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Amid the Astros’ woes at the plate, Dusty Baker’s peculiar lineup decisions stand out

The last thing a struggling offense needs is an inadequately constructed lineup.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Not two weeks ago, the Astros offense was one of the most explosive in the league. They were in the middle of a stretch where they had scored at least five runs in nine of 11 games. But since May 20, Houston’s lineup has achieved that feat in only three of their last 10 contests, totaling just 25 runs during that span. While the best units in baseball are not immune to slumps, Dusty Baker is not making things any easier on his bats.

Sunday afternoon’s game in Seattle was a prime example.

Kyle Tucker was unavailable due to injury, which meant an offense that had scored one run across its last 18 innings would be without one of its top hitters. Instead of replacing Tucker with Chas McCormick, Baker opted to start Mauricio Dubón in center field and batted him seventh, with Jose Siri and Martín Maldonado rounding out the bottom third of the order.

It’s one thing to give the opposing pitcher an easy portion of the lineup to deal with. It’s another to do so while leaving a superior hitter such as McCormick on the bench during a time where the club is struggling to score runs.

A mediocre 97 wRC+ this year notwithstanding, McCormick’s impressive peripheral stats indicate his numbers should be substantially better. Increasingly sparse playing time over the last 10-plus days has put the second-year outfielder in a suboptimal position.

As for the recently acquired Dubón, the ex-Giants utilityman has an 86 wRC+ in 538 career plate appearances and, perhaps more notably, has not been adequate at the dish since 2020, with relatively poor career peripherals across the board to boot.

Aside from the peculiar decisions made on Sunday — which were rendered moot by the Astros pitching staff’s tremendous one-run performance — Baker continues to keep Yuli Gurriel in the five-hole despite his significant shortcomings at the plate.

The 37-year-old first baseman has hit 5th or higher in the lineup in all but three of his starts in 2022. Entering Tuesday, he sports an abysmal .217/.257/.360 slash line on the season, but is still regularly hitting ahead of Tucker and Jeremy Peña, two bats whose respective stat lines are immensely better.

Hitting behind the likes of Alex Bregman and Yordan Álvarez gives Gurriel a fair amount of opportunities to hit with runners on base. He’s done so 74 times this year — the fourth-most on the Astros — but to the tune of a .171/.203/.314 line. Gurriel’s excellent bat-to-ball skills have made him a potent middle-of-the-order run producer in the past, but the Cuban native has been rather light-hitting in 2022, as evidenced by a batted-ball profile that features career-low exit velocities.

The Astros offense is still a formidable one, but during these stretches of anemic production, it becomes more important for Baker to optimize the batting order. That means moving Gurriel down a few spots, as well as playing the best players when the team is in a clear rut offensively.

It’s easy for the old-school skipper to set the lineup however he pleases when everyone is firing on all cylinders, but going forward, putting together sensible batting orders could help alleviate the offense’s woes during periods of substandard output.