Houston Astros – Martinez Tribune https://martineztribune.com The website of the Martinez Tribune. Tue, 26 May 2020 07:27:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.4.1 Astros, Yankees and Twins favored to fight it out for AL flag https://martineztribune.com/2020/03/10/astros-yankees-and-twins-favored-to-fight-it-out-for-al-pennant/ Tue, 10 Mar 2020 07:01:58 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=14125 BY J.A. SCHWARTZ For nearly 100 years, a majority of American League fans have been able to agree upon a common archenemy: the deep-pocketed and wildly successful New York Yankees. The Yankees have won the World Series 27 times, more than twice as many as their closest competitors in St. Louis, where the Cardinals hold …

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BY J.A. SCHWARTZ

For nearly 100 years, a majority of American League fans have been able to agree upon a common archenemy: the deep-pocketed and wildly successful New York Yankees. The Yankees have won the World Series 27 times, more than twice as many as their closest competitors in St. Louis, where the Cardinals hold 11 titles. That kind of dominance inspires both grudging respect and utter disdain among baseball partisans, regardless of their individual allegiances among the other American League franchises. In 2020, perhaps for the first time in nearly a century, the title of “Most Disliked Team in Baseball” might finally pass from the Bronx Bombers to a new villain: the Houston Astros.

In case you’ve been transfixed by political debates, pandemic fears or stock market volatility, you are aware of the scandal that revolves around the Houston franchise and their 2017 World Series title. An MLB investigation found the team guilty of cheating during that 2017 season and postseason, using video replay monitors to decode opposing catchers signals in real time, and relaying that information to the batter at the plate by banging on a trash can behind the dugout. As a result, in January the team was fined $5 million (the maximum allowed by the MLB constitution), GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for a full season-and almost immediately fired by team owner Jim Crane-and the team was ordered to forfeit their first and second round draft picks in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
The first pick in the 2011 MLB draft, Gerrit Cole’s free agent departure from Houston to the Yankees could tip the balance of power atop the American League. Cole has gone 35-10 the past two seasons with the Astros, and is coming off a career year in 2019 where he went 20-5 with 326 strikeouts and a 2.50 ERA.

 

Having had over a month to develop a strategy to address the issue before the team arrived in Florida for spring training, the Astros figured to express appropriate levels of contrition, regret and remorse about the scandal, and ask their fellow players for forgiveness. Suffice to say the “apologies” issued by Crane and players such as Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Justin Verlander did little to quell the rising tide of acrimony and contempt expressed by opposing players and managers. If anything, the Astros managed to throw additional gas on a fire they could have helped douse by handling the situation more adroitly.

Crane’s televised press conference was enough to inspire vitriol directed towards the franchise as well as the individual Astros players, with stars such as Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer and the Angels Mike Trout making strongly worded public statements about their displeasure over Houston’s brazen scheme. Thinly veiled threats of retribution were bandied about, causing MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to issue proactive warnings about opponents attempting to mete out frontier justice on Houston hitters via beanballs. “I hope I made it extremely clear that retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated-whether it’s at Houston or anybody else,” Manfred said. The bad blood that is (and has been, for the better part of two seasons) brewing will not be easily mitigated.

It’s obvious that the Yankees will have company atop the most disliked franchise list among AL fans, and a formal poll attempting to answer the question definitively would almost certainly see the Astros finish comfortably ahead of New York.  That being said, those franchises still figure to be the two best teams in the league in 2020, and it will require significant effort to unseat them from their positions as division favorites.

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22 year old flamethrower Jesús Luzardo was highly impressive during his brief debut in 2019 and is expecting to begin the season in the A’s starting rotation.

 

The Astros, now managed by Dusty Baker,  have won the AL West for three straight seasons, and enter 2020 as the odds-on favorite to do so again. According to Fangraphs playoff odds for this season, the Astros are projected to win 98 games, nearly 10 more than the A’s, who sit second by that site’s estimation. With those 88 wins, however, the A’s figure to be in the mix for a Wild Card berth, and if their young talent takes another step forward in 2020, and both lefthanded prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk live up to their billings, the A’s could well outperform their projections and catch Houston for the AL West title.

The Astros appear vulnerable on the mound, especially after Gerrit Cole signed a $234 million deal with the Yankees. Verlander, the defending Cy Young Award winner, appears to have plenty left in the tank, but Father Time eventually takes his toll on all athletes. At 37, it is reasonable to imagine Verlander losing some effectiveness, something that #2 starter Zack Greinke, 36, might also encounter. The depth behind those two veteran aces is questionable, and while the Astros figure to score plenty of runs again in 2020, a sub-par season from their starters might just open the door for other AL West challengers.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
If Shohei Ohtani can return to the mound following Tommy John surgery and help stabilize the Angels pitching rotation, it would go a long way towards helping them compete for a playoff spot in the highly competitive American League. Ohtani played in 106 games in 2019 batting .286 with 18 home runs and 62 RBIs, but hasn’t thrown a pitch since early in his 2018 rookie season.

 

Oakland seems to be the most threatening challenger to Houston’s dynasty, but the Angels, with Joe Madden now at the helm and fresh off the seven-year, $245 million deal that secured third baseman Anthony Rendon to play alongside Trout, the best player in the game, might also rise. The Angels remain without a dominant starting pitcher, and while Trout, Rendon and OF/DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani comprise arguably the best 2-3-4 batting order in baseball, they will have to overcome their lack of pitching to succeed. Seattle and Texas, in various stages of rebuilding their rosters, don’t figure to impact the division race this season.

In the AL Central, Cleveland’s three year run atop the division was abruptly ended last season by the upstart Minnesota Twins, who won 101 games and bumped the 93-win Tribe out of the playoffs entirely.  Those two franchises figure to battle for division supremacy again in 2020, though the Indians arguably took a huge step backwards this offseason, trading staff ace and two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to Texas in return for journeyman Delino DeShields and relief pitching prospect Emmanuel Clase in a cost cutting measure. Clase, who is armed with a 100 MPH cutter, will miss up to three months with a strained upper back muscle, making the trade appear even less sanguine to Tribe partisans.

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Things are looking up for Nelson Cruz and the Twins. In his first season in Minnesota, he smashed 41 home runs in just 120 games to go along with 108 RBI’s and a .311 average.

 

In contrast, the Twins added former AL MVP (and A’s third baseman) Josh Donaldson on a four-year, $92 million deal, moving slugger Miguel Sano to first base full time. The Twins also tried to address needs in their rotation by re-signing Jake Odorizzi, adding free agent lefty Rich Hill, and trading for Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers. Fresh off a season where they set the MLB record for home runs in a season, the Twins offense is again formidable, and Fangraphs pegs them for 91 wins in 2020, four games ahead of Cleveland’s projected 87.

The White Sox are finally emerging from their lengthy rebuilding effort, and figure to take a step towards contention this season after adding free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal and lefthanded starters Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez to their young core of intriguing talent. Luis Robert is the best prospect in the American League, and after the White Sox signed him to a six-year $50 million deal before he ever played a single major league game, they see him as their centerfielder on Opening Day, and the likely odds-on favorite to claim the Rookie of the Year Award. Chicago might be a year away from menacing the Indians or Twins atop the division, but if their young talent develops quickly, they could be in the Wild Card mix. The Tigers and Royals are the bottom feeders in the Central, and neither figures to factor into the playoff picture this season.

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In his first season in the Bronx, DJ LeMahieu was the Yankees MVP and nearly won a batting title, setting career highs with 109 runs scored and 197 hits on the way to a .327 average.

 

The AL East arguably produces three playoff teams in 2020. Fangraphs forecasts the Yankees at 95 wins, the Rays at 91 and the Red Sox at 88, with each of those squads given at least a 50% chance of earning a playoff position. The Yankees addressed arguably their biggest need by luring Cole away from the Astros, strengthening their own team while damaging their chief competitors for the AL pennant. Their lineup is still formidable at nearly every position, anchored by home grown stars Aaron Judge and catcher Gary Sanchez, who will be supported by shortstop Gleyber Torres to form the heart of an offense that fell a single HR shy of the Twins record for most dingers in a season last year. Each of those players is 27 or younger, and don’t figure to suffer any age related decline.

The injury bug, however, does seem to have an affinity for New York. After losing several key players for huge chunks of the 2019 season (yet finding replacements in third baseman Gio Urshela and outfielder Mike Tauchman who helped ease the pain of those injuries), the Yankees had to be planning on better health for their players this year. Perhaps they had better revise that notion. Luis Severino, who made only three starts last year with a variety of ailments, underwent Tommy John surgery in late February, and will miss all of 2020 and most of 2021. He was being counted on to be the #2 starter behind new ace Cole, in front of #3 starter LHP James Paxton. Paxton underwent back surgery in February, and could be out until June, leaving the Yankees vulnerable in the starting pitching department. Sluggers Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are also expected to miss extended stretches at the start of the season.

