By NEAL FARMER
There is a lot of speculation on who the Astros MVP is this year. Some say Carlos Correa for his fielding and his bat. Some say Jose Altuve for his hitting. Some say Dallas Keuchel for his arm. Or the Springer Dingers that George Springer is putting up in the leadoff position and his outfield assists make him the leader in the clubhouse.
If an Astro can make decisions well enough to be a deciding factor in 20 games, then he can make a significant difference in the team’s win total and playoff chances no matter what position he is in.
I think the person who has made the most difference in the first half of the season and has a chance to influence 20 games before the season is over is not a player but a coach — pitching coach Brent Strom. He has helped the starting rotation overcome major injury problems and assisted the bullpen in being one of the most dependable in Major League Baseball.
Four out of five starters went out with injuries at different times weeks ago when the Astros were approximately 11-12 games in front of the AL West Division. If the rotation was a Houston street, it would be on the mayor’s new pothole repair list. The Astros today are still hovering around a 12-game lead in the division with a patchwork rotation.
When a pitcher needs to be calmed down on the mound, out trots Strom, hand over his mouth, like the opponents are at an expert level of lip reading and will steal his golden words.
True, some of what aids the pitching is not Strom but a solid offense that is putting up more than 5 runs per game. (The Astros have homered in 17 straight road games.) Pitchers certainly are a lot more confident when they have a 4-run lead.
But some of the arms Houston is using are more jelly-like than jet-equipped. If Houston had lost its lead in the West, people would be screaming for the Astros to make an in-season trade for another starter. I know I felt that way. But is that necessary now?
Mike Fiers (5-2, 3.81) threw a no-hitter in 2015. But he was awful earlier in 2017, so awful that he as effective as throwing gasoline on a fire. Yet, lately, he has pitched well enough to take up the slack without Keuchel, Colin McHugh and Lance McCullers.
Keuchel may not be back before the All-Star game on July 11 in Miami. There are only 12 games for Houston before the All-Star break, which begins on July 9. Yet many are not as worried as they once were about not having Keuchel available.
Strom also was saddled with Charlie Morton (5-3, 4.06) and Joe Musgrove (4-7, 6.02 ERA and since sent down to AAA), and some call Ken Giles, “One-Mile Giles,” because someone is going to hit the ball a mile long when he pitches.
But the coach also has worked well to exploit the talents of Will Harris (2-2, 1.95) and Chris Devenski (4-3, 2.33) to have a bullpen. And that bullpen has given up one run in 11 innings over the last two games.
The unstable starting rotation also has allowed Strom to work with youngsters David Paulino (1-2, 5.04) and Frances Martes (2-0, 5.51).
A good example was Sunday in Seattle. Martes started the game, but was wild. The bases were loaded in each of the first two innings, and Seattle took a 2-0 on a bases-loaded double. Martes was taken out after two innings. But the bullpen allowed only one hit until the ninth inning in the 8-2 victory. I mean, how many games do you win when your starter goes two innings and the opposing starter throws more than seven innings?
How much of it was the strength of the bullpen, and how much was Strom’s coaching? One thing for sure is, Strom did not screw it up.
BRENT STROM ON PITCHING PHILOSOPHY: “There are already things in place with Jeff (Luhnow) and the other guys having come over from St. Louis. I’m just another piece in that puzzle. I don’t think we do anything you have to write in invisible ink, or anything like that. Our philosophies aren’t anything special. Maybe we have a slightly different take on how we look for pitchers, and how we train them. I don’t know what all organizations do.
“We like to develop some athleticism. We like to understand the value of each pitcher and what they bring to the table. For example, is he going to be a four-seam-fastball type of guy or a sinker type of guy? What type of pitcher is he going to be, and how can we maximize that? Pitching isn’t one-size-fits-all. Whitey Herzog once told me — when I was a minor league pitcher with the Mets — ‘Pitchers need to continue to work on their strengths while hitters must work on their weaknesses.’ I have never forgotten that.
“A great strength the Cardinals have is finding players outside the first few rounds of the draft. They’ve found guys with arm strength and guys who do something unique. Maybe it’s something sabermetric-wise. It could be a guy who is inducing ground balls, or it could be the amount of rotation someone gets on his breaking ball. It could be different things, and that’s regardless of the guy’s record.”
“I think the biggest thing for a young pitcher is to be truthful with himself as to who he is, and what he is. For me, to succeed at the highest level is to have control and command, and the ability to change speeds. Understand sequencing, hiding pitches etc. If different pitches look the same coming out of your hand, they don’t have to be as crisp. Hitters don’t hit the radar gun and they don’t hit the break on the ball. They hit what they see or don’t see. If you can disguise your pitches, you’re halfway home.
“I always advocate to young pitchers that they develop a changeup as quickly as possible. Come up with one you can be confident in, as opposed to a maybe-pitch you don’t look forward to throwing. That alone will make your fastball better. The threat of that changeup makes a mediocre fastball play. You see it all the time.”
— as told to fangraphs.com on Dec. 4, 2013
TWO SEC SCHOOLS IN COLLGE WORLD SERIES – Well, TCU could not beat Florida and prevent all All-SEC final in the College World Series, which is between the Gators and LSU. I thought it would have been cool to have the Killer Frogs as a national champion, just because of their mascot. But on the other hand, I am waiting for free gumbo if LSU wins.
COOL FREE THINGS TO DO IN HOUSTON – You say you want to do something in
Houston when the Astros and Dynamo are out of town? Here are some freebies:
MIKE LEACH STORY – Leach is still pissed off at Texas Tech. And justifiably so:
HOUSTON SPORTS & STUFF COMMUNITY SERVICE – What the weather is like in real time at every airport in the USA, Canada and Mexico. You are welcome:
CLASSICAL NOTES – Holst wrote a symphony on the planets. It is his best work, and is his Opus 32. Mars, the Bringer of War, is the movement that you can play during a football game and enjoy the way the music interacts.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“I’m not your type. I’m not inflatable.”
– to Dallas Rangers of Arlington fans who think they still have a chance at the playoffs.
HOTTIE OF THE DAY