The Most Disappointing Season For … The Houston Astros
The 2000 Houston Astros
Record: 72-90 (4th in the NL Central, 12th out of 16 in AL)
Pythagorean Record: 81-81
Runs Scored: 938 (2nd in NL)
Runs Allowed: 944 (16th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 97-65
Manager: Larry Dierker
Hype: Three-time defending NL Central Champs are moving to a new ballpark, named for one of the great Houston corporations, Enron. They hope that 2000 is just as successful as the past years, even though they made a big trade.
The Gory Details: It’s always a big deal to move into a new ballpark. It’s always a big deal to defend a division title. So, 2000 was a big, big deal for the Houston Astros.
The new park, named Enron Field after the Houston energy company, was a marked difference from their old home park, the Astrodome. It seemed that in the new stadium, with its short left field fence, the hill and flagpole in center field, and other cozy dimensions, would be a hitter’s delight and a pitcher’s nightmare. That’s sharp contrast to the Astrodome, which in its heyday was a run killer.
With the money flowing in for the new park, the Astros made a curious move in the offseason. Mike Hampton was the ace of the 1999 staff, taking that mantle from the departed Randy Johnson. He was just 27, coming off a 22-4, 2.90, 7.8 WAR season. Hampton also hit .311 with a 105 OPS+ as a hitter. He’d also be a free agent at the end of the 2000 season.
In a puzzling move that can’t really be explained except for panic, Houston traded Hampton and Derek Bell to the Mets for Octavio Dotel, Roger Cedeno and a minor leaguer. Now both Dotel and Cedeno were held in high regard, but trading a potential franchise pitcher just because he may be a tough sign in the next offseason is a bit rash.
Some speculated that it may have been the only way to get value for Derek Bell, who was due $5 million and stunk it up in 1999.
The Astros also made another move in the offseason, trading Carl Everett, who did NOT stink in 1999, to the Red Sox for young prospect Adam Everett. That was another money saving move, which again was curious. New park, excellent club should equal mega revenue.
It’s obvious GM Gerry Hunsicker and manager Larry Dierker though the Astros still had plenty of horses. They did. The obvious ones were first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who looked to take big-time advantage of the new park, and second baseman Craig Biggio. Ken Caminiti was back at third after an injury plagued 1999, and the outfield still had plenty of firepower.
Moises Alou was hurt all of 1999 after an off-season accident on a treadmill (no kidding), but in 1998 he was an MVP candidate, and hit 38 home runs while spending half of his time in the Astrodome. He was prime and ready for a comeback. Cedeno was coming off of a .season where he hit .313 with 66 steals.
Youngsters Richard Hidalgo, who had a disappointing 1999, Lance Berkman, and Daryle Ward were ready for action as well. The only question mark was at short, where Tim Bogar, Bill Spires (who played a lot of third in 1999 replacing Caminiti) or rookie Julio Lugo could all see time.
The rotation still had Jose Lima, who went 21-10 in 1999, veteran Shane Reynolds, Chris Holt, signee Dwight Gooden, who hoped to rebound after a ghastly 1999 in Cleveland, and either Dotel or Scott Elarton.
The bullpen was led by Billy Wagner, who was disproving the ‘short pitchers can’t throw hard’ myth with every appearance. Hampton would be missed, but it was hoping that Elarton, Dotel and Gooden could cover for him, somehow.
After winning two of three on the road to start 2000, the Astros broke in Enron Field, and lost 4-1 to the Phillies. They struggled during the homestand, winning just two of six games, then lost two of five on the next road trip. Coming back home, it was hoped that the Astros would get back on track.
The pitching totally fell apart, already. They went 1-5 in the homestand against the Padres and Cubs, and then went back on the road and emerged on May 7th with a 12-18 record, already 6 ½ games behind.
It wasn’t too hard to see the culprit. Through May 7th:
Lima: 1-5, 9.53 ERA in seven starts. He had given up 16 home runs already, including five in one game against the Cubs. He also had back to back games where the Cubs hit him for double digit runs.
Holt: 1-4, 7.64 in six starts. He had back to back starts where he gave up 19 runs total in 9 1/3 innings.
Dotel, 1-3, 5.77 in six starts and one relief appearance.
Gooden, one start and then he was summarily released. Elarton came up to replace him.
Reynolds somehow stayed above the fray, thus far, as he was 4-0 with a 3.22 ERA. Wagner was also doing a decent job with four saves and a 2.31 ERA.
The rest of May turned out even worse. The Astros had a seven game losing streak, and Wagner was losing effectiveness. He blew five straight saves, and saw his ERA rise to 5.70 at the end of the month.
The problem wasn’t the crooked numbers at home – that was expected. The problem was the pitching on the road was just as bad. Giving up 41 runs in a six game road trip during the losing streak isn’t good, especially when it was against the Brewers and Expos – two teams with normal parks.
Aside from the issues with Lima, Holt and Dotel, Elarton started horribly. He went 3-1 over his first eight starts but his 7.17 ERA belied his W/L record.
Compounding the problems were an injury to Cedeno, who wasn’t off to that great of a start. He would miss about 2 ½ months. Bogar couldn’t hit, and Dierker wasn’t that happy with Spires as a fielder and was reluctant to give the job over to Lugo as well. Biggio was off to a poor start (for him), hitting just .254 and went through May without a home run. He still was getting on base at an excellent clip.
All that into account, it wasn’t the offense’s problem.
June rolled in, and it’d take a big hot streak to get the Astros back into it. June sealed their fate.