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Rays ace Charlie Morton continues to get better with age, posting career highs in wins each of the past three seasons. In 2019 he went 16-6 without missing a start while also setting personal bests with 240 strikeouts and a 3.05 ERA in 194 innings. He also won both of his starts in the postseason.

 

Given the quality of Tampa’s rotation, featuring 2018 Cy Young Award winning lefty Blake Snell, veteran Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05 ERA) and 6’8” fireballer Tyler Glasnow (6-1, 1.78 ERA in an injury marred season), any slippage by the Yankees could open the door for the small payroll ($59 million vs. the Yankees $246 million) Rays to play David to the Yankees Goliath.

Boston made headlines this offseason primarily because they traded outfielder Mookie Betts, 27, to the Dodgers. Betts, who is a free agent after 2020, is perhaps the second best player in baseball behind Trout, but he was steadfast in his insistence that he’d test the market instead of signing a contract extension, and that led the Red Sox to ship him and David Price to the Dodgers for a package that included outfielder Alex Verdugo. That decision was perceived by Boston fans to be motivated by strictly financial concerns, and has led to great unrest among the New England faithful.

Despite losing Betts and Price, the Red Sox still feature a roster of star caliber talent, including leftys Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez, and middle-of-the-order mashers Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and DH J.D. Martinez, each of whom hit .300 or better with 30 HRs and on base percentages north of .360. Still, it would require significant steps forward by their rotation and supporting cast to propel Boston back to the playoffs, but considering that the core of the 2018 World Series winners remains largely intact, counting them out entirely would be foolhardy.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
The son of a Baseball Hall of Famer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. wasted little time serving notice of his arrival in the Majors after a May call-up, blasting 15 home runs with 69 RBI’s and a .272 average in his first taste of big league pitching.

 

The Blue Jays have an enviable collection of young position player talent, led by infielders Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, each of whom is the son of a former major league star. They added Hyun-Jin Ryu from the Dodgers as a free-agent acquisition to front their staff, and could be joined in Toronto by flame throwing right-handed pitching prospect Nate Pearson, who has touched 104 MPH on the radar gun with his fastball, but figures to start the season at AAA. The Orioles don’t figure to have much to look forward to as they attempt to climb from the ashes of three straight last-place AL East finishes, losing at least 108 games the past two seasons. They will not be counted upon to gain much ground in the rugged division in 2020.

Here are my predictions for the American League in 2020:

West: Houston Astros

Central: Minnesota Twins

East: New York Yankees

Wild Cards: Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox

Pennant: Minnesota Twins

MVP: Mike Trout

Cy Young: Gerrit Cole

Rookie of the Year: Luis Robert

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Astros rebuilding model just a game away from second title https://martineztribune.com/2019/10/29/astros-rebuilding-model-just-a-game-away-from-second-title/ Tue, 29 Oct 2019 07:01:21 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=13571 BY J.A. SCHWARTZ From 2011 through 2013, the Houston Astros were the worst team in baseball. They lost 106, 107 and 111 games in that three year stretch, going a combined 162-324. Those results were not entirely unexpected, as the franchise embarked upon a “rebuilding” process that would begin in earnest entering the 2011 season, …

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BY J.A. SCHWARTZ

From 2011 through 2013, the Houston Astros were the worst team in baseball. They lost 106, 107 and 111 games in that three year stretch, going a combined 162-324. Those results were not entirely unexpected, as the franchise embarked upon a “rebuilding” process that would begin in earnest entering the 2011 season, and would continue under the guidance of new GM Jeff Luhnow, who took over in December of that year.

No reasonable investigation of the Astros ascension can be undertaken without first addressing the issue that hangs over the club in the aftermath of a very unseemly front office display of both insensitivity and tone deaf public relations.  In May of 2018, Toronto closer Roberto Osuna was arrested in Canada and charged with assault on the mother of his three-year-old son. He was swiftly placed on “administrative leave” from baseball by commissioner Rob Manfred, and was ultimately suspended 75 games without pay having violated the league’s policy against domestic violence. He would never pitch for the Blue Jays again, and was traded to Houston in late July of that year.

The Astros faced a firestorm of displeasure from their fans in the wake of the acquisition, but his new teammates, manager and the front office all stood in support of Osuna while trying to sound sensitive to the issue of domestic violence in general. “The due diligence by our front office was unprecedented”, Luhnow noted in his statement addressing the trade. “We are confident that Osuna is remorseful, has willfully complied with all consequences related to his past behavior, has proactively engaged in counseling, and will fully comply with our zero tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind.”

When the Astros clinched the ALCS, Brandon Taubman, assistant GM and a rising star young front office executive, was quoted as saying “Thank God we got Osuna ! I am so f**king glad we got Osuna,” several times. His outburst was directed towards a group of female reporters in the clubhouse, one of who wore a purple domestic violence awareness bracelet. When Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein reported this encounter, suggesting that Taubman was directing his comments towards the female reporters in the clubhouse, the Astros released a statement in response. “The story by Sports Illustrated is misleading and completely irresponsible. We are extremely disappointed in Sports Illustrated’s attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.”

 

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Houston’s Roberto Osuna delivers a pitch during an August game in Oakland. The Astros closer led the American League with 38 saves, but continues to be a lightning rod following his 2018 arrest for domestic violence.

 

After multiple eyewitness accounts were published in support of Apstein’s characterization of the exchange, the Astros back-tracked and fired Taubman before Game 3 of the World Series, issuing an aplogy in the process. In the few days that passed between the episode and the decision to fire Taubman, the organization showed incredibly poor judgment, and was pilloried in the court of public opinion.

It’s difficult to identify what draws a fan to a specific team, and why that partisan would stay loyal to his or her chosen target of adulation for decades, even lifetimes. The Astros aren’t the only club to employ a player such as Osuna. The Yankees traded to acquire LHP Aroldis Chapman from the Reds in the winter of 2015 in the wake of Chapman’s own brush with domestic violence. Chapman was the first player suspended under MLB’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse policy in early 2016. The Yankees continued to employ him after the suspension, and even after trading him to the Cubs later that summer of 2016 (he would help Chicago win the 2016 World Series), New York would re-sign Chapman as a free agent prior to the 2017 season.

The Cubs invited criticism for having traded for Chapman, a known violator of the new policy, and their franchise was again embroiled in controversy when their own starting shortstop Addison Russell (acquired via trade with the A’s) was suspended in late 2018 for running afoul of the new policy. Despite renewed backlash from their fans, the Cubs welcomed Russell back to the team this past season after his 40 game suspension had been served. These are only the most recent examples of players (or coaches/executives) who, by their own actions and decisions, bring shame and negative attention to the franchises who employ them. They will not be the last.

Despite brave and carefully crafted public pronouncements from the team in the wake of such controversies, the unmitigated facts remain: If a player has the talent to improve a team’s on the field fortunes, all manner of evils will be tolerated or rationalized in the quest for victories. It seems that it is the exception, not the rule, that franchises take a stand in their refusal to seek to acquire as distressed assets (as the Yankees did when they traded for Chapman, who the Reds desperately wanted to be rid of) or harbor such personalities such as Russell or Osuna. It is thus left to the fan to decide how much of their heart and soul they are willing to invest in such teams, and at what point their moral or ethical positions regarding players of questionable character begin to outweigh their sometimes lifelong allegiances.

In the light of such weighty considerations, it is still possible to appreciate the brilliance of a player, executive, or even an entire franchise for their accomplishments on the field of play, and to celebrate achievement in those areas while continuing to hold those same entities accountable for their decisions. Excelling in the one area does not abrogate responsibility for the other, just as the failings of one particular part of a franchise (who employ literally hundreds of people) do not erase the excellence achieved in competition. It is with that paradigm in mind that we investigate the indisputable superiority of the Houston Astros franchise, during a period in their history where the off-the-field behavior of their employees has rightfully earned them public and professional scorn.

Reality is fraught with good and evil at every level of existence. Is it roseate to expect that sports teams, the objects of our lifelong adoration, exist in a utopian state of morality, helping to justify our investment in them? It is undeniable that events such as the Taubman imbroglio strike deeply at the hearts of Astros rooters, and there are certainly many who have already decided to remove their support from the team over such issues. The relationship between fan and team has never been more fraught with complications, and like all connections of longstanding duration, it is left to the individual to decide when the merit of blind allegiance is nullified by the actions, or ethical positions, of the team in question. It would seem that the plight of the modern sports fan shares much in common with the tribulations of our entire country, enmeshed in ugly political upheaval and national dissonance.

