If there’s one thing that comes to mind when someone says “Houston Astros” it definitely involves a trash can or two. That said, the Astros of today are barely the same team they were in 2017, and yes, fans of the club are a little tired of those same old jokes.
Ahead of the Tigers series this week we had the opportunity to have our burning questions answered not by one but by all of the wonderful writing crew over at Crawfish Boxes. With many thanks to their managing editor William Metzger for helping arrange the roundtable, we asked about the team, their early season, Carlos Correa, and yeah... the cheating.
BYB: This is the second year the Astros have been under the guidance of Dusty Baker, how does he compare to the previous team managers?
CB: Fans will always blame the manager when the team loses. It was often said here at the Crawfish Boxes after the Astros lost a game because a reliever failed or a pinch-hitter struck out, that the Astros got “Hinch’d.”
So, of course, during a 29-31 2020 season, Dusty Baker took some criticism, but I’m more impressed by how little criticism there was. I suppose most fans were aware of the adversity the team was under due to injuries and therefore withheld judgment.
The initial response to the hiring of Baker was rather negative, mainly because we had become accustomed to a more analytics-based approach to team management than what Baker was reputed to employ. But given the short amount of game time for fans to adjust to the new leadership I think there is a lot of love for Dusty from both the players and the fans. He’s just a lovable guy, even if his old-school approach is in stark contrast to what Astros fans had grown to know and love under Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch.
I think he won a lot of fans over, including me, last year during the first Dodgers series. Joe Kelly was headhunting Astros and acting like an ass. He apparently tried to hurt Michael Brantley’s ankle on a play at first and then just lingered around the bag. On TV, with an empty stadium, you could clearly hear Dusty yell at Kelly, “Get back on the mound you little f#^cker.”
I’ll take that kind of old school any day.
He doesn’t seem totally impervious to Astroball style analytics. In considering a replacement for George Springer at leadoff, he seemed to lean towards Myles Straw because...fast guy...singles hitter. Old school. We worried he’d go through with that plan here at TCB, but in the end, he decided to put one of his best all-around hitters up first, not necessarily his best base stealer.
Some have begun to question his use of catchers. We have a natural platoon with Martin Maldonado and Jason Castro, but Castro so far is just a very expensive replacement catcher.
In the end, I’m sure Dusty Baker, rightly or wrongly, will be judged by how well the team performs, as managers generally are.
- William Metzger
BYB: A.J. Hinch is obviously the new man in charge over in Detroit, what can the Tigers expect from him as a leader?
CB: Fortunately for the Tigers, A.J. Hinch has already been in a similar place. He was the man in charge to make the Astros a successful team and he did. Hinch is a man that ballplayers —from rookies to veterans— respect because the guy is proven enthusiastic about the game, a good leader, and a manager that gives confidence to his players. And, of course, he is a manager that knows how to use analytics to his favor... I mean, he’s an all-around manager. The Tigers have one of the best farms in baseball and Hinch will sure know what to do with all that talent in the long run. For every Spencer Torkelson, there was a Carlos Correa; for every Riley Greene, there was a José Altuve; for every Casey Mize or Matt Manning, there was a Lance McCullers Jr. What I am trying to say is the Tigers made one of the most distinguished acquisitions of the offseason, and it wasn’t a player: it was Hinch. The Tigers’ on-field future should be on the right path with AJ as a good, trustworthy, and well-respected leader.
- Juan Paez
BYB: Be honest, are Astros fans getting pretty sick of trash can jokes?
CB: The obvious answer, yes. Running the Crawfish Boxes Twitter, I’d estimate we get the exact same joke about 20 times a day. It’s interesting as fans are seemingly getting more irrational (recent example - Angels fans Booing Maldonado who wasn’t even on the team, and cheering Stassi who was at bat (and was on the team during the cheating)). I think the worst part for Astros fans is the inability to have an intelligent discussion about the topic.
People don’t care if you can show evidence that the exact same scheme has existed for decades and there has been big name players stating they’ve done it since the 70s. I mean, Mike Scott literally wrote a detailed section about it in the 90s how the Mets would use a light on the scoreboard to relay the pitch live. That doesn’t make it right, nor vindicate the Astros in any way to be clear. But this villain story seems completely irrational given the history of cheating in baseball. To me, the fact that the Astros are still bigger news than a front office member supplying drugs and killing an MLB player is just crazy. But our team made the decision to cheat, and got caught, so I look forward to the days of hearing the same joke 3x a day instead of 20, or who knows maybe people will get creative with it again at least.
- Hebrew Hammer
Additional response from William Metzger: Audio evidence shows that Jose Altuve was not involved in the cheating scheme. Something more people need to know.
BYB: Who has surprised you the most in the first weeks of the season, for better or worse?
CB: Nine games in, it’s hard to allow yourself to be too surprised by anything, given such small sample sizes. Everyone who is hitting in the Astros lineup (which is most of the lineup) already has an established track record of hitting. And every pitcher still just has a handful of innings under their belt at most right now. If I had to pick someone personally, I gravitate towards second-year pitcher Cristian Javier. As a rookie, he was a mainstay in the shortened 2020 season’s rotation but was used as a high leverage pen piece in last year’s postseason run. It was a great rookie season, rewarded with a 3rd place finish for AL Rookie of the Year, and he already looks to be taking the next step forward. He has more fire on his fastball. Last year he had two fastballs all-season top the 95 mph mark. Two starts in, he’s done it ten times already. Every one of his pitches is showing more movement. Again it’s a small sample size, but his slider, in particular, has around 3 more inches of break than it did last year. Improved velocity and improved movement are a good recipe for improved results. Javier was just recently moved to the alternate training site, as the Astros go to a 4 man rotation the next 2 weeks with multiple off-days (Greinke, McCullers, Odorizzi, Urquidy). That may sound like a demotion, but it actually indicates his value a starter that they want to keep him stretched out, rather than switch him into pen duties.
BYB: Do you think the Astros will work things out with Correa for a long-term extension, or will he test free agency?
CB: It’s no longer possible for the Astros to extend Correa, as he set an Opening Day deadline for a deal to get done. It’s safe to say he will be a free agent next winter. The Astros did not seriously attempt to extend Correa and he said as much after negotiations broke off. The details of the team’s offers confirm there was no real intent to extend him. There is a chance the Astros re-sign Correa in free agency, though I believe it’d only be realistic if the free-agent shortstop market’s demand does not meet its incredible supply.
BYB: Which player are you most interested to see in from the Tigers lineup?
CB: I find Akil Baddoo is probably the most intriguing hitter to watch in this series from an Astros perspective. It’s not often that you see a player have a three-game stretch like his with a first career home run followed by a grand slam and a walk-off hit. All as a Rule 5 pick. That’s baseball poetry and something all fans ought to appreciate. Nomar Mazara, a former AL West foe, is as tantalizing as ever at nearly 26-years old. Every season I wonder if this would be the time when he puts it all together. It’s no different this year. I am also curious to see if Jeimer Candelario can replicate his 2020 form. In addition to Wilson Ramos and Robbie Grossman, who are both off to strong starts, there are some interesting matchups to watch in this series against the Astros pitching staff.
- Cody Poage
Many thanks to William and the whole crew of Crawfish Boxes for taking the time to chat with us. Attribution for each answer was included at the bottom of the answer, so if there’s a writer you found particularly awesome, go over and give one of their posts a read!