The Astros, and that one time I coached a team

I have two daughters. Both couldn’t be less interested in sports. They’ve both danced since they were 3 years old. Both love it. And I’m glad.

But that means my experience as a coach will probably be pretty limited.

When I was about 30 or 31, a woman I worked with named Louise came and asked me a favor. Her son’s youth basketball coach needed to take a year off, and none of the other dads could step up. Would I be able to give up a weeknight for practices and my Saturday mornings to help out? I consulted with my wise and giving wife, Michelle, who said I should do it. So, for two seasons I became “Coach Brian” to a bunch of 10- to 11-year-old boys in a YMCA league.

That first season we stunk. Most of the boys hadn’t ever played together before. And being 10 and 11, they had limited skills. Our very first practice, one kid tossed up an ill-advised long jumper for an airball as we ran some drills. He immediately got out of line and started to run a lap. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Uh, running because I missed,” he said. I told him to stop and get back in line for the drill. “How are you going to learn to shoot by running laps?” I asked. “We never run laps as punishment.” I suddenly became their favorite coach ever.

By the second season we were better. Partly because my co-worker’s son, Kevin, had a lot of skill and was our starting point guard. So in our second game, against a team we could beat with Kevin playing blindfolded, I made two rules. One, our backup point guard (point guards are the lifeblood of YMCA youth teams) was this kid named Kerry. I told Kerry that he was only allowed to dribble to his left. (He was right-handed, but we’d been working on his left hand since that first practice in season one.) My second rule, Kevin was not allowed to shoot the ball. Unless he was on an uncontested fast break, he could not shoot. This forced him to get his teammates more involved.

At the end of the game, which we won but by less of a blowout that the Vegas spread on the game, both kids thanked me for making them work on developing their skills. And it all paid off when we won the league at the end of the season.

The Moral of the Story

Some times a coach has to work with players to help them see a part of their game they are not utilizing correctly. And sometimes they need to develop a skill that is lying dormant.

Somewhere in the middle of the 1974 season, Charlie Lau took George Brett under his wing and changed Brett’s stance and approach at the plate. Brett, who’d never hit .300 in the minors, was hitting about .200 in KC at that point.

Do I need to remind anyone what happened to that Brett kid. Growing up in Omaha, even with my budding love of the Astros and Jose Cruz, I worshiped George Brett. Still do. Great player and a great guy.

The 2015 Astros

We all know what Brent Strom did with Collin McHugh. I’d guess Dallas Keuchel has spent some time with Strom and probably buys his pitching coach a nice muffin basket every Christmas.

We’ve all heard how John Mallee worked with Jose Altuve to change is approach and modify his leg kick. Somewhere, I’m sure, George Brett was saying, “That’s what happens when you listen to your coach.”

But Altuve seems to show no signs of missing Mallee.

I hear almost nothing about Dave Hudgens or Alan Zinter, the Astros’ hitting coach and assistant hitting coach. But I’d bet cash money that one or the other has something to do with Jake Marisnick hitting .367 as I write this heading into the top of the 9th inning. And I’m sure Gary Pettis has something to do with the Astros swiping more bags than any team in the AL. At some point, I think I heard Blum and Ashby say something about Houston now leading the league in both HRs and stolen bases.

My point here: No one saw a batting champ in that Brett kid. And no one saw a confident, solid hitter out of Jake From State Farm. Yet …

Hinch, The Puppet Master

Of course, none of this would be working if it weren’t for A.J. Hinch seemingly leading a charmed life thus far. I’d be hard-pressed to think of an instance where I rolled my eyes at a pitching change. He’s done a great job of pointing to pinch hitters at the right time.

Oh, sure, he’s got a better team than the collection of stiffs Bo Porter was stuck with. But had Porter managed in 1979, he’d have told Alan Knicely to grab a bat over Denny Walling.

All this, and I honestly don’t know just how good our coaching staff is. I don’t read the Chron (spit!), so I’ve probably missed some investigative fluff piece on Zinter. That said, no team with this many problems — too many guys hitting .200-ish, a whole lot of Ks, no real first baseman — should be winning at least seven games on a nine-game West Coast trip. The Mariners are supposed to be good. The Angels are supposed to be good. No one had a bigger off-season than San Diego. This was the roughest stretch of the rough stretch of the schedule. The Astros absolutely should be losing these games, not winning in the clutch or running away with laughers.


So, I ask:

Can you think of something — anything — Hinch has done that made you smack your forehead?

It’s not like this lineup is Murder’s Row, but this is a team scoring runs. Now in bunches! How much of that should we attribute to Hudgens and Zinter? What changes have you seen in the Astros hitters — (there’s something different about George Springer, but I can’t place my finger on it) — this year?

