The Glove

Ozzie Smith was a wizard with the glove, he could do everything on the field defensively. The same could be said for Omar Vizquel. If it was possible defensively, one or both of these men could do it on a baseball diamond. The impossible dive, catch, or throw; they could do it all. Andrelton Simmons seems to have taken up their torch. Simmons is only in his sixth season, yet he is already drawing comparisons to these legendary players.

Omar Vizquel played for six teams during his 24 year career, all in the American League except a four year stint with the Giants. A magician with the glove, Vizquel ranks first in career games played at shortstop, fourth in career dWAR, appeared in three All Star games, and won 11 Gold Gloves. Beginning in 1993, Vizquel won the American League Gold Glove for shortstop every year until 2001. His defensive dominance continued late into his career, as he won his 11th and final Gold Glove as a 39 year old shortstop for the Giants in 2006.

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Ozzie Smith was fearless with a glove in his hand. (www.si.com)

Ozzie Smith played for the Padres and the Cardinals during his 19 year career. The Wizard ranks fourth in career games at shortstop, first in career dWAR, appeared in 15 All Star games, and won consecutive 13 Gold Gloves. He is the only player to win a National League Gold Glove at shortstop in the 1980s, winning every year from 1980 until 1992.

Vizquel and Smith were the premier defensive shortstops from 1989 to 1996; collectively winning eight of the 16 Gold Gloves awarded by Major League Baseball. Two men, two leagues, winning half of all Gold Gloves.

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Omar Vizquel could do it all with the glove.  (www.mlb.com/indians)

The absurd defensive capabilities of both Vizquel and Smith did not translate into hitting prowess. They each hit .300 or better only once in their careers. Vizquel and Smith were the traditional light hitting shortstop that rarely exists in baseball today. Every player is expected to help the team offensively, even defensive legends. The offensive ability of Andrelton Simmons could be what separates him from the two legends he resembles defensively.

Watching Simmons play shortstop is like watching an unscripted ballet. Every night he does something amazing. A throw that catches a sleeping runner. A dive to stop a ball getting to the outfield, thus stopping a runner from grabbing another bag. A catch that normally would fall in for a base hit. Every batter knows they have to hustle on any ball in the infield because Simmons can appear out of nowhere to field the ball and unleash his cannon arm to take another hit away. If Omar Vizquel was a magician and Ozzie Smith was the Wizard, let’s call Andrelton Simmons a sorcerer.

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Andrelton Simmons will leave you speechless with his glove every night, and could become the greatest shortstop ever. (AP/ Mark J. Terrill)

Simmons is only 27 years old, his peak years should be ahead of him. This season he is breaking out offensively, as he is on pace to set career highs in Plate Appearances, Home Runs, Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, On-Base Plus Slugging, Total Bases, Defensive Innings and Errors. (Defensive errors can be a sign of greater range or instincts, thus reaching more balls and creating more chances to make a play. The more chances the more opportunity for mistakes. More aggressive defense does have ceiling however.) He has already set career highs in Hits, Doubles, Walks, RBI, Stolen Bases, and Sacrifice Flies, and we have a few more weeks left in the season.

No one is under any illusion that Simmons is the next slugging shortstop, like Alex Rodriguez or Cal Ripken Jr. He is rather a once in a generation defensive player. If he continues to improve offensively, while retaining his defensive skills, he should enjoy a long career. He has the skills with the glove to become the greatest shortstop to ever field the position. Improving his ability with the bat could put Andrelton Simmons in the conversation for the greatest shortstop ever.

DJ

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September Baseball

The time has arrived for teams chasing the playoffs to claim their spots or fade away into another off season. The boys of summer has worked hard for months for the opportunity to play in October, and September has the ability to give them the world or take it all away. There are 10 playoff spots available and as September marches towards the cooler weather of October there are 18 teams fighting for their spot among the 10. Several teams like the Royals, Mariners, Brewers, and Cardinals have almost no room for error. They must play nearly perfect September baseball to pass teams ahead of them to secure their ticket to the Wild Card game. Is it impossible? No. Is it likely? Probably not, but what is wrong with giving it a shot.

