Astros start with a Spring in their step

Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Staff Photographer

 

The city of Houston is home to some of the worst traffic jams in the United States. Maybe it’s because everyone is rushing home to catch George Springer’s first at bat.

The 27-year old centerfielder just mashed his fourth leadoff bomb and fifth dinger of the season in the thick Pacific Northwest air Tuesday night, as the Houston Astros clipped the Seattle Mariners 7-5 at Safeco Field.

Springer has taken Juan Uribian hacks since arriving at the big leagues in 2014. Last May, Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch scribbled him on top of his lineup card and he hasn’t looked back, connecting on 20 of his career-high 29 homers from the leadoff spot.

The Astros started the season 17-28 last year. After Springer moved into the leadoff spot, they went 67-50, the third best record in the American League, behind the likes of the Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers.

Eight of those 20 bombs were of the leadoff variety, tying a club record with Craig Biggio. (For the record, Alfonso Soriano holds the MLB record for leadoff jacks, when he hit 13 for the New York Yankees in 2003.)

This past week, there has been some debate in the Space City about why their most productive hitter is leading off, and not placed where most sluggers are typically slotted, in the No. 3, 4, 5 spots in the lineup.

The Astros are not hitting well as a unit so far this season (until the rally grasshoppers broke out and took over the booth Tuesday night at Safeco). Through nine games, they ranked in the bottom third of most hitting categories. That’s not where many pundits pegged the Stros to be with the kind of young talent oozing from Hinch’s lineup card.

Until play-by-play man Todd Kalas and reporter Julia Morales started chomping down on some fried insects, the Astros were 8-for-48 with runners in scoring position. In the Astros 7-5 clipping of the Ms, hitters went 7-for-13 with RISP, which must have felt like a revelation for Hinch.

With a trio of young studs stacked behind Springer, reporters asked Hinch if Springer’s spot in the lineup was for real or not.

Hinch believes that his lineup is most dangerous with Springer spearheading things. It’s the threat of being down 1-0 after the first pitch (he has 14 career homers on the first pitch of an at bat) that has him going with Springer. Also, he’s inclined to the idea of getting the mohawked centerfielder a couple extra at bats, too.

So far, Springer has driven in nine of their 28 runs. They don’t necessarily have a secondary leadoff man hitting ninth to turn the lineup over, with Josh Reddick, a nine-year vet with a career .316 on-base percentage.

“George is going to lead off,” Hinch reiterated at the end of a pre-game meeting with reporters. “He might set the record for leadoff homers, too.”

Puzzling to some people, is having one of the better on-base men in the league, Jose Altuve, hitting behind him.

Altuve led the MLB in hitting two years ago and claimed the American League batting title last season. In 2016, Altuve carried a higher batting average, on-base percentage and OPS than Springer. The one thing that Springer held over Altuve, was walks, 28 more of them.

“I think OPS has sort of replaced OBP when it comes to how we evaluate hitters,” Hinch told the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. “When you start looking at the guys that get the most at-bats and give you the most opportunity to score runs, they’re dangerous hitters. They’re not simply these table setters of the past.

“I can appreciate the old-school thought of a fast guy who gets on base and creates havoc. That’s very valuable as well. But when you’re laying out your lineup and you want your best hitters to get the most at-bats, sometimes it doesn’t look aesthetically the way that you’re used to the game looking but it’s the way the game is.”

Right now, Springer is doing to the Astros what a can of Red Bull does when you shotgun it; there’s an intense, fight-or-flight action, followed by hours of staggered walking around, wondering: was it really worth it?

Forget the four leadoff homers, Springer entered the Grasshopper Game hitting .219. For Hinch’s sake, Springer’s OPS sat at .931, compared to Altuve’s .518. Point, Hinch.

The average might not be there for Springer, but five of his nine hits have left the yard.

Hinch isn’t the only manager to start the game with sluggers in the leadoff spot.

Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs is trotting out Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to start games; not your historically built top-of-the-lineup hitters. John Gibbons tried it when the Toronto Blue Jays traded for Troy Tulowitzki, arranging his order Tulo, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista followed by Edwin Encarnacion. It didn’t last too long before Gibbons went with a less aggressive lineup, trying to spread out the wealth of home-run pop.

But does Hinch not like RBIs and momentum swinging blasts?

Altuve isn’t going to hit .216 forever. He’s destined to return to the days of having an average in the 330s.