Other than one bad outing, Feldman has been every bit as good as Keuchel and McHugh. Is Strom teaching that old dog some new tricks. His WHIP, for example, is more in line with his good 2013 than his mediocre 2014.

The pitching staff is only looking up at Kansas City in the AL. Sure, it’d be easy to say this was all Jeff Luhnow’s doing. But no one expected this. Not even Jeff Luhnow. Where do you think Strom has had the biggest affect this season thus far?

Marisnick got another hit, and is now up to .380. Yes, it’s only April, but his swing, his approach and his confidence have all changed. Is that Hudgens and Zinter, or Hinch putting him at the 9-spot to take away the pressure?

Finally, Jed Lowrie left with an OPS of .999. Marwin Gonzalez has an OPS of about .780. While I don’t think we’ll notice a big change there, it’s those times when Villar plays (sorry Becky) that will test this coaching staff. Is this Hinch & Co.’s first big test?

46 comments on “The Astros, and that one time I coached a team

  1. Villar will test all of us. Thr conumdrum though is that he has the ability to do things that Gonzalez or even Lowrie can’t come close to. He made that one hop play in the hole look routine tonight. That’s why I don’t smack myself in the forehead everytime he gets brought back up. That’s also what’s so darn frustrating about the guy.

    Altuve is incredible. We’re watching a future Hall of Famer.


      • The key to coaching Villar is to pull him from the game after he makes a great play. That takes away the certainty of him screwing up the next one.


      • The key to coaching Jonathan Villar is:
        1. to have a really, really good therapist on call at all hours;
        2. something much, much stronger than Gatorade;
        3. to do yoga daily while meditating on quotes from Tom Hanks’ ‘Jimmy Dugan’ character in ‘A League of Their Own’;
        4. stick one wet finger into a light socket;
        5. to remind yourself Carlos Correa is coming.


  2. I think the biggest difference in this team this year is that the players think they and their teammates are good.
    If you were going to pick a game for a letdown it would have been last night with Fernandez on the hill and their glue/shortstop/hottest hitter gone for months. Instead, they had their biggest offensive night of the year.
    We all said if the bats wake up this team could be good.
    The bats have awoken and they are good.


  3. You start off with a great explanation of how to proper manage “people” not the game. That is something that we all tend to overlook. The sporting games, regardless of any type, are played by people, not without people. Connecting with the player and having him or her buy into the overall goal is the ultimate goal in management circles of any organization, physical or emotional. Throwing away a player is not the way to gain confidence. Proper selling of the goal and placing people in the proper spot is the key to winning anywhere in life. Thus the reasoning behind the kids, that you coached, becoming better basketball players and thanking you for seeing how they needed to grow.

    Which brings us to the Astros…

    Hinch has evidently demonstrated this same approach to the players on the team. The coaching staff has the same approach. Management does not want to give up on a player because it is a way of admitting failure, to the player, the organization, and to the fans. Thus the reasoning behind playing Villar in different positions this spring to see if he can show value elsewhere on the team. Management just began the test too late for a good return. On the other hand, Gonzales playing at first base has turned out well on such a short notice. I believe, if Villar must play, that playing time should be at third base to give Valbuena a day off. Gattis has proven to be the designated hitter, Carter a serviceable first baseman, Marisnick an outstanding player blossoming before our very eyes, Grossman a super, second-half player.

    Do the hitting coaches deserve some credit? I have not heard anything about them either good nor bad. I can see where the hitting of Altuve and Lowrie has been contagious, just as Springer’s hitting was last year when he came up and that can course through the entire lineup and clubhouse, putting the winning attitude into gear. Strom is a wizard himself with the pitching staff. One guy has the light come on for him and that will get the ear of the other pitchers, causing them to at least consider listing to Strom and seeing Strom can help them.

    The only time I fussed about Hinch making a bad move was when he brought in Qualls to face the A’s in the opening series and Qualls promptly blew the lead. Otherwise, he has been a wizard and I do not want to wake up from this.


  4. One quick comment regarding Lowrie’s tenure on the DL. This is not a simple injury and the projection for his return is “after the All Star break”. He could be out three months folks. I believe this will force Luhnow’s hand, perhaps not immediately, but soon. Doesn’t necessarily mean Correa, but I just don’t know if the team can go up to three months with Marwin at SS and Villar as the Super Sub. Just a thought…


    • The reign of super-sub Nolan Fontana draws neigh. (Can you tell who watches Game of Thrones?)

      Villar should probably expect about a month to catch fire. If he can’t, Fontana or Torreyes (if he starts hitting at AAA first) will probably get a call.

      Correa is making AA pitchers look like tees that hold the ball for him to swing at. Yesterday, the potent Hooks lineup was stymied by the opposing pitcher … except Correa who doubled and scored, was walked twice and homered. In his two walks, he saw two strikes total. My guess is the pitcher didn’t mean to throw them.

