NO EASY ANSWERS

As puzzling moves compound, Houston Astros face toughest decision yet

Dusty Baker's moves are again coming into question. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images.

Last October, with another World Series appearance looming, Astros owner Jim Crane was asked if he intended to bring back Dusty Baker as manager in 2022. There were whispers that the on-field manager and front office management weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on team matters. Maybe it was time to think long haul and Baker at 72 might be more suited for an advisory executive position.

Crane said, “Listen, Dusty deserves another shot for next year. We’ll see where it goes. Dusty has done a great job here, and I don’t think there is any reason we wouldn’t visit about it after the World Series. We don’t want to get distracted by any contracts or any extension.”

The guy just took you to the World Series and you’ll “see where it goes”? Crane eventually rewarded Baker with a one-year deal to return to the Astros helm.

One year.

That’s this year, the Astros are sputtering with a disappointing 12-11 record. Top to bottom, the team is mired in a collective month-long batting slump. Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Michael Brantley, Martin Maldonado, Jose Siri, and Yordan Alvarez, the meat of the Astros usually formidable lineup, are all hitting below their career averages. The only reason the entire starting lineup isn’t batting below their career averages is because shortstop Jeremy Pena is a rookie.

Some say it seems the Astros have been on the road the whole season, and that explains the lackluster record. True, including Monday night’s 3-0 shutout of the Seattle Mariners, the Astros have played only seven games at Minute Maid Park. But the Astros have a losing record, 3-4, at home so far this season.

Besides, the Astros have developed a reputation as road warriors in recent years. In 2017, they were 53-28 away from Houston. In 2018, they were a ridiculous 57-24 on the road. They also had winning away records in 2019 and 2021.

There have been recent grumblings about Baker’s general decision-making by fans on social media. Here’s one move that really had fans scratching their heads.

Last Sunday the Astros and Blue Jays were tied, 2-2 in the seventh inning. The Astros were batting with two down and the potential go-ahead run on second base. Maldonado stepped to the plate. It was crunch time.

Fans wondered, why is Baker letting Maldonado hit? At the time, the weak-hitting catcher (lifetime .210 average) was batting .090, the worst batting average among regulars in the league. This was the day before teams had to cut their rosters from 28 to 26 players, so Baker had pinch hitters on his bench.

You couldn’t blame Astros fielders if they were grabbing their gloves as Maldonado took his practice cuts. Leadoff hitter Chas McCormick might have wondered, do I really need to go to the on-deck circle? Was that Orbit throwing up his hands in disbelief?

Maldonado struck out swinging. Toronto scored a run in its bottom of the seventh. Game over. Astros lose.

The Astros are playing tough, close games. They lost a couple of one-run nail-biters last weekend against Toronto, a power-packed American League rival. The games were played with playoff intensity. Every at bat could have been the difference between winning and losing.

One at-bat in particular.

Not to trample worn-out territory, but Baker’s decision to let Maldonado hit in that crucial moment was perplexing, if not a downright bad bet.

It may seem like the season just began and, as the poet Robert Frost said, there are miles to go. But 23 games is one-seventh of a year in baseball. That’s a pretty fair sample. After another oh-for Monday night, Maldonado now is batting .083.

Let’s put that into historical context. The all-time lowest batting average by a player with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title is .168 by Orioles slugger Chris Davis in 2018. Less than two years later, at age 34, Davis was out of baseball.

If Maldonado starts hitting and DOUBLES his batting average by season-end, he still will break the record for worst batting average in baseball history.

Maldonado is 35, an age when hitters typically don’t improve, at least not since MLB cracked down on steroid cheaters. Maldonado’s recent yearly averages have dwindled from .227 in 2019 to .172 last season. He is trending downward. At what point do the Astros say Maldonado is irredeemable at the plate?

With the Mariners and Angels smelling Astros blood in the water, can the Astros afford a hitter who can’t hit? Magic 8 Ball says “outlook not so good.”

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