What they said, what they meant: Astros’ off-season style

It has been a while since the last What They Said – What They Meant. As a reminder, this will be a series of real-world quotes from mlb.com related to your Houston Astros followed by what the speaker really meant.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch on not putting in ace Gerrit Cole in the seventh inning of the seventh game of the World Series.

  • What he said. “I wasn’t going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead. He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the ninth after I brought Osuna in, had we kept the lead.”
  • What he meant. “I’m hoping you don’t notice that I didn’t use him when we had the lead entering the seventh, but how could I take Zack Greinke out tossing a one hitter. Let’s face it, if I started the seventh with Cole and he gave up runs y’all would be jumping on me like you did when I used Justin Verlander in relief against the Red Sox in 2017. I couldn’t win and in the end we didn’t win.”

Astros reliever Will Harris, who was brought in the game and gave up a 2 run homer to flip the game.

  • What he said. “I mean, it’s every reliever’s nightmare. I think I’ll be better for it when I wake up tomorrow. Just today was a bad day.”
  • What he meant. “Growing up you always dream about making the big play to win the World Series. You never dream about making the play that loses the World Series.”

Basically Former Astros’ Pitcher Gerrit Cole in his prepared message to the Houston fans after the World Series loss.

  • What he said – “Houston, last night was a tough one for us and the heartbreak hasn’t gotten any easier today. Before I became an Astro I didn’t know much about Houston, but after just two years you have made it feel like home. The Astros organization has been such a pleasure to play for, and the Cranes are indeed special people and great owners. I’ve met lifelong friends on the team and in the community and learned a little about pitching along the way. … Thank you for making us better people and better players. This was a great season. We have a lot to be proud of.”
  • What he meant – “Buh-bye.”

Astros ace Justin Verlander, who barely lost the Cy Young in 2012, 2016 and 2018 on winning it this time around.

  • What he said. “It was starting to become disappointing every time I came so close and it just didn’t happen. I put up some historic numbers in the history of baseball [in ‘18], and every time somebody had done something similar, they had won the Cy Young. Is it meant to be for me to win another one? I don’t want to call [winning a second] a relief, because it wasn’t. It just put things in perspective and made it all the better, all the more exciting for me and my family.”
  • What he meant. “Fans may not understand how a guy set for life money-wise and playing a kids game for a living could be disappointed in anything. But that is the kind of competitor I am. You should see me play Scrabble.”

Cole on being nudged out by his teammate for the Cy Young….

  • What he said. “Justin Verlander is a stud. It was a pleasure to run alongside him this summer. Congratulations.”
  • What he meant. “Now that he is not likely to be my teammate – they can put him out to stud.”

Hinch on Yordan Alvarez winning the Rookie of the Year.

  • What he said. “What an incredible year and recognition for Alvarez. He did everything we could have asked and more. His dynamic presence on our team is undeniable. I’m proud of how he handled his transition to the big leagues, his immediate success, all the attention, and ultimately his actions as a teammate. A great and well-deserved honor.”
  • What he meant. “I felt like a fan watching this kid. He was amazing. We may never see another rookie this dominating over only half a season.”

Astros former Assistant GM Brandon Taubman during the Astros celebration after beating the Yanks in the ALCS (directed towards female reporters).

  • What he said. “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!”
  • What he meant. “Maybe I am not so smart after swigging champagne in large portions.”

The Astros’ kneejerk of a press release in defense of Taubman.

  • What they said. “The story posted by Sports Illustrated is misleading and completely irresponsible. An Astros player was being asked questions about a difficult outing. Our executive was supporting the player during a difficult time. … We are extremely disappointed in Sports Illustrated’s attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.”
  • What they meant. “Maybe we are not so smart after swigging champagne in large portions.”

Taubman after it was obvious that SI had not fabricated the story.

  • What he said. “This past Saturday, during our clubhouse celebration, I used inappropriate language for which I am deeply sorry and embarrassed. In retrospect, I realized that my comments were unprofessional and inappropriate. My over-exuberance in support of a player has been misinterpreted as a demonstration of a regressive attitude about an important social issue. Those that know me know that I am a progressive and charitable member of the community, and a loving and committed husband and father. I hope that those who do not know me understand that the Sports Illustrated article does not reflect who I am or my values. I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions.”
  • What he meant. “I feel my golden ticket slipping away.”

Former Astros consultant and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan discussing separating from the Astros right after his son Reid was demoted from the Astros club president.

  • What he said. “I will not be back with the club and will leave it at that.”
  • What he meant. “I came this close to going all Robin Ventura on someone.”

Jim Crane on his son being put on the executive team at the same time Reid Ryan was being demoted.

  • What he said. “It’s a family issue. I have an older son that’s very good, very bright, and has got some experience but he hasn’t been around it, and I want to start teaching him. I’ve been working a long time, and very hard a long time, and I have other stuff, and so he’s just coming in to lend a hand.”
  • What he meant. “I own this damn team and if I want my 90-year-old Aunt Sarah to dance on top of the dugouts and throw T-shirts to the fans – I will.”

The Astros after a story in the Athletic quoted former Astro Mike Fiers and other former Astros as saying they used electronic means to steal signs in 2017.

  • What they said. “Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time.”
  • What they meant. “We make better statements when we haven’t been drinking and after we’ve been dressed down by major league baseball”.

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow on the cheating allegations.

  • What he said. “Teams are competing with one another and everybody is trying to find an edge. But we all have to follow the rules and the rules are set by Major League Baseball. We all follow them, we agree to follow them and if you don’t there are ramifications to that. We want to follow the rules and we want to compete and win and that’s what every other club does as well.”
  • What he meant. “I said ‘we want to follow the rules’ – not that we succeeded in following the rules.”

Hinch on the cheating scandal.