      That said, two weeks in AA is not enough. The difference between Texas League pitching and American League pitching is huge. But maybe it’ll be time for that AAA promotion as soon as Villar has had his month of stinking it up. Then Villar goes to Fresno to split time at third and learn to be a right fielder, and Fontana comes up to Houston. And if Fontana isn’t the super sub answer after six weeks, then it’s time for Correa to become the everyday shortstop in Houston.

      And if Lowrie’s injury goes from “After the All-Star Break” to “Some time in September,” then promoting Correa — especially if this team is still in the hunt — could become a necessity.


  5. On the question of Hinch, maybe its attitude. Maybe these guys just like to play for him.
    Everyone here knows I blame managers a lot ( if anyone remembers me at all)
    I got the impression that none of the guys respected Porter, Mills, etc.
    These guys just look like they enjoy being an Astro right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • At one point last night the camera zoomed in on George Springer’s face as he stood on the railing of the Astro’s dugout watching Jake Marisnick leg out a triple on a blast into the gap in right center field. The look on George’s face told a great story – these guys are having fun and cheering each other on!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice piece Brian – looking back at all the laps I ran when I played basketball (mostly for turnovers in practice) – I want to tell you I wish you had coached me, too.
    So some thoughts on these coaching questions.
    – Yes their overall numbers on hitting are poor – but consider what they have done on the first 8 games of this road trip:
    – 7.4 Runs / game
    – .288 BA
    – .384 OBP
    – .500 SLG
    – .884 OPS
    – 5.5 Walks / game
    – 9.8 K’s / game (including 3 games with 13 K’s)
    – Out of 87 hits on the trip – 37 have been for extra bases – 23 doubles, 1 triple and 13 HRs
    – So the bigger question is not why they are 7-1 on this road trip, but how the heck they were 6-6 before this road trip with practically no hitting at all.
    – They are successful on a very strong 84% of their SB’s which is more important to me than leading the league in steals – there has to be good coaching involved on when to or when not to steal and who to have a green light.
    – They are being a lot more patient at the plate on this road trip those 5.5 walks per game leading to that .384 OBP – you have to hope that is coming from the coaching.

    The pitchers seem to have a clue and are following a good script from Strom to keep that ball down (except for Wojo who is back in the minors). I see a pitching staff with a good mix of veterans and youngsters and it seems to go about its business without too many highs or lows.

    One thing we do not talk a lot about is fielding – the team is 3rd in the league with only 9 errors (3 of them by He Who Shall Not be Named). I know that errors is not as sexy as range factors and those kind of things, but I believe they point to a team that is well coached – they overall do not shoot themselves in the foot. Castro, Marisnick, Valbuena, and Altuve all have 0 errors so far and only He Who Shall Not be Named has more than 1 error to date.

    Hinch – overall he has done an excellent job – I have disagreed with him only a few times that I can remember.
    – The game I went to when Villar started at SS and helped Feldman get all discombobulated with 2 errors right off the bat in Feldman’s only poor showing – I knew this was a problem when I saw the lineup, but Hinch did not.
    – The other night in the crazy 5-4 win in 11 innings – they went to the bottom of the 11th win a 5-2 lead and Neshek on the mound. 3 batters later it was 5-4 with no outs and a runner on 2nd base. I thought he was nuts for leaving Neshek out there – but Neshek got two outs without letting the runner move and two relievers later they got the 3rd out and won the game.
    – I’m seeing a professional calmness out of Hinch and it seems to permeate the team and the coaching staff. Part of this is more talent and part of it is the ability to get the additional talent out to fhe guys.


  7. As far as the hitting coach is concerned, I don’t know what to say. He has so much more to work with than Mallee did, but the changes Springer is making are going to help him for years.
    And what has happened to Marisnick? He looks like a guy who was given his first pair of contact lenses. This is not the same Marisnick we saw last year. He is picking up the pitch and it’s spin the moment it is leaving the pitcher’s hand. I’m serious, it looks like they cloned Altuve’s brain and stuck it in Jake’s body. The guy is hitting .380! Yes, there is some luck because his line drives are always in a hole, but it also seems like everything he hits is a line drive. Last night he came in as a defensive sub in the late innings and had a triple and a double, one to right center and the other down the LF line. I think that we were going to be giddy if Marisnick could hit a decent .260, but did anyone think he was going to be capable of hitting like this, even for 20 games?
    The Astros are tied for the Major League lead in WHIP, the pitching stat that is combined hits and BBs allowed per inning. The team WHIP is 1.08.
    The team batting average is .239 this morning, 16th in baseball. When they left Houston they were dead last in BA at .207.
    The Astros are tied for fourth in the league in least amount of errors committed with only 9 errors. Jonathan Villar has a total of nine chances fielding at SS with 3 errors.
    Remove Villar’s errors at SS and the Astros would be tied for first in the majors in least # of errors and in fielding percentage.


