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The Astros Could Turn Back The Clock With A New Leadoff Hitter

On Sept. 29, 2018, Houston Astros outfielder Myles Straw dug in against Yefry Ramírez of the Baltimore Orioles. Straw ran the count full, then drove a ball the other way, over the left-center field fence.

The delight of his teammates and announcers was beyond the normal glee after a major leaguer’s first home run. It emerged from the fact that Straw, long known for his speed and defense, was doing something he had managed only four times in 2,143 minor league plate appearances.


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“Straw man’s got some pop!” Astros color commentator Geoff Blum exclaimed.

Cue Ron Howard’s narrator voice: He doesn’t.

Padres Fernando Tatís Jr. smiling and looking back over his right shoulder

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That has been Straw’s only major league home run. In fact, the kind of power Straw posted through his first three major league seasons makes Blum and his 99 home runs over 14 seasons look positively Ruthian.

That’s not to say that the Astros are foolish to look to Straw to replace George Springer in center field after the franchise cornerstone left Houston for a long-term deal with the Toronto Blue Jays this winter. It simply means that the shape of Straw’s game is fundamentally different than virtually anyone we’ve seen in recent MLB play. And if he succeeds, he could do more than help propel the Astros to an American League West title. He could be the catalyst of a new breed of leadoff hitters — or, more accurately, a restoration of them — in the process.

A 12th-round pick in the 2015 draft, Straw quickly showed that his speed and on-base skills would translate to the pros, with north of 20 steals in each of his first two seasons, and a robust .423 OBP over two stops in 2016. By 2018, at Double-A and Triple-A, he had found another level on the bases, nabbing 70 steals across the two levels and getting caught just nine times. He was more or less what MLB is hoping others will be on the basepaths with the new rule expanding the base size at Triple-A, but he did it under the old rules.

In the outfield, Straw was capable of covering massive amounts of ground. But he was more just than a speedster; he had the presence of mind to make plays like this.

What he didn’t do was hit for power. Not just home runs — he collected only 73 doubles and 25 triples in his minor league career. The result was an isolated power number1 below .100 in each of his minor league seasons. And that has continued in the major leagues, with Straw posting an ISO of .074 in his largely Strawish 2019 — a slash line of .269/.378/.343 — and just .049 in his difficult 2020 season, when he slashed only .207/.244/.256.

Still, anyone projecting forward from the small sample of 2020 at-bats is soon going to look as silly as Disco Stu counting on the disco revolution to keep on growing. 

But a return to the typical skill set of Straw looks a lot like, well, the kind of leadoff hitter we used to see all the time. Straw has been a consistently elite defender at all three outfield spots, but in center field, his level of speed and routes to the ball make him particularly valuable. He is fast and smart on the basepaths. He doesn’t have to hit for power to help the Astros win the AL West — he’s just going to help in a way we haven’t seen much lately.

Straw’s career MLB ISO of .063 would rank ninth-lowest among all outfielders since World War II, if only he had enough qualifying at-bats.2 But Straw’s skill set is different, and potentially better, than the eight below his production to date on that list: Jose Tartabull, Bob Bailor, Bill North, Ben Revere, Gerald Young, Willy Taveras, Alan Wiggins and Otis Nixon. Of that quintet, only Young and Taveras rated as plus defenders, and none of the five have walk rates at Straw’s level except Young — and Straw’s career figure is brought down by his 2020 performance, an outlier in every conceivable way.

an illustration for FiveThirtyEight’s Negro Leagues interactive, with two baseball players, one on the left swinging a bat, the one on the right having just pitched. Both are very round illustrations and standing in front of blue and red bubbles.

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Take just Straw’s 2019 and project it out to 2,000 at-bats, and the guys it looks the most like are folks like Gary Pettis and Richie Ashburn — the former, a five-time Gold Glove winner and mainstay with the 1980s Angels, the latter a Philadelphia Phillies (and 1962 Mets!) great ultimately elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It takes a certain long view of baseball to look at Straw and see an obvious leadoff hitter, so perhaps we should not be surprised that Houston’s manager is Dusty Baker, a man who played with Strawish players like North and Dwayne Murphy and managed Darren Lewis, Taveras and even a young Billy Hamilton — all players who never possessed Straw’s on-base skills.

Incidentally, if you were wondering whether Straw understood what was necessary to become the player Houston needs him to be, wonder no more. “I’m honestly working with the hitting coaches … just gonna work on getting on base as much as I can for this team, because I think everyone in the world knows that we’ve got some guys that can drive in runs,” Straw said on a media Zoom call last month. “So I think the biggest thing for me this year will be getting on base and just being a trendsetter and letting those guys do the rest.”

He’s not wrong about that. The 2019 Astros led the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+. Even the regression in 2020 was largely one bad month in a 60-game season. And while the 2021 Astros won’t have Springer, they will have young slugger Yordan Álvarez back from injury

And they’ll also have Straw. Baker challenged the 26-year-old to win the leadoff spot and play center field, and he has largely done that in spring training, hitting .346 so far. It’s a mistake to take anything meaningful out of spring training stats, but they do provide a counter to the lack of production Straw posted in 2020 — and they reinforce what we do have from him in evidence through 2019. 

My only real red flag was hearing Astros bench coach Joe Espada, in a recent in-game interview on an Astros broadcast, call for Straw to be more aggressive early in the count, which is not how Straw has succeeded so far. His career slash line on the first pitch is .190/.190/.238, including, for obvious reasons, zero walks, while his numbers on 3-2 counts jump to .243/.451/.324, putting one of the best base-runners on nearly half the time. It’s hard to imagine that’s a tradeoff worth pursuing, and his ratio of full-count/first-pitch plate appearances in 2019 was 34/12. In 2020, it was 14/9. So … don’t do that, Myles.

Still, Espada said that he believes Baker wants to settle on a leadoff hitter, and while folks like José Altuve are still in the mix, Straw’s skill set and lack of power makes him the likeliest choice, provided he is named the starting center fielder. And that’s going to make MLB more fun in 2021, which the league has explicitly said is the goal of all its minor league rule changes, too.

“These experimental rules are designed to put more balls in play, create more excitement on the basepaths and increase the impact of speed and athleticism on the field,” MLB Senior Vice President Raúl Ibañez said of the new wrinkles baseball is putting into place. 

But he might as well have been talking about Myles Straw.


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Footnotes

  1. Slugging percentage minus batting average.

  2. Minimum of 2,000.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.

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