We need sports to be a relief from the harsh realities of society, a safe haven for our affections, and a place where we can bond with like-minded people to celebrate and admire the physical and mental prowess of the professional athlete, who performs for our enjoyment in very public forums. It is when those pleasures are poisoned by the behavior of the people who play that we all suffer a sense of loss.

From 2017 through 2019, the Houston Astros have been the best team in baseball, going 311-175; a record nine games better than the next best team (Dodgers). They won the 2017 World Series, and reached the Fall Classic again this season.  How did such a wretched team go from the very bottom of the standings to arguably the best team in the game-and World Series Champions-in the span of four years ?

Step 1: Lose a lot of games.

In late July, 2010, the Astros traded franchise icons Lance Berkman and pitcher Roy Oswalt, moves that signaled the end of one era and the start of another. The following summer, they dealt outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, receiving young minor league talent in return in each transaction. Later in 2011, two Astros farmhands made their major league debuts: Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez, the leading edge of a wave of talent that would gradually populate a roster now bereft of both ability and high salaries.

The Astros featured the game’s lowest payroll in both 2012 and 2013, bottoming out at $35.5 million in 2013, a season that saw them finish 51-111. While those three seasons were difficult (and embarrassing) for Houston fans to endure, the money saved during those campaigns would be reinvested in their player development department, and the draft picks earned by the ignominy of their last place finishes would help fuel the rebuilding effort. By losing so egregiously (and by paying rock bottom salaries and avoiding pricey free agent splurges), the Astros had paved the way for a steady rise from the ashes.

Step 2: Find brilliant front office personnel, and let them have control.

When the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2011 World Series in a thrilling seven game series over the Texas Rangers, Jeff Luhnow was the Cardinals Vice President of Scouting and Player Development, a role he held with the club since 2006. The drafts over which Luhnow presided from 2005-2007 produced 24 major leaguers, the most of any team during that span, several of whom would contribute to the Cards title in 2011. In December of 2011, the Astros would hire Luhnow to become their General Manager, replacing Ed Wade.

Luhnow immediately set about transforming the Astros franchise, making analytics and data utilization the driving force behind their organizational philosophies. The Astros have been among the most aggressive teams in baseball in terms of utilizing infield shifts for their defensive alignments, bolstering the efforts of their elite pitching staff. The franchise has also been remarkably adept at both developing pitching through their minor league system as well as helping to enhance and improve the performance of imported pitching using their internal pitch mix theories and analytically driven coaching staff. From the top down, Luhnow has populated the front office and minor league development staff with young, data driven professionals, who have collectively overseen the transformation of the franchise from laughing stock to juggernaut.

Step 3: Draft wisely.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
The Astros core of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa (pictured L-r) are all home grown talent from Houston’s organization. None have played a Major League game for another team.

 

Wade made the most of his last draft as the Astros GM, choosing George Springer with the 11th pick in the June 2011 draft. Luhnow would have the luxury of drafting either first or second overall in the next four drafts,  adding Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and Alex Bregman to the minor league organization. Other drafted players would be would become trade chips used to acquire impact players from other teams.

Step 4: Invest in the International Free Agent Market

Two key players on the 2019 Houston roster were acquired via the international free agent market. Infielder Yuli Gurriel was one of the best hitters in Cuba, and when he finally chose to defect at age 32, the Astros scooped him up, signing him to a five year, $47.5 million contract. Back in 2007, a few weeks after having been sent home from a tryout in his native Venezuela, Altuve re-appeared in an Astros camp. The team agreed to sign the diminutive player for a meager $15,000, and he hit his way through the minors, though he never appeared on any top prospect lists, primarily due to his 5’6” frame.  Since his debut in 2011, Altuve hasn’t stopped hitting, winning the 2017 AL MVP. The Astros have utilized some of their international free agent signings in impact trades, bringing in C Brian McCann in 2016 in return for two such players. McCann would be the primary catcher on their World Series winning team the following year.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Cuban born Yuli Gurriel is coming off a season where he established career highs with 31 home runs and 104 RBI’s in just his fourth year in the Majors.

 

Step 5: Trade aggressively.

The Astros used their wealth of young talent, built through the draft and from trading off expensive veterans during their 2011-2013 nadir, to acquire impact players to compliment their young core.

In 2015, they dealt former top overall pick Mark Appel and four other minor leaguers to acquire reliver Ken Giles from the Phillies.  Three years later, they would package Giles and two more minor leaguers to acquire the aforementioned  Osuna to be their current closer.

In 2016, they moved pitcher Josh Fields to the Dodgers in exchange for recent international signee Yordan Alvarez. The tall Cuban is the presumptive 2019 AL Rookie of the Year.

At the 2017 trade deadline, they sent 2015 first round pick Daz Cameron and two other minor leaguers to the Tigers to snag future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander.In early 2018, they used four minor leaguers to import likely 2019 AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole from the Pirates. At the trade deadline this season, Houston utilized three recent first round picks to persuade Arizona to part with former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
The Astros trade deadline acquisition of Zack Greinke added a third elite starter to their rotation and has them a win away from their second World Series title in three years.

 

Not all the Astros wheeling and dealing ended up working out as well. Houston had reliever Josh Hader, acquired in a trade from Baltimore in 2013, but they moved him to Milwaukee in a 2015 deal to add righty Mike Fiers to their rotation.

Houston had drafted (2009) and developed J.D. Martinez, but the team didn’t buy into the young slugger’s new swing mechanics in 2014 despite his excellent spring training performance. The team released Martinez in late March of that year, and two days later, the Tigers signed him as a free agent. Martinez has gone on to become one of the top five hitters in all of baseball over the past six seasons.

Ramon Laureano was an Astros draftee (2014) and minor league star, but the team moved him to the A’s after their 2017 World Series victory in return for RHP Brandon Bailey. Laureano has emerged as a young star in centerfield for Oakland over the past two seasons.

Step 6: Add veteran free agents on short-term deals to the core young talent.

The Astros have largely avoided forays into the highest levels of the free agent market, though they have added key players on shorter-term deals.

Before the 2017 season, they added Josh Reddick (4 years/$52 million), Carlos Beltran (1 year/$16 million), and Charlie Morton (2 years/$14 million), each of whom played key roles in their title run.

Before the 2018 season, they added two relievers, Joe Smith and Hector Rondon as free agent upgrades to their championship roster. And prior to this season they signed outfielder Michael Brantley (2 years/$32 million), starter Wade Miley (1 year/$4.5 million) and catcher Robinson Chirinos (1 year/$5.75 million) to bolster their pennant hopes.

The core of the team, Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Gurriel, Springer, Reddick, Brantley, Alvarez, Verlander, Greinke and releiver Ryan Pressly are all under team control through at least 2020. Despite having such a loaded roster, the Astros have carried payrolls outside the Top 5 in baseball during their run of making the playoffs four of the past five seasons.  Their yearly rank among franchises in terms of spending has risen from 25th in 2015 (at $81 million), their first playoff appearance under Luhnow, to 20th in 2016, 17th in 2017, 9th in 2018 and 7th overall, at $168 million this year.

 

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Astros lead-off man George Springer set career highs with a .292 average along with 39 home runs and 96 RBI’s during the 2019 season. He was also the World Series MVP in 2017.

 

As their young and inexpensive group of players become more costly, the Astros, who have been hesitant to exceed the luxury tax threshold, could become vulnerable in the AL West. They are very likely to lose ace Gerrit Cole this offseason as he becomes a free agent, leaving them with only Verlander (37 next year) and Greinke (36 next year) as rotation certainties.

They do have some young pitchers who could step in, but their pitching might leave them vulnerable to a team like Oakland, who has built an excellent lineup and a formidable rotation. Assuming lefties Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, top 25 prospects who made strong impressions as rookies in 2019, ascend to the rotation, the A’s could have a collection of starters that might be the best in the division. If Luzardo and Puk slot in behind Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas, the A’s would have four starters 27 years old or younger who collectively will earn less than $6 million.

That reality could make it easier for Oakland to augment their bullpen and lineup with wise investments on the free agent market. The team has $100 million in salaries on the books for 2020, which should leave room for the team to make upgrades if GM Billy Beane sees a fit via trade or free agency. If there is a way to finally dethrone the Houston dynasty, it stands to reason that a strong rotation, deep bullpen and elite defense will be the best weapons against the high-powered Astros lineup.  The AL West in 2020 should be significantly more competitive than it was this season, especially as the A’s see their young core of stars continue to develop.

No matter how the World Series turns out, Houston, led by Luhnow and his team of forward thinking, analytically driven minions, deserve immense credit for having guided the franchise from the very depths of the league to their current position, a win away from their second championship in three seasons. They’re the only franchise to make the LCS each of the past three years, and they figure to be favorites to be back in the postseason in 2020 as well.