  • What he said. “{crickets}
  • What he meant. “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”

Bonus quote: MLB on the scandal…

What they said. “Beginning in the 2017 season, numerous Clubs expressed general concerns that other Clubs were stealing their signs. As a result of those concerns, and after receiving extensive input from the General Managers, we issued a revised policy on sign stealing prior to the 2019 season. We also put in place detailed protocols and procedures to provide comfort to Clubs that other Clubs were not using video during the game to decode and steal signs. After we review this new information, we will determine any necessary next steps.”

What they meant…..your turn to interpret …..

Astro fans, now what do we do with this?

After writing the previous tome on the difficulties of modern fandom …..

https://chipalatta.com/2019/11/11/is-this-the-hardest-time-ever-to-be-a-baseball-fan/

….. I sure did not expect to be confronted with an immediate “in yo face sucka” conundrum that makes being a modern fan even more difficult.

Y’all have already put out some interesting thoughts on the “cheating” story.

There’s old pro’s old school hang ’em long and hang ’em high thoughts…..

How Ironic that this particular scandal comes to light in the midst of this particular post in our blog.
I’m an old time baseball guy. It’s actually part of my blog name.
If the Astros did this, they should fire the manager and the GM, if he knew it was happening, and start over.
If it’s true, admit it, remove those responsible and keep going with the plan.
It’s not like Crane isn’t willing to replace guys who mess up. He did it with the removal of Reid Ryan, who oversaw Media and Communications during the Taubman fiasco
This team is too important to its fan base to put up with this BS. And this team is too good to let this drag it down.
Find the culprits, make the necessary changes and let’s go back to real baseball. Nobody is bigger than baseball itself. If it happened, heads should roll.

There’s rj’s stream of consciousness – mulling it over out loud rant ……

now wait a minute. i know my memory is not what it once was but didnt cora and beltran receive praise for their abilty to steal signs? didnt beltran have conversations with players while here and later after he left, that suddenly had bats coming alive? wasnt a part of that anticipating pitches and stealing signs? where are cora and beltran now? were they punished or did they advance? stealing signs (or the attempt to) has been a regular part baseball for a long time.
now using technology to do it is a new development, at least to me. does this make it suddenly worse? i would say yes.
is the ability to be a careful observer and see a pitcher holding his glove a certain way on a certain pitch thereby tipping his pitches the same? i say no.
watch the third base coach. doesnt he give an extensive amount of signs to the batter? why? to keep the opposing team from knowing the batters instruction. is it the same to try to read these signs as well? i say no.
when a runner is on second base the catcher routinely changes the way he is giving signs to counteract the runner trying to determine the upcoming pitch.
is this the same? i say no.
get any and all electronic devices, lenses or other non-human devices out of the equation by making them illegal and enforcing it.
leave the human interaction alone. if you are clever enough to see a pattern and take advantage of it (using nothing other than your baseball acumen) good for you and its on them to correct their mistake.
baseball has been changed enough lately, correct the electronic crap and leave the human factor alone.

There’s Sandy’s short – to the point X-Files (We are not alone) comment…..

Or maybe it’s allowed for certain teams not based in Houston.

Mr. Bill’s defense….

Folks . . . the video they have doctored to argue that the Astros were cheating in 2017 was of Evan Gattis swinging and missing at a fastball, then not getting a hit. This is their smoking gun?

Zanuda’s righteous disgust…..

Ok, then let’s remove Ipads in the dugout and any other electronic devices for all teams. Then we’re all back to the same rules. This is BS! At least I hope so. And Fiers can ESAD for all I care. Sure as hell didn’t mind it when he played for us.

Dave b’s explanation of why this may be happening to the Astros….

A whole lot of people have always hated the Yankees. They’re winners. They are arrogant. We’re similar, including the arrogant part that I could do without. This is todays version of the spitball as far as I’m concerned. I hope we’re not guilty. I don’t like having an asterisk . Regarding Fiers, he led our team in innings pitched in 2017, then got left off the post season roster. I’m pretty sure he does not like us.

Devin’s questioning….

It’s obviously premature to comment before we know all the facts, but just the other week we had an article published talking about Gerrit Cole which included mentions of how he improved his approach since joining the Astros. One reference was to video study and the author noted that MLB has employees in the dugout, in the tunnel, and in the clubhouse watching so players cannot go watch video during the game. How is it possible the Astros had secret cameras providing a live feed to a monitor just inside the door to the tunnel but the MLB employees never caught it? Why was it not a national story that Aaron Judge and another Yankee were viewing iPads in the dugout during the ALCS until the cameras caught them at which time they hid them from view?

Sarge H’s indifference …..

I really do not care, does anybody here?

AC45’s logical conclusion….

Well, if the Astros are using cameras to steal signs, they turn them off with runners on base and in the late innings.
Or maybe the Nationals, with the help of the Russians, hacked the cameras.

Becky’s straight ahead down home statement….

WELCOME TO THE *NEW* AMERICA. I can accuse you of ANYTHING and you have to just shut up. That’s it in a nutshell. It doesn’t matter if Mike Fires is a liar or not…….he said it so THAT means it’s true, it’s up to the Astros organization to prove it’s not. Have a nice day.

And Dan P avoiding the subject through humor (and I apologize if I missed anyone)

It was Colonel Mustard with a candlestick in the Kitchen

What we are left with….

In the end, it is again the fans that are left with the emotional crap from all of this. We pay good money to see this team in person or at home. We give away hundreds (thousands) of hours of our time to the sport and team we love.

This is all supposed to be a distraction for us. A distraction from life’s problems as we somehow deeply care about a billionaire’s toy made up of young millionaires who will gladly entertain you this year and someone else the next. Where’s the fun and distraction in this, if after 50+ years we finally cheer for a team and a championship that may have an asterisk attached to it.