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Will the Brewers high flying start help them make the playoffs for the first time since 2011? (Noah K. Murray- USA TODAY Sports)

Those teams like the Phillies, Giants, and White Sox are already looking forward to 2018. Even though the results of their games in September will not change the outcome of their season, many players are playing for  their futures. No one wants to pack it in in September because the difference between playing in the Majors and the Minors is microscopic, yet the rewards are enormous. Jobs are on the line for players with  teams who have been out of the playoff hunt since early summer; players, coaches, and the front office need to leave owners with a good impression otherwise the off season could be unkind.

As the calendar turns deeper into September, the games for those chasing the playoffs begin to feel like the playoffs themselves. Every at bat and pitch matters because a single win or lose can be the difference between making the playoffs and watching at home. The Major League season is a marathon and September is the home stretch. Teams need to pick it up and start sprinting to the finish. It is better to go all out now, than to wonder all winter what could have been. Happy September baseball, the playoffs before the playoffs.

DJ

American Dominance

The Houston Astros are rolling through the American League yet it is not a single dominant player that is leading the team, rather it is a full cast. A.J. Hinch is managing an offense that can pound opponents from different angles and a pitching staff that is above average. Put the two together and it is clear why the race for the American League West ended a long time ago.

Offensively the Astros are not a one man show, rather they are a cast of many. A quick rundown of the statistics paints a vivid picture. Houston has:

  • 7 players with 100 or more hits: Jose Altuve, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Marwin Gonzalez.
  • 4 players with .300 or better Batting Average:  Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, and George Springer.
    • Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel are hitting .295.
  • 6 players with at least 50 RBI: Carlos Correa, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick.
  • 4 players with 40 or more walks: Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer.
    • Marwin Gonzalez has 37 walks.
  • 8 players with 50 or more Runs scored: George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, Alex Bregman, Carlos Beltran, Yuli Gurriel, and Marwin Gonzalez.
  • 11 players with 11 or more home runs: George Springer, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jake Marisnick, Josh Reddick, and Evan Gattis.

Houston can hit for average and power, can get a runner over and then in. The Astros have the fewest strikeouts in the Majors, they put the ball in play and good things are happening. Even with Correa, McCann, and Gattis sporting injuries, this team still has enough firepower to continue rolling along. Not relying on one or two players for their offense should prevent the Astros from running out of steam in October.  

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The Astros hope to continue the celebration in October. (Aric Crabb/ Bay Area News Group)

Even if the Astros offense gets hurt and/or all runs cold the pitching staff is capable to keeping the team going. While not as dominant as the offense, it’s a tough act to follow, the Houston pitching staff has a 4.24 team ERA, below the MLB average of 4.34. They lead MLB in strikeouts with 1,201 and are only slightly above average in walks allowed with 397, average is 389. The team WHIP is 1.288 against the MLB average of 1.342. None of these numbers are eye popping. They merely point out that the Astros have a serviceable pitching staff able to keep games close enough on those nights when the offense slows down a step. Despite his own injuries, Dallas Keuchel leads the starting rotation with a 2.77 ERA in 15 starts. Injuries to Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh have meant the linchpin to the pitching staff’s success has been the bullpen. Set up men Chris Devenski and Will Harris have ERAs below 2.86, while closer Ken Giles has an ERA of 2.80 with 23 saves and 40 games finished. The ability to shorten a game to only six or seven innings on a given night means even in close games opposing teams have to get their offense going early otherwise the Houston bullpen can shut them down.

Houston lost a lot of games for several years to rebuild into a contender. The plan has worked. The Astros are one of, if not, the best team in baseball. The discomfort of losing season after season should result in winning season after season for the foreseeable future. A.J. Hinch’s team shows no sign of slowing down. The offense is carrying the team, yet the pitching staff is good enough to keep the success going once playoff baseball arrives. Time will tell, but for now Houston looks almost unstoppable.