Which is better, one run or two runs? The Astros currently sit second in the MLB with 10 solo home runs, four of which belong to Springer. Couldn’t it be more beneficial to put one hitter in front of Springer? Maybe they accidentally find their way on base to start a game, then Springer’s RBI totals and Astros offence could really take off.

Other than hoping Springer’s production trickles down the lineup through osmosis, a switch could spark the slow-starting Altuve and fluttering Carlos Correa.

Despite Altuve’s power serge last season, Springer still launched five more long balls than the second basemen. Springer is more built for homeruns; standing 6-foot-3 and tipping the scales at 215, and he takes healthier hacks, albeit, not by much.

The problem facing Hinch’s leadoff dilemma, is, not having the prototypical leadoff man. He’s lacking the .370 on base guy that slaps the ball around the infield, sits among the league leaders in pitchers per at bat and doesn’t hit 20-plus home runs. His top-four on-base guys from last season would all be considered hitters that managers would normally have in the middle of the order, with Altuve (.396), Correa (.361) and Springer (.359). Fourth in that list last year, was Luis Valbuena, who is now a member of the Los Angeles Angels. So with his hands tied behind his back, Hinch’s hunch is, why not try and get your hottest hitter up as often as possible?

Super sophomore third basemen Alex Bregman hasn’t done anything yet that would fit into Hinch’s ideal role as a leadoff man either. Subtract his first 20 plate appearances in The Show (where he failed to reach base one year removed from getting selected second overall in the draft), and his OBP would have been .345. He hasn’t shown the type of power that would replace Springer in the lineup, only hitting eight jacks last season.

Having these four young guns at the top of the lineup allows Hinch to swap any of them out for a new leadoff man and get a fairly similar result. But Springer got them rolling last year and it appears he is there to stay for now.

When this Astros lineup gets rolling, they will be one of the more formidable lineups in baseball, despite having four righties at the top of the order. It’s a playoff-contending offence, scoring 724 runs last year, and looking to improve with a more balanced, veteran lineup this season.

Shown the door over the winter was Colby Rasmus, Jason Castro and Carlos Gomez. Two streaky hitting, poor clubhouse outfielders that occupied the more athletic, free roaming Springer’s spot in centre and a catcher that owned a 88 OPS+.

General manager Jeff Luhnow brought in character, gritty veterans in Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick.

Reddick and McCann bring left-handed bats to stabilize the lineup that is bound to start humming along.

The Beltran signing also brings a nice, friendly reminder of that great postseason run of the Killer B’s in 2004, where Beltran belted eight home runs, before bouncing in free agency and the New York Mets.

Beltran might be a ghost of himself in the outfield, but can still play the role of Manny Ramirez in front of the Crawford boxes in left if needed, whenever he isn’t DHing.

In his three years in the show, Springer has been squeezed out of centre field by lesser defenders in Rasmus, Gomez, Jake Marisnick and Dexter Fowler. Now, the natural gymnast can fly around and slam into walls and not have to worry about that ridiculous Tal’s Hill and light pole in centre, that were removed for a patio (off the field) last October.

 

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By trading a pair of right-handed pitching prospects for McCann, Luhnow acquired a rare left-handed hitting catcher with pop and a veteran presence behind the dish to pair with Evan Gattis, to see if he (Mc)Cann help return a pitching staff that struggled last year, to their 2015 form.

The Astros missed appearing in their second-straight wildcard game last season by five games. They advanced to the inaugural one-game play-in game in 2015, when they defeated the New York Yankees 3-0 in the Bronx.

The biggest difference from 2015 to 2016, was the step backwards the pitching staff taking a step backwards.

In that game wildcard game, the eventual Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel, threw six innings of masterful change-uppery, punching out seven, while walking one and allowing three hits.

Pitching carried the Astros into the wildcard game and into the American League Division Series, where an error by a young Correa might have cost them a chance at the American League Championship Series.

In 2015, their starters owned the second-best ERA (3.71), third-best WHIP (1.25) and logged the second-most innings (983.2). Their bullpen was rock solid, too, with Tony Sipp, Luke Gregorson, Will Harris and Pat Neshek leading the way. They finished with the fourth-best ERA (3.27), held opponents to the second-lowest batting average (.220) and the lowest WHIP, 1.11.

That year, the Astros allowed the fewest runs in the AL, 618, and carried a plus-111 run differential. Last season, their runs allowed ballooned to 701, leaving them with a measly +23 run differential.

The offence remained in check, recording a fairly similar run scored total of 729 in 2015 and 724 in 2016.

