Forget what you know about playoff teams: Tom Verducci says the Houston Astros are here to prove you wrong in their unlikely run to a postseason spot.
The Astros refuse to get off your lawn. They won’t turn down the music blasting out their car windows. They won’t keep their shirts tucked in. What they are doing is challenging everything you thought you knew about baseball—well, at least way back to when sacrifice bunts, land lines and mix tapes were still in fashion—straight to October.
A 6–14 pratfall into the middle of this month gave rise to the “See, I told you so” crowd. The Astros, at least according to convention, were too inexperienced, their hitters struck out too much, their front office and coaching staffs were too cute with all of that defensive shifting chicanery, their starting pitching was too thin, and they were too abysmal on the road to be taken seriously.
Well, now that the Astros are back home at Minute Maid Park, with ace Dallas Keuchel throwing bowling-ball sinkers and home runs flying left and right, all is well at mission control again. They have home-cooked three wins in their last four games. With 10 games to play, the Astros have a two-game lead on the Twins and a 2 1/2-game lead on the Angels—two teams with negative run differentials for the season—for the second wild card.
The AL West title will be decided this weekend when the first-place Rangers visit Houston, but a playoff spot is the Astros’ to lose. How have they defied convention? Consider the old-school canons they are smashing:
Too inexperienced: Think all the way back to the 2014 Royals.
Too many strikeouts: Yes, Houston is on pace to whiff 1,391 times, which would be the most ever by any postseason team. But those strikeouts are mitigated by 207 home runs, the most by any stateside team.
Too many weird shifts: The Astros play their corner outfielders toward the gaps. Monday night, they defended a hitter with one home run (Shane Victorino) with three infielders on the left side—and second baseman Jose Altuve turned a hit into a routine out by doing so. You can focus on the few balls that beat the shift, but Houston plays defense the way Vegas does the poker table: Over the long haul, the house wins. The stats show the Astros are better at turning batted balls into outs than any team in the league except the Blue Jays, who play their home games on artificial turf.
Too thin of a rotation: The five starters (Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers and Lance McCullers) combined have one postseason win and two 200-inning seasons. But that’s good enough to win in the postseason because … Houston has a deep bullpen. This is not 1968, folks. Better to judge how a team can get through a postseason series by its bullpen and how a manager uses it. Relief pitching is even more important in the postseason because the surfeit of off days allows a manager to keep running his top guys out there. (See Royals, ibid.)
The Astros pulled a trick borrowed from the 2008 Rays by overnight turning the worst bullpen in the league last year (4.80) into one of the best (third at 3.16) without spending great sums of cash. One word of caution here: Manager A.J. Hinch had better take his foot off the gas a bit. The Houston bullpen has a league worst 6.49 ERA in September.
Too poor on the road: Let’s be honest here: The Astros are putrid on the road. They are 1-12-1 in their past 14 series away from home, and should they make the playoffs, their road record will rank among the all-time worst for a postseason team. How much does that matter, though?
|1987||Twins||.358||Won World Series|
|2015||Astros||.387||11 games left|
|2006||Cardinals||.420||Won World Series|
If you still want your classic playoff look out of Houston, take a good study at the shortstop for the Astros. Carlos Correa is giving his own impression of Derek Jeter with the 1996 Yankees or Chipper Jones with the 1995 Braves: The rare rookie who immediately becomes the emotional and physical ballast of a winning team; a microwaved leader. As they did with Jeter and Jones, teammates look to the rookie in a big spot.
It’s more than his exquisite physical tools and size. It’s his professionalism that goes well beyond his years.
Here’s all you need to know about Correa, and it’s not his .852 OPS. Back on Sept. 5, Correa met Neil Kerrigan, a senior at Houston Christian High School who is battling cancer. Kerrigan is a big Correa fan who mentioned to his favorite player that his birthday is Sept. 21. Correa noted that his own birthday, when he turns 21, was the following day. Correa told Kerrigan he would remember his birthday. Kerrigan thought it was a nice gesture, but, given Correa’s profile and schedule, didn’t think twice about it.
Then, on Monday, the day of the huge game against the Angels, Correa showed up at Houston Christian during lunch break with a birthday cake for Neil. Neil was pleasantly shocked. For the game that night against the Angels, Correa wrote a message on his spikes in support of Neil. And then Correa went out and smashed three hits in the win, including his 19th home run. How’s that for tried-and-true, old-school winning character?
Correa aside, the Astros make no sense as a playoff team, but only if you still cling to the Kodachrome imagery of the best team over 162 games going straight to the World Series with starting pitchers on short rest taking the ball deep into afternoon games as nine guys stand in the same spot for every batter. The modern game has changed drastically in the past five years. If the Blue Jays, Astros, Cubs and Mets all hold their dance tickets, all but four of baseball’s 30 teams will have participated in just the past seven postseasons.
