How the Astros Solved Their Center Field Problem

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    Without a doubt, the biggest surprise of the Astros season has been the top-tier production the team has seen from their homegrown center fielders, Chas McCormick and Myles Straw. So far in 2021, the Astros have garnered 2.9 WAR from their center fielders, which is third in all of baseball behind Cedric Mullins with the Orioles, and Byron Buxton and Max Kepler with the Twins. How did the Astros pull this off? 

    The answer is simple: defense. Center field is arguably the second most important defensive position on the field, behind catcher and probably tied with shortstop, so it really pays off to have good defenders there. Individually, Straw and McCormick both have 6 defensive Outs Above Average (OAA), which puts them both in a tie for fourth among all outfielders in the MLB, behind only Manuel Margot and Brett Phillips of the Rays, and Cedric Mullins of the Orioles. This elite range certainly had to be something that GM James Click thought of when he was constructing this outfield. Rather than go off and spend big money on free agent center fielders, Click trusted his two speedsters to patrol the outfield grounds for the team. It follows a philosophy that was first championed by the 2015 Royals; play to the ballpark. The Royals’ home, Kauffman Stadium, is known for its huge outfield. Knowing this, the Royals went out of their way to pick up glove-first outfielders and/or speedsters such as Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, and 8-time Gold Glove Award winner Alex Gordon. As a result, these players led them to a World Series championship in 2015. Similarly, the Astros home stadium of Minute Maid Park is known for its extremely short left field fence, the Crawford Boxes, which has allowed the Astros to play bat-first, below average sprint speed outfielders such as Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez in left field due to the fact that they don’t have to cover much ground. One factor that most people overlook is how huge the Astros center field is, primarily due to the fact that the Crawford Boxes give way to a massive alley in left-center field. Thus, it made sense to go with some glove-first guys to cover ground in center, rather than leave outs on the table by taking a more offensive-minded approach with a free agent center fielder. 

    Speaking of offense from the center field position, McCormick and Straw have been pretty good there as well. Their collective 106 wRC+ over 515 plate appearances would rank 8th among qualified CFs, which is a very respectable number for a couple of glove-first outfielders that have collectively accumulated 12 OAA up to this point. 

    Specifically talking from an offensive standpoint, McCormick has really stood out so far. Straw still deserves credit for the phenomenal stretch he’s been on these last 2 months, and for his very respectable 95 wRC+ and .342 OBP on the season, but McCormick has been on another level. So far this season, over 59 games and 169 PAs, he’s posted a 118 wRC+, .337 wOBA, 1.0 WAR, and 10 HR, which is unheard of from a fourth outfielder. Although there are signs of potential regression (32 K% and .310 xwOBA), I actually think that McCormick’s results and plate discipline will improve as he gets more and more action against big league pitching.

    To conclude, McCormick and Straw have both proved themselves as legitimate major league assets due to their high defensive floor, and with their notable offensive performance this season. Both are key to the future success of the team due to the fact that they’re both only 26, and they both have multiple years of team control left (Straw is a FA in 2026, McCormick in 2027). Whether they impact the team’s future as trade chips or as rostered players is yet to be seen. One thing is for sure: the Astros have without a doubt solved their center field problem, which was a position that looked like a black hole coming into the season. Currently, they possess one of the strongest center field tandems in the league, and they aren’t slowing down yet.

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