During the 2021 campaign, center field was a conundrum for the Astros.
When the season began, the discourse centered around replacing George Springer. Myles Straw broke camp as the starter, but as the season progressed, it became increasingly clear that rookie Chas McCormick deserved a larger role in the outfield picture. That became a reality at the trade deadline when the Astros dealt Straw to Cleveland.
In the aftermath, Jake Meyers was subsequently called up, with the expectation that he’d merely serve as depth. Not a month later, he supplanted McCormick as the club’s everyday center fielder. Though both players’ profiles were identical, Dusty Baker favored Meyers, who was viewed by the skipper as a more “natural” center fielder.
Even after Meyers seriously injured his shoulder in the American League Division Series, McCormick still split time with another first-year player, the raw and toolsy José Siri.
Now more than a month into the 2022 season, the status quo is unchanged. Despite Meyers’ continued absence — his rehab remains without a timetable — the Astros, namely Baker, are seemingly hesitant to fully trust McCormick, who can only play steadily in center field due to Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker occupying the corners.
McCormick, who has a .253/.302/.418 slash (115 wRC+) through 86 plate appearances and has looked the part in center field — backed up by solid or better marks from OAA and DRS — has strangely received less playing time in center this year than Siri, who has started 15 games at the position to McCormick’s 14. Siri is batting .180/.241/.300 (65 wRC+) in his first 54 plate appearances.
While McCormick has reduced his strikeout rate drastically (32.5 percent to 18.6 percent), Siri’s is still comfortably above 30 percent. The latter is not surprising given the fact that Siri, 26, has posted a K% north of 30 percent each year since he reached the Double-A level in 2018. On the other hand, the 27-year-old McCormick has a history of making contact, never striking out more than 16.3 percent of the time in a single season in the minors.
McCormick showed surprising pop in 2021 when he hit 14 home runs in 320 plate appearances, and he’s mostly replicated his power stroke in 2022 with a 9.4 percent Barrel rate (it was 10.2 percent in 2021). The difference this year is that he’s still hitting for power while making significantly more contact, a key development for young hitters when adjusting to big-league pitching.
But still, even when factoring in his tangible improvement at the dish, as well as Siri’s obvious shortcomings, McCormick is not the Astros’ regular center fielder.
To be fair to Siri, he is quite a capable defender with his incredible range and seems to often make difficult plays look routine. But at the same time, his inability to get to his plus power has made him a liability at the plate.
Siri slashed .304/.347/.609 in a small sample size last year (49 plate appearances) and produced gaudy exit velocities in the process, but a 2 percent walk rate and a 34.7 percent strikeout rate clearly indicated that substantial regression was all but guaranteed. A career minor-league OBP of .321 across seven-plus seasons adds to the bleak outlook offensively. Projection systems such as ZiPS reflect that sentiment.
With Meyers shelved, now is the ideal time for the Astros to see just how good McCormick is. But Baker’s ostensible disinclination to consistently start him is proving to be quite the obstacle.
The coming months might be the only opportunity to give McCormick an extensive, uninterrupted look in center field. Given the lack of a viable alternative on the roster, there’s no reason why such a trial run shouldn’t occur.