In our hearts we despise cheating and there is no way to talk about electronic “surveillance” and sign stealing through technology and not consider it that. It may help us a bit to throw out the “everyone does it” argument, which may even be true. But we hate to be placed in this position. We look back and see someone like George Springer getting a hit and reaching base and turning towards the dugout and giving them two thumbs up. Was that the glee of the start of a rally or was it a thank you to whoever banged the trash can lid to signal the next pitch after seeing the catcher’s sign on video?

Through the years players and teams have cheated in many different ways. It has been revealed that the Giants likely stole signals from someone hidden in their scoreboard to help them erase a 13 game Dodger lead in the last 6 weeks of the 1951 season. Gaylord Perry made the Hall of Fame thanks to a “Little dab will do ya” from his hat and hair. Pitchers have scuffed, cut, marked up and beat up balls to get a little more break. Hitters  have used corked bats (Say it ain’t so Billy Hatcher) and steroids (Sosa, Bonds, McGwire and too many to count)to launch balls higher and farther. We’ve always wondered if Mike Scott had thrown more of a spit finger than a split finger fastball. Trevor Bauer a couple years ago said the Astros pitchers had to be using pine tar or its equivalent to get some of the velocity and spin results they were seeing.

We can say “everyone’s doing it” but wasn’t that part of Chris Correa’s defense before he was carted off for hacking the Astros treasure trove of information? Remember he said he was only doing it because he believed the Astros were hacking the Cards first.

What do we believe and again why are we put in this position? It is most likely that baseball will slap someone on the hands over this and hope to bury the story and “handle” things behind the scenes. But if it is too deep and too pervasive what will they do? OP suggests deep sixing Luhnow and Hinch. What if they decided to vacate the Astros championship? Would we still want to pull for what we thought was the little engine that could?

This is unfair to the faithful, whose faith is being shaken as I write these words.

 

Is this the hardest time ever to be a baseball fan?

This is not a “woe is me” diatribe by a fan whose team played to the very end of the postseason. This was brought on by a comment from good friend of the blog Diane in a comment a few days ago….

“A bunch of stuff has happened in the last few weeks that has been painful. In some ways, losing the Series is the least of it. I know this is big business with baseball icing, but I’ve stuck with it so far because it’s a tenuous thread to my long-gone hardworking daddy who toted me out to get mosquito bit on South Main, and to the Buffs before that. Baseball was what he got for faithfully holding a low-paying job and never failing his family. I know there will be more news coming, but I’m thinking I might not want to hear it. I still love ‘Tuve and Springer and others, and my heart goes out to A.J. Hinch, because as I wrote here in the playoffs, he was showing extreme fatigue — not just physical but mental — and it might have even affected his ability to make crucial decisions in that last game. These are highly paid human beings, but human beings nevertheless, and I’m thinking the season is too long. When you play almost every day and travel too, it’s asking a lot. That and cash considerations are taking us over a cliff.”

This brought me to the realization of how different the fan experience is these days and that most of the folks, who check in here have lived through sometimes agonizing changes in the game and how we experience it. Don’t get me wrong, some of the changes have been for the best, but some have not and for some of us any change is difficult to swallow.

The In-person Experience

In the 1950’s and early ’60’s the experience was minor league bleacher seats at old Buff and then Colt Stadium with lights as beacons to every mosquito in Harris County and the sweat index staining your shirts and blouses. It was an intimate game played fairly close to the fans and played at a reasonable cost and played fairly poorly by the home team. The games were quick and quiet in that 2 hour range. You could hear the smack of ball to glove during the in- between innings warmups.

Back in the 1960’s and ’70’s the in-person experience in Houston was fairly affordable – especially if you were sitting upstairs or in the outfield at the Astrodome. You parked within decent straight walking distance somewhere around the circumference of the Dome for $5 as I recall and rode the escalators up or down (normally up) to a cushioned seat in air conditioned, mosquito free comfort. The food and drinks cause more than in the outdoor world, but were fairly simple hotdog, peanuts, popcorn, beer and soda fair. The scoreboard had cartoons and exploded when the home team reached the far away and up high bleachers with a rare bomb. The team was sometimes better than the early days, but rarely sniffing a pennant race

In modern times, again the ticket prices, parking and food/drink have been on an unending steady rise. The average ticket last year ran about $68 at Minute Maid. Parking can easily cost you $15-20 a few blocks from the stadium. Inside the park there are literally hundreds of food and drink choices and hundred is a good word to use as a family of four can get to that cost fast. The park has a roof that rarely gets opened and again the people are protected from the skeeters and the elements as needed. The games are a lot longer and a lot louder. Three hour to four hour games are the norm. Young ladies in shorts shoot T-shirts at the crowd as they ride around the park or jump around along the dugout roofs. Loud music is piped in and between innings are filled with videos, games and thinly disguised advertisements. The teams have either been horrid or much, much better than the old days. The team tries to compete with the “excitement” of the NBA and NFL experiences with an untimed game. There is more to experience today, but sometimes less is more.

The At-home Experience

In earliest times, the “experience” was tied to a transistor radio broadcast of the game or a quick review of the morning newspaper that may or may not have the box score and a write up from the night before. The newspapers had journalists, who travelled with the team and their columns and game summaries were the life blood of information about your favorite team.

TV coverage of baseball was pretty basic. One national game was broadcast per week with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese, later replaced by Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek and in the 60’s the Astros occasionally were on as their home games were a safe backup to a rain out on the main game. The Astros would be on TV for their Sunday road games only. These were special treats to be savored as we could actually see in a grainy way the team we adored on the radio and in the newspaper.

This of course has morphed into today’s world where every game is available to fans (or should be – sorry Becky) on pay cable or on our smart phones or on our computers. This includes the crazed ability to watch any game by any team in the majors if you so wish (and have access).  It is better today in some ways, but sometimes we wish for the quiet “theater” of just us and our radios and our imaginations.