DJ

Old School Pennant Race

Under the original playoff system the best team in each league met in the World Series. If that system were still in place the pennant race in both leagues would be nearly over. The Houston Astros lead the American League by 6 games and the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the National League by 12.5 games. It is early August. The rest of the season would be rather boring unless at least one of these teams takes a nosedive. Barring the unthinkable, it would almost seem like a waste to wait until October to play the World Series. Houston and Los Angeles have demonstrated their dominance over their respective leagues during the first two-thirds of the season.

Thankfully baseball no longer goes straight from the regular season to the World Series. Instead a potential snooze fest of a season is shaping up to be an exciting stretch run. The Red Sox and Indians lead their respective divisions, with the Yankees, Twins, Royals, Rays, Mariners, Angels, Orioles, Rangers, and Blue Jays within five games of either their divisional lead or a Wild Card spot in the American League. In the National League, the Cubs and Nationals lead their divisions with the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates, Rockies, and Diamondbacks within five games of their division lead or a Wild Card spot.

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The Dodgers hope to celebrate a World Series victory in October. (Noel M. Vasquez/ Getty Images)

Baseball is better when 18 teams are in the running for the playoffs, not just two- exciting playoff races are one way to grow the game.

One of the critics of each playoff expansion, from Championship Series to Divisional Series to Wild Card, has been that the best team in baseball does not always win the World Series. No doubt this is true. The Braves of the 1990’s should have won more than just one World Series. The Indians of that era should have at least one World Series title to their credit. Meanwhile, the Miami (Florida) Marlins won two World Series, both times as the National League Wild Card.

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Sandy Alomar and the Indians were the better team during the regular season, but came up short in the World Series. (www.si.com)

In many ways this unpredictability in the World Series is good for baseball. Think of the billions of dollars the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, and Red Sox have spent over the last decade to win four world Series between them. Large payrolls don’t guarantee World Series victories, nor does a World Series title guarantee success the next season as the Red Sox can attest. In basketball, it’s an easy bet that any team with LeBron James will play in the NBA Finals. In football, the Patriots are usually a solid choice as long as Tom Brady is healthy. It does not work that way in baseball. If it did every World Series would be Mike Trout and the Angels and/or Bryce Harper and the Nationals. How many World Series appearances do they have combined? Zero.

18 of the 30 Major League teams still have at least an outside shot at the playoffs. Are some teams delusional about their chances and were buyers instead of sellers at the trade deadline? Absolutely. However, baseball as a whole benefits when the majority of teams are still playing hard with two months to go instead of rolling over and waiting for next year. The Astros and Dodgers should play each other in the World Series, but like most things in life and baseball this is not guaranteed.

DJ

The Only Rule Is It Has To Work

What if everything you thought you knew about the game of baseball was wrong. What if we have been playing baseball wrong since the beginning? Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller attempt to use the data that has emerged in baseball to lead the Sonoma Stompers in the next baseball revolution. Their seemingly crazy attempt is chronicled in The Only Rule Is It Has To Work.

The Pacific Association of Professional Baseball is one of the bottom rungs of independent professional baseball. The players are playing the game more for the love of the game and one last shot than for the paycheck, which is rather small. Despite being so far from the Major Leagues, it is still baseball. The fastballs might not be as fast, the fielding might not be as crisp, and the fields might not be as pristine, but the same data approach can be applied. Lindbergh and Miller set out to see if their data can give the Sonoma Stompers an advantage over the other three teams in the Pacific Association. Deploying a five man infield or a four man outfield against a batter regardless of game situation, crazy right? The numbers don’t think so. Why wait until the 9th inning to use your best relief pitcher, the closer, when the most critical moment in the game occurs in the 7th inning. If a team can’t hold the lead in the 7th, there may not be a game to save in the 9th.

