By Will Martin
2013 was the year of the League switch. 2014 was the year of the first ever batting title for a Houston Astro. A person who plays the game the right way, every play, every day. Some of you have been quick to remark that way too much attention has been bestowed upon #27 Jose Altuve this season. Allow me to go one step further.
If this were Derek Jeter how much press would the media have with this production?
As Jose Altuve went, so went the Astros.
2014 is now a memory. A look back indeed but not before keeping with current events as it was announced one day after the 2014 season ended that a new skipper will handle the reins in Houston. The 18th Astros manager in their history. A.J. Hinch will be the man to lead the Houston Astros in 2015 and beyond.
“I’ve known A.J. for a long time…he’s got a lot of passion for this game and he’s got a passion for winning,” Jeff Luhnow said. “He very well understands what it is we’re doing here, and I couldn’t be happier with our choice. I think A.J. is going to be the manager who’s here when we win the World Series.”
Once upon a time Hinch was a manager in Arizona from 2009-2010 with a career 89-123 record. Hinch was also a scouting assistant for four years with the San Diego Padres prior to the September 29th announcement at Minute Maid Park.
“The goal is to have championships,” Hinch said after slipping on a No. 14 jersey. “The arrow is turning toward success in talking about winning a little bit and talking about the ultimate goal. I’m proud to be here. To wear this orange and blue is something I cherish, and to put this uniform on and be called the ‘Skipper’ is something I’m very privileged to be.”
One person who was happy with the message was Jim Crane.
“We’re very excited about A.J.,” Crane said. “He really touches all the bases, has had all of the jobs. … He’s got a great resume, he’s a smart guy and we felt he understands what Jeff’s trying to do and the communication between them will be very good.”
One word that was being used to describe Hinch as the new skipper: Versatility!
“He’s had all of those experiences,” Luhnow said. “I think that’s helped. I like the well-roundedness of A.J., the fact he has worked in a front office in various capacities. He understands my perspective, because he’s done my job. He understands the perspective of [farm director] Quentin [McCracken] because he’s been a farm director. He knows what it takes to go out and find a player, to scout a player, to get a player into the system and move him through and get him to the big leagues.
“He’s been there when a lot of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ young prospects got there and helped shepherd them through the system, and he knows our system pretty well. …He comes in with this breadth of experience that just very few candidates have. We have a lot of guys out there who have had the experience or have played, but the whole combination, the whole package for us was really good.”
Now for the Astros of 2014. A 19 game leap over 2013. There was no 15 game losing skid to finish out the season.
Major League Baseball announced September 30 that Houston Astros starting pitcher Collin McHugh was named American League Rookie of the Month for September.
The fifth Astros player ever to win a Rookie of the Month Award, and the second this season, joining OF George Springer (May 2014), OF Hunter Pence (May 2007), RHP Kirk Saarloos (July 2002) and RHP Roy Oswalt (August 2001). Pence, Saarloos and Oswalt all won NL Rookie of the Month awards.
2014 marked the first time the Astros have had multiple Rookie of the Month Award winners in a single season.
McHugh won all four of his starts in September, finishing the month with a 4-0 record and a 1.59 ERA (5ER/28.1IP), 25 strikeouts and just one walk. He led all Major League rookies in ERA, opponents’ average (.150, 15×100), WHIP (0.56) and strikeout to walk ratio (25.00), while ranking tied for first in wins.
McHugh’s 1.59 ERA in September marked the third-lowest in Astros history for a rookie during the month, behind RHP Mark Lemongello (1.29 ERA in 1977) and RHP Ken Forsch (1.24 ERA in 1971).
Back to Jose Altuve. Your 2014 A.L. Batting champion hitting at a .341 clip. More than that becoming part of a very select group of people who led the league in hits (225), stolen bases (56) and finishing second in doubles (47) Altuve joined a very elite group of people to lead in those categories.
Ty Cobb is the only other player to put up numbers that gaudy in a season. That was in 1911. Tris Speaker (1912) and George Sisler (1922) are the only other players who compiled 220 hits, 40 doubles and 50 steals in a season.
Altuve’s 225 hits are the most by a second baseman since Rod Carew in 1974 (217) and Charlie Gehringer in 1937 (227).
I was present on June 29 when Jose Altuve collected his fourth consecutive multi-stolen base game, becoming the first player in 97 years with four straight multi-steal games and just the third player in baseball’s modern era (since 1900) to accomplish this. The first two were Bill Dahlen in 1904 and Ray Chapman in 1917. Altuve’s cleats from the June 29 game are currently on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY.
Jose Altuve also became just the third player since 1945 to lead his league in batting, hits and steals in the same season. The last two were Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 and Snuffy Stirnweiss with the 1945 Yankees (per Elias).
As Jose goes, so went the Houston Astros in 2014. The starting pitching in 2014 was pretty gritty and consistent as witnessed by the efforts of Dallas Keuchel (12-9 2.93) and an AL-best five complete games. In addition to wins, Keuchel also led the Astros in innings with a career-high 200.0. His 3.63 Groundball/Flyball ratio is tops in the Majors, while his 2.93 ERA is 7th in the AL.
Equal kudos must be given to the rookie Collin McHugh (11-9 2.73 era). McHugh led the Astros staff in strikeouts while ranking among the AL leaders in SO/9IP (9.14) and opponents batting average (.208).
His 2.73 ERA ranks 6th in the AL among pitchers with 150.0 or more innings pitched. Prior to this season, McHugh had never made more than eight appearances in a big-league season.
Houston ranked second in stolen bases (122), third in home runs (163) finishing out the 2014 season on a 13-13 run, 19-18 in their last 37, and 28-28 since the All-Star break.
Scott Feldman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Brad Peacock have the makings of quite the quintet come 2015.
Houston also got out of the cellar as of July 9th and got a comfortable lead over the Rangers. 4th place was theirs.
From July 5 onward Chris Carter was among the top two or three players who could change the outcome of a game with one swing. Chris Carter finished with 37 dingers and 88 RBIs. Four Astros players added 50 ribbies or more in 2014 (Jason Castro 56, Matt Dominguez 57, Jose Altuve 58, and George Springer 50 before injury took him out).
L.J. Hoes and Dexter Fowler also provided some timely hitting and speed at the top of the lineup before that became Jose Altuve’s forte.
New faces who were welcome addition to the Astros in 2014 were George Springer, Jon Singleton and Collin McHugh. The back end of the pitching rotation got better as the season wore on with Tony Sipp, Josh Fields, Jake Buchanan as a solid setup men for Chad Qualls or Jose Veras to close things out.
All the pieces are indeed in place for a gradual climb toward respectability. My guess is that for 2015 you’ll see five Astros capable of 80-100 rbis.
It was much more fun to watch the Astros get some baby steps in their journey within the AL West. For the record the Angels, Mariners, and Astros were teams in the American League who experienced a sharp turnaround.
The A.L. West will without question be the class of the Majors for the immediate foreseeable future.