Knowing the Teams and the Players

There is a moment in City Slickers where the “guys” are talking to the one gal on the cattle drive …..

Phil Berquist: So, do you hate baseball?
Bonnie Rayburn: No, I like baseball. I just never understood how you guys can spend so much time discussing it. I mean I think the game is great but I don’t memorize who played third base for Pittsburgh in 1960.
Mitch Robbins, Phil Berquist, Ed Furillo: Don Hoak!
Bonnie Rayburn: See, that’s exactly what I mean.

At one time there were only 16 teams in the majors (20 after the Astros, Mets, Senators and Angels were added 1961/1962). And in reality, most fans only cared about the teams in their league. Your team would only play the other league in the World Series and you would worry about that one team at the time. So, it was possible to memorize the 200 players from those teams in your league and know that Don Hoak was the 3B for the Pirates.

Today, teams play inter-league and there are 30 teams to boot and our brains are smaller and clogged and there is no possible way for us to remember the 750 players on the roster at one time. And even if we did…..they move around so much – leading to this.

Player Movement

To be perfectly honest, players did change teams in the old days, but it was always at team’s discretion, either by getting released or traded….. I float back to Spec Richardson sending the future of the Astros (Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan, Mike Cuellar) elsewhere. But since players were granted free agency, there are even more players moving either of their own choosing in FA or by teams trying to avoid getting nothing for their players when they choose FA.

In the old days, players were chained to their teams and were in a take it or leave it on contracts. If you want to see what can result from an owner shoving under market contracts on their players – read the book Eight Men Out about the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

But its tougher on the modern fan, especially if it is a player you really don’t want to lose (Gerrit Cole) that you suspect you will.

The Inter-league Experience

In the Astros case, the inter-league experience has too meanings. The team changing leagues and the team playing across leagues.

Growing up we were aware of the other league and we knew and maybe even idolized the big stars like Mickey Mantle or Carl Yastrzemski. But we rarely saw them and of course our teams never played them. This was a chunk of baseball that was not filling up our platter, because we were not trying to remember who the LF for the White Sox was in 1966 (Ken Berry – and no not the guy from the Andy Griffith show). We might get a glimpse of some of the other teams on the Game of the Week, or the World Series, but it was a here today, gone tomorrow thing for us.

And then the designated hitter happened in the AL and baseball was not the same in every game and it sure was not the same when these teams played in the World Series. Purists did not want it. Folks who were sick of watching pitchers making outs wondered why this did not happen sooner. And folks like me are wondering how you can continue to have two sets of rules in the MLB. Oh, Boston Celtics – you know how you built your team around making 3 pointers, well the Western Conference outlawed those, so when you play on the road at LA in the Finals you need to play a different brand of basketball. Totally, goofy.

Today we see the teams from the other league on a fairly consistent basis and it is not quite so special anymore.

The Money

The money has gotten to the point that we can’t really understand it anymore. In 1980, Nolan Ryan became the first player to make $1 million in a season. Justin Verlander makes about a $1 million…..every time he takes the mound. The league “minimum” is almost $600,00 a year – a number most of us will never see in our lives, maybe even cumulatively.

Of course back in 1974 Nolan was a 5 year veteran making a cool $27,000 a year. For a long time, the players had off-season jobs to supplement their income. My father-in-law talks about growing up in Brooklyn and a lot of the Dodgers lived right there among the fans.

And of course you had owners like Bill Veeck who would sit out in the bleachers with the fans. Most of the owners were quite rich men, but these days it is mostly corporate with our view of the owners being from a camera pointed towards the plate and seeing them close to the players in those seats we could never afford for the games they deign to attend.

Its billionaires, taking money from us (through tickets, food, TV revenue) and giving it to multi-millionaires. And both the billionaires and the millionaires talking “po-boy” about it all. Hard to take it all in….

The Stats

Let’s face it. Growing up the stats consisted of a pitchers W-L and possibly his ERA and a batters batting average, home runs, and RBIs. For the speedsters we cared about the SB numbers, but we never got much farther than that.

Back then WHIP was something we might see on Rawhide and WAR on Combat. Now we are pulled into worrying about individual players stats like RISP. Back in the day, we never knew a player’s batting average with runner’s in scoring position was. We just knew we would rather see Jimmy Wynn up with ducks on the pond than Dave Adlesh.

There are numbers for everything and everyone and every situation. We know how Michael Brantley hit against left handers in the 7th inning and later in games that are within 2 runs. But we sometimes forget our nephew’s name.

How the Game is Played

Again, back in the day, when players never lifted weights and more were built like Terry Puhl and Enos Cabell than Greg Luzinski the game was built on skills and variety. The stolen base, the sacrifice bunt, the hit and run were all integral parts of the game, not things that were avoided because statistics say the chances favor those who swing away (like Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Signs).

The modern player is still terribly skilled. But the games have become whiff-fests, slug-fests where the winner may be the team that figures out how to position its players better (or luckier) than their opponents. The game is not necessarily worse, but it is very different than in our youth.

What We Know

The latest “situation” with Roberto Osuna highlights one of the biggest differences between the old game and today’s game. Back in the day, we did not know what we know now about the players. We did not know who drank, who might be running around, who supported who politically, who might be getting some extra performance enhancing chemical “help”, who might be taking recreational chemical “help”, who might have anger management issues, who might be abusing women, etc.

In some ways back then ignorance was bliss.

The Wrap-up 

Normally, I set things out and then ask for you opinion without directly throwing out my opinion. In this case I will share my opinion first. Like a lot of other things in life, the modern world has made baseball more accessible to the modern fan, but it includes a lot that we might be happier without. To me it is tougher being a fan today than in my youth.

OK – now it is your turn.

ChipalattAwards for 2019

After a season that came up 8 outs short of the trophy, it is time to hand out the ChipalattAwards for the 2019 Houston Astros.  As always, this is one person’s opinion and all other voices are welcome.

