Apr 15, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Mauricio Dubon hits a single during the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The Reinvention of Mauricio Dubón
Perhaps no player in baseball has changed the public perception of themselves as much as the Houston Astros utility man has.
It really couldn’t have come at a better time, with Jose Altuve on the injured list and the second base spot essentially up for grabs. No one expected that any player could replace what Altuve brings to the lineup, but the Astros have certainly gotten better production from that position without Altuve than they ever imagined.
The reinvention of Mauricio Dubón did not begin when the season started. It did not begin in Spring Training. It was following the World Series, and Dubón was the catalyst.
On May 14, 2022, the Houston Astros completed a nondescript trade with the San Francisco Giants, sending minor league catcher Michael Papierski to the Bay Area in exchange for a 165-pound utility player who had wanted to play for the Giants as a kid, some guy named Mauricio Dubón.
Fans can be forgiven for not knowing much about the then-27 year old Dubón, who was facing a roster squeeze in San Francisco with Evan Longoria returning from injury and Tommy LaStella on the verge of returning as well. At the time of the deal, Dubón was hitting .239, with a .245 OBP and .636 OPS. Not exactly impactful numbers, at least if you are looking for positive impact. He never had more than 175 AB in a season to that point and never showed much pop.
When he got to Houston last season, his numbers actually got worse. He hit .208 for Houston over a career high 197 AB, with a woeful .254 OBP and an unfathomably low .548 OPS. With an OPS+ of only 56, Dubón was essentially 44% worse than the average player at the plate. Yikes.
His slick fielding and defensive versatility kept him on the roster and got him significant playing time, as those two traits are something Astros manager Dusty Baker loves. That bat, however, needed a boost, and Dubón knew it.
He went to management after the season, looking for a way to improve at the plate. Houston’s front office, one of the very best when it comes to analytics, recognized his exit velocities (on average under 85 MPH) were below average, and that just a little more strength could turn outs into hits.
“There’s some balls that I hit that either should go out or should pass through, but they weren’t going because I didn’t have that extra strength,” Dubón stated at the time. “I’m trying to be a good ballplayer. I’m a good ballplayer, so I wanted to put that in the numbers.”
Dubón and the team came up with a plan. Essentially, the now 28-year old Dubón was going to have to turn himself back into a teenager, living in the gym and eating everything in sight. His goal was to consume 5,000 calories a day.
“A lot of forcing myself to eat and a lot of eating the right way, too,” Dubón explained. “There (were) times I didn’t want to see food, smell anything. I spent a lot of time in the gym, too.”
The resulting body change had Dubón arrive at Spring Training at a much stronger 190 pounds. The result? A somewhat better average exit velocity over 86 MPH, and more ground balls getting through the hole. Improved bat speed has helped him catch up to more pitches, and his strikeout rate has dropped from 11.3% to 4.9%.
Another part of his transformation has been in his approach. Dubón was suddenly trying to hit for more power when arriving in Houston, power he didn’t have. His flyball rate suddenly spiked to over 30%. He needed to get back to a more natural approach, making strong contact and hitting the ball on the ground and stroking line drives, not fly balls. The short porch of the Crawford Boxes can very tempting, but Dubón’s strengths at the plate are more in line with hitting balls the other way and going up the middle.
Now, his fly ball rate has dropped to nearly 10%, and his line drive rate up to nearly 31%. Almost 90% of his contact is to the opposite field or up the middle.
While it matters that the sample size is small, Dubon’s remarkable success is nothing short of incredible. Currently batting .328, his expected batting average (XBA) of .324 shows these aren’t fluky hits. He’s earning them. In fact, his slugging percentage (SLG) of .379 is actually below his expected slugging (XSLG) of .401, so you could make a case he’s been robbed a couple of times (such as by Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutcheon on April 10).
Dubón is currently riding a 13-game hitting streak, longest in the majors. While no one will ever expect him to be Altuve, because he can’t be, what he has done is hit the ball hard with consistency and provide an unexpected boost at both the bottom and now the top of the lineup. It says an awful lot about Dubón’s transformation at the plate that Baker chose him to replace Chas McCormick at the top of the lineup when the centerfielder came out of the lineup first due to vision issues and now with a back injury.
Dubón has reinvented himself as a hitter. It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s coming when the Astros need it most.