Mailing List

Sign up for email updates from Hot Corner Harbor any time there's a new post!

    Friday, August 5, 2011

    Retired Numbers Series: Houston Astros

    The next team I’m covering in my Retired Numbers Series is one that has always intrigued me. When I first visited Minute Maid Park, I was actually surprised by the sheer amount of jersey numbers that they had retired. Many of the numbers were from players that I had never heard of at the time. When compared to the amount that other teams have retired, the Astros especially stand out, particularly taking into account the fact that they’re a relatively recent expansion team.

    After reflecting on the Astros method, I decided that I like their methodology a lot, possibly more than any other team (at the very least, of the ones that I’ve covered so far). Every player had some significance to the team, even if they weren’t all necessarily Hall of Fame-level talents. And it preserves the memory of the players-I doubt that I would have bothered to look up some of the players had their numbers not led to my curiosity.

    Anyway, onto the numbers.

    Notes on the Numbers 
    Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.

    There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers only goes back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.

    The Already Retired Numbers 
    As mentioned, the Astros have nine retired numbers thus far. The first two came under tragic circumstances. Jim Umbricht’s 32 was retired in 1965 following his death to melanoma at the age of 33. He only played the final two seasons of his five year career (1959-1963) with the then-Colt .45s, and put up a total of 4 bWAR with them (due to the nature of the stat, he only had about 3 bWAR for his whole career-his time with the Pirates was a negative). Despite this, he has left a huge impact on the team; according to Wikipedia, the team MVP award is also named after Umbricht.

    Pitcher Don Wilson had his number (40) retired a decade later, after his death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Unlike Umbricht, Wilson had an already extensive body of work with the team upon his passing. His nine year career (from 1966 to 1974, all years with the Astros) saw the promising 29-year-old throw two no-hitters and stake an early claim to the title of the franchise’s best pitcher. His 30.2 bWAR with the team still ranks third among pitchers to this day.

    Subsequent honoring has come under happier circumstances. Mike Scott and Jose Cruz saw their numbers, 33 and 25, respectively, retired together in 1992. Scott threw with the Astros from 1983 until 1991, and put up 23 bWAR with them (not to mention his NL West-clinching no-hitter in 1986). His four years with the Mets (prior to his time with the Astros) add little to his total career value.

    Jose Cruz was the first hitter honored by the team. He arrived with the Astros in 1975 after five undistinguished years in St. Louis, and stayed in Houston until 1987 (1988 would be his final season, which saw him struggle in New York Pinstripes ). His time in Houston accounted for 49 of his 52 career bWAR and 51 of his 55 career fWAR (marks which are fourth and fifth in team history, respectively).

    Nolan Ryan, number 34, was next to be honored. Ryan, who pitched from from 1968 to 1993 (and two games in 1966), spent 1980 through 1988 in Houston. The Houston native put up 26 of his 85 career bWAR with his hometown team.

    Larry Dierker was the first player to get his number retired after the team moved into their new stadium (although he also spent time as the team’s broadcaster and manager, where he won a Manager of the Year Award and four NL Central titles). Number 49’s career was essentially spent entirely with the Astros; his last season, 1977, saw him pitch just under 40 innings for the Cardinals. Dierker was the longtime franchise leader in bWAR among pitchers, with 38.1. He pitched for the team between 1964 and 1976.

    The chronically-underrated Jimmy Wynn was honored next. Wynn led the team in both bWAR and fWAR when he retired, although he has since been passed five times in both categories. Wynn played with the Astros from his start in 1963 until 1973, a time which saw number 24 put up 44 bWAR and 45 fWAR. He would play four more seasons after leaving the team, totaling 60 career bWAR and 61 career fWAR, both borderline-Hall of Fame numbers.

    The two most recent honorees are ranked 1-2 in both systems. Both websites have number 5, Jeff Bagwell, first. Bagwell spent the entirety of his career, which lasted from 1991 to 2005, with the Astros. Both bWAR (80) and fWAR (84) have him as a Hall of Fame lock-type player. His longtime teammate Craig Biggio, also a career Astros and Hall favorite, places second on both lists. Number 7 amassed 66 bWAR and 71 fWAR in his career, which went from 1988 to 2007.

    Compared to the League 
    There are three main parts I can use to compare different teams’ standards. I can look at career value or value just with the team; the average of mean of the values; or, bWAR or fWAR.

    Average career bWAR places the Astos in the fourth quartile of MLB, while average career bWAR ranks the team as the exact middle of the league. Looking at average value just with the team places the Astros either just above (fWAR) or below (bWAR) the middle.

    The median values are much less kind to the Astros. Median career bWAR places the team in the fourth quarter, and median career fWAR and median team bWAR both rank in the third quartile. Median team bWAR puts them just above halfway.

