Astros needed more Ensberg

A reader wonders if the Astros missed the playoffs because they didn't play Morgan Ensberg enough at third base.

Originally Published: September 29, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

You know what's a lot of fun? The blame game. It's fun because playing makes us feel superior to all those managers who make huge salaries for chewin' tobacco and making up stupid lineups and saying "one game at a time" hundreds of times per season.

Case in point ...

    Rob, I'm surprised that no one has picked up on the curious decision of Jimy Williams to make Geoff Blum his regular third basemen over Ensberg for the past two months. While I don't have the breakdown, my guess-timate is that it's about a 2-1, 5-3 ratio of their starts. The only reason that Ensberg has as many ABs as he has was due to Kent's injury and Blum moving to second for that period.

    Going into today, Blum has 34 more ABs than Ensberg despite the following differences: Ensberg has out-homered Blum 24-10, homering once every 15.5 at bats to Blum's once every 42. Ensberg has an OPS 200 points higher (.882 to .679). So unless Blum has developed the fielding skills of Clete Boyer and/or Ensberg those of Rick McKinney, I feel pretty confident that this decision has more than likely cost the 'Stros a game in the standings.

    Have fun with this one.

    Lonnie Burstein

You might have gotten the impression, from the beginning of this column, that I think most (all?) managers are obviously bumpkins and I could manage circles around them if only some team was finally smart enough to give me the chance I so richly deserve.

I don't really think that. Any writer who says he'd be a better manager than the worst manager is either 1) lying (i.e. "using poetic license) or 2) patently delusional.

Which isn't to say managers don't do stupid things that you or I wouldn't. And giving Blum more plate appearances than Ensberg is pretty stupid.

Entering the season, the Astros were, with Blum and Ensberg, blessed with two third basemen who could play regularly for a lot of teams.

Here are some relevant career numbers before Opening Day:

         Age   OBP  Slug  
G. Blum   29  .336  .418
Ensberg   27  .344  .388

Of course, those numbers don't tell the whole story (do they ever?).

Blum played poorly in 2001, but he'd played well in each of his other three major-league seasons, including 2002 when he posted a .367 on-base percentage and slugged .440. Great numbers, no. But decent enough for a third baseman, even a third baseman who plays half his games in Houston.

Ensberg, meanwhile, destroyed minor-league pitchers in 2000 and 2001, but in limited major-league action he'd struggled some. In 2002, he started the season with the Astros, but when the club's hitters got off to a rough collective start, he was assigned the goat horns and returned to New Orleans. And Ensberg's no kid; he actually turned 28 last month (Blum turned 30 in April).

Based on their past performance, there was good reason to think Ensberg was the better player. Ron Shandler projected a 767 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) for Blum, 807 for Ensberg. Baseball Prospectus projected a 751 OPS for Blum, 818 for Ensberg.

Edge for Ensberg, obviously. But not a big edge. When the season opens, Blum and Ensberg are platooned, which means Blum (a switch-hitter who's better against right-handers) plays a lot and Ensberg (who bats right-handed) doesn't.

Blum started 14 of the Astros' first 15 games. Ensberg was a spare part, kept around mostly because nobody else wanted him. Ensberg finally got a real chance to play in late May when Blum contracted a "mild case of viral meningitis," and from that point Ensberg has played more often than not.

Fast-forward to the All-Star break.

Blum was dead on the projections, with a 746 OPS (.316 OBP, .430 slugging percentage).

Meanwhile, Ensberg was tearing it up with a 1.031 OPS; his .418 on-base and .613 slugging percentages both ranked No. 1 on the Astros. Yes, Ensberg was playing over his head, but we're not talking about an inconsiderable number of at-bats: 199, plus 31 walks. It was, however, fewer at-bats than Blum has racked up.

Perhaps that's understandable, though. After all, Blum came into the season as the known quantity. And, having played (slightly) better than Ensberg in 2002, it wasn't unreasonable for him to start with the everyday job. What's unreasonable is that Ensberg didn't finish with the everyday job.

Ensberg did play more often than Lonnie suggests. But he didn't start on July 17 or 18, the first two games after the All-Star break. He didn't start on Aug. 11 or 12. He didn't start on Aug. 20, 21, or 22. He didn't start on Sept. 11, 12, or 13. He didn't start on Sept. 18, 19, or 20.

Since late May, Ensberg's played against left-handed pitchers, he's played against some right-handed pitchers, and he's played when Blum played second base or shortstop. But if you look at the game logs for both Ensberg and Blum, you get the distinct impression that Williams was looking for ways to get Blum into the lineup, and didn't mind using Ensberg when the situation demanded it.

Of course, it should have been the other way around. While it's true that Ensberg's numbers went down in the second half, it's also true that Blum's did, too. The final results? Ensberg's OPS in 2003 was 907, and Blum's was 674. Putting Ensberg's 907 into context, it wasn't as good as Richard Hidalgo's or Lance Berkman's, but it was better than Jeff Bagwell's and Jeff Kent's. Blum's was better than Orlando Merced's but not as good as Adam Everett's.

When looking at something like this, we might consider three different perspectives: Before, During, and After.

Before -- that is, Opening Day -- there wasn't any obvious reason to strongly favor one Astro third baseman over the other. I'd probably have given most of the job to Ensberg because I like younger players with his secondary skills. But a season-opening platoon certainly didn't seem unreasonable.

During -- with "During" in this case referring to the All-Star break -- there was little reason to continue keeping Ensberg out of the lineup. On the other hand, Blum went into the break with a 15-game hitting streak (as Kent's replacement at second base). He didn't have Ensberg's power or Ensberg's patience, but a 15-game hitting streak (including three homers) will open some eyes (and blind others).

After -- which is to say now -- it's obvious that Blum was allowed to bat far too many times this season, considering the availability of Ensberg.

Did this cost the Astros the pennant? We're talking about a one-game difference between first place and second place, which is so small that it's impossible to say what wouldn't or wouldn't have made the difference.

But as I mentioned earlier, a season-opening platoon wasn't unreasonable. And Ensberg did get roughly 200 plate appearances after the All-Star break. The Astros' stars got around 300, which means that even if Ensberg had started virtually every game, we're talking about a difference of only 100 plate appearances. Would 100 plate appearances from Morgan Ensberg have made a two-game difference?

Sure, he might have hit a couple of decisive home runs. But no, it's not likely that he'd have made the difference. We do know the Astros came up short, and we do know they might have won if they'd let Ensberg play every day. But we can't say, with any degree of precision, that not giving him the job cost the Astros the pennant. This was not Joe Adcock, Frank Torre, and the '59 Braves (look 'em up).

That said, the real test comes next spring. If the Astros are still screwing around with some sort of platoon at third base, you'll know they still don't understand what they've got in Morgan Ensberg. Blum's a handy guy to have around, but Ensberg's an everyday third baseman.

At this moment, the Astros should probably be considered co-favorites (at least) to win the National League Central title in 2004 ... if Ensberg is in the lineup on Opening Day.

Counting the cost
I thought about looking closely at every team that finished just short of first place (or a wild card), but quickly realized that Ensberg/Blum is not only the best example of in-season tactics that might have cost a team dearly, it might be the only example.

The White Sox did everything right; it just didn't work out. The Mariners probably should have pulled the plug on Jeff Cirillo before they actually did, but it's not like they had a lot of great options at hand. The message, I think, is that most teams play most of the right guys most of the time ... and when they don't, it generally doesn't mean the difference between first and second place (or second and third, etc.).

The trick isn't playing the right guys. It's getting them.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.

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