Best Position Player. Alex Bregman.
It is easy to pick on Bregman in retrospect. His playoff performance did not match his regular season. He hit only .250 with runners in scoring position during the regular season (though his OPS was still a solid .889). He had another slow start to the year….he was still only hitting .259 BA through the end of July. Yes, if he ever starts hitting a little earlier he will be unbelievable. Yes, if he hits better with RISP (like he did in 2018) he will be even more awesome. Yes, if he would not stand there and stare at his HRs in the playoffs, the baseball gods might not bring bad karma on his and the Astros’ heads.

But the man was only 25 this season and he led the Astros in runs scored (122), HRs (41), RBIs (112), walks (119) and OBP (.423). Down the stretch he was incredible putting up a slash of .372 BA/ .486 OBP/ .750 SLG/ 1.236 OPS the last two months of the season. He has had to carry the load while Altuve, Correa and Springer missed time the last two seasons. Maybe if there is more health around him, he will take another step in his development in 2020.

Runner-up. George Springer.
This was George’s best season only tamped down by the 122 games he played due to injury. His .292 BA/ .383 OBP/ .974 OPS was the best slash of his career. If you projected his 96 runs/ 39 HRs/ 96 RBIs to 156 games (the number of games Bregman played this season) he would be at 122 runs/50 HRs/122 RBIs and he would have been the guy challenging Mike Trout for MVP this season.

2018 Best Position Player – Alex Bregman / Runner-up Yuli Gurriel

Best Starting Pitcher. Gerrit Cole.
First of all this pick has nothing to do with the post season. But honestly, if someone gave this to Justin Verlander instead (which may happen in the Cy Young Award race), I would not have heart burn over this. Cole trailed Verlander by one win with 20 wins, but had a better winning percentage (.800). He had a slightly better ERA (2.50) and of course his 326 Ks and 13.8 Ks/9 IP led all of baseball. The biggest reasons to give this to Cole have to do with him settling in after a few poor starts and not losing from the end of May to the end of the season and also how many dominating starts he had. He had 6 starts where he gave up 0 runs, 13 starts where he gave up 1 run and 7 starts where he gave up 2 runs. JV was good at this too, but a few games less than Cole.

Runner-up. Justin Verlander.
If you wanted to give JV this award there were certainly good arguments for it. He won one more game, pitched more innings (223 to 212.1) and had a better WHIP (.802 to .895) than Cole. And of course he had the totally dominant no-hitter late in the season. The Astros were fortunate to have the two best pitchers in baseball in their rotation this season.

2018 Best Starting Pitcher – Justin Verlander / Runner-up – Gerrit Cole

Best Relief Pitcher. Ryan Pressly.
Pressly gets the nod here over the runner-up for two reasons. One is that he pitched in the most high leverage situations of anyone on the staff. Two is that he was just so unhittable for so much of the season. He gave up 14 runs on the season and 7 of those were in two games towards the end of the season where he was likely fighting his leg issues.

Runner-up. Will Harris.

It is a shame that Harris’ season ended with the taste of giving up two homers in the last two games of the season, because at 34 years old, this was his finest season. 4-1, 4 saves, 1.50 ERA, 0.933 WHIP and he became the solid 7th inning set-up man and even slid back into the 8th and 9th inning down the stretch.

2018 Best Relief Pitcher – Ryan Pressly/ Runners-up – Collin McHugh and Roberto Osuna

Most Improved Player. Will Harris.

Considering Tyler White won this spot last season this may be the kiss of death. Harris more than halved his ERA from 3.49 to 1.50, knocked down his WHIP from 1.094 to 0.933 and had 4 saves as opposed to 0 the year before. And most importantly he became a constant in the higher leverage parts of the game.

Runner-Up. Yuli Gurriel.

Yuli was probably the most improved from early in the year to the end, but he also was one of the guys who had a much better 2019 than 2018. In 2018, he hit for a good .291 BA, but his power numbers were down across the board. In 2019, he set career highs with 85 runs, 31 HRs, 104 RBIs, .343 OBP and .884 OPS. Remember that before his discussion with new Mets manager Carlos Beltran in early May he was hitting a nasty (in a bad way) .234 BA/ .289 OBP/ .650 OPS. Don’t be surprised if the Mets are one of the most improved hitting teams in baseball next year.

2018 Most Improved Player – Tyler White/ Runner-up Alex Bregman

Biggest Surprise. Yordan Alvarez.

Yordan was one of the top prospects in the organization, so it was not a surprise that he was called up after tearing up the minors the first half of the season. The surprise was that he treated major league pitching much like he did the minors. His .313 BA/ .412 OBP/ 1.067 OPS slash was stellar while putting up 58 runs, 26 doubles, 27 HRs and 78 RBIs in only 87 games was incredible.

Runner-up. Jose Urquidy

It was a small sample, but the young man came up and pitched with terrific poise in some pressure packed situations with the Astros looking for help with the Wade Miley melt-down. His 2-1 record with a 3.95 ERA and 1.098 WHIP in 41 innings puts him towards the front of the pack for one of the open starting slots in 2020.

2018 Biggest Surprise – Tony Kemp/ Tony Sipp

Rookie of the Year. Yordan Alvarez.
Nothing more to say….

2018 Rookie of the Year – (Tie) Framber Valdez and Josh James

Most Disappointing. Tyler White.
Some guys lose their chance through an injury or through some bad luck along the way. Tyler was given a “tee the ball up in the middle of the fairway” chance to be the solution to the Astros’ DH situation and blew it by not being in shape. Being thrust into the middle of a lineup where you are not expected to carry the load, plus having so many good hitters around you was a perfect situation, but he punted it. (I wonder how many non-baseball sports metaphors I can fit in here).

Runner-Up. Max Stassi. 