A wrist injury to Caminiti put him on the shelf for the rest of the year. Wagner’s problems turned into (or was caused by) an elbow injury. That shuffled everything up, with Spires and Chris Truby now manning third, and the bullpen in chaos with anyone from Doug Henry to Joe Slusarski pitching in to close games.
The starting pitching still stunk all the way around, and even Reynolds was starting to stumble a bit. It turned into an 8-19 month. Houston ended June at 27-52, in sixth place and 20 games behind.
Dierker lost patience with both Dotel as a starter, and the committee of middlemen as closer, so he moved the youngster to the bullpen full time in early July. That stabilized things a bit down there, and Wade Miller was called up to take Dotel’s spot in the rotation.
As Houston stumbled into the All-Star break, the only Astros representative was Reynolds, who was 6-5 with a 4.17 ERA. Meanwhile, Bagwell already had 23 home runs and a .404 OBP, Hidalgo had a .607 SLG with 23 home runs himself, and Alou, though he missed some time early in the year during his comeback, had a 1.076 OPS with his .359 average and .657 SLG. Berkman, who filled in for Alou and platooned with Ward, was hitting .299 with a .593 SLG.
It certainly wasn’t the offense’s fault, and it’s mind boggling that the Astros were represented by a pitcher.
The rest of July wasn’t THAT bad. Houston went 12-14 to end July at 39-66, in sixth place, as usual. The only other bad thing to happen (besides getting whapped upside the head with regularity) was that Reynolds went on the DL for the year at the end of July with back issues. He made five starts in July, threw just 22 innings, and had an 11.12 ERA.
The worst news came on August 1st. In a game against the Marlins, with Preston Wilson at first, Mike Lowell hit a groundball to Truby at third. Wilson slid into Biggio at second, and they got tangled. Biggio left the game with torn knee ligaments, and he was also done for the year.
That left five key cogs of the Astros lineup either done for the year, or missing at least half the year. That’s not counting the total horribleness that the rotation had turned into through the year. Hampton may have been a big loss, but even he couldn’t make up for all of this.
After Biggio’s injury, with all of the other problems, it would have been easy for the Astros to slip further and further into the basement. But Dierker wouldn’t let them, and there was plenty of pride on the team after three straight titles that they weren’t just going to lay down.
Elarton became the staff stalwart, throwing at least six innings in 13 straight starts, and reducing his ERA by three whole points since June 16th. Dotel saved 16 games as the closer, which helped ease the loss of Wagner. Lugo played decently as a replacement for Biggio at second and also got more time at short as the year went on.
Alou, Hidalgo and Bagwell continued to punish baseballs, and Berkman continued his fine rookie year. The Astros went 16-12 in August and 17-12 in September and October. They got out of the basement for good on September 4th, and actually climbed into third place for a while (the NL Central was nasty in 2000) before settling into fourth at 72-90, just a game behind Milwaukee for third.
Still, it was a horribly disappointing year, especially for the starting rotation. Elarton went 17-7 with an ERA+ of 103, which means with ‘normal’ pitching the Astros probably could have contended. The W/L record for Reynolds, Miller and late season fill-ins Tony McKnight and Brian Powell were 19-16.
Holt went 8-16, 5.35, and Lima was all kinds of awful. He gave up 251 hits, 152 runs and 48 home runs. His other peripherals were ghastly as well (a Fielding Independent Pitching mark of 6.12, which, well, stinks). That translated into a 7-16, 6.65 mark that moved him from stud to stiff in a hurry.
Houston’s cratering in 2000 was very reminiscent of the sudden fall of Enron the next year. However, the Astros rebounded – winning the division again in 2001 and making the playoffs in 2004 and 2005 (including their first World Series appearance) before hitting the doldrums again. Enron, as you know, wasn’t so lucky.
It was a combination of horrible pitching, bad luck, and a bad trade that caused the Astros collapse. It wasn’t just one thing, but everything in concert, that made 2000 a total disappointment. That’s the great thing about baseball, though, you can go from steak to ramen noodles in a big hurry, and vice versa.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Hidalgo had 44 home runs, a .391 OBP and a 6.3 WAR. He also played a good center field. Bagwell had better offensive numbers, but didn’t add that much on defense. Still, a 5.4 WAR ain’t shabby.
Honorable Mention Team: If you were around in 1986, you remember the absolutely riveting NLCS against the Mets, with the classic game six that the Mets pulled out in the 16th by a hair, thus missing Mike Scott for a clinching game seven in the Astrodome. In 1987, you may not remember the Astros went 76-86. That was the year Nolan Ryan had an ERA+ of 142, a WAR of 4.8, and a record of 8-16. That was the year that Alan Ashby, THE Alan Ashby, led the team in OPS+. Yeah, the offense, it stunk.
Bad Blast from the Past: For many years, the Houston Buffaloes was the AA farm team of the Cardinals in the Texas League. So, let’s pick a Cardinals team from the past. How about 1937? In 1934, the Cards won the World Series. In 1935 and 1936 they finished second. But in 1937, they fell back to fourth. Pepper Martin was slowing down, and while Johnny Mize and Joe Medwick were going strong, there was some slippage with the others. Pitching also went south a bit, as Dizzy Dean went from 51 appearances to 27 and Bob Weiland and Lon Warneke couldn’t pick up the slack.
Oh, and Leo Durocher went from a .286/.327/.347 slash line to .203/.262/.245 while consuming 520 plate appearances. He also hit into a team leading 17 double plays and wound up with a -2.3 WAR.