Baseball is no longer a game about the one way to become a playoff team, or even the preferred way. It’s about the many ways.
That the Astros have improved so much so fast is remarkable considering their high-profile misses in the past two years. Teams should never miss with the first pick of the draft, but Houston did so twice in a row. So far it has received nothing from pitcher Mark Appel (the top pick in 2013, instead of Kris Bryant, is now 24 with a career minor-league ERA of 5.12) and pitcher Brady Aiken, whom they did not sign in 2014 before he blew out his elbow.
Houston also lost outfielder Delino DeShields to the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft last winter because it gave a 40-man roster spot to Ronald Torreyes, who the team designated seven months later for assignment. In spring training last year, the Astros cut outfielder J.D. Martinez, choosing to keep L.J. Hoes, Alex Presley and Robbie Grossman on the Opening Day roster. Three months later, they gave $10 million to Jon Singleton, who at age 24 and after 415 major league plate appearances is a .172 hitter.
Imagine the Astros with Bryant, DeShields and Martinez.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Every organization has hit and misses, and Houston’s hits are so plentiful that it is in playoff position with 11 games remaining. And that knock about Martinez? Well, that may be unfair, too.
At the time he was cut, Martinez was 26 years old, a career .251 hitter with a .387 slugging percentage and an OPS+ of 88. Such a bad hitter was Martinez that after the 2013 season, he took the drastic step of completely overhauling his swing. He hit decently in that next spring training (.298) but with modest power (one home run in 47 at-bats).
Houston had no clue Martinez would hit 60 home runs in these past two years. The swing changes were so major they simply needed time to take root. The Tigers, who took a flier on him, have been rewarded with two huge seasons. Martinez could become only the fourth Tigers outfielder to ever put together back-to-back seasons with an OPS+ of 140 or better. The others: Kirk Gibson and three Hall of Famers—Al Kaline, Sam Crawford and Ty Cobb.
“Writers keep asking me, ‘What did you change?’” Martinez said. “I say, ‘Everything,’ and still they say, ‘Well, it must be one thing. One key. What was it?’ They want one answer. And I can’t give them what they want because I’m telling you, it was everything.”
It’s extremely rare to see a major league hitter completely change his swing. Ben Zobrist is another rarity. He was a .200 hitter in the big leagues at age 26 before he overhauled his stroke. Both Martinez and Zobrist found help not from their organizations but from private hitting tutors.
Martinez and Zobrist had some similarities in their original swings. Both had learned to “hit down on the ball” and wound up with handsy swings that made poor use of their torso and legs. For Martinez, such a downward, defensive swing path produced especially poor results as high-velocity sinkers spread all over baseball.
“The two-seamer has changed the game more than anything else,” Martinez said. “Baseball is a game of adjustments, and I had to adjust against that pitch. More and more pitchers were throwing the ball down with movement, and you have to have the right approach if you’re going to survive in today’s game.”
What Martinez aimed to do was to take that sinker at the knees and drive it in the air, either on a line or over fences. Since changing his swing, Martinez cut his ground-ball-to-fly-ball rate by one-third and improved his line drive rate by 33%. It has made him a far more dangerous hitter. For that, more than the Astros being knocked for a “mistake,” Martinez deserves credit for the hard work it took to make such a drastic change.
Of course, as Martinez said himself, the game is one of adjustments. Many pitchers have learned to complement their two-seamers with four-seamers at the top of the strike zone—a pitch that the hitter with the modern upward swing path has trouble hitting. Martinez, for instance, has hit 37 home runs, but only one of them on a pitch above the middle of the strike zone.
Helicopter parenting has come to baseball. With any injury comes the impulse not just to reduce the potential of injury, but also to eliminate it. The latest alarm sounded when Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang suffered a season-ending knee injury on a clean slide by Chris Coghlan of the Cubs. The injury prompted Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to ask for consideration of re-defining the legalities of slides into bases to “ensure better safety.”
The issue is not the slide. Coghlan’s slide was so perfectly legal that his head actually passed over the base. (The runner must be within arm’s length of the bag on his slide.) Look at Kang’s clunky turn. He catches the feed one-handed and steps toward first base, rather than the safety of clearing the baseline toward the outfield.
“Imagine if [Coghlan] didn’t go into the base hard, trying to break it up,” said Tigers coach and 11-time Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel. “His coaches and teammates would all be mad at him for not trying his best. You have to play the game hard.”
This is Major League Baseball. It is highly skilled athletics playing the game at high speed. Guess what? Injuries will happen. And, helicopter fans, please don’t start with the argument that we have to adopt the designated hitter in the NL because AL pitchers get hurt when they have to hit and run the bases.