All Things Astros and a whole lot more
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’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.
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?