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Baseball can be a game of habits that is slow to change, because “we’ve always done it this way.” The Only Rule is a real life experiment to see if all the data is nothing more than noise or if it can change the way managers manage and players play. The experiment did not take place within a controlled setting. Lindbergh and Miller run into issues with players and the manager about implementing their approach. Baseball does not change quickly, and the people who live and work inside of it are not always willing to change because they believe their experience and understanding provide insights toward make the best decisions rather than fully acquiescing to the data.

The Only Rule is a fantastic book that a baseball stat nerd and a casual baseball fan can both enjoy. The book makes you rethink many of the basic assumptions we have all held regarding the game.  The Sonoma Stompers, at least for one season, are on the cutting edge of baseball because their General Manager, Theo Fightmaster, decided he would allow two men who worked at Baseball Prospectus to indirectly manage his team. As you read you learn that baseball does not have to be set in stone and you begin to ask yourself, “if baseball was different, how different would it be?” What if the best hitter always batted at the top of the line up, what if a pitcher was pulled before he went through the lineup for the third time, and the what ifs go on forever.

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My wife and I stopped by the Stompers stadium on our honeymoon, too bad it was their day off. (The Winning Run)

Looking at baseball on a personal level through Lindbergh and Miller expose how much work is put into achieving every victory in professional baseball. It is much easier to lose than it is to win and, even when you are doing everything possible to win, success is never guaranteed. Baseball is a daily grind that lasts for months on end. In many ways, today’s success is built upon the work of yesterday, yet at the same time yesterday’s success has little impact upon achieving success today. Much like the best battle plans do not survive the first contact with the enemy, the best scouting and data information are no match for the abilities and reactions of players on the field. A five man infield should all but ensure if the ball is hit on the ground that an out is recorded. However, the player must still field and throw the ball, the nature of the game leaves room for human error. No plan is perfect but you still must have a plan to be successful.

I first heard of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller while working an office job fresh out of graduate school. Their daily podcast Effectively Wild was different. They sought to find the fun and the weird in baseball and to see if they could uncover something else. Why go on and on about last night’s Yankees-Red Sox game when instead you could spend an hour looking at how Jose Altuve’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was through the roof. Searching for and finding the oddities of baseball can help to uncover players before they burst into stardom, or it can help you appreciate how a team keeps winning when they seemingly should be losing non-stop. Listening to the Effectively Wild podcast got me through that summer and when I heard Ben and Sam were going to write a book about their wild real life baseball experiment I knew I wanted to read it. The Only Rule Is It Has To Work did not disappoint me, even with so much internal build up. Baseball is a crazy game, so why not use crazy tactics to win?

DJ

Missing Mr. Scully

I miss Vin Scully.

I am not a die hard Dodger fan. I have only been to Los Angeles and Dodger Stadium once. I was attending my now wife’s cousin’s wedding in Oxnard and as part of the trip we went to Dodger Stadium for a game. Even then I went to the game more to see the stadium than the team. The Dodgers pummeled the Phillies and we got to experience the most annoying Phillies fan on the West Coast.

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The most annoying Phillies fan on the West Coast. Philadelphia was losing 6-0 in the 2nd inning at this point. (The Winning Run/ KCL)

My primary love for the Dodgers is Vin Scully. In recent years, I always enjoyed listening to the broadcast when Los Angeles were at home so that I could listen to the voice of baseball. It never mattered what the score was, I just wanted to listen to the stories. The history of the foul pole, the rise in popularity of beards on ball players, or anecdotes about some player who has not played a game in decades. Yes, please, and thank you. There was no need for a partner, Vin Scully could do it all. He could call the game, debate controversial calls, supply the history of almost anything going on, and provide endless entertainment and information.

I have tried to watch a few Dodger games this season, but Charlie Steiner, Rick Monday, Joe Davies, Nomar Garciaparra, and Orel Hershiser just are not Vin Scully. It is unfair to compare these broadcasters to the greatest of all time. Steiner and Davies are professional, they earned the opportunity to call games in the Majors. Monday, Garciaparra, and Hershiser bring their playing experience and expertise to the booth. In some ways it may be better with this new group of Dodger broadcasters, but the retirement of Vin Scully leaves something missing from every Dodger home game.

