Apr 25, 2023; St. Petersburg, Florida, USA; Houston Astros left fielder Corey Julks (9) reacts after scoring a run against the Tampa Bay Rays in the fifth inning at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Justice: Let’s hear it for Mauricio Dubón, Corey Julks, and other surprises in this improbable and fascinating start by the Astros
How would you have reacted if I’d tapped you on the shoulder three months ago and whispered: “The Astros are going to be 13-11 on April 26.”
I would have added that they were going to sweep the Braves in Atlanta and hand the hottest team in the sport their first loss at home. That their pitching staff would have a 3.25 ERA, fourth-lowest in the majors.
That their second baseman would be fifth in the American League with a .329 batting average. That one of their relievers would have 10 straight scoreless appearances.
You would have yawned. Been there, done all of that, you would have said. This is what we’ve come to expect from the franchise that is baseball’s gold standard for winning.
Yet the path to 13-11 has been about as interesting a start to a season as any in recent memory. Mauricio Dubón has been spectacular in filling in for Jose Altuve with a 19-game hitting streak and .329 batting average.
This isn’t what the Astros had in mind when they acquired him from the Giants early last season. At the time, he was seen as a reliable defensive player that could play all over the diamond. He was not seen as an impact offensive player.
But during the off-season he added 16 pounds of muscle, and has found a soulmate in Yordan Alvarez, who has helped calm him down at the plate and stick to a plan for each at-bat.
Of all the great stories on this season’s Astros, none is better than a 28-year-old player playing for his fourth team and unwilling to settle for the “utility” player role.
Actually, there might be one better story. That would be the local kid made good, Corey Julks, of Clear Brook High School and the University of Houston.
He was the 241st selection of the 2017 draft who had toiled five seasons in the minors. Even after a breakout 2022 season at Triple-A Sugar Land (31 homers, .854 OPS), the Astros left him unprotected in last winter’s Rule 5 draft of minor leaguers.
Twenty-nine teams passed on him, but he came to spring training and hustled his way onto the Opening Day roster, beating out some of the youngsters the Astros believe will be significant contributors some day. Michael Brantley’s shoulder surgery opened a roster spot for him, and Julks did the rest by hitting .318 with a .799 OPS.
(Dubón and Julks had four hits of the Astros 11 hits–three of them doubles–on Tuesday in a 5-0 victory over Tampa Bay. The Rays began the day 14-0 at home, the best start for a team in 138 years.)
And then there’s center fielder Jake Meyers, who represents a huge victory for hitting coaches Alex Cintron and Troy Snitker. They convinced Meyers to incorporate a leg kick into his stance. Their thinking was that Meyers sometimes overthought situations, and that the leg kick would force him simply to react. He’s hitting .302 with a .373 on-base average.
Phil Maton has emerged as this season’s Bryan Abreu with 11 2/3 shutout innings spanning 10 appearances. Once nicknamed “Spin Rate” because his curveball lit up evaluations by MLB analytics staffs, he has rediscovered his best pitch and given manager Dusty Baker another late-inning option.
As usual, Baker deserves a huge share of credit as he shuffles his lineups to maximize production while the Astros haven’t gotten an at-bat from Altuve or Brantley and with Alvarez sidelined with a sore neck.
He has taken the long view of the season by giving his relievers regular rest and using every player on his bench. His long-term goal is to get the Astros into the postseason with a healthy, fresh group of core guys and with bench players that have been put into key situations the entire season.
If you were to list all the reasons Dusty Baker is going to the Hall of Fame, these things might not be at the top of the list. But they’re a big part of his magic.
So in a season when injuries have forced the Astros to dig deep into their depth and lean on some players they didn’t expect to be leaning on, the bottom line is about as good as ever.
While a bunch of familiar names—Kyle Tucker, Alvarez, Framber Valdez, Bryan Abreu—have been as good as ever, a long list of others have more than filled in the gaps created by the injuries as well as the slow starts by Alex Bregman, Jose Abreu, and Jeremy Peña.
Baseball seasons are always journeys into the unknown because even the most stable rosters and proven teams are going to be tested in all sorts of ways.
The Astros do not have a strong farm system, or a deep one. Virtually every analysis agrees on that assessment. But almost every time the Astros have needed help from their system in recent seasons, they’ve found solutions.
That was true last season with the debuts of Peña and Hunter Brown and with the improvements of Abreu and Chas McCormick. It’s true again this season and hopefully a reminder of how lucky we’ve been to get to watch this team play baseball these last nine seasons.