Max did not have to be an offensive force to hold down the backup catcher spot, but his hitting was so bad (.167 BA/.235 OBP/ .446 OPS) that it was almost like having a pitcher hitting on days he caught. Well a pitcher not named Zack Greinke. It was not a surprise when he was sent packing and Martin Maldonado was brought back to catch behind Robinson Chirinos.

2018 Most Disappointing – Carlos Correa / Runners-up Josh Reddick and Ken Giles

Top Coach. Brent Strom.

Maybe we should retire this award, but he continued to get most of his minions to pitch out of their gourds in 2019. It helps when you have Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to work with, but both those gentlemen, plus Wade Miley, Ryan Pressly, etc. pitched better on his watch than for their previous teams.

2018 Top Coach – Brent Strom

2019 Biggest Distraction 

In 2018, injuries derailed the team at he wrong time. In 2019, they had the Brandon Taubman meltdown occur at the very worst time as far as distractions go. Will they let Roberto Osuna go to head off any continued hot media attention on this issue? Stay tuned.

2019 Under the Radar. Michael Brantley. 

We just did not know how good this guy is. Jose Altuve is another one like Brantley where you tend to take him for granted. Of all the money spent to sign on Free Agents last off-season, the pickup of Brantley may have been the biggest bargain. A professional hitter who gives the team great ABs every time up.
Now it is your turn.  Any disagreements with the awards above? Any additional rewards you would like to hand out. It is your turn….

The real Moneyball begins: Astros’ payroll options

As in the HEB commercial where Carlos Correa is “singing” about their Creamy Sensations (an ad that Astro fans, unfortunately, saw about a thousand times this season), the Astros were oh so close to a World Championship in a league that spans two countries. But now reality hits as the roster makeup of this offseason turns into payroll decisions for the team.

What We Know

Writer’s note. The estimated arb numbers are from Spotrac and it is hard to wrap one’s mind around the fact that Springer might get approximately three times what Correa gets in arbitration. Springer has been great, but has missed time (not as much as Correa). That is eye-opening.

Salary Options.

There are a number of ways the team can move on from here relative to salary, But obviously, the key here is what is the budget for next season and does Jim Crane apply any of the playoff “bonus” revenue to the payroll …..

  1. Ignore the “luxury tax”. It is not necessarily going to cost them that much as first time offenders.
  2. Don’t tender offers to all of the players eligible for arbitration. This goes from the more likely to be bypassed like Biagini, through the possible like Sanchez to the out of the box like Osuna. Do the Astros think that Osuna at $10+ MM,  who has been solid overall, but shaky in key spots is worth the cost in both budget and in bad press….. They might not invoke the team option on Devenski, also.
  3. Deciding to not pursue most of the free agents. Though anyone could use a Cole, it keeps feeling like there have been at least outline talks about an extension during the last off-season and the two sides are far apart on length of contract as much as annual salary. They would likely go back after Chirinos, kick the tires on Maldonado, see if they can come to some kind of agreement with Harris and Smith (if he would come down in asking price). If they know something about Miley (maybe pitching hurt) they could well try to bring him back (hard to figure what his value is for 5 months of excellence and then a crash and burn). But it would not surprise me if only Chirinos returns from that bunch.
  4. Trading contracts. With Alvarez up and Tucker playing decently – Reddick’s contract sticks out as some low hanging fruit to see if another club will take on. You would not get much for him unless you want to swallow contract, which is the opposite of what this exercise is talking about. Even an oft-injured Correa seems like a bargain for what they are likely going to be asked to pony up for him. You would only trade him for some low cost – high-performance pitching help. Verlander and Altuve have full no-trade contracts and Greinke has a partial no-trade – so even if they were considering it…..not likely to occur. Bregman is untouchable. Hard to picture any scenario that would lead to them trading Brantley, Pressly or Gurriel.

The gut feeling is that the Astros will likely attempt to send Reddick elsewhere, and might well separate from Devenski, Biagini and Sanchez, but unless someone blows them away they are not likely to pull any other rabbits out of their hats, like a Correa trade. They will most likely try to pull pitching help from the minors and off the heap of pitchers out there, who are underperforming but have a high spin rate. The end result may be a team that is not as good as in 2019.

Thank You 2019 Astros for a Wonderful Season

In the ninth inning of Game 7 as the Nats had just extended the lead to 6-2, my youngest son who is not a sports fan, but who very sweetly watched the game with his ol’ dad last night said the following, “Well at least this is the 2nd best season in Astro’s history.” And he was right. It does not heal the hurt, but it does help to know that we are living in a golden age of Astros’ baseball where we can be “disappointed” that our team participated in and lost the final game of the baseball season.

My dear wife, who is also not a sports fan, but puts up with this mania that absorbs her other half most of the year gave me some good advice. She told me to be positive, that I am someone that others look up to in his writings and to remember that fact in how I react to this disappointing end to the season.

So, if you are looking for post mortems and finger pointing and a look ahead to off-season moves and the 2020 season ….. there will be plenty of time for that. This instead will be a simple thank you for those gifts the fans received this season.