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A’s use small ball to take third straight from Houston 8-4 https://martineztribune.com/2019/08/17/as-use-small-ball-to-take-third-straight-from-houston-8-4/ Sun, 18 Aug 2019 03:27:59 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=12932 BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER Chris Bassitt and the A’s overcame a shaky start before settling down to pitch six strong innings Saturday afternoon and help Oakland to their third straight win over the Houston Astros by a score of 8-4 at the Coliseum. With the win, the A’s have now shaved four games off of Houston’s …

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BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER

Chris Bassitt and the A’s overcame a shaky start before settling down to pitch six strong innings Saturday afternoon and help Oakland to their third straight win over the Houston Astros by a score of 8-4 at the Coliseum.

With the win, the A’s have now shaved four games off of Houston’s division lead in the past four days to cut their deficit to 6.5 games while reaching a season-high 19 games over .500. Oakland continues to trail Tampa Bay by 1/2 game in the battle for the AL’s second Wild Card spot.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Chris Bassitt delivers a pitch during the A’s 8-4 win over Houston Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum. Bassitt allowed three runs in six innings to improve his record to 9-5.

Bassitt (9-5, 3.61) needed 30 pitches to work out of a bases-loaded first inning jam, and gave up a pair of runs in the third after allowing three consecutive hits to open the inning before settling down to complete six innings on 116 pitches.

It was also a five run third inning that broke open the game for Oakland. Four consecutive singles to start the frame followed by a bases-loaded walk to Matt Chapman tied the game. Another single by Matt Olson put the A’s up 3-2. A two run single by Mark Canha to drive in Chapman and Robbie Grossman extended the lead to 5-2 as Oakland finished the frame with six hits, all singles.

Astros rookie Yordan Alvarez continued his assault on Major League pitching with a pair of solo home runs. In just 51 games, he now has 19 homers to go along with 54 RBIs.

The two teams will be back at it Sunday afternoon at 1:05 PM with the A’s going for an unlikely four-game sweep. Houston’s Zack Greinke (12-4, 2.91) will be on the mound for the Astros trying to become just the third active pitcher to reach 200 career wins while Brett Anderson (10-8, 3.95) is scheduled to take the hill for Oakland.

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Astros pitching magic continues to dominate AL opponents https://martineztribune.com/2019/08/14/astros-pitching-magic-continues-to-dominate-al-opponents/ Thu, 15 Aug 2019 05:24:36 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=12859 BY J.A. SCHWARTZ With Houston enjoying a 9.5 game lead over the A’s and rolling to a third straight division title as they arrive in Oakland for a four game weekend series, the Astros pitching philosophy has become the cornerstone of their sustained success in the AL West. But what does their organization know about …

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BY J.A. SCHWARTZ

With Houston enjoying a 9.5 game lead over the A’s and rolling to a third straight division title as they arrive in Oakland for a four game weekend series, the Astros pitching philosophy has become the cornerstone of their sustained success in the AL West. But what does their organization know about the art of throwing a baseball that the rest of the league has yet to figure out?

Righthander Aaron Sanchez was traded on deadline day this year from Toronto to Houston, jumping from a team that was 27 games out of first place to one with the best record in the American League. He had other reasons to be excited about his change in employers. The Astros organization has developed a well-earned reputation for taking talented pitchers and immediately making them better, sometimes dramatically so. If ever a pitcher required such a makeover, it was Sanchez, who had the worst ERA (6.07) and most losses (14) among all hurlers who had thrown at least 100 innings in 2019. Surely, the Houston magic would be put to the test trying to turn Sanchez around.

In his first start as an Astro, Sanchez threw six hitless innings against Seattle, striking out six and allowing only two base-runners, both on walks. His new teammates completed the final three innings without allowing any hits, and Sanchez was a part of history: the 12th no-hitter for the Astro franchise, and just the 14th such event (a combined no-hitter) in baseball since 1901.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Aaron Sanchez delivers a pitch for the Blue Jays earlier this season prior to being dealt to Houston. With Toronto, Sanchez was 3-14 with a 6.07 ERA, but after throwing six no-hit innings in his Astros debut, he’s 2-0 with a 0.87 ERA since his trade.

It’s only a single start, and that’s not nearly enough to draw any rational conclusions. If Sanchez feat were an isolated occurrence, it would be chalked up to random variation-a professional pitcher who had all the stars align for a single glorious night. The Astros, however, have achieved incredible results with newly acquired pitchers of all types and levels of skill. How are they doing it ?

When the Astros trade for a pitcher, or sign one as a free agent, they have a formal meeting with him. The franchise presents reams of data, high speed video, heat maps and mechanical optimization suggestions designed to maximize the unique gifts and skills of that particular player. There is no cookie cutter approach in Houston. The pitcher still has to take the ball and make it dance, but the Astros make sure they are using the best weapons they’ve got, and minimizing those that have proven less effective. Each pitcher gets his own plan, and starting from the lowest rungs of the organization, that approach has led to unprecedented success on the mound in Houston.

Here’s a look at a number of pitchers that have seen huge leaps in performance upon being acquired by the Astros, as well as one who came up through their organization and saw similar transformations:

Collin McHugh was struggling. The Mets had drafted McHugh in the 18th round in 2008, then traded him to Colorado for Eric Young Jr. in 2013. The Rockies put him on waivers that winter, and the Astros scooped him up in December 2013.

In his four years with the Mets and Rockies, the righthander didn’t fare well, but the Astros saw something in his skill set, and they thought they could mold his arsenal and yield far better outcomes. They were right.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Collin McHugh had an 0-8 record with an 8.94 ERA before arriving in Houston. With the Astros, he’s 57-35 with a 3.67 ERA.

In McHugh’s case, the Astros asked him to stop throwing his fastball quite so much, and to feature his curve and slider more frequently. In his time with the Mets and Rockies, McHugh would throw his fastball 52% of the time, and his slider and curve a combined 38% of the time. The Astros got him spinning breaking balls 55% of the time, dropping his fastball usage to 40%. They also were able to coax more heat from McHugh when he did feature his fastball. In his final year before being waived by the Rockies, McHugh averaged 91.0 MPH with his fastball. In 2014, his first with Houston, that same pitch was coming in at 92.4 MPH.  That season McHugh went 11-9 with a 2.73 ERA, finishing fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

The following year, he would go 19-7, 3.89, and finish eighth in Cy Young balloting. The Astros waiver claim turned into a true ace-caliber starting pitcher by flipping his pitch usage and featuring his breaking pitches more than his fastball, and by adding velocity to all his offerings. He began striking out significantly more hitters, and was more effective across the board.

Charlie Morton’s career was at a crossroads. Following the 2016 season, his ninth in the big leagues, the 32 year-old righthanded starting pitcher was a free agent. In April of that year, he had torn his hamstring running to first base, and had surgery to repair the injury, missing the rest of the season. Still, the Astros believed that his best days were yet ahead of him, despite his age and the hamstring issue. Once again, they were right.                    

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, a former Astro, was 46-71 with a 4.54 ERA and an average of 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings before arriving in Houston. In his two years with the Astros along with the 2019 season with the Rays, he’s 42-14 with a 3.21 ERA while averaging 10.7 K’s per nine innings.

Morton’s velocity increased from 95.4 to 96.0 in 2017, but it was his power curve that the Astros really focused on. In his years in the National League, Morton couldn’t get lefties out, and he had allowed the highest batting average against lefties (.301) of any right-handed starter in all of baseball. By increasing his velocity and changing the shape of his curveball, the Astros reaped a significant benefit. In 2017, Morton allowed lefties to hit .172 against him, the best in the major leagues among right-handed starters. In Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, it was Charlie Morton closing out the game for Houston, throwing the last four frames in his team’s title clinching 5-1 victory against the Dodgers. He was on the mound when the franchise won its first championship, a year after wondering if his career might be over.

Righthander Gerrit Cole was the top overall pick in the draft by the Pirates in 2011 out of UCLA. He was a scout’s dream, featuring premium velocity, great control and durability. The 6’4” righty would debut in the majors with Pittsburgh two short years later, pitching at a very high level during his five years with the club. In January 2018, he would be traded to Houston for a package of young players. The Astros were banking on their ability to maximize pitching potential, even in a player who had already excelled in the majors. They were not disappointed.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Gerritt Cole had a 59-42 record with a 3.50 ERA and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings with Pittsburgh prior to signing with the Astros. In less than two full seasons with Houston, he’s 29-10 with a 2.87 ERA while increasing his strikeout rate to 12.7 per nine innings.

