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George Springer: the Astros’ underrated Super Star

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Correa, Altuve, Bregman, Keuchel, McCullers! Feel the excitement! But there’s another guy who might be better than all of them.

MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In an upcoming Starting Nine article, the staff gave their predictions for the upcoming baseball season. Only one [spoiler alert!] respondee picked Center Fielder George Springer to be the best offensive performer for the Astros in 2017.

This isn’t a terrible surprise, considering Jose Altuve still plays baseball and considering the breakout into super-stardom that many fans consider to be fait accompli for shortstop Carlos Correa. [note: I hope putting that cart ahead of that particular horse doesn’t lead to massive disappointment for a lot of people. I want to see how he plays first.]

Why is he underrated?

Despite there being a couple of obvious and very deserving candidates for Astros top bat, I can’t shake the feeling that Springer is being underrated by many fans.

Here are a few reasons why this might be so:

  1. He’s old news. Springer’s Rookie Season of 2014 really wasn’t that long ago, but it sure feels like it was. That club went 71-91, finishing 4th in the AL West. The best qualified non-Altuve batters were Dexter Fowler and Chris Carter. Then Jason Castro. They started winning. Springer faded into the background as a relic of the “old loser Astros”.
  2. Health. Springer missed a lot of games during his first two seasons due to various injuries, including crashing into the outfield wall. As a result, his seasonal counting stats from 2014-2015 aren’t particuarly awe-inspiring, despite great rate stats.
  3. Other exciting players. Since 2014, SP Dallas Keuchel has won a Cy Young Award and the Astros have called up mega-prospects Correa, Lance McCullers, and Alex Bregman. They traded for exciting 25-year-old closer Ken Giles. They signed an exciting international free agent in Yuli Gurriel and a future Hall-of-Famer in Carlos Beltran.
  4. He’ll never be “the best” at his position. Through no fault of Springer, he entered the league at the same time as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, who could go down as two of the greatest outfielders—nay, baseball players—of all time. While Altuve is the best second baseman in baseball and Correa has the potential to be the best shortstop, Springer can never be better than 2nd-best at either center field or right field because of generational-type players elsewhere in the league.

Meanwhile...

Meanwhile, and for whatever reason, Springer wasn’t talked about very much beyond “Glad we have him” and occasionally, “seems to be a team leader because of his personality.”

Everybody acknowledges that Springer is good at baseball, and some even toss around “really good”.

Thus far in his short career (only 342 games!), Springer has hit .258/.356/.460 (.806 OPS) wit 65 home runs and 30 stolen bases. He has scored 220 runs and knocked in 174 fellow Astros.

Prorated to a single 162-game season, that’s 31 home runs, 104 runs, 82 RBI, and 14 stolen bases.

A couple caveats to those numbers.

First, some of those numbers are from the crappy 2014 Astros, which depresses his run and RBI counts slightly compared to what they would have been on a good team.

Second, those numbers represent in large part his first two seasons in the Majors, a time period during which all players are going through an adjustment to the difficulty of competition. And yet, during that time, his average performance was close to MVP-level.

A Historical Perspective

George Springer hasn’t just been good, he has been great. Maybe not Hall-of-Fame bound great, but he’s been darn close to that next tier.

During his age 24 through 26 seasons, Springer batted to the tune of a 128 wRC+. In the simplest terms, that means that his offensive performance was 28% more valuable than that of the average major leaguer during that same time span (2014-2016).

Fangraph.com’s search features give us a handy tool to see how this stacks up from a historical perspective.

From 1962 through 2016, there were thirty-two qualified outfielders who posted wRC+ from 124 to 132 during their age 24 through 26 seasons. This list includes names like Bobby Bonds, Carl Yastrzemski, Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield, Ken Griffey (Sr.), Oscar Gamble (best hair in the history of MLB), and Pete Rose. And George Springer.

Obviously, many of these guys compare unfavorably with Springer in various ways, and so whittling down the list narrows down the comparisons.

Springer has a .201 Isolated Power (ISO) score to this point in his career. Disregarding the effects of ISO on different historical scoring environments, filtering the list by those players whose ISO’s are between .180 and .220 results in twelve outfielders.

These twelve still include some all-time greats, including Bonds, Dawson, and a couple others in addition to Springer.

Again, noting that league strikeout rates have ballooned over the past fifteen years, there are a few obvious players whose batting profiles (low walk rates and low strikeout rates) don’t match well with Springer’s game. This removes Dawson, Vada Pinson, Raul Mondesi (Sr.), George Bell, and Gamble.

Similarly, I think we can remove Bonds and his 85 home runs and 118 stolen bases, plus Grady Sizemore and his 84 stolen bases. Springer doesn’t have that kind of speed.

We are left with the following names who performed similarly to Springer during their age 24-26 seasons: J.D. Drew, Larry Walker, Dale Murphy, Justin Upton.

Four guys, all of whom were (in their day) among the best batters in baseball.

One last exercise: because Springer compiled far fewer plate appearances during his time than all of those others except Drew, let’s pro-rate everybody’s stats during that age bracket into a 162 game season:

Outfielders similar to George Springer, ages 24-26

At this point, it’s easy to see that Springer rates among some truly great outfielders.

The players on this list boast among them sixteen All-Star games, three MVP awards, and nine silver slugger awards. And that’s with Springer and Justin Upton’s careers only partially underway.

As mentioned above though, this performance comes at the beginning of Springer’s career, during which he had to adjust to more difficult pitching. Among the players listed with him in the table above, only Springer had not been in the league for at least two seasons prior to age 24 - the others in this list had already gone through their adjustment period.

Summing up...

And so my Astros fan friends, when I predicted George Springer to be the offensive MVP of the Houston Astros, it is because I believe he can be the best batter on the team during any given season. Not that he will be for sure, because Altuve and Correa themselves are both talents like the Astros haven’t seen since the Killer B’s.

But Springer’s performance to date has been on par with a couple MVP winners and one of the most dynamic talents to come out of the draft in twenty years (Upton). And he’s done it at the very beginning of his career - the most challenging time for a young player.

Every player can come up with a season or two boosted by good luck in the form of batted balls in play. See Jonathan Villar last season with the Brewers, or Jimmy Paredes’ hilarious .383 BABIP in 2011 that had fans seeing him as the next big thing.

Springer’s speed can allow for a high BABIP from time to time, as evidenced by the .342 he posted in 2015. With that sort of BABIP and a full season of play, not to mention having fully adjusted to major league pitching, Springer is absolutely capable of putting up a monster MVP-type season at least once in his career, and perhaps more.

.275/.370/.490 with 120 runs, 35 home runs, 95 RBI, and 20 stolen bases? It can happen.

George Springer - not just a star, but the Astros’ overlooked super star.