Rookie George Springer leading long-sought revival for Astros

Tuesday June 17th, 2014

Houston played .333 baseball the last three seasons but it is a .500 team with George Springer in the lineup this year.
Pat Sullivan/AP

"We're very GIF-able right now," said Amanda Rykoff, the social media manager of the Houston Astros, which is something that a quick check of the team's official Tumblr account confirms. Nearly every one of the choppy, endlessly looping clips the long moribund club has recently posted on its page shows its players engaged in different types of celebratory, communal dances. You will usually find the same player at the center of the revelry, his hands above his head and curled into something he calls the Monster Claw, which makes him appear to be aping the zombie extras in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. He is the player who has more than any other been responsible for the enlivening of the Astros, in all ways, and for their transformation into baseball's most unexpected winners. He is also the latest example of the difference that just one man can make on a 25-man club.

George Springer has always had energy to spare. He trained in gymnastics until he was 12 and decided to focus on baseball (his mother, Marie, was a gymnast at UConn and now teaches the sport), and he says that he can still perform the requisite flips and twists and springs. Last year, Springer nearly became the first minor leaguer in 57 years to go 40-40, as he hit 37 home runs and stole 45 bases, to go with a batting average of .303. But when the Astros called him up from Triple A two months ago, hoping that he would provide a spark to a sodden roster that had produced the majors' worst record for three straight years and seemed headed for a fourth, he misfired, and Houston kept losing.

Through his first 15 games, between April 16 and May 2, the 24-year-old Springer batted .180, with no homers and a .467 OPS. He also made five errors in rightfield. The problem was not that he lacked energy. It was that he didn't know how to harness it. He was constantly in hyperdrive, when only cruise control was required. Houston had the AL's worst record, at 10-19.

To manager Bo Porter, it appeared as if Springer was playing on ice skates. "He was overrunning balls, just seemed out of control," Porter says. "In the batter's box, he was trying to hit the ball to Beaumont."

"I was doing things way too fast," says Springer. "Flying around, not staying within myself."

When Springer checked the Astros' starting lineup on May 3, he found his name missing. "Look, you're not going to play today," Porter told him. "I want you to sit here and kind of just watch the game. Run some different situations through your mind. Just see the speed at which the game is being played. Tomorrow you'll be right back in there, and hopefully taking a step back will allow you to play the way you need to."

The breather worked. In the 37 games he has played since, Springer has slugged 12 homers (the fourth most in baseball), driven in 31 runs (fifth-most) and posted a .958 OPS (17th-best). He has committed just one error. In that same time period, the Astros have 22 wins -- more than any club save the first-place Blue Jays, Giants and A's -- and they are now no longer the league's worst team. Seven other big league clubs -- including the Red Sox, last year's champions -- now have records worse than Houston's 32-39.

The Astros' players are certain of the central source of their newfound powers, and that his 1.4 WAR is only the beginning of it. "His play pretty much speaks for itself," catcher Jason Castro said of Springer. "Any time you have a guy in the lineup that's an exciting player, whether it's hitting home runs, making diving plays in the outfield or stealing bases, that kind of play gets to be contagious. He elevates the play of everyone around him, and he keeps things loose in the clubhouse."

"From his first day to now, it's like a 100% improvement," said second baseman Jose Altuve. "He's a five-tool player, he's a superstar and he's going to have a long career. He does everything. He doesn't need protection, he doesn't need anything right now. He's one of the best players in the big leagues. We're just supporting him."

Since Jeff Luhnow, the former scouting director of the Cardinals, became the general manager of the Astros after the 2011 season, he and his staff have presided over a total rebuilding effort that has never before been attempted. Virtually every decision Luhnow has made has been geared toward the future -- hence his team's 106-218 record in his first two years at the helm. So it is somewhat ironic that Springer, the vanguard of Houston's future, was not drafted by Luhnow but by his predecessor, Ed Wade, who picked Springer 11th overall out of UConn in 2011, thereby giving his organization a nice parting gift.

"He was a rare animal -- a five-tool athlete in college," said Mike Elias, who is now the Astros' scouting director but who evaluated Springer when he worked under Luhnow as a scout for the Cardinals. "Guys with those types of physical tools -- throw like that, run like that, that kind of body -- they get signed out of high school. Personally, I see him as an Eric Davis type player. Explosive, steal some bases, hit some homers, carry an offense for weeks at a time."

"I scouted him as an amateur," Luhnow said. "I liked him a lot. The industry liked him a lot, but the Astros were smart enough to draft him. It was a great job by the prior administration." Still, added Luhnow, "Any GM is going to inherit a system with great players there. It's a matter of which ones you're going to bet on. We spent a lot of time -- our hitting coaches, managers and so forth -- putting the finishing touches on Springer. We really feel like he made a lot of progress. He's going to be a big part of our future."

Springer has already been joined by another key component of the Astros' future: 22-year-old first baseman Jon Singleton, who has hit four homers and driven in 10 runs in 13 games since he was called up on June 3, and who used to bat directly behind Springer in the minors. "I normally hate hitting in front of him because he hits the ball so hard, and every time I was at first base I was scared he was going to hit me," Springer said, on the day of Singleton's promotion.

It won't be long before they are supplemented by the other products of Houston's now fecund, largely Luhnow- and Elias-drafted farm system, including 19 year-old shortstop Carlos Correa (No. 7 on Baseball America's Top 100 prospect list this spring) and pitchers Mark Appel (No. 39), Lance McCullers, Jr. (No. 77) and Brady Aiken (a southpaw whom the Astros took No. 1 overall in the draft two weeks ago, making him just the third high school pitcher to ever go that high). For now, though, Springer is focused on how he can continue to harness his relentless kinetic energy in the near term. "I guess you could say that we're taking the step that everybody wants, and can see," he said. "It isn't about the guys that just got here, the guys that are going to be here soon. It's about the Houston Astros that are here."

Among Springer's tasks are further refining his game, especially cutting down on his strikeouts. He has whiffed 76 times through his first 52 games, and on Sunday he struck out four times in a game for the fourth time in his young career, and the second time in three days. No other player this season has worn the golden sombrero even thrice.

"He swings hard in case he hits it -- that's what he does," said Elias. Added Luhnow: "Just because he had an explosive May doesn't mean that every month will be like that. The league's going to adjust to him and he's going to have to adjust back to the league."

Springer is also focused on expanding his teammates' cultural horizons. On a recent afternoon, as they prepared for batting practice, their clubhouse's speakers blasted a musical selection that was new to most of them. "Pants down! / Pants down! / You caught me with my pants down!" a vocalist repeatedly intoned. Springer looked up mischievously from his actively streaming laptop. He has emerged not just as their offensive cornerstone and dance leader, but as their DJ, too, and he is an aficionado of electronic dance music.

If it wasn't the theme song of the Astros' recent opponents, who expected another easy win and found themselves on the wrong side of yet another GIF, it might as well have been.

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