The Astros turned a great starting pitcher into an elite one. The Astros believed Cole should rely more upon his breaking pitches than his fastball to gain effectiveness and deception. His pitch mix changed from throwing 60% fastballs and 30% breaking pitches to 56% fastballs and 40% curves and sliders. Under the Astros tutelage, his fastball velocity ticked up from 96.3 in his last year with the Pirates to its current 97.3, and Cole began striking out hitters at a career high level. His 276 whiffs in 2018 were a career best, and second in the American League. In 2019, Cole is striking out 12.9 hitters/9 innings, good for the fifth best rate in baseball history. He finished fifth in 2018 Cy Young voting, and is a safe bet to match or improve that performance this year.

Justin Verlander’s career was already on a Hall of Fame trajectory in the summer of 2017. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2006, and was a six time All Star. He had claimed a Cy Young Award and an MVP in 2011 with the Tigers, but had never won a championship. In late August of 2017, the Tigers called to inform their 34 year-old ace they had a trade in place to send him to Houston. His contract allowed him to veto any deal, but with minutes to go at the August 31st deadline for postseason roster eligibility, he reluctantly agreed to accept the move to the Astros. The righty would make five regular season starts for the Astros, winning each of them (5-0, 1.06), after going 10-8, 3.82 for Detroit. He would go 4-0, 1.46 in the ALDS and ALCS, and was named the MVP of the latter series, leading the Astros into the World Series against the Dodgers. Though he was 0-1, 3.75 in the Fall Classic, he celebrated a championship with the Astros, watching fellow teammate Charlie Morton close out Los Angeles before mobbing him on the mound.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Justin Verlander was already on a Hall of Fame trajectory with Detroit, but since being traded to the Astros his ERA has dropped from 3.49 to 2.52, while his walks per nine innings have decreased from 2.7 to 1.7 as his strikeouts have increased from 8.5 to 12.1.

The Astros managed to refine Verlander’s repertoire, and, in his age 34 and 35 seasons, have seen him post career best WHIP, walk rate and strikeout rates. Unlike McHugh, Morton and Cole, however, there isn’t an obvious change in Verlander’s pitch utilization.  According to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, the Astros used super high-speed camera work to isolate how his grip on his slider could be optimized, creating more tilt. Verlander increased his slider usage slightly, from 18.3% before the trade to 22.2% since. The results speak for themselves. The franchise helped him improve markedly at an age when most pitchers, even the elite ones, are running out of gas.

Ryan Pressly had enjoyed a consistent, at times dominant, career as a reliever for the Twins. On July 27th, 2018, the righthander was traded by Minnesota to the Astros for a pair of low-level minor league prospects. From that date on, Pressly has been one of the best bullpen arms in the American League.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Ryan Pressly had a 3.75 ERA while averaging 3.1 walks and eight strikeouts per nine innings while pitching for the Twins. Now in his second season with Houston, he’s fashioned a 1.57 ERA and lowered his walks to 1.6 while increasing his strikeout average to 11.7 per game.

The Astros asked him to do two things: pitch up in the zone, and throw his high spin rate slider even more than he ever had. He increased his use of his slider from 18% to 28% of his pitch mix, and threw his fastball far less often, but it was elevated when he did utilize it. The Astros had done it again.They made a good pitcher an outstanding one by simply coaching him according to what their analysis said would be best for him.

It would appear that the Astros can take established major league pitching talent and, using their processes, coax better results from those players than they’ve ever produced. If the franchise can do that with the pitchers that it imports, it would seem logical to postulate that the team would be able to scout, draft, and develop its own minor league talent with similar success.  Not surprisingly, this is exactly what’s happening. Their minor league pitchers (from rookie ball through AAA) have more strikeouts than the hurlers of any other franchise in baseball. Of their top six minor league affiliates, four (AA Corpus Christi, A+ Fayetteville, A Quad Cities, Short Season A Tri City) lead their leagues in pitching strikeouts. At Fayetteville, the pitchers there have struck out 231 more batters than the second place staff. This is a system wide trend, and those players eventually matriculate towards the majors, or are used as trade chips (like the ones that netted Zack Greinke from Arizona) partially because they have gaudy minor league strikeout and velocity figures that are coveted by rival organizations.

One final story: Righthander Josh James was a 34th round pick by the Astros in 2014 out of Western Oklahoma State College. Over his first four minor league seasons, James featured 88-91 MPH fastballs, and reached AA Corpus Christi in 2017, where he had a 4.38 ERA and struck out 8.5/9. During that season, he began to use a CPAP machine for treatment of sleep apnea, and began feeling less tired, more able to work out, and healthier in general. In 2018, his fastball was regularly clocked in the high 90’s, and he rocketed through the Astros system, making his major league debut in September last year, a game in which he threw several pitches at 100 MPH or more. The Astros might rely upon complex data and modern motion capture video technology, but they also know their pitchers personally and professionally, and sometimes the key that unlocks major league potential is as simple as a good night’s sleep.

The Astros have figured out something that the rest of baseball has yet to master: How to develop and optimize pitchers. They have a few foundational pillars that seem to recur in their success stories. They get their pitchers to throw with better velocity. They encourage pitchers to use their breaking pitches more, and their fastballs less. When they do have pitchers throw their fastballs, they usually want them to target the upper parts of the strike zone. They teach their draftees how to increase the spin rate on their breaking pitches, and they prioritize that metric when drafting or trading for pitchers. Quite simply, they ask their pitchers to use the best and most effective pitches they throw more frequently, and use the ones that aren’t as good less often. They communicate that information very directly to their mound corps, and they back up the suggestions that they make with high-end proprietary data. The proof of the efficacy of their methods is all over the pitching leader-boards and standings.

Making these deductions may demystify the Astros wizardry to some degree, but the glory is in the details. How the Astros develop better spin rate and velocity throughout their minor league system and among their major league staff is not at all apparent, and they aren’t likely to share their secrets any time soon. Until such time that their methodology comes to light, and is copied throughout the game, it is left for their opponents to adjust to these new pitching paradigms and to render them less befuddling. The Astros will continue to outperform the competition in the meantime, leveraging their advantage on the mound into first place finishes-leaving the A’s and the rest of the AL West gasping in their vapor trail.

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Astros chase Manaea, power past A’s 9-4 to retain first place https://martineztribune.com/2018/08/19/astros-chase-manaea-power-past-as-9-4-to-retain-first-place/ Mon, 20 Aug 2018 01:06:20 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=9430 BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER In a battle for first place with a playoff like atmosphere, the A’s jumped out to an early lead Sunday afternoon before succumbing to a barrage of home runs to the Houston Astros 9-4 before a crowd of 29,143 at the Coliseum. With the win, the Astros escaped Oakland retaining the lead …

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©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Houston’s Yuli Gurriel (R) is congratulated on the way to the dugout by George Springer following his three run homer off of Sean Manaea in the third inning Sunday afternoon at the Coliseum. The Astros would defeat the A’s 9-4 to salvage the final game of their AL West showdown and move a game ahead of Oakland for the division lead.

BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER

In a battle for first place with a playoff like atmosphere, the A’s jumped out to an early lead Sunday afternoon before succumbing to a barrage of home runs to the Houston Astros 9-4 before a crowd of 29,143 at the Coliseum.

With the win, the Astros escaped Oakland retaining the lead in the AL West by a game over the upstart A’s. In spite of the loss, Oakland still managed to shave a game off of Houston’s lead over the course of the three game series, and improve to 15-1-2 in their last 18 series.

Oakland got off a a quick start with the help of solo home runs from Matt Chapman and Khris Davis in the first inning off of Justin Verlander to go up 2-0, but the defending World Series champs bounced back with four of their own in the third behind a three-run home by by Yuli Gurriel to take a 4-2 lead with the help of a shaky performance from Sean Manaea.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Oakland’s Khris Davis does a celebratory leap after crossing home plate following his second home run of the game Sunday afternoon at the Coliseum. Davis’ third inning blast off of the Astros Justin Verlander tied the game, but Houston would respond with a home run barrage of their own on the way to a 9-4 win over the A’s.

Davis got to Verlander again in the bottom of the third, launching his 36th homer of the season to deep right center after Nick Martini opened the frame with a single to tie the game at four, but it was all downhill from there for Oakland.

Manaea (11-9) was rocked again in the fourth, giving up a home run to Evan Gattis. He gave up another run in the fifth, allowing three straight hits to open the inning beginning with a lead-off triple to Martin Maldonado. He left trialing 6-4, finishing his day having yielded six earned runs in four plus innings of work. He came in with an ERA of 3.44 and saw it rise to 3.70 after only sticking around long enough to throw 67 pitches.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Astros starter Justin Verlander didn’t have his best stuff Sunday afternoon, but he settled down after giving up three home runs in the first three innings against the A’s to earn the 200th victory of his career.