      • The whole premise behind this roster Luhnow put together is that an out is an out, no matter how it’s created.

        Now obviously that’s not correct. You need sac flies and those ground balls to right that advance the runner from second to third. But if Carter strikes out with a runner on first, he’s not hitting into a double play either.

        So far, so good, despite the wind factory. I just hope this doesn’t start coming back to bite the Astros in the … Astro.


  8. Last night’s big win was impressive to me on many levels:
    1. all 3 of our big guys had big hits [we got to see a Gattis-Goes-Stratus, a Carter Darter, & a Springer Dinger in the SAME GAME!] – and they only struck out 3 times between them [three Ks, three HRs – as Wind-in-His-Hair would say: ‘good . . . trade’];
    2. all the essential table setters set the table [Altuve 4 hits, Valbuena 3, Marisnick 2];
    3. The team did not get ‘down’ – but picked ‘up’ – when the news about Jed Lowrie hit [credit Hinch? Altuve? Springer? Gattis? or just something deep within this particular group of overachievers?];
    4. We overcame 13 Ks [only 2 of which were by our pitcher] – never flinched;
    5. We led from wire to wire without the brilliance of Keuchel or McHugh [though Hernandez was pretty darn good];
    6. Sipp was Sipp;
    7. Waiver Wire Will [Harris] continues to channel somebody or something absolutely amazing [I call this bullpen ‘the Avengers’; Harris is Hawkeye];
    8. Jose Altuve [.348/,389/.472/ with 13 RBIs, and 8 SBs] has clearly re-entered the Nirvana-Matrix I to call ‘the Altuve-Zone’;
    9. Jonathan Villar knows the way to Fresno, CA; and
    10. Kid Keuchy is all set up to take ‘the beard’ to ‘the bump’ for ‘the sweep’ today!


  9. A statistic that I hope is relevant today is that the Astros are 6-1 in day games and 7-6 in night games. San Diego is 4-5 in day games. Our kids love to play ball in the daylight.


  10. Nothing but good comments and opinions from me today! I think they can weather the storm (Lowrie injury) as long as Villar and Marwin play passable defense. There are enough bats to cover the loss, but I must be honest that I was getting excited about seeing Lowrie represent in the AS game.


  11. I was listening to a game about 10 days ago, with Robert Ford and Dierker calling the game…….by the way, it was AWESOME to hear Dierker on the radio. Larry said something I hadn’t thought of………this was the Astros long road trip (10days) and
    this is where the guys really get to know one another. Since they have no choice, they have to eat together, and get to know the quirks that make them unique. Who knows, Dierker might have a point….we will know when they come home if there was any real truth to glean from his comments! These guys make going to bed at night a little sweeter!


  12. True test for this team will be how they react to their first losing streak. It will happen as it does to all teams. I need to see how they respond when the warts start having a negative impact. We are less than a month into the season. They are doing far better than I expected and I am quite pleased they are on pace to do better than the 75 -77 wins I expected before the season started. Not quite ready to revise that yet, but getting close. Go ‘Stros!


  13. All Star voting is up on I voted about ten times, so far. I chose the entire Astros squad for the AL, and picked representatives for the NL from the Milwaukee Brewers, except for Ryan Braun. Why? Well, he is a liar and a cheat. Why should I help get him into the game?


  14. The thing about Villar is that he can make errors on balls that the other guys could only dream about getting to, but….those are not the balls he makes mistakes on. I was really getting used to Lowrie being a solid contributor in the lineup and a guy I could trust to make the plays in the field. He was never going to be Ozzie Smith in the field, but he was also never going to be Jonathan Villar.


      • And I guess the Astros will continue to strike out a lot and then have lots of extra base hits. Marisnick and Springer with doubles and Rasmus with his 4th homer.


    • I watched a game earlier this year where he was lights out until he singled and was running the bases. He tried to break up a double play, if I recall, and came out the next frame with reduced command and gave up a bunch of runs.


  15. Just getting to check in on the game. This. Is. Stupid. Crazy. I love Hinch! He seems to make the right moves and I love how he Dierker’s it and stays with his starter as deep as they can go. 115 pitches today for Keuchel. Is there any better candidate for AL Pitcher of the Month?

    Yesterday, he gets Gattis into a game in left field and, boom! Today, he slides Rasmus over to left and, boom!


  16. I was thinking about how good this road trip was and then when I got home and turned the TV on for the last 1/2 inning. They announced that this the first time an Astros team has gone 8-1 in a 9 game trip. Ever. That is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Wow, Keuchel is like on some kind of hershiser-esque run. This is crazy good. He is pitching with a chip on his shoulder from the doubt, you can tell.


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