As a unit, the Astros pitchers regressed in 2016. Their ERA rose from 3.62 to 4.08, most notably seeing their home runs per nine innings spike from 0.91 in 2015 to 1.15 in 2016.

Collin McHugh, an 18th round selection, blossomed in his second full year in the bigs, backing up Keuchel with a 19-7 record in 184.2 innings, with a 3.95 FIP in 2015. 2016 wasn’t so kind to McHugh, who went 13-10 with a 4.55 FIP.

This season, with McHugh sidelined with a shoulder impingement and shut down for another five weeks, third-year starter Lance McCullers Jr. looks to jump into the fold as a front-line pitcher. Hopefully he returns back to form around mid-season, boosting the Astros’ rotation.

Right-handed hurler Lance McCullers Jr. went on Buster Olney’s Baseball Tonight podcast last week and talked about the influence of McCann in the dugout. He said that McCann complimented him, reassured him that he has top-drawer stuff, with his power sinker and devastating knuckle-curve. It’s the confidence he needs if he wants to develop into an all-star.

McCullers suffered setbacks last season after a brilliant rookie campaign. He is healthy now; doctors cleared his arm motion, which is always reassuring. He threw 125.2 innings his first season, at the age of 22, going 6-7 with a 3.22 ERA. Last season, injuries shortened his season, only throwing 81 innings in 14 starts, but still finished with a 3.22 ERA, oddly enough.

His best weapon is his A.J. Burnett knuckle-curve. He throws it more often than any of the curveball addicts in the MLB, 49 per cent of the time. That surpasses other specialists, such as Rich Hill and Drew Pomeranz. It’s effective, too. He held hitters to a .140 average last season. That, paired with a 94-mph heater, should be enough to nullify some of the AL’s potent offences.

During his rookie season, he posted a 46.5 ground ball percentage. That number hiked up to 57.3 per cent last year. That high ground ball rate was the third best in the MLB among starters with at least 60 innings pitched. He was also the only pitcher besides Noah Syndergaard to have a strikeouts per nine innings above 10 (McCullers, 11.7 K/9, Syndergaard, 10.7 K/9) with a ground ball rate over 50 per cent.

From a dark horse candidate, to a former candidate, the Astros need Keuchel to throw the ball well and get ground balls, like he did in 2015, if they are to keep pace in the highly competitive AL West.

After winning the Cy Young by going 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA with 216 punch outs in 232 innings, Keuchel struggled last year, going 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 168 innings. His K/9 fell from 8.38 as his BABIP rocketed from .269 to .304.

High expectations, changing strike zones and a shoulder problem slowed down for Houston’s second favourite beard last season. There were also issues with a dip in his sinker and slider velocity, with the sinker hinging in and around the 90 mph mark.

So far, so good for the Astros new 1-2 punch. In two starts this year for Keuchel, the sinker is averaging out at 88.8 mph, with a slider at 78.7. Those numbers seem to be working, as he has made quick work of a pair of AL playoff hopefuls. He is 1-0 in 14 innings, logging a 0.64 ERA, with eight strikeouts and only yielded four hits.

McCullers is right behind him, going 1-0, with a 2.77 ERA and 17 punch outs in 13 innings.

Still early, the Astros bullpen has gotten off to a convoluted, matching most of their batting lineup.

Closer Ken Giles gagged away a game by walking and plunking two of the first three batters against the Mariners back on April 6 and Luke Gregerson got rocked by the Kansas City Royals, allowing six earned runs while only getting one out two days later.

Lefty Sipp struggled in spring training, coming off a poor 2016 where he recorded a 4.95 ERA, 6.19 FIP, with 40 strikeouts in 43.2 innings. Not exactly what Luhnow had in mind when he gave him a three-year deal in December of 2015, after he dialed up a 1.99 ERA, 2.93 FIP with 62 strikeouts in 54.1 innings. The Astros will need their only lefty in the pen to be better than his 2016 version.

With a fairly soft schedule coming up, 11-straight games against 2016 non-playoff teams, the Astros should iron things out. The hitting feels like it is coming around and more reps for the bullpen can only help.

The AL West is a sleeper pick for most competitive division this year. One thing is for sure, the pitching needs to be better than it was last year, if the Astros want make it back to the playoffs.

Hinch was quoted earlier this week, calling this short stretch of games a rollercoaster. If going 5-4 as your offence shakes off early-season rust is considered a rollercoaster, then he might want to buckle up and enjoy it with Springer leading the way.

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