Growing frustrations with Astros manager not lost on the national media

Growing frustrations with Astros manager not lost on the national media
Are fans being too harsh when it comes to Dusty Baker? Composite Getty Image.

Daryl Morey was general manager of the Houston Rockets from 2007 to 2020. During Morey’s tenure, it’s true that the team never had a losing regular season record and won several division titles. But in the long run, the Rockets never won a Western Conference title or NBA championship while Morey called the shots.

Yet there was a saying around Houston media circles … “in Morey we trust.” Perhaps it was because Morey was a wisecracking quote machine, was always available for interviews, and knew how to work the room.

Now let’s have a look at Dusty Baker’s record as Houston Astros manager: three American League Championship Series appearances, two World Series appearances and one World Series championship (and aiming for another Fall Classic).

Yet nobody’s saying “in Dusty we trust.” In fact it’s open season for sniping and moaning about Baker’s stewardship of the Astros. Some sample comments from social media this past week:

“This Astros loss is squarely on Dusty Baker for putting out the stupidest lineup I have seen all season.”

“There’s a reason Dusty Baker has been fired four times in his career.”

“Another loss because Dusty Baker refuses to put our best lineup on the field.”

“Dusty Baker continues to set lineups like we’re in Week 2 of spring training.”

“Dusty Baker is the single worst decision maker in baseball. I’m actually speechless.”

“Goofy ass old man.”

Like I said, three Conference Championship Series appearances, two World Series appearances, one World Series title, and fans are still all over Baker’s butt. But why?

I’ll let Fox baseball play-by-play announcer Joe Davis explain why – straight from last week’s Fox national telecast of an Astros-Yankees game.

Davis said: “There may not be a wider gap in opinions of a player between a fan base and a manager than there is about Martin Maldonado. Astros fans are clamoring to have Yanier Diaz catch more. Dusty Baker is steadfast that Maldonado is his guy.”

You’ll never hear anything like that on a local Astros broadcast because Astros game announcers are employees of the Astros - and they’d like to remain employees.

But thanks to Fox and announcer Davis, now the whole country knows what’s been driving Astros fans batty all season. It’s Maldonado’s bat. He’s hitting an anemic .177 with lots of strikeouts and stranded runners. Diaz, a rookie, is hitting .276 with more walks, fewer strikeouts, more home runs and RBI than Maldy despite having fewer plate appearances.

Baker’s explanation: Yanier has trouble hitting lefties.

Astros fans might say that Maldonado has trouble hitting lefties, righties, pitching machines, tee ball, coed softball, whatever. His career batting average is .206 and he’s still having a down year.

For all the talk of Maldonado’s defensive wizardry, he’s leading the league in passed balls and the man they call Machete is below the league average in cutting down base stealers. So far he’s thrown out 13 of 67, or 19 percent, of steal attempts.

Diaz has no passed balls and has thrown out 10 of 28, or 36 percent, of potential base stealers in his limited action behind the plate.

But what about Maldonado’s genius for calling a game? Pitchers Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez love the guy.

Fans wonder, though, if Astros pitchers love watching Maldonado bat in late innings of close games and striking out with runners on base. As for calling a game, there’s no rule in baseball that says only catchers can call for fastballs and sliders.

In fact, when Roger Craig was managing the Giants to the National League pennant in 1987 he called pitches from the dugout. It’s not that rare, actually. You often see young or inexperienced catchers peering into the dugout for pitch selection. Maldonado could call the pitches from the bench.

Here’s one I’ll bet you didn’t know: One season late in his career Cal Ripken called pitches for some Baltimore Orioles pitchers from his infield position. Ripken knew opposing hitters’ habits and tendencies better than anybody on the O’s coaching staff.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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