The Runner Sports

Best In AL West, Astros Are Good, But How Smart Are They? 3 Recent Plays Dissected

Any team that wins a division and marches toward the postseason will proudly wear the mantle of “good,” at the very least. Peruse the annals of perennial World Series champions, though, and another adjective will appear almost universally: “Smart.” The American League Western Division champs, the Houston Astros, dare not proceed into October without doing whatever it takes to bring its collective brains up to the level of its proven and measurable brawn.

The Astros clinched the division Sunday, September 17, in a 7-1 win over Seattle at Minute Maid Park. Houston has now logged at least 90 wins for the first time since 2004 and clinched their first division title since 2001, their first at home since 1999, in the Astrodome.

The Astros are the first team in baseball history to clinch in three different divisions: National League West, NL Central, and AL West. It only took 2 minutes on Monday, September 18 for Houston’s box office to sell out of seats for the AL Division Series at Minute Maid Park, October 5 & 6. A third home ALDS game is pending, as the team with the best league record (awarded home field advantage for the playoffs) has yet to be determined.

Video: Watch highlights of Astros clinching, including post-game celebration, and locker room interviews

Three specific incidents by three Astros players over the span of the short summer months seem to point to what may be nothing more than three ill-advised, absent-minded “brain flatulences,” or more frightening and over-arching, could reflect a team culture of aggressive play that either hasn’t been fully thought through, or worse, dutifully-coached.

Two plays occurred on the offensive side of the ball, and were both head-first sliding plays. The other was a defensive bone-headed play, as a pitcher decided to, quite needlessly, throw near the head of a former teammate….who was hitting .200 at the time….and earned him a suspension.

“Stupid” could be used to describe each play, especially when the convenience of 20-20 hindsight brings the clarity of consequence into view. But, as the dreaded “s” word appears harsh and sophomoric (and might be echoed by one or all of the players involved, if they’re being honest), the plays are best left to speak, however meekly, for themselves.

A) In early July, Houston fans were excitedly imagining an in-house MVP duel between their height-challenged hit machine, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa, putting together the break-out year many predicted after winning 2015 AL Rookie of the Year, and filing a solid 2016 campaign.

On July 4, Correa was approaching home plate on a scoring play, and decided to slide head-first. His left thumb got jammed into the shin guards of Atlanta’s catcher, Tyler Flowers, tearing the opposable digit’s ligament. A careful look at the play reveals that Correa’s face was covered by Flowers’ mitt right at the point a clear view of his own hand and what lay ahead would’ve helped immeasurably.

Playing through the pain, even over the All-Star break, Correa ultimately snapped the ligament on a swing July 17 against the Mariners. “On that swing I felt a shock in my finger,” Correa said at the time. “It was hurting a lot.”

Undergoing surgery to repair the ligament, Correa was set to return in mid-September, but managed to get through his rehab more quickly than originally thought, and returned to the lineup at home against the Mets, September 3.

Overall, Correa missed 42 games, or over one-fourth of the season, and has struggled to come back to form since his return to the lineup, but has recently shown signs of improving his timing and pitch recognition. But, those 42 games cost him whatever shot he may have had at MVP consideration, if for no other reason than lacking the ABs necessary for qualifying for league rankings.

B) Not to be outdone, and learning absolutely nothing from the Correa mishap, outfielder Jake Marisnick slid head-first into second base and suffered a fractured right thumb in a 9-1 loss to the Angels, September 13. He underwent surgery two days later and will miss 6-8 weeks, which would seem to include any and all games the Astros might play in the postseason.

Oddly, and quite unlike Correa’s plate mishap, no one was in Marisnick’s way; he simply clumsily rammed his hand into second base, with no obstruction or derailment from a defensive player.

Marisnick, 26, was enjoying his best season to that point, hitting .243 with career highs in home runs (16) and RBI (35), with an on-base percentage of .319 and a .496 slugging percentage.

“Losing Jake, his speed, his enthusiasm, his power he developed this year, his defensive abilities, it’s definitely a blow for us,” Astros manager, A.J. Hinch said recently.

Upshot: These two baserunning gaffs may just be freak accidents, but when all is said and done, neither injury had to happen. As I know the team has discussed before, players are strongly discouraged from head-first sliding attempting to score. Sliding feet-first not only lowers the chances of digit injury, but allows the runner to try to dislodge the ball from the backstop’s glove.

Coincidence? You be the judge: For several games, now, George Springer has taken to flashing the double thumbs-up sign to the bench when he gets on base. Either he’s encouraging the team to play their best, or he’s subliminally signaling his teammates that he’s not only still got his thumbs, but that they’re both intact.

C) MLB announced Thursday, September 14, that Astros RHP Mike Fiers had been suspended for five games, and fined an undisclosed amount after throwing behind Luis Valbuena’s head during the game against the Angels the day before. Fiers waived his right to appeal the suspension. He was actually filling in for the injured Lance McCullers, Jr., for Wednesday’s game.

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That’s the consequence. Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors ably recounts the act which led to the punishment: “Valbuena hit a two-run homer to cap off a five-run first inning and, as he’s done throughout his career, celebrated with a rather emphatic bat flip. Fiers, apparently, took exception to his former teammate’s display and let a 90 mph pitch sail behind Valbuena’s head in his next at-bat. Fiers wasn’t ejected — though the home plate umpire warned both benches — and Valbuena ultimately responded by ripping the next pitch into the right-field corner for a double.

“Fiers explained to reporters that he has no hard feelings toward his former teammate and didn’t intend to hit him but rather to send a message after he felt he was disrespected.”

Upshot: Fiers and Valbuena were Astro teammates for well over a year, when Houston acquired the pitcher on July 30, 2015, joining the third baseman, whom the Astros traded for six months earlier. In the 16 months they both wore an “H” on their caps, Fiers had to be more than familiar with Valbuena’s colorful, sometimes irreverent bat flips and other peccadillos that playfully poked at opponents.

Plus, as he did consistently during his H-town tenure, Valbuena was hitting about .200 at the time of the errant pitch in question. Really, Fiers? You’re going to let a journeyman (whom you know!) barely hitting his weight get into your head to the point where you’re “sending a message” likely to garner a fine and suspension? You had to know his bat flip is his thing.

And, knowing that, it should follow that said bat flip is not meant as any disrespect to any pitcher giving up a dinger. And, even if Valbuena meant the flip as the utmost in pitcher-dissing, so what? It’s Luis Valbuena, not Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, or a similarly dangerous hitter to whom a “message” might actually mean something (and come closer to “justifying” a fine and suspension). Use your head, Mike. Letting Luis Valbuena “push your buttons” is like being pestered by a mosquito during a buffalo stampede.

The Brain Game

As the Astros set their playoff roster, and begin their march to the promised land, gamesmanship and the little things that ultimately win ball games will have to be executed with more brains to go with the brawn that not only spans the lineup, but that got them to the top of the AL West in the first place.

Anything less would be….well, stupid.

Related: Astros Preview Playoff Lineup & Bullpen Blueprint in 5th Straight Win

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

At TRS, you'll get full Astros coverage, minor league peeks, player profiles, interviews, MLB historical perspective, and maybe a little rock'n'roll!
Brad Kyle