Let's discuss the keys to a stellar second half for Astros

Getting Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa back will be huge. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

After an incredible come from behind victory to beat the New York Yankees on Sunday, the Astros now sit at top the American League West standings with a 55-36 record.

As it currently stands, Houston has the 2nd best record in the American League only behind the Chicago White Sox.

With the official first half of the MLB season in the books, the Astros look to continue their winning ways and make a playoff run for the 5th consecutive year.

Here are the keys to Houston's success entering the second half of the 2021 season.

In order for the Astros to continue their winning ways, they need consistent production from their All-Stars. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Michael Brantley and Ryan Pressly all made the All-Star team this season. Although none of them are playing in the Midsummer Classic this year, they will use this opportunity to heal existing injuries and spend time with their families.

Atluve has a .278 batting average and leads the team in home runs with 20 this season. His latest was a three-run, walk-off home run against the aforementioned Yankees.

The other All-Star sluggers Correa and Brantley have and great seasons as well with Correa continuing to showcase he is one of the best shortstops in the game at the plate and on the field. Brantley is continuing to mash at the plate as he leads the team in bating average and is 2nd in the American League (behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) with a .326 average.

One Astros hitter who should have been an All-Star was Yuli Gurriel. He leads the team with 96 hits this season and has a .313 batting average with 54 RBI's. The first basemen is putting up career numbers across the board and has become one of the Astros best hitters this season.

Other Astros hitters who have made tremendous progress are Kyle Tucker and Myles Straw. When George Springer and Josh Reddick left the team after the 2020 season, both Straw and Tucker were given the opportunity to become everyday players for the Astros. Both outfielders got off to slow starts to start the season, but have become tremendous guys Dusty Baker can put in his lineup consistently.

This Astros hitting core leads the league in runs, hits, batting average and OPS. It's safe to say if the Astros continue to hit consistently, this team can defeat any team in the league.

Finally, Houston is expecting to get some of their injured players back here soon. Both Alex Bregman and Aledmys Diaz should be back to bolster this batting lineup and give the Astros some depth. Jose Urquidy should be back soon as well to help out this starting rotation.

After the All-Star break, the Astros will head to Chicago to start a three-game series with the White Sox before coming home for a six-game homestand against the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers.

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The Astros will have some new rules to adjust to in 2023. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

If you are savvy enough to read next week’s column, you will be doing so with spring training underway in Florida and Arizona. Hip, hip, hooray! Astros pitchers and catchers have their first workout scheduled for next Thursday, with the full squad due early the following week ahead of games starting February 25. Spring training baseball is not meant to be exciting, but the major rules changes that will take effect this season will be in full effect in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, making spring games more interesting to follow.

The biggest change is the death of infield shifts. As reminder or to get up to speed, the first and second baseman must now always be aligned on the first base side of second while the shortstop and third baseman must both be on the third base side of second. Plus, all infielders must have both feet on the dirt of the infield.

There are legitimate points to be made as to why shifts should be allowed, and also why modifying the rules makes sense. I get the argument that if hitters can’t take advantage of an open side of the infield, shame on them. However, taking advantage of a shift is not as easy as it looks.

The best argument against shifts is that they clearly more penalized left-handed hitters. You think Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will miss losing some hits on balls smashed on one hop 30 or 40 feet into the outfield only to have a second baseman make the play? If once every other week Tuck or Yordan picks up a hit that the shift would have taken away, over 500 at bats, that’s about a 25 point difference in batting average. Defenses couldn’t shift in the same fashion against right-handed hitters because unless the batter/runner has Martin Maldonado or Albert Pujols level (non)speed, throwing guys out at first from 30 or 40 feet out in left field is not viable.

Welcome the pitch clock. There will be griping from some pitchers and hitters. Suck it up buttercups! Adapt or die. In the minor leagues the pitch clock knocked off 20-25 minutes from the average game length. The average big league game should not take more than three hours. For darn sure a 3-1 or 4-2 game shouldn’t take more than three hours.

With no runners on base a pitcher has 15 seconds from when he gets the ball to start his motion, with runner(s) on base 20 seconds. Failure to comply is an automatic ball. It’s called the pitch clock but batters are on notice too. There is simply no need for batters to be stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the meaning of life every pitch or two. Batters not in the box and ready when the clock gets down to eight seconds get an automatic strike. There are several exceptions, such as a batter gets one timeout per plate appearance,

The bases themselves are 20 percent larger. Instead of 15 inches square they are now 18 inches square which serves a couple of purposes. There will be a bit more space for infielders to avoid baserunners at the bags. That’s sensible. We’ve all heard “Baseball is a game of inches.” Legendary General Manager Branch Rickey is credited with coining the phrase. Rickey is also the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, and the guy who basically invented the farm system.

Anyway, back to game of inches. The larger bases shorten the distance between first and second, and second and third base, by four and a half inches. A massive change it is not, but a meaningful change it is. Think of the close calls on stolen base attempts, or a runner going from first to third on a single. It’s not mastering advanced calculus to get that a shorter distance between bases makes it easier to successfully get to the next one. Anything that increases the value of speed in the game is a good thing.

Base stealing will also be impacted by the new pickoff limitations rule. Say Jose Altuve leads off with a single. Up comes Jeremy Pena. The pitcher gets two “disengagements” during Pena’s at bat. Pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber both count as “disengagement.” A third disengagement not resulting in a pickoff is an automatic balk. Does Altuve take a huge lead to draw pickoff throws knowing that after two non-pickoffs he gets a big advantage?

Might any unintended consequences result from the rules changes? Let’s find out.

Can I interest you in an Astros podcast?

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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