The Astros are in the ALCS for the seventh straight year. Who’d a thunk.
Astros fans: These are the good ole days. Cherish them.
But this season stands out from all the other ones (except the faux Covid season). The Astros were underdogs this year. They had to overcome massive losses to numerous injuries, only owned first place in the AL West for a few weeks and were in third place about as long as they were in first.
They ended up first with just 90 wins and won the division only by winning the tiebreaker with Arlington, who lost on their last game of the season. They needed to win four of their last five games. With two more Houston losses and two more Seattle wins the Astros would have missed the playoffs altogether.
This article is about the unsung heroes of 2023. Even small contributions at critical times from unexpected areas made this playoff run possible, and without them, we’d be watching some other teams on TV this week.
This article is not about the current Core Four: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, or other old-reliables on the team. We expect them to produce, and at the same time, we’re grateful to have such big-time performers.
Rather, in this article, I’ll discuss both aggregate contributions from unexpected quarters but also singular performances that won individual games because, as mentioned earlier, even one or two losses would have meant no playoffs at all.
Mauricio Dubon didn’t even look like a replacement-level player in 2022. But when Jose Altuve broke his hand in the Spring of 2023, suddenly Dubon was called upon to replace a future Hall of Famer. During Altuve’s first injury absence, Dubon certainly looked like he belonged. No one can fully replace Altuve, but Dubon made his absence hurt a lot less, getting an exactly league-average 100 wRC+ and playing superb defense. For the season, he slashed .278/.309/.411 with a 97 wRC+. His 2.7 bWAR is ninth on the team and just 1/10 of a point behind Altuve in 82 more PA’s. He was the go-to defensive center fielder as well.
Dubon was instrumental in winning at least two late-season games with clutch hits. On July 23, his ninth-inning home run beat the Oakland A’s 3-2. And on September 20, his walk-off single scoring Yainer Diaz salvaged a critical game in the Baltimore series after the Astros had just lost four of their last five games, including two to last place KC.
Maybe because of last year’s playoff performance, McCormick shouldn’t be on the list of unexpected contributors. But even with raised expectations, the former 21st-round draftee exceeded those expectations.
He slashed .273/.353/.489 with 22 HRs and 70 RBI in 457 PAs. His 133 wRC+ was tied for 20th in MLB among outfielders, and his 3.8 fWAR tied for 17th.
McCormick almost single-handedly won several close games. On August 2, his two home runs were just enough for the Astros to beat the Guardians 3-2.
On one of the several slugfests between the Rangers and Astros, on July 24, his six RBI were just enough for the Astros to win 10-9. Plus, his ninth-inning walk put Kyle Tucker in position to score the walk-off run.
On July 16, McCormick’s two homers and three RBI secured a 9-8 win over the Angels.
And on July 2, McCormick’s three-run, eighth-inning triple against Texas gave the Astros a 4-3 lead en route to a 5-3 win. The next day, his double scored Jose Abreu to give the Astros a 10-9 win.
Where did this guy come from? Credit to Dana Brown for choosing Diaz over Korey Lee as the backup catcher.
Baseball-Reference rates Diaz 6th in WAR on the Astros in 2023 at 3.2. He slashed .282/.308/.538 with 23 homers and a wRC+ of 127 in 377 PAs. As catcher, his wRC+ is 170.
On July 5th Diaz’s back-to-back jacks were instrumental in Houston’s 6-4 win over Colorado.
In the aforementioned critical September 20 walk-off win against Baltimore, he scored the walk-off run after leading off with a double. In the July 24, 10-9 win over Texas, Diaz got the walk-off single that scored Kyle Tucker on McCormick’s big 6-RBI day as well as a sac fly.
Jose Abreu should have been in the category of the Core Four as someone from whom greatness was expected. But in his first year with the Astros, he was a huge disappointment. Still, he was clutch despite a mere .237 BA, accruing 90 RBI, and in the last month of the season and the ALDS, he finally found his stroke.
His recent heroics are still so fresh in the memory that they hardly merit mention. His two homers in Game 3 of the ALDS and his two-run job in Game 4 were game-winners.
In the July 3, 12-11 win over the Rangers, he homered, his double tied the score, and he scored the winning run on McCormick’s later double.
In the September 30th, 1-0 win over Arizona that clinched the Astros’ playoff appearance, Abreu’s double accounted for the only RBI in the game. The day before, he knocked in both of the only two runs in the Astros’ 2-1 win.
Arguably, without Abreu coming up clutch in the highest possible leverage situations at the end of the season, the Astros don’t make the playoffs. And, they might even have lost the ALDS series to the Twins, or, at least, the Astros would still have one more game to go.
A team only turns to Brandon Bielak in desperation. He should not pitch for a playoff-contending team. But with the injuries to the regular staff, the Astros had no alternatives.
But despite terrible peripherals, Bielak started 13 games and was the winning pitcher in five with a 3.83 ERA. His fWAR was only 0.1, but I’ve got to think that one or two of his wins would have been losses without him holding the fort.
At least Bielak had some major league experience before this year. But J.P. France was a 28-year-old rookie that only prospect nerds had ever heard of. Talk about desperation.
Damn. He was 11-6, eating 136 innings in 23 starts. He had an identical ERA to Bielak, 3.83, and, like Bielak, outperformed peripherals. But Fangraphs gives him 1.3 WAR. Even more than Bielak, I don’t think the Astros make the playoffs without France.
Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy
Neither Cristian Javier nor Jose Urquidy belong in this list of unexpected heroes. Except that Javier had such a mid-season meltdown that it appeared he was injured or needed to go to the minors. And Urquidy was injured most of the year and looked lost when he returned.
From June 3rd until September 15th, Javier’s ERA was 6.21. But in his last three games, he seemed to find his old form, allowing only four runs and holding the Orioles scoreless in the crucial September 20 walk-off victory. He was the winning pitcher in the final game of the year, a six-inning 1-0 shutout over Arizona that clinched the AL West title.
And of course, he pitched six scoreless in the Astros 9-1 win in Game 3 of the ALDS.
In 63 IP this year, Urquidy had a 5.29 ERA. But before September 24, it was 6.17. However, in his last two appearances in critical games, he rediscovered his high-leverage moxy. He went nine innings without allowing a run. That included a win in the second-to-last game against Arizona in which the Astros clinched a playoff berth. France was unexpectedly scratched from that game, so Urquidy performed without the normal advanced preparation.
And the sharp pitching continued in the ALDS, with Urquidy winning the clinching
Game 4 after allowing only two runs.
These two players make the list because they are prodigal sons. They were lost but now are found. Just in time.
Honorable mentions go out to Ronel Blanco and Shawn Dubin for starting a few games and gaining a few victories. Every one counted.
Let’s hope all of these players carry forth all the way to another World Series trophy.
Go Stros. You’ve got ice in your veins. Prove that the dynasty is real.