    Basically, this means that the Astros’ standards for retiring a number are about league average, maybe slightly lower. Their nine retired numbers ties them for fifth all-time with the Pirates, Reds, and White Sox. The Astros also have more retired numbers than any other expansion team in MLB History.

    So Who’s Next? 
    Despite the Astros’ recent struggles, there still are possible future honorees still. The most apparent is Cesar Cedeno. Cedeno was a center fielder who played from 1970 to 1986, and spent his first 12 years in Houston. For his career, he put up 52.2 bWAR and 55 fWAR. Of those totals, 49.4 bWAR and 52 fWAR came as a ‘Stro, both of which put him as the most valuable player in franchise history prior to the Bagwell-Biggio era.

    One retired pitcher in particular jumps out: Joe Niekro. He leads the team in wins, and his 24.0 bWAR sandwiches him between Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott. He also ranks above retired number honoree J.R. Richards. His numbers aren’t particularly overwhelming, but given the standards, he seems to qualify. His status as franchise leader in wins seems like the type of thing that would push him over the top; and yet, his number is still in use. It isn’t some huge injustice, exactly; it just seems curious.

    The next two retired players down the lists are Joe Morgan and Ken Forsch, and, in all honestly, that seems to be about where the cut-off should be. Forsch wasn’t as notable as the three pitchers immediately ahead of him (and of those three, Niekro’s number is yet to be honored anyway). Morgan is the unanimous seventh-best hitter in team history. But, in both cases, it’s a quite a drop off between sixth and seven; Jimmy Wynn has a lead of 11 in fWAR, and a lead of 14 in bWAR.

    I’m going to stray a bit off the list for my next suggestion. Billy Wagner is possibly one of the three or four best closers of all-time. He’s fifth all-time in saves, with 255 of his 422 coming from his time in Houston, from 1995 to 2003. WAR for relievers is different; however, Fangraphs has him fourth all-time in fWAR for relievers, with 24.7. Baseball-Reference agrees, giving Wagner 17.6 bWAR with the Astros and 29.7 bWAR for his career. I’m not sure what the Astros will do with regards to relievers, but I would argue that Wagner is one of the two or three greatest closers of the last 30 years (behind Mariano Rivera, and possibly tied with Trevor Hoffman). That may be worth honoring.

    That leaves us with basically two major candidates left, both still playing. The first is Lance Berkman, who spent 1999 through 2010 with the team. Fangraphs has him as the third best Houston hitter of all-time, behind the other two Killer B’s (55 fWAR with the Astros, 58 fWAR and counting for his career). Baseball-Reference is slightly stingier, “only” putting Berkman fifth among Astros hitters (with 46.1 bWAR with the team and 49.2 career bWAR so far). To be honest, he seems like an easy choice.

    The other obvious pick is Roy Oswalt. He’s ranked the best pitcher in team history on Baseball-Reference, with 41.8 bWAR from his time on the team (2001-2010). His career so far has been worth 45.4 bWAR. I didn’t use fWAR in the study for pitchers, but for what it’s worth, Roy is also credited with 45.6 fWAR as an Astro and 48.6 career fWAR. Again, I see little reason to not retire his number upon his retirement.

    That brings us to the miscellany. For example, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens are both local pitchers who had great seasons for some of the best Astros teams in history. However, for as good as they were, they both only spent 3 years with the team.

    Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn were both probably favorites until being traded last week. Now, it’s unlikely they’ll add to their totals with the team.

    Really, that only leaves players currently with the team. Wandy Rodriguez is the most tenured of the players, but his career hasn’t been outstanding yet (9.4 bWAR in 7 seasons so far). At 32, it’s highly unlikely he’ll get much better. Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles are both young enough that they might leave their mark, but it’s still much too early to be certain. I’ve heard promising things about Jose Altuve, 21-year old second baseman. And really, that’s about it for the major league roster right now.

    So, In Closing... 
    As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Houston Astros in the future are, in order:

    Lance Berkman-17
    Roy Oswalt-44
    Billy Wagner-13
    Cesar Cedeno-28
    Joe Niekro-36
    Jordan Lyles-41
    Bud Norris-20
    Jose Altuve-27
    Hunter Pence-9
    Wandy Rodriguez-51
    Michael Bourn-21


    1. As a side note that I forgot to mention, Darryl Kile's 57 is out of circulation since his death. While he did spend the majority of his career as an Astro, he probably wasn't good enough in his time there to demand retirement. While they have retired other numbers of players who passed away, the time that has elapsed since his untimely death makes the chances 57 is retired less likely.

    2. I was just looking at this again. I know in the post-script I said that I somehow didn't realize J.R. Richards' number wasn't already retired even while writing this. The proof, in this case: "He also ranks above retired number honoree J.R. Richards."

      Why haven't they retired his number again?