The Astros are now 1.5 games up in the race for home-field advantage. The mighty Yankees have returned to earth over the past six weeks, the Mariners are playing good baseball but out of head-to-head chances vs. Houston and 11 back with 48 left. The Astros are back to a six-man rotation, 2.5 weeks away from potentially adding extra bullpen girth (Hunter Brown anyone?) to a pitching staff that has been relentlessly good all season long. One question looms especially large: who’s on left?
First, let’s just repeat the obvious: Michael Brantley was a boss! What a joy to watch such a professional hitter for the past 3.5 seasons. What a loss to the Astros. How will Click/Dusty respond?
LF is where to stash your worst outfielder. It’s the place for the weakest OF arm, and in a lot of parks, the place with the least range to cover. But that doesn’t mean the fielder of that position doesn’t make a difference. One team’s weakest OF can be a much stronger fielder than another team’s weakest OF.
The Astros have an abundance of (1) good-fielding outfielders, and (2) sluggers with limited range. In the former category are Jake Meyers, Chas McCormick, and Maricio Dubon. In the latter, Yordan Alvarez, Aledmys Diaz, and Trey Mancini. Let the musical chairs commence.
The strongest defensive alignment is Dubon or Meyers in center, and Chas in left. Dubon and Meyers both rate as plus fielders, but their hitting is terrible. Dubon is hitting .195 as an Astro and slugging .288. He’s never hit much, and while he’s provided valuable depth, he is an incredibly easy out, albeit one who puts the ball in play. Dubon is 28 and has been in MLB since 2019. He kind of is who he is at this point.
After a strong 2021, in which he slugged .438, Meyers has lost his power stroke, slugging .328 with only 1 HR. His OPS rests under .600, and he’s unable to to control the zone (5/42 bb/k).
Much of the world, including the TCB, kind of forgets how good Chas is. He was 9% above league average at the plate last year, and this year he’s 13% above, even with a massive drop in BABIP, from a lucky .341, to a bit unlucky .279 this year. His defensive grade has come back to earth, but he can definitely play CF, albeit not at the level of Meyers or Dubon.
The best offensive lineup has Chas in center and it’s not close. The best defensive lineup has Chas in left. If you stick Chas in center, then your options are to sacrifice defense for offense. In such a scenario, Dusty feels least uncomfortable with Diaz out there, and he’s clearly not moving Gurriel off 1b. The team seems leery about playing Yordan in left since his injury in early July, even though it’s a hand injury. The musical chairs, scenario, even with Chas in center, probably means Yordan DHs and Mancini is on the bench.
Put visually, here’s the “Dustiest” post-season lineup
- Altuve 2b
- Gurriel 1b
- Yordan dh
- Bregman 3b
- Tucker rf
- Pena ss
- Chaz lf
- Dubon cf
- Maldy c
That’s a bottom four vulnerable to getting mowed down with ease. Here’s the “compromise lineup” with the same top 5
- 6. Diaz lf
- 7. Pena ss
- 8. Chaz cf
- 9. Maldy c
There at least you sub Dubon for Chas and add Diaz. Here’s the “max” offense lineup with Gurriel at 1b
- Altuve 2b
- Tucker rf
- Bregan 3b
- Yordan lf
- Mancini dh
- Gurriel 1b
- Pena ss
- Chas cf
- Vazquez c
That’s a mashers lineup. You can also keep Diaz in LF and Yordan at DH if you replace Gurriel with Mancini at 1b. (If you’re worried about Chas vs. righties, check out Dubon’s wRC+ of 32 against same-handed matchups!)
So much about the rest of the season (given the lead and the ambivalence about getting the 1 or 2 seed; the 2 seed gets the worst WC team or the AL Central winner since MLB refuses to re-seed after the WC round) has to do with comfort. Maldy isn’t a better defensive catcher than Vazquez. But the staff is more comfortable with Maldy. And so is Dusty. Let’s work to change that. Lance hasn’t pitched in Houston this season. Let’s see if he can be the 3rd or 4th starter, and if not, a bullpen weapon. Either way, let’s get Lance comfortable. And Yordan isn’t comfortable in left, supposedly. Let’s work on getting him to his pre-hand injury level of comfort.
Most crucially, Dusty isn’t comfortable with Mancini at 1b. Can that change and can we see how he does?
For Mancini to not get stuck standing when the music stops, either Yordan has to be in LF or Gurriel has to be on the bench. Chas (vs. Dubon or Meyers) and Mancini are too good to be bench players in October. not to mention Vazquez. The Astros may win it all with those three on the bench, and they may lose with them in the lineup. But if the Astros head into October with their “Dustiest” lineup, they may as well name Urquidy the Game One starter.