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April 2, 2013

Punk Hits

Accidentally Making a Case for Astros Fandom

by Ian Miller

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I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the 2013 Major League Baseball season is underway. It actually began on Sunday night in a contest that pitted the Texas Rangers against their newly minted division rivals, the Houston Astros. The game was broadcast on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball and logged a 1.5 Nielsen rating. That’s down pretty substantially from Opening Night 2012, when the Cardinals and the Marlins pulled a 1.8 rating. You can thank the Best Fans in Baseball for those extra .3 percent.

I saw quite a few people on Twitter and elsewhere complaining about Opening Night and claiming that only Opening Day is real. I call shenanigans on that. Highlighting one game on the night before Opening Day focuses national attention on a single matchup, making it feel special, like the single present your parents let you open on Christmas Eve.

As a brand-new Astros fan, I was especially excited about the game. I decided to adopt Houston as my designated AL team shortly after Kevin Goldstein signed on. I knew they’d probably be terrible this year, but 1. I really admire what Luhnow and company are doing over there, and 2. the best time to adopt a new team is when they’re at their nadir. That way, once they’ve built a dynasty and amassed multiple championships, you can feel superior to the bandwagon fans who didn’t suffer through the lean times with you.

By agreeing to move the Astros to the American League, Astros owner Jim Crane got a substantial break on the purchase price. I imagine MLB also threw him a bone by slotting them in on Opening Night. (They did the same thing with the Marlins last year, perhaps as an opportunity to introduce the viewing public to the monstrosity that is Marlins Park and the soul-devouring Home Run Machine.) Houston would face perennial AL West powerhouse Texas, and the Rangers were a heavy favorite at -170 at game time. Sideline reporter Buster Olney called the Astros “the purest experiment of statistical use in baseball,” which I’m not sure is true, but was interesting nonetheless.

There wasn’t a lot of traditional pomp or circumstance at Minute Maid Park on Sunday night; I don’t recall seeing a lot of red, white, and blue bunting. There was, however, smoke and pyrotechnics as the Astros players were announced. There was a moment of silence for the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings, and a lovely rendition of the National Anthem by Lyle Lovett, accompanied by a fiddler. Or is it a violinist? I’m not sure what the distinction is there, except that, in country context, they’re usually called fiddles, so I’m gonna go with fiddle. 

The first pitch was thrown out by one J.J. Watt, who is apparently a handegg player of some renown. The pitch was about 18 inches outside, but he made it from the rubber to the plate on a line. ESPN also had footage of him going deep during batting practice, not once, but twice. Pretty impressive.

You should also know that the game was presented by Burger King.

There’s also the matter of the new Sunday Night Baseball booth: Terry Francona is out and John Kruk is in. This is going to be a disaster, right? I think Shulman is one of the best play-by-play guys working today, and I mostly like Orel Hershiser: he’s got excellent insights about pitching, but can over-talk and over-explain at times. But Kruk. Krukky. Isn’t he the enemy? One of those willfully ignorant people who oppose any efforts to evolve our understanding of the game? Thing is, he was actually pretty good.

It will take a little while for the booth to find its personality, if you will, but Kruk nowhere near as bad as I had expected him to be. He contributed some interesting observations about hitting and even an amusing anecdote or two about his playing days. I’m not a huge fan of the three-man booth -- they generally leave very little room for, well, room, or silence. That said, it’s probably the best setting for Kruk, who can’t carry the entire color analyst job, but can act as a foil -- personality- and role-wise -- to Bulldog.

In and amongst all the pyrotechnics and singing and announcing, a baseball game also occurred (presented by Burger King). The experimental Astros played their first game as an American League franchise, after spending 51 seasons in the NL. Their entire 2013 payroll is under $20 million, which many pundits delight in telling you is less than many individual players will make this year! Other pundits will claim that Houston’s minuscule payroll is somehow an affront to baseball, or that the Astros are “cheating the game.” Or the fans. Or something.

The people who write these columns are usually older writers from the mainstream media, i.e. newspapers. I understand that these guys (they’re always guys) are under tremendous pressure to produce content and that they have to write about something. And that there is an audience for material like this; a certain segment of the population is happy to read articles that demonize athletes or franchises. But the fundamental problem is that the premise is simply not true.

Jeff Luhnow knows his Astros won’t compete this year, and likely not for the next two or three. Should he spend millions of Jim Crane’s money and potentially hamstring his ability to field a winning team in the future simply because he owes it to the fans or the game or some writers? Of course not. This isn’t frugality for its own sake; it’s decidedly NOT the Marlins. This is Luhnow establishing the groundwork for a future contender. You might not agree with his premises and you might not believe it will work, and that opinion is certainly valid. But claiming the Astros “should” or “need to” spend a bunch of money to meet some arbitrary rules you made up is just horseshit. Look: if Luhnow is wrong, you’ll be able to look back and point and laugh and gloat. But what if he’s right? If the Astros win it all in 2017, it’ll be, in part, because Carlos Peña was his priciest free agent in 2013 at $2.9 million.

Old lamestream media guys aren’t the only ones who are taking aim at the Astros, though. Professional jerk Darren Rovell tweeted that the only reason to attend an Astros game would be to get a sad-looking hamburger. I guess Rovell doesn’t enjoy watching Jose Altuve hit RBI singles off of pitches up around his eyes. Or see Matt Dominguez make great plays look routine. Or see Justin Maxwell hit two triples in a game. Or see Rick Ankiel, one of the greatest comeback stories in baseball, hit a pinch-hit three-run bomb to put the game on ice for the home team. He probably hates the three-inning save, too.

Look, I get it. Not everyone is crazy for baseball like I am, and like I assume you are. That’s fine; I don’t require you to value the things I value. But saying a hamburger is more exciting than Justin Maxwell? That just makes you look dumb, dude. This is an exciting young team. Or if it’s not, it’s a young team with some exciting players on it. They might actually lose 100 games -- our projections have them losing 94 -- but I really do admire the guts Luhnow and his staff is showing.

Baseball and baseball people are inherently conservative. People aren’t generally willing to go out on limbs, and Luhnow is. He went all-in on this plan, and is weathering a goodly amount of criticism for it. I appreciate that. As I’m writing this, the Astros in in a three-way tie for first in the AL West, and a 15-way tie for the best record in baseball. In fact, it’s the first time Houston has been in first since 2007. But it definitely won’t be the last.

When I started out 1,400 words ago, I was thinking I would write a kind of an Opening Night game story, but apparently I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up here. I intended to write about Bud Norris, the Astros starter, and how his fastball command deserted him. He ended up throwing a ton of sliders and, while they were mostly good, there were too many of ‘em for my liking. Catcher Jason Castro’s game-calling needs work, but he’s a phenomenal catch-and-throw guy. I meant to mention his clean footwork and a lightning-quick release. There are the aforementioned Dominguez and Maxwell, and I haven’t even mentioned Chris Carter, my personal white whale. If you like baseball, there’s lots to like all over that roster. All you have to do is look for it.

 

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  Justin Maxwell,  Jose Altuve

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