Verlander (12-8) also lacked his best stuff, giving up the three long balls before settling down to make it into the sixth. With the help of the Astros offensive support, the future Hall of Famer earned his 200th career win on his third try. In his 13th full season, the right-hander’s record now stands at an highly impressive 200-122.

Maldonado and Alex Bregman went deep on Emilio Pagán in the seventh, and Marwin Gonzalez iced it with another solo blast off Pagán in the eighth to close the scoring. Oakland next faces the Texas Rangers, another division rival, for three games at the Coliseum beginning tomorrow night. Bartolo Colon (7-10, 5.19), the 45 year old Dominican who two weeks ago passed Nicaragua’s Dennis Martinez for most career wins by a Latin American-born pitcher (now 247 and counting), takes the mound for Texas against the A’s Mike Fiers (8-6, 3.38) in the opener. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05PM.

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Astros complete sweep of Giants with clutch eighth inning homer https://martineztribune.com/2018/08/07/astros-complete-season-series-sweep-of-giants-with-clutch-eighth-inning-homer/ Wed, 08 Aug 2018 01:31:42 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=9394 BY ANTHONY SOSA With an absolute pitcher’s duel blooming between Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel, Tyler White stole the show with a go-ahead, two-run home run in the top of eighth inning to seal a 2-1 Houston Astros victory over the San Francisco Tuesday afternoon at AT&T Park. The win gave the Astros a four-game …

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©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Astros first baseman Tyler White is congratulated by Max Stassi after his two-run eighth inning home run
against the Giants Tuesday afternoon. The clutch blast gave Houston a 2-1 win and a two game sweep of the brief interleague series against San Francisco.

BY ANTHONY SOSA

With an absolute pitcher’s duel blooming between Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel, Tyler White stole the show with a go-ahead, two-run home run in the top of eighth inning to seal a 2-1 Houston Astros victory over the San Francisco Tuesday afternoon at AT&T Park. The win gave the Astros a four-game season series sweep of the Giants.

After being held down by Bumgarner for seven innings, the Astros capitalized as soon as the left-hander exited the game. Sitting at 100 pitches, Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy decided to turn the ball over to the bullpen in the top of the eighth inning. Ray Black took the mound in the eighth and surrendered a leadoff double to Marwin Gonzalez. Two batters later, White stepped in and unloaded on a 1-2, 99-mph fastball that he sent into the left-field bleachers to give the Astros the lead. The 363-foot bomb was White’s fourth home run of 2018.

Black, who entered today’s game with 10.1 straight innings without allowing a hit, gave up his first runs since his first outing of the season. “He swung at a couple fastballs before. In my mind I’m thinking he might be siting on an off-speed pitch here and I just didn’t locate a fastball,” Black said. “A pitcher’s count, that’s on me. He tagged me for it. Tip my hat to him. (He) put a good swing on it but, you know, a mistake was made on my part too.”

The home run spoiled a stellar start and took away a win away from Bumgarner. The Giants’ ace provided seven shutout innings, giving up five hits and three walks. Despite the eight base runners allowed, he was effective and struck out seven batters. He lowered his season ERA to 2.69.

It was the second straight game Houston dealt a crushing blow to San Francisco. In Monday night’s game, the Giants were one out away from sealing the victory, but Gonzalez hit a go-ahead, three-run blast that gave the Astros a 3-1 victory. That loss also ruined another great start from a Giants’ pitcher. Dereck Rodriguez pitched seven solid shutout innings, but like Bumgarner, saw his win slip away. The two starters combined for 14 shutout innings in the series. “Yeah, that’s tough anytime. I felt like we had a good chance to win those games, a really good chance, and we let them slip away,” Bumgarner said about the two losses to the Astros. “You never want to do that, but it’s getting to the time of year now where we have to minimize those we can. We have to find a way.”

Bumgarner worked out of multiple jams, where the Astros had their opportunities to score against him. In the top of the second inning, Josh Reddick led off with a triple down the right-field line. Bumgarner stranded him on third with two ground outs to third and a punchout. Once again, in the top of the sixth, the Astros had a runner on third, twice, with less than two outs but failed to score.

With one out in the sixth, Tyler White shot a ball past Steven Duggar into triple’s alley and ended up on third base. Reddick followed White with a sharp ground ball to Buster Posey at first base. Posey fired the ball home and Nick Hundley applied the tag on White. Later in the inning, after a wild pitch and stolen base put Reddick on third, a ball scampered away from Hundley, but he retrieved it quick and fired it to Bumgarner covering home and laid the tag on him to end the inning and keep the Astros off the board. But it was to no avail as the veteran ended up with a no-decision. “He had to overcome some traffic there… He pitched out of it,” Bochy said. “Really a great job of keeping them from scoring. He had good stuff today. He had gone far enough and (the bullpen) just couldn’t hold it. That’s tough when you go into the eighth with a 1-0 lead and can’t win those games. Those sting, trust me.”

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Giants starter Madison Bumgarner pitched seven shutout innings against Houston, striking out seven, but for the second night in a row the bullpen couldn’t hold the lead. The Astros won 2-1.

Keuchel, like Bumgarner, also pitched a great game but wound up with a no-decision. He fired six innings, allowing just one run on three hits and two walks. He also struck out five batters. The only rough patch he went through was in the second inning when the Giants put their lone run on the board. Brandon Crawford led off the inning with a double down the left-field line. Three batters later, Chase d’Arnaud drove Crawford home with an RBI single into right field.

The Giants had a great opportunity to score in the bottom of the seventh inning. Alen Hanson led off the inning with a triple, but the following three batters failed to knock him in. One of those batters was Hunter Pence, who pinch-hit for Bumgarner. With one out, Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch brought in reliever Joe Smith, who struck out both batters he faced in the inning. “They have a really good bullpen,” Bochy said crediting the Astros for getting out of the difficult situation. “Smith is tough, he’s even tougher on lefties. They are hitting .150 off of him…He got two big strike outs. He’s tough on both sides. Hunter’s been getting some big RBIs for us the past three weeks. (Smith) just got a big strikeout…Just couldn’t put the ball in play.”

The Astros deployed their closer Hector Rondon in the ninth and he converted his 13th save of the season. Tuesday’s loss was the Giants’ fifth out of their last six games. It was their seventh loss out of their last eight home games and the fifth straight game where they failed to score more than three runs. They fell back below .500 at 57-58 and find themselves 6.5 games behind the first place Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. They’re also six games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, who are currently tied for the second NL Wild Card spot.

After finishing their short two-game series with the Astros, the Giants welcome the Pittsburgh Pirates into town for a four-game series starting Thursday. San Francisco sends rookie left-hander Andrew Suarez (4-7, 4.60) to the mound to start off the series. The 25-year-old comes off his worst start of the season last Saturday, as he gave up eight earned runs in five innings of work against the Diamondbacks. As for Pittsburgh, they counter with veteran Ivan Nova (6-6, 4.49). First pitch is slated for 7:15 p.m. at AT&T Park.

Game Notes:

During the fourth inning of Tuesday’s game, d’Arnaud fouled a ball off his left knee and was removed from the game. He was later diagnosed with a left knee contusion. Bochy said after the game that d’Arnaud was day-to-day and he expects he’ll be ready to go after the off-day on Wednesday.

Brandon Belt, who is currently on the DL with a hyperextended right knee, fielded grounders before Tuesday’s game and ran on a treadmill Monday. Bochy indicated that Belt could return as soon as next week, although, the club hasn’t decided if Belt will undergo a rehab stint before joining the big league squad. This season, Belt’s hitting .278/.372/.470 with 14 home runs, 43 RBI and 44 runs. The first baseman has been shelved since July 26. “If all goes well, it’s a possibility he could be playing in L.A. (series vs. Dodgers starts August 13),” Bochy said.

Bochy said before Tuesday’s game, that there wasn’t much to report on Pablo Sandoval’s hamstring surgery, other than that it was successful. Sandoval injured his right hamstring July 29. An MRI later determined that he had a tear in the hamstring and the surgery was deemed necessary, thus putting an end to his season.

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Astros sweep A’s behind Verlander and high-powered offense https://martineztribune.com/2018/06/14/astros-sweep-as-behind-verlander-and-high-powered-offense/ Fri, 15 Jun 2018 00:59:23 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=9005 BY ANTHONY SOSA Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros overpowered the Oakland Athletics Thursday as they took the third and final game of the series, 7-3, to complete a three-game sweep at the Oakland Coliseum. In the three games, the Astros outscored the A’s 26-11. The A’s had no easy task at the plate, as …

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©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Houston’s Justin Verlander delivers a pitch during the Astros 7-3 win over the A’s Thursday afternoon. He struck out seven in seven innings to improve his record to 9-2.