I have never met Vin Scully, doubt I ever will. The closest I will probably ever get was sitting in the outfield bleachers that day, straining my eyes to see if I could see the voice of baseball in his broadcast booth calling the game. Watching a master ply their craft allows you a look inside a world where greatness is the norm. I wanted to watch.

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The score never mattered, it was about spending time with my buddy, Mr. Scully. (Jean Fruth/ National Baseball Hall of Fame)

My now sister-in-law went to the game with us and asked me why I kept straining to see the press boxes. My now wife told her it was because I was trying to see my buddy, Vince Gulley. I should explain. When I started dating my wife five years ago she knew the bare minimum about baseball. She has learned more than she ever wanted to, mostly through exhaustion and/or osmosis. Even now she can only name a handful of announcers. Marty Brennaman, mostly because she is from and we live in Cincinnati. Harry Caray, Skip Caray, and Chip Caray because my love for the Atlanta Braves, and thus the connection of the Caray family. She knows Joe Buck, but she has a physical reaction at the mere mention of his name, that turns even more sour if he is “announcing” a baseball or football game. It took some time but she now knows Vin Scully. For several years she did not understand how to pronounce his name and thought I was saying Vince Gulley. The many late nights I have stayed up late just watching a Dodgers game after a long day of work she began calling him my buddy.

Vin Scully as my buddy is an easy visualization. Listening to him call a game was like watching a game with a friend and just talking about what was happening and anything else that came up along the way. Maybe it was about the game on the field, or maybe it was just something that came to mind. It did not matter what it was, listening to Vin Scully was always a pleasure. The game on the field was central, but not necessarily required for the time spent between Vin Scully and his friends to be quality time. He knew when to talk and when to just let the sounds of the game flow over you and transport you to Dodger Stadium.

I miss Vin Scully. I am glad I was able to spend so many late nights and sunny Sunday afternoons with him. I am also glad he was able to leave the game at a time and in a fashion that suited him. There is a certain justice in seeing the greatest of all time walk away at a time and place of their own choosing, not when age, injury, or declining ability force them out. During his farewell address to Congress, General Douglas MacArthur said, “old generals don’t die, they just fade away.” Vin Scully was never a general, but his retirement has allowed him to fade away, just the like sun on a baseball diamond where for so many decades he called the game.

DJ

Hit Parade

Single season records can be reached without the need for a career filled with success. Players only need to have a single magical season to reach these marks. Think Roger Maris in 1961 or even a career year like Mark Fidrych in 1976. The toughest record to beat now may be the single season hits record. Ichiro Suzuki collected 262 hits in 2004, finally topping George Sisler’s single season record of 257 hits that had stood since 1920. There have been 530 individual efforts where a player collected at least 200 hits in a season. Many players have had multiple 200 hit seasons, with Ichiro and Pete Rose holding the record with ten 200 hit seasons.

200 hits in a single season is not a rare accomplishment. We’ve seen, over the last several seasons, a handful of players collecting 200 hits. However, the Houston Astros have the talent to potentially do something no team has ever done by having four teammates collect 200 hits in the same season. Only three times in Major League history has a team had three teammates collect 200 hits in the same season, but never a fourth. The 1963 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, and the 1991 Texas Rangers had three teammates collect 200 hits. Teammates who are able to consistently hit and get on base does not necessarily translate to success. The 1963 Cardinals finished 2nd in the National League, 6 games behind the Dodgers for the Pennant. The 1982 Brewers lost the World Series in seven games to the Cardinals. The 1991 Rangers finished 3rd in the American League West, 10 games behind the Twins. Success in baseball is a team effort. Simply having a third or more of your lineup hitting all season does not mean you can be lackluster elsewhere.