  • Thank you to the Owner, front office, manager, coaches and players for a season when the team won the most regular season games (107) and the most overall games (117) in team history.
  • Thank you Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole for co-Cy Young worthy seasons. You won 41 games between you and the team was 50-17 when either of you started a game.
  • Thank you Yordan Alvarez for finally filling the DH spot on this team and putting up unworldly numbers (27 HRs and 78 RBIs in only 87 games) on your way to a likely Rookie of the Year award.
  • Thank you Jose Altuve for coming back from a debilitating injury to once again be a great combination of speed, power and contact and for the thrilling walk off ending to the ALCS.
  • Thank you George Springer for continuing to be the heart of this team, for being one of the greatest lead-off weapons in baseball and for always caring deeply about this game.
  • Thank you Michael Brantley for a season of quiet excellence. You are the most under the radar star in the game and are a model of professionalism.
  • Thank you Alex Bregman for being there everyday and carrying the team in the absence of your compadres. It is hard to remember that you only have 3-1/2 seasons under your belt. You led the team in runs/HRs/ RBIs and walked more than you struck out.
  • Thank you Yuli Gurriel for being such a clutch hitter, for bringing your defense at 1B up to an almost elite level and for being one of the best #5/#6 hitters in baseball.
  • Thank you Carlos Correa for turning the ALCS around with your Game 2 extra inning walk-off HR, for producing offensively at a high level (when well) and for how your howitzer arm makes you a defensive weapon for this team.
  • Thank you Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado for becoming a two-headed anchor for one of the best pitching staffs in baseball and for more offense than is normally expected from a non-offensive position.
  • Thank you Josh Reddick for your odd-wad spirit and for every diving, jumping, all out play you made in the field.
  • Thank you Aledmys Diaz for having the humility to produce wherever and however you are being used as the new Marwin Gonzalez-lite.
  • Thank you Jake Marisnick for continued superior defense.
  • Thank you Wade Miley for 5 months of excellence as the #3 starter.
  • Thank you Zack Greinke for solid support in the regular season and for your very best efforts in the 7th game of the World Series. You lead by action.
  • Thank you Brad Peacock, Collin McHugh and Jose Urquidy for your willingness to flip from relieving to starting at the drop of a hat.
  • Thank you Roberto Osuna for saving games 86% of the time.
  • Thank you Ryan Pressly for a totally dominating set-up man season prior to your injury.
  • Thank you Will Harris and Joe Smith for excellent bounce back seasons.
  • Thank you Hector Rondon for solid contributions throughout the year.
  • Thank you Josh James for your triple digit heater and off-putting change-up.
  • Thank you Kyle Tucker, Bryan Abreu, Rogelio Armenteros, Abraham Toro, Myles Straw, Garrett Stubbs, Cy Sneed, Cionel Perez, Jack Mayfield, Joe Biagini and Framber Valdez for your contributions.
  • Thank you Tony Kemp, Tyler White, Max Stassi and Corbin Martin and best of luck with your new teams.
  • Thank you Chris Devenski for being an innings eater out of the bullpen.
  • Thank you Aaron Sanchez for one shining moment.
  • Thank you Jeff Luhnow for putting together a team that came oh so close.
  • Thank you A.J. Hinch for another season of excellent juggling, shifting, cajoling and managing.
  • Thank you pitching coach Brent Strom and your buddies on the coaching staff for getting the most out of your team.
  • Thank you Jim Crane for pulling out your wallet as the team needed it to chase folks like Zack Greinke.
  • And thank you to all my friends who read these ramblings, those who comment, those who pray for each other, those who are hurting right now and those who engage in this blog all year long.

 

World Series 2019: Return of the Road Warriors

In both their 2017 World Series run and their 2018 ALCS season, the Astros were a terrific regular season road team. They were 53-28 (65%) in 2017 and tied with the Indians for the best road record in the majors and stepped it up to 57-24 (70%) in 2018 when they were 6 games better than the Boston Red Sox for the top road record. In 2019, they had a good road record at 47-34 (58%) but not near the other two years. They rode a pristine 60-21 home record to the best overall record in the majors and a club record 107-74 season.

But what happens during the regular season, does not always translate to the playoffs. In 2017, the road warrior Astros took a 2-0 lead at home in the ALCS and then got pushed to the point of elimination by the Yankees, who stoned them 3 straight games in the Bronx, before the Astros won the last two at home on their way to the World Series.
In a total reversal of that feat, the 2019 Astros, who were so good at home and above average on the road, painted themselves into a veritable corner by losing the first two games against the Washington Nationals at home. This caused the team to hold a players only meeting after Game 2 and to head to DC with the formidable task of staying alive in the series.

The Astros completely changed the series over a Lost Weekend for the Nats. Their 4-1 win on Friday meant the Astros would not be swept. Their 8-1 spanking of the Nats in Game 4, meant the series would be heading back to Houston for Game 5 on Tuesday. Their 7-1 win in Game 5 meant that the Astros would have two home game opportunities to put away the Nationals and claim their 2nd championship in three seasons.
So what happened in these three games?

Game 3 

Game 3 felt like one of those movies (think Freaky Friday) where two characters suddenly trade places. The foundation for those two road wins in Houston suddenly shifted for the Nats and the Astros rode the movement to a 4-1 lead.

In the first two games of the series, the Nationals offense had been a combination of a few timely long balls mixed in with soft contact hits finding open spaces. In game 3, the Astros first score was a Josh Reddick blooper to left that Carlos Correa took a risk from second and turned into a run on an airmail throw from Juan Soto. Then twice Michael Brantley hit singles that in the first two games might have been turned into outs by the Nats, that brought in Jose Altuve for the second and third runs. Then the run that was as much a psychological weapon as a physical one occurred as Robinson Chirinos, who had been brutal hitting in the ALCS swats a homer into the netting on the left field foul pole for the final 4-1 margin.

On the pitching side of the game, Zack Greinke channeled his inner Max Scherzer (at about 8 mph slower) as he allowed 7 hits and 3 walks in only 4-2/3 IP, but only let one run to score. The Nats who ate up the Astros with 2 out scoring the 1st two games left 12 on base in Game 3. The bullpen, led by understated hero Will Harris, held the Nats to only 2 hits in 4-1/3 innings of relief and the series momentum seemed to shift.

Game 4 

Game 4 looked like a pitching mismatch with young Jose Urquidy making his first post-season start against veteran Patrick Corbin for the Nats, who had pitched well as a starter (not so good as a reliever) in the post-season. As it turned out, the moment was not too big for Urquidy as he put up a brilliant 5 innings of 2 hit shutout baseball, where he got ahead and stayed ahead of the hitters and only used 67 pitches.