BY ANTHONY SOSA

Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros overpowered the Oakland Athletics Thursday as they took the third and final game of the series, 7-3, to complete a three-game sweep at the Oakland Coliseum. In the three games, the Astros outscored the A’s 26-11.

The A’s had no easy task at the plate, as they took on one of the best pitchers in baseball. Entering the game, Verlander owned a 1.49 ERA, which ranked best among all qualified starters in baseball. He entered leading the league in WHIP (0.76) and batting average against (.157) with his 113 strikeouts ranked fifth most.

In the bottom of the second inning, Khris Davis launched a Verlander fastball into the left-field bleachers for a solo home run. It was Davis’ 20th home run of the campaign. He trails just Mike Trout (23) and J.D. Martinez (22) on the home run leader board.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Khris Davis connects for a second inning home run Thursday afternoon. It was his 20th of the season, one of the few bright spots for the A’s during a 7-3 loss to the Houston Astros.


For the Athletics, Frankie Montas came into the game having made three previous starts this season. In all of those, Montas earned a win and a quality start. His ERA sat at an impressive 1.25. However, facing a strong Astros’ lineup, Montas hit a few road bumps in this outing.

In the first inning, despite getting the first two batters out, Montas still managed to allow two runs to score. Carlos Correa singled and was knocked in when Yuli Gurriel drove a double into the left-center gap. Josh Reddick then singled Gurriel home. “You know what, it’s a good hitting team that’s swinging the bat real well right now,” Melvin said about the Astros’ success against Montas. “Looked like every ball he got in the middle of the plate, similar to everybody in this series, they hit.”

The Astros added another run in the top of the third inning. After a walk and a wild pitch put Jose Altuve on second, Correa singled him home and gave them their third run of the game. Things really started to unravel for Montas in the top of the fourth. He walked Marwin Gonzalez and then surrendered a two-run homer to Brian McCann. It was McCann’s fifth home run of the season. The lone bright spot of the inning came when Montas got Correa to ground into a double-play with the bases loaded, which prevented what could have been even more damage from being done.

 

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Evan Gattis of the Astros had a huge series against Oakland, going 5-12 with 10 RBI’s during Houston’s three game sweep of the A’s.

After an uneventful fifth inning, the Astros bats came alive again in the sixth. After Chapman dropped a pop-up to start the inning, Tony Kemp singled to put runners on first and second. Montas then got Alex Bregman to ground the ball to Chapman, but after stepping on third, Chapman overthrew Matt Olson at first allowing Kemp to score. Altuve followed with an RBI double. Melvin pulled Montas after he walked Correa.

Montas final line included 5 1/3 innings pitched where he gave up seven runs (five earned) on 11 hits and four walks. He was only able to punch out one Astros’ batter. “Probably at other times, we’d get him out a little earlier but where we were with our bullpen, he knew he had to be out there for a while,” Melvin said. “He stuck it out for his team, but probably not as good as we’ve seen him the last three times.”

Along with the two errors made by Chapman in the fifth inning, he also misplayed another pop-up earlier in the game as well. The sun looked to play a big factor as it was clear many players struggled with it Thursday afternoon. Chapman doesn’t wear sunglasses and after the game he was asked if he would consider wearing them in future day games at the Coliseum. “I’m going to figure something out. Obviously, that can’t keep happening,” Chapman said. “To be honest with you, I’m not very comfortable wearing sunglasses. I don’t mind it with fly balls, but with ground balls, especially when they are close, it’s something I’m not fully comfortable with.”

After Davis’ home run, the A’s recorded just two hits the following four innings. However, in the bottom of the seventh inning, Verlander gave up a double to Davis and then a two-run shot to Matt Olson. It was Olson’s 13th home run of the year. Verlander finished the game with seven innings pitched, allowing three runs on five hits. He struck out seven batters. Despite earning the win and quality start, Verlander’s ERA rose to 1.61.

The Astros have now won eight straight games. They own a 45-25 record, which has them currently tied with the Seattle Mariners for first place in the AL West. As for the A’s, they fall to 34-35 and remain in fourth place in the division.

After completing their series with the Astros, the A’s continue their homestand as the Los Angeles Angels come into Oakland for the second time this season. In six meetings this season, the A’s are 2-4 against their division rivals from Orange County. On Friday, Chris Bassit (0-1, 1.29) takes the mound for the Athletics. He was called up by the team before Thursday’s game. For the Angels, lanky left-hander Tyler Skaggs (5-4, 3.08) toes the rubber. The game is set for 6:35 p.m. at the Oakland Coliseum.

Game Notes:

After the game, Melvin said that Chapman was removed from the game in the seventh inning due to a right-hand contusion. Chapman confirmed it’s an injury that he dealt with in Spring Training as well, and toward the end of the 2017 season. “It’s hard to really say. It’s kind of gotten progressively worse over the last couple days, but I was just trying to push through it,” Chapman said about his hand injury. “It just flared up on me today. My hand was in a lot of pain. Just kind of swelling up. We’re getting an MRI and then we’re going to go from there.”

Before today’s game, the Athletics placed starting pitcher Trevor Cahill on the 10-day DL with a strained achilles tendon. Cahill was scratched from his scheduled start last Saturday. He joins seven other A’s that are currently on the DL. The seven include Matt Joyce, Boog Powell, Andrew Triggs, Brett Anderson, Ryan Buchter, Jharel Cotton and Daniel Gossett.

The Athletics also optioned reliever Danny Coulombe to triple-A Nashville. Along with the A’s calling up Bassit, they also called up reliever Carlos Ramirez. With Coulombe in the minor leagues, they currently do not have a left-handed pitcher in their bullpen.

Despite Semien committing 11 errors in 2018, the most by any shortstop in baseball, Melvin still had high praise for the defensive improvement he’s shown. “For me, the difference with Marcus, is he makes all the routine plays now,” Melvin said before Thursday’s game. “That was an issue for him for a while. He’s worked really hard to put himself in the position he is in.”

Evan Gattis, despite not having a big game on Thursday, killed the Athletics in this series. He finished 5-for-14 with three home runs, 10 RBI and three runs scored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Astros Cole stifles A’s bats, completes three game Houston sweep https://martineztribune.com/2018/05/09/astros-cole-stifles-as-bats-completes-three-game-houston-sweep/ Thu, 10 May 2018 01:51:25 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=8493 BY STEVEN LUKE Matched up head-to-head with one of the premier pitchers in the American League, Daniel Mengden did everything in his power to keep his team in the game, matching zeroes with Gerrit Cole until the Houston hurler gave up the first run of the game in the sixth. The day would belong to …

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©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Houston left fielder Derek Fisher watches the flight of his 447 foot seventh inning home run clear the center field wall on Wednesday. The blast put the Astros ahead to stay on the way to a 4-1 win and a three game sweep of the A’s.

BY STEVEN LUKE

Matched up head-to-head with one of the premier pitchers in the American League, Daniel Mengden did everything in his power to keep his team in the game, matching zeroes with Gerrit Cole until the Houston hurler gave up the first run of the game in the sixth. The day would belong to Cole and the Astros though, as Mengden gave up back-to-back home runs with two outs in the top of the seventh. The Astros added to their lead in the eighth and held on to win 4-1 to sweep the series. It was the first time this season the A’s have been swept.

For 6 2/3 innings Mengden was cruising. He struck out four Astros, gave up only four hits and did not issue a walk before giving up the two jacks. “He pitched great,” Manager Bob Melvin said about Mengden. “In a game like that where you have very little room for error one or two swings can beat you and that’s what happened. He was cruising along nicely, though, against a really good lineup.”

It was a similar lineup to the one Mengden faced in Houston two weeks ago that roughed him up for five runs, four earned, in just 2 1/3 innings. Mengden said the change was simply getting the first pitch in for a strike. “I just didn’t throw strikes (in Houston),” Mengden said. “Here I got strike one and I stayed aggressive and stayed the aggressor, and in Houston I just fell behind and got in trouble.”

The first home run came off of the bat of former A’s draft pick Max Stassi to tie the game and was a no doubter above the State Farm flag in the right field bleachers. Stassi’s home run was a bomb, but Derek Fisher’s (no, not the Fisher of Los Angeles Lakers fame) was a shot into an area where people are not supposed to be able hit home runs in the seats above the suites in center field. It was measured at 447 feet, but was destined to go much further if Mount Davis wasn’t in the way.

On the other side of the mound Cole followed up a masterpiece in his last outing (complete game shutout with 16 K’s while only allowing one hit) with another solid performance, pitching six innings of one run ball with nine strikeouts while allowing only four hits and three walks.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers a pitch on the way to to a 4-1 win over the A’s Wednesday at the Oakland Coliseum. Cole, the Major League leader in strikeouts, struck out nine in six innings to improve his record to 4-1.

