I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t really stoked by the Astros’ offseason spending.
The way Click and co replenished a roster that lost far too many pieces at the end of 2020 was nothing short of suspect: set aside the return of Michael Brantley, almost a Blue Jays legend, for the same 2-year deal that originally brought him to MMP, and that, going further back, of Jason Castro the Astro, every other move was baffling.
The bullpen, Houston’s weak link for almost 5 years, was addressed in the worst way possible: spending too much money on too few guys. Joe Smith was signed for a $4M AAV in 2020 and so far has been dismal, even worse was the addition of Pedro “Human Rain Delay” Baez on a 2+1 $6M AAV deal, as he has yet to pitch. In that sense, betting on Ryne Stanek’s return to form (1 year, $1.1M) and Brooks Raley’s steadiness (1 year, $2M) was better, but adding more arms and depth could have helped.
The starting rotation looked solid, with Lance McCullers coming back full force, always solid Zack Greinke and a parade of young arms, from Framber Valdez to Josè Urquidy, from Cristian Javier to Luis Garcia, rounding up a talented group. Then Valdez broke a finger, and Houston panicked: Jake Odorizzi’s middling stuff isn’t worth $8M AAV for 3 years, although he’s making it work so far, controlling a fastball that has average shape and below avg speed, but not a splitter that was nails and now just comes and goes.
There was one glaring hole that Houston left unanswered: center field. The departure of George Springer was tough as he was one of the original Astros, one that had to go through the early 2010s Disastros, carry the team along with Altuve waiting for better days that came, a lot thanks to his postseason achievements, WS MVP, and at-bat improvements, from plate discipline to power.
Letting George go meant losing a middle of the order bat that was the second best leadoff hitter in Astros lore after Craig Biggio, not to mention his presence on the clubhouse, off the field and his demeanor and respect wearing a Houston uni. He’s sorely missed and I wish him well as he finally came back from a long injury stint on a Blue Jays lineup that was good before and now just flat mashes.
That said, don’t look now but the Astros are getting some of the best production in the AL, and in all of baseball, from their center fielders, something that not a single soul would have expected after Springer went out of the door and no one came back.
And so I’m here telling you how it’s happening: there are a couple of guys you may not have heard of, polar opposites in the way they go about it, that have made amazing strides both with their bats and on the field.
If I asked you who are being so far the best center fielders in baseball, some players just spring to mind: Cedric Mullins, he’s an All Star, is wreaking havoc in Baltimore, Adolis Garcia is yet another Cardinal who’s breaking out somewhere else in Texas and then Mike Trout…is Mike Trout!
What if I told you that Houston’s primary CF is being as productive as Mookie Betts, yes that Mookie Betts, as per fWAR? That must be BS right…? Wrong!
Don’t sleep on Myles Straw, ladies and gentleman!
I’ll put it out there: I wasn’t a fan of Straw to begin with. The rankings speak for themselves on a particular aspect: he has no pop, a slash and dash profile that Dusty Baker wanted to hit leadoff to have a Juan Pierre experience all over again, much to my chagrin.
In his previous endeavours at MMP, Straw left a lot to desire: he didn’t hit much, being unable to catch up to the heat, he fielded incredibly bad for such a speedy guy but hey, at least he could run the bases…if he ever got there! His ceiling reminded me of a Billy Hamilton without defensive prowess, not even a 4th outfielder, a Terrance Gore-like baserunning extraordinaire.
Well, in 2021 Straw has shut me, and a lot others, up: while the power won’t ever be there he cleaned up every other aspect of his game and he is now an on-base machine that can run like the wind and has Gold Glove caliber fielding at center, a toolbox that’s worth 2.1 fWAR up to now, as much as Betts and Ramon Laureano.
He is on a terryfing on-base streak, a .450 OBP in the last month second only to Joey Gallo’s resurgence after the no-sticky policy was introduced. Surprisingly, he’s doing it by both means of bat and eye: among guys with 90th+ percentile rankings on both Whiff and Chase rates, contact artists with a good idea of the strike zone, he’s the only one along with Alex Bregman to be on the 70th or better percentile in walks.
He doesn’t chase pitches out of the strike zone and makes contact with all of them inside, resulting in a minuscule K%, a lot of walks and balls in play.
Notably he’s not a threat to do damage so pitchers are going after him, still he’s one of the peskiest ABs in the game, a pest that fouls off good pitches, goes deep into counts and then draws a walk or hits the ball somewhere close, allowing his legs to beat slow infield groundballs.
In 2020 he tried to be who he wasn’t, pullying balls and letting them fly harmlessly due to lack of EV, so he reverted back to his old, spraying the ball to all fields on the ground, focusing on the big part of the field and doing his job by dashing to first.
