brewers with Dickie Thon.  

Future Hall of Famers on the Checklist
The starting rotation featured two future Hall of Famers -- Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan. Sutton started 27 games for the Astros and Ryan started 35, and both pitched fairly well. Indeed, even though Ryan was 35 to start 1982, he still had another eleven seasons to go in the major leagues.  And, even though Sutton was 37 to start 1982, he pitched for another six seasons.

Future Hall of Famers appearing in 1982 but not on the checklist
No one else on the roster got any real consideration for the Hall of Fame, nor as far as I can tell should they have gotten any consideration.  

The only players with even a shout at being looked at would be Joe Niekro -- who simply did not pile up enough counting statistics in his 22-year career to merit consideration -- or perhaps Jose Cruz, whose career numbers were harmed significantly by playing in the cavernous Astrodome.  Still, that argument for Cruz only gets you so far, and it isn't far enough.

1 comment:

  1. Bill Virdon is still going strong. He usually is a special instructor for the Pirates during spring training. He also has an auto in this years Heritage which I still haven't got my hands on.

    Great Post. I like the team leader cards