THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR heads to the Texas Motor Speedway for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500

Photo via: Wiki Commons.

After much speculation, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Lone Star State for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. Over the past week there were rumors that NASCAR was going to relocate the race after alleged pressure from the state to cancel. But alas the show goes on and the race will continue. Like the All-Star race, Texas Motor Speedway will also allow fans on the premises as well. This track will more than likely be able to operate at fifty percent capacity so this will likely be the largest crowd since the shutdown. While there is still a lot that is unclear in the world, there will be at least some sense of normalcy come Sunday in the crowd. Hopefully everyone stays safe, wears a mask and follows social distancing guidelines. This could very well be a barometer for future fans in the stands at any point during this season. I hope that all goes well.

Chase Elliott went on to capture his first All-Star race on Wednesday. The race itself was rather lackluster as there wasn't the excitement most fans expected to see. Overall, the reason for this in my opinion was how short the race was, especially the last segment. In the final laps when Kyle Busch was chasing down Elliott, he would get closer and closer but simply didn't have enough laps to run him down and do anything with him. If this race had been fifteen laps longer, there probably would have been a lot more excitement towards the front. In the end, this idea to move the All-Star race to Bristol was well-intentioned but there were a few minor kinks. But overall it was a fairly successful All-Star race.

The one thing I hope they continue to go with in the future is the lights they put underneath the cars, that was incredible. Wouldn't it be awesome to see those at tracks like Daytona? Initially, I was a naysayer when it was announced but after seeing it in action I thought it was awesome! The two things I hope they tweak is that they put the lights on all sides of the cars, and they let the teams dictate what the color is. If they can do that, I think it would be a neat way to promote their sponsors.

As NASCAR tries to navigate its way through this global pandemic, some parts of the schedule still remain unclear as Watkins Glen will cancel their race in August and move the race to the road course at Daytona. This is something that I have been looking forward to seeing for years, and I am glad to see it is finally coming to light. It will be interesting to see how close the cars are when they enter the oval portion of the racetrack and if the leader will be able to pull away unlike what we see at a regular Daytona race. It should be fun to see how this goes. I predict it will be similar to the first race at the oval in Charlotte so you know it will be good. I look forward to seeing the end results come next month and what the future holds for this configuration.

This week, the driver I have winning is Kevin Harvick. As we all know, the 2014 champion has been head and shoulders above everyone this week, and on Sunday we will see much of the same. Since 2017, he's made this track his personal playground. He has three victories in the last six races there and hasn't finished worse than eighth. So to say he has been good there would be an understatement. I look for him to put a beatdown on the field this weekend and capture his fifth victory of the season. Look for Harvick to take his #4 back to victory lane come Sunday.

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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

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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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