About the legs, he is one of the fastest in the league at an avg 29 ft/s but is not as good in pure baserunning, still having trouble making the right decision when it comes to which catcher to challenge, which pitcher to run on and when to take an extra base or a healtier lead. He’s only 13/18 in SB, whereas his speed should allow him to get 30–40 bags without breaking a sweat.
Defense though is gone through the roof: from an unspectacular CF who was almost made a utility player by trying him unsuccessfully at short and second, Straw has become the 2nd best fielder in all of baseball by the Fielding component of WAR:
In his first full season entrenched as a CF Straw ranks among the league leaders in center for OAA with 5, a product of his blazing straight line speed and good reaction times that cover for doubtful route choices. Straw plays a bit deep and uses his burst to make diving catches on shallow flyballs, albeit he’s sometimes too eager on balls to RF with collision risks.
Straw has still a lot to improve, mainly in terms of baseball IQ, so that he can be a much better baserunner and fielder, but that’ll come with experience and having solidified his spot in the lineup after a shaky start is only going to benefit him long term.
He’ll never bring home a bunch of runs but you’ll always find him on base, not bad for a lineup full of run producers such as the Astros are.
Speaking of RBI machines, let’s welcome Chas McCormick to the fold!
If Straw is adept at getting on base, Chas is the living proof that AVG has long done its course: sitting at merely an inch under .250, McCormick would be considered a bum by old standards and instead is one of the most pleasant surprises in the 2021 Astros roster.
Whereas Straw slashes and dashes, Chas has a swing that only knows one thing: air. He gets low on his legs and unleashes furious uppercut hacks, searching for every last drop of Launch Angle to let baseballs fly out of the park:
His 11.6% Barrel rate is amazing, much higher than almost any other Astro and better than Altuve and Correa, although he doesn’t display extreme pull tendencies and that’s because of the nature of his swing.
While he’s more than happy to wait your cement mixer to drop in the zone and pull it to the Crawford Boxes, his real strength lies on fastballs away, heaters that are on plane with his bat path, tailor-made to go right-center:
In his pitch specifics he’s incredibly similar to Straw: both have almost the same results, expected and “real”, against Fastballs, Breaking and Offspeed with the small difference that McCormick whiffs 3x Straw, a 30+% Whiff that is a bit too much to comfort, but also slugging much more than Myles.
Whereas Straw makes contact for on-base purposes and McCormick aims for damage, Chas is on par if not better on the defensive side of things:
McCormick is a dream of a 4th outfielder, being able to cover all spots well thanks to unreal burst and decent routes that allow him to roam acres of real estate, a defensive marvel with resounding pop on his bat.
Unluckily he’s also an iffy baserunner, fast as Straw at an avg 29 ft/s but not aggressive on the bases, 2/3 on steals. If there’s a knock on the 2021 Astros, aside from their pen, is lack of baserunning resulting in a league-leading amount of GIDPs…let’em run Dusty!
McCormick, with not even enough ABs to be qualified as a hitter, sits at 10 HRs and 33 RBIs: he made the most of his occasions in the starting lineup, giving a breather to Straw, Tucker and Brantley or being called upon when the latter two went on brief IL vacations, producing 0.9 fWAR for the disturb.
He has a lot to improve when it comes to swinging and making contact, a 65% Z-Contact is only for the Joey Gallos of the world, he chases and whiffs a lot but he’s also an extra-bases monster with power to all fields, a perfect complement to Straw’s on-base penchant.
The Astros are going to have a quiet trade deadline for once: their rotation is set, although Urquidy is on the shelf let’s not forget that Javier is on the bullpen ready to be stretched; their lineup could benefit a lefty third basemen to substitute Toro’s abysmal showing until Bregman comes back but 1–9 is pretty much written in stone.
If anything, it’s going to be a couple of bullpen arms, although more of a Joakim Soria than Craig Kimbrel: Houston sits close to the luxury tax, a limit that the owner is happy to overcome, but has almost no depth of good prospects to trade, so if help will be purchased, don’t expect a late-inning lockdown closer to be the one doning an Astros uniform come July.
What the Astros don’t need, strangely enough, is what every pundit expected them to trade for or sign: a center fielder. JBJ? No thanks. Starling Marte? He’ll stay long-term in Miami. Ketel Marte? Not enough to get him.
As a George Springer-sized hole opened up, two homegrown guys, drafted in the late rounds, 12th (Straw) and 21st (McCormick), fitted right in, covering for George’s absence in different ways, less offense and more defense, but aptly so.
They were given a chance, they made the most of it and they deserve to stay and patrol the area where Tal’s Hill once was, when George was still an Astro.
All stats and graphs from Baseball Savant, WAR and salaries from FanGraphs, data updated to July 9th.