“Their guy today (Cole) he’s throwing 98 up in the zone and getting it called all day. It’s tough to chase him up there,” Melvin said. “Then when he’s getting strikes up there he’s double tough. He’s a four pitch guy and throws 98 miles per hour. They’ve got a pretty good rotation.”

Houston scored in the following inning against A’s reliever Yusmeiro Petit, but pitching was not the issue for Oakland. What plagued the A’s was a diminishment in power. Over the three game series with the Astros the A’s failed to hit a home run, and during Wednesday’s game they frequently hit balls that were caught at or near the warning track.

There wasn’t much for A’s fans to be happy about in the game, but one thing they could enjoy was the Oakland debut of center fielder Dustin Fowler. Fowler was called up before the game to replace Trevor Cahill on the roster who went on the disabled list with a right elbow impingement.

Fowler made his major league debut early in the 2017 season as a member of the New York Yankees, but injured his knee running into a wall while tracking a fly ball and never got his first big league at bat. Melvin made sure he got Fowler’s first at bat out of the way by pinch hitting him in the seventh inning for Mark Canha.

“It was good (to get the first at bat),” Fowler said. “It was kind of a nice way to do it. Just kind of get out there and get it out of the way really quick.” Fowler found out that he would be getting called up around midnight the night before and took an 8 a.m. flight to Oakland. Now he will go on the road with the team to face the team he made his debut with and possibly make his first start in green and gold against Sonny Gray, the player he was traded for.

“It’s just a perfect story. The guy I got traded for, getting to face him,” Fowler said. “It’ll be fun. It’ll be nice to be in New York and play in front of that crowd and a bunch of guys I know. It’ll be exciting and I’m ready to get there.”

The A’s will travel tomorrow to New York and face their former ace Gray (2-2, 6.00) on Friday. The A’s have not yet announced their starting pitcher for the opener.

Game Notes: Houston’s Jose Altuve added three hits to his season total and now leads the Majors with 52 hits in just 39 games.

Cole’s nine strikeouts give him 86 on the season, retaking the Major League lead in that category from Max Scherzer.

George Springer has hit safely in all six games against the A’s this season including a six hit game Monday night.

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A’s rough up Astros pitching in doubleheader sweep https://martineztribune.com/2017/09/10/as-rough-up-astros-in-doubleheader-sweep/ Sun, 10 Sep 2017 07:37:05 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=7651 BY RYAN LEONG The A’s might not be going to the playoffs but the next best thing is to play spoiler to those who want to play baseball in October. After years of beating up on the Astros when the Athletics were headed to three straight postseason appearances including division titles in 2012 and 2013, …

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©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Daniel Gossett pitched six strong innings in the opener of the A's doubleheader sweep over the Houston Astros on Saturday, striking out seven, as the A's scored a lopsided 11-1 victory.
©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Daniel Gossett pitched six strong innings in the opener of the A’s doubleheader sweep over the Houston Astros on Saturday, striking out seven, as the A’s scored a lopsided 11-1 victory.

BY RYAN LEONG

The A’s might not be going to the playoffs but the next best thing is to play spoiler to those who want to play baseball in October.

After years of beating up on the Astros when the Athletics were headed to three straight postseason appearances including division titles in 2012 and 2013, the tables have turned. The Astros had a 10-game win streak at the Coliseum which the A’s snapped with their 9-8 win on Friday thanks to a grand slam by Marcus Semien to erase a four-run deficit. Oakland won the game in the bottom of the ninth after trailing by a run. Thanks to a game-tying homer from Boog Powell and the game-winning single by Jed Lowrie against Houston closer Ken Giles, the A’s were able to take that momentum into Saturday’s doubleheader.

The first game of the twin-bill was won by the A’s thanks largely in part to some terrible pitching by the Astros. Houston issued 13 walks, five of which were walks with the bases loaded. Offensively with the bat, the A’s got a two-run single from Khris Davis while Powell also connected with a run-scoring hit and an RBI triple from Matt Chapman. Davis’ hit gave him 101 RBI for the season. Daniel Gossett (4-8) pitched six strong innings, giving up only five hits and a run while striking out seven to pick up the win.

In the nightcap, the A’s gave the ball to colorful righty Daniel Mengden who was once drafted by the Astros. He was traded to the A’s in exchange for Scott Kazmir and one of the reasons was because Houston didn’t care for his double overhand windup motion. The A’s embraced it and his handlebar mustache congering up memories of Rollie Fingers and the late Jim “Catfish” Hunter whose delivery is surprisingly similar.

Mengden has spent most of 2017 injured and in the minors. After surgery on his right foot before the start of spring training, he spent significant time with Triple A-Nashville before making two starts on May 29 and June 3. He kept the A’s in the game with six innings of five hit ball. He gave up a two run home run to Jose Altuve and an RBI single to former Athletic Josh Reddick.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Oakland's Chad Pinder connected for two home runs Saturday evening to help the A's complete a doubleheader sweep of the Houston Astros by a score of 11-4.
©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Oakland’s Chad Pinder connected for two home runs Saturday evening to help the A’s complete a doubleheader sweep of the Houston Astros by a score of 11-4.

Tied at 4-4 in the seventh, Chad Pinder hit the first of two home runs. Powell added a two-run single, a sacrifice fly, and had three RBI. Pinder added a three-run blast in the eighth and finished with four runs batted in. Rookie Matt Olson hit a two-run homer and the A’s were victorious 11-4 scoring 11 runs in both game while winning the first three games of the series.

While the Astros had the best record in the American League coming into Oakland, the A’s have a great chance at sweeping the four game set. Coupled with the Indians 17-game win streak, Houston has now fallen into a tie with Cleveland and will be facing some pressure to maintain their season long overall first place standing for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

“It was a fun day for everybody,” Manager Bob Melvin said. “I mean basically almost everybody got to play and when you score a lot of runs you get a lot of hits, there’s a lot of enthusiasm involved and we did it in both games. Guys are feeling pretty good for what was a pretty long day especially for a few of them who played both games.”

Ryan Leong is a San Francisco native and covers all Bay Area sports teams as a correspondent for ESPN radio and wire services. He is a former sports anchor for KCBS and has reported on over 3,600 live games since 1998.

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A’s follow sweep of Yanks by getting swept by Astros, cut Vogt https://martineztribune.com/2017/06/22/7492/ Fri, 23 Jun 2017 04:17:56 +0000 https://martineztribune.com/?p=7492 BY RYAN LEONG It’s only the second day of summer but when you’re buried in last place like the A’s are, it already feels like late August. Their just completed four game sweep of the Yankees now seems like a mirage because the Athletics got a cruel dose of reality in their next series against …

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©DANIEL GLUSKOTER Josh Reddick returned to the Coliseum to haunt his former teammates, blasting a double, triple and home run on Thursday in the Astros 12-9 win over the A's.
©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Josh Reddick returned to the Coliseum to haunt his former teammates, blasting a double, triple and home run on Thursday in the Astros 12-9 win over the A’s.

BY RYAN LEONG

It’s only the second day of summer but when you’re buried in last place like the A’s are, it already feels like late August.

Their just completed four game sweep of the Yankees now seems like a mirage because the Athletics got a cruel dose of reality in their next series against the Astros. For the better part of four games, the Astros toyed with them.

First place Houston, owners of the best record in baseball, put an exclamation point on their 50th win of the season in a 12-9 blow out of the A’s in a game that was 10-0 in the second inning on a scorching hot day at the Coliseum.

Completing a four game sweep, the Astros erased any momentum and good feelings the A’s had acquired after four straight wins over the Bronx Bombers to open the home stand.

And although it wasn’t a total surprise, it was still a shock to fans and media that veteran catcher Stephen Vogt was designated for assignment on Thursday morning just hours before the first pitch.

Vogt was special because he had long paid his dues in the minors having been drafted at the age of 25 which is old for baseball. He started his MLB career with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012 and was 0-for-12. In fact, Vogt didn’t get his first hit until he was traded to the A’s the following April.

One of the most popular A’s since his arrival, Vogt’s first career hit ended up being a home run. He’ll also be remembered for his game winning RBI single in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS against the Detroit Tigers.

Just before the homestand began, another fan favorite was shown the door as the A’s parted ways with long-time pitching coach Curt Young who had been with the organization since the early 1980’s. Young pitched for the A’s during their run of three straight American League championships from 1988-1990, winning a World Series ring in 1989.

The A’s next travel to Chicago for a three game weekend series against the White Sox before moving on to Houston for another three games against the Astros after an off day on Monday.

Ryan Leong is a San Francisco native and covers all Bay Area sports teams as a correspondent for ESPN radio and wire services. He is a former sports anchor for KCBS and has reported on over 3,600 live games since 1998.

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