On the other side of the ledger, the Astros got out of the box fast with two runs in the first, including the awakening of Alex Bregman, who singled to knock in the first run. Hero from the first game, Chirinos doubled down with a two run homer to give Urquidy some breathing room and Bregman came back to stick a knife in the heart of the Nats hopes with a seventh inning grand slam. The slam allowed the Astros to give Roberto Osuna, Joe Smith and Ryan Pressly some rest this night.

Josh James stumbled taking over for Urquidy in the 6th, but Will Harris, Hector Rondon, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski cleaned up behind him and the Astros won 8-1 tying up the series.

Game 5 

If this game was Astro fans’ last view of Gerrit Cole in a Houston uniform, it was a heck of a performance. Prior to allowing Juan Soto’s second home run against him in the series, Cole had thrown 6 innings of 2 hit, shut out ball. He got out of the 7th inning with the umpire’s assistance (after the ump assisted the Nats with a walk on a borderline pitch the hitter before). There are just not very many pitchers, who bring the ball 98 mph and up in their last inning of pitching.

On a night where some of us (my hand is waving above my head) were wondering why A.J. Hinch had switched his successful lineup around to put Yordan Alvarez in left field, Alvarez proved Hinch’s faith in him. First he hit a 2 run homer in the 2nd inning and then he scored the third run of the game, riding home on Carlos Correa’s dinger in the 4th. Yuli Gurriel, who has been hitting in bad luck all post season, knocked in a run in the 8th to negate Soto’s home run and George Springer launched a two run homer off of Daniel Hudson in the 9th to take the mystery out of this one.

Joe Smith continued his string of good performances out of the bullpen with a shutout inning and Ryan Pressly looked a lot more like his healthy self in a 1-2-3 ninth inning to close this 7-1 win out.

And Now….

All the Astros have to do now is win at home against the brilliant Stephen Strasburg in game 6 behind Justin Verlander or roll Zack Greinke out in a 7th game against Max Scherzer (if recovered from his neck issue) and/or the whole Nats staff. If the Astros can continue to have their hitters warm up and get into the Nats’ suspect bullpen another insane parade may be in the works for downtown Houston.

Is It Tombstone Time or Clutch City Time?

The postmortem from a two-day crash and burn of the local nine in the World Series against the Nationals is a bit soul crushing. The Astros put their top two bullets into their gun (Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander) at home and ended up shooting blanks with Cole getting his first loss in five months and Verlander mostly pitching well, but moving to 0-5 with a 5.73 ERA in six career WS starts.

In Game One, the Astros died on their inability to knock in their teammates when on base and from an uncharacteristic poor start from Cole (five runs given up in the first five innings).

Game Two was more of a team effort as the Astros combined their hitting woes (9 LOB and 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position), questionable managing tactics (putting the rookie Kyle Tucker in a two out bases loaded spot where he failed, removing JV’s designated catcher, removing JV from the game, etc), a poor two-run first inning of starting pitching by Verlander, fielding meltdowns by Alex Bregman (failure to keep the game at 3-2 with a fumbled two out grounder and a later wild throw to first) and a bullpen that gave up eight runs in three innings.

And other than that – were you enjoying “Our American Cousin” Mrs. Lincoln until the third act?

What are the Astros facing at this point?

  • They are facing the monumental task of winning four of five games with three of them on the road. Remember when picturing come from behind rallies, that the Astros have not come back to win any game this season, including the playoffs, that they trailed after 8 innings.
  • They will be putting their faith in Zack Greinke in the 3rd game and TBD Mystery Starter in the 4th game.
  • They will be playing a team in the Washington Nationals that is on an absolute tear – having won 3 of their last 4 against the Dodgers to take the NLDS, followed by a 4 game sweep of the Cards in the NLCS. And of course they have taken the first two games of the World Series from the probable AL Cy Young winner and his runner-up.
  • The Nats are on a physical and emotional high. They had made the playoffs in 4 out of 6 seasons (2012 – 2017) as division winners with high expectations and failed to get past the division  series all four times. This season they started poorly, made a run to be a Wild Card with much less expectations and had to make an improbably late inning comeback against Josh Hader to get past the Brewers in the WC game. Their franchise, the Expos/Nats had never been to a World Series, much less won one in their 50 year history. Right now they are the equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic – they are kings of the world and feeling it.
  • The Astros may feel the immediate championship window closing on them. They are not likely to have Gerrit Cole next season, nor a reasonable facsimile. Their rotation will likely center on 36 and 37 year old starters in Verlander and Greinke. They won it all in 2017, were derailed in the ALCS due to injuries in 2018 and are getting buried by a steamroller, so far, in 2019. It is not likely next year’s team will be better than this year’s best in baseball 107 win model.

After getting pounded by the shock and awe of two unexpected losses, the Astros’ fans and their team may look at this as a crossroads. Looking one way – the tombstone that appeared in the Houston Chronicle (spit!!) on May 24, 2005 may be better applied to this team. They could easily curl up in a ball and go through the motions until an inevitable 4th loss appears on their 2019 WS record.

Or…. they could do like that 2005 team did and rise from the ashes.

The current situation brings to mind the famous Choke City Houston Chronicle (Spit!!) headline, from May 12, 1994, which appeared after the Houston Rockets lost their first two playoff games to the Phoenix Suns at home, including blowing a 20 point 4th quarter lead. The Rockets took the Choke City mantle and turned it into Clutch City as they won 4 of 5 from the Suns, including two on the road, knocked off the Utah Jazz and then held off the NY Knicks for their first championship.

Three of the thirteen World Series teams that have lost their first two games at home have come back to win the WS. During the regular season, the Astros won 4 of 5 or 5 of 5 games eighteen separate times. It is do-able. But they have to show Clutch genes that have been missing so far.