Houston finally did away with the weird hill in center field, but not all ballpark quirks are worth mourning.
Tal’s Hill was never supposed to last this long. Its death via forthcoming stadium renovation was discussed in the abstract for years before being announced in the definitive last summer and scheduled for last fall. But then came an unexpected Astros playoff run, prolonging the inevitable and giving us one more season with the weird little slope in Minute Maid Park’s center field.
That season is over now and, as of this week, so too is Tal’s Hill. It’s easy to mourn this as a great loss for ballpark quirks. So easy! The imagery is almost obnoxious in its obviousness— bulldozing something that made a stadium unique, literally flattening out its character. But to mourn the death of Tal’s Hill simply as a delightful park oddity is to overlook why Tal’s Hill existed at all.
It’s true that Tal’s Hill was killed because it was too different (“unsafe” and “distracting” are, at their core, variations on “too different). But being different was the reason that Tal’s Hill was built in the first place. It was not a ballpark quirk born from a strange setting or a demand of its time or a weirdly individualistic architect. It was a ballpark quirk born out of a team’s desire for a ballpark quirk.
Tal’s Hill was designed to be different, and it was—but only so much as we can accept manufactured difference for difference’s own sake as being different.
The design alone, stripped of context, is weird. It’s a hill and a flag pole in the middle of a ballpark! It’s very weird! There’s nothing wrong with this, in and of itself, and maybe even something very much right with this. Weird can be good, weird can be inspired, weird can be fun. It is the foundation of where we might put a pit on the field. Weird gives a place its sense of self, and it allows us to build something human into a structure that would otherwise be anything but. It’s what makes ballparks individual, which is what lets us make ballparks personal.
“To the extent reliever performances get unequivocally awesome, it occurs only over time; but, excepting full-season or full-career stat lines, we don’t really have the infrastructure to easily put performances like Giles’ in context. … I don’t know how rare 23 Ks over nine innings is. If I had to guess, I’d say… it’s a record? If it is, it’s such a buried record that nobody has bothered to ask him about it.” —Me
Monday is turning into a great day for prospect debuts, but this one is the most great.
The Situation: Houston is right in the thick of the playoff chase again, and with A.J. Reed struggling to get on base or hit for power upon his promotion, the Astros will instead call on the best prospect in their system, Alex Bregman.
Background: Bregman was a potential second-round selection coming into the 2012 draft out of Albuquerque, but it was clear that he was set on attending LSU, and attend LSU he did. He quickly established himself as one of the best players in college baseball, posting a .963 OPS in his freshman year and quickly became a legit candidate to be the top player taken in the 2015 draft. A so-so sophomore season saw his stock slide ever so slightly, but he hit .323/.412/.535 and was taken second overall by Houston that June. After an impressive first professional season, Bregman destroyed pitching this spring/summer, posting a 1.016 OPS, earning a trip to the Futures Game (where he nearly hit for the cycle), and becoming one of the best prospects in baseball.
Notable starts this week from Stephen Strasburg, Dallas Keuchel and Anthony DeSclafani
It’s a short week in the sense of taking notes, as the extended All-Star break left me with just a couple of days that bookended the time off from regular baseball. There was still plenty of intrigue, from one man’s quest for hardware to another man’s attempts to justify hardware already won, as well as a staff ace who missed the first couple months of the season. Let’s get to the notes.
Early struggles gave way to a very hot stretch and now the Astros are serious contenders again.
I wrote an article that ran May 4, analyzing the Astros as possible surprise sellers on the summer trade market. Eight weeks later, that looks like an awfully silly article, because the Astros are now 41-37. Despite the Rangers leaning way out over their skis and building a 10-game lead in the AL West, Houston is a very legitimate playoff contender.
Let me defend myself, however lamely, by pointing this out: the Astros started this season 17-28. No playoff team last season had any 45-game stretch in which they lost 28 games. Since then, they’ve won 24 of 33, something only one team (the mid-May Twins) managed to do last season without making the playoffs. Highs this high and lows this low usually don’t fit into the same season, let alone the same half of one. Obviously, though, the Astros were always better than their early record showed. They caught some bad waves in the crashing surf of in-season variance, and they simply got aberrant, miserable starts from a few players who are better than that.
A year ago today, Francisco Lindor was recalled. Since (roughly) that day, the position has gone from a dead spot to historically great.
Eleven months ago Alcides Escobar was voted into the All-Star game as the AL’s starting shortstop. Escobar is an oft-praised defender with plus speed on a Royals team that was coming off a World Series loss and headed for a World Series win, but he also ended the first half with a modest .699 OPS and finished the season with a .614 OPS that nearly matched his .636 career mark through age 28. Alcides Escobar, All-Star starting shortstop just seemed a little lofty.
Royals fans stuffed the ballot box so much that second baseman Omar Infante and his .555 OPS nearly got voted into the game as well, but in Escobar’s case the story wasn’t so much about an undeserved selection as no other AL shortstops standing out as clearly deserving. In other words, don’t blame Escobar or Royals fans for his being in the starting lineup alongside the biggest stars in the league. None of the AL shortstops had an OPS above .750 at the All-Star break. The chosen backup was light-hitting Jose Iglesias, another glove-first player whose career OPS is .680.
Eleven months later, the AL’s shortstop landscape has changed so dramatically that the position as a whole has a higher collective OPS (.709) than Escobar had at the time of the All-Star break last year (.699) and Escobar has been the worst-hitting shortstop in the entire league. Xander Bogaerts is hitting .359/.405/.527 for the Red Sox. Manny Machado, who shifted from third base to shortstop following J.J. Hardy’s foot injury, is hitting .308/.376/.600 for the Orioles. Francisco Lindor, who made his debut exactly one year ago today, is hitting .304/.360/.450 for the Indians. Carlos Correa, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is hitting .256/.351/.423 for the Astros.