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Jose Altuve is Houston’s best hitter. 200 hits a season is close to automatic. (Elaine Thompson, STF)

The 2017 Houston Astros could be the first team to have four teammates collect 200 hits in the same season thanks to the ABC’S. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer. Jose Altuve is a hitting machine, for whom not collecting 200 hits in a season would make it a down year. Altuve has collected at least 200 hits in three out of five full seasons in the Majors. Bregman has hit at every level in college and in the minors and should continue to develop into an outstanding consistent bat in the Houston lineup. Bregman played in only 146 minor league games after being drafted by Houston out of LSU. Starting at A Ball, Bregman batted .259, High A .319, AA .297, and AAA .333. Bregman can hit and he is starting to settle in with the Astros. Correa is a do it all super star in the making. Entering his third full season in the Majors, Correa continues to improve his strikeout to walk rate. Correa is still learning to hit at the Major League level and his strikeout rate should continue to decline. George Springer is an everyday player who can reach 200 hits simply by cutting down on his strikeouts and focusing on hitting singles and doubles instead of swinging for the fences. In 2016, his first full healthy season in the Majors, Springer hit 29 doubles and 29 home runs with 88 walks and 178 strikeouts. If he can combine plate discipline to draw more walks and cutting down on his big swings to strike out less, perhaps down to 125 times a season, that may translate to 50 more balls in play each season. Springer collected 168 hits against those 178 strikeouts. 50 more balls in play could mean collecting 200 hits.

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Alex Bregman is still getting comfortable in the Majors, but he has shown from college through the minors and in Houstn that he can hit. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The ability to hit and get on base will become slightly easier as opposing teams may prefer to face Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and/or Springer than give up crushing scores to the big bats behind them in the lineup. Carlos Beltran, Evan Gattis, and Brian McCann can all launch a baseball over the fence with cautionary frequency. Every night at least two of the three power bats will be protecting Houston’s hit parade. Every night is a new nightmare for opposing pitchers. They’re faced with either a swift destruction from power or the drowning quicksand from a constant stream of singles here and doubles there.

Astros Manager A.J. Hinch has had George Springer leading off, setting the stage for Jose Altuve batting third and Carlos Correa batting fourth. Once the speed and contact have put the pressure on opposing pitchers Hinch has had Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and/or Evan Gattis batting fourth or fifth in nearly every game. Alex Bregman has most often worked to reset the stage by batting eighth, but he also has the second most at bats in the Astros lineup batting second or sixth. Bregman appears to be the utility batter for Houston as he can help the Astros turn the batting order over or he can fill in to help set the stage for Altuve, Correa, or the power of Beltran, McCann, or Gattis.

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Is there anything Carlos Correa can’t do on the diamond? (Brace Hemmelgam/Getty Images)

There are three major factors that may hamper the quest for four single-season, 200-hit teammates for the 2017 Astros. First is the relative youth of Bregman, Correa, and Springer. Slumps and growing pains are often a matter of when, not if, especially for younger hitters. Every batter struggles at one point in their career in some way, past success does not guarantee future success. Second, injuries. The Major League season is a 162 game grind that breaks down even the strongest and toughest players in the world. The Astros are not immune to injuries and missing even a week or more could put 200 hits out of reach for a player. Third, Houston currently has an 8 game lead in the American League West over the Angels and the Rangers. Any sized lead can disappear over the next four months, but with each passing day the Astros make it a little more difficult to be caught. If the Astros run away with the West, A.J. Hinch could decide to rest his players down the stretch, meaning losing at bats and potential hits to rest them for the playoffs.

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George Springer can hit plenty of home runs, but his greatest value for the Astros might be getting on base ahead of Houston’s sluggers. (AP Photo/ David J. Phillip)

There are plenty of ifs peppered in the scenario of the Astros having four teammates collect 200 hits in 2017. The Astros’ core is young, the years of tanking have finally provided Houston the draft positioning to get the team they sought all along. A young, dynamic team that is built to win both now and in the future. The quartet of Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and Springer may never collect 200 hits in a season, but 2017 seems to be the first real opportunity for them to make a run at this particular landmark record. The hit parade in Houston is fun to watch and so far has resulted in plenty of wins for the Astros. The hits record would be nice, but the Astros are only concerned with winning their first World Series.

DJ