The unenviable task of replacing one of the most popular players in franchise history is one that 26-year-old Myles Straw is tackling head-on. The departure of George Springer to the Blue Jays left a huge hole in the hearts of Astros fans and in center field, where Springer had been a fixture since 2014.
The Astros decided not to replace Springer in free agency, and instead, they will turn to Straw to be their starting center fielder in 2021. Straw, one of the fastest players in the big leagues, says he’s up for the challenge, but he knows the time spent in West Palm Beach, Fla., this spring must be met with productive work to put him in position to take advantage of the opportunity.
“It’s definitely some big shoes to fill, as we all know,” Straw said. “George is George and one of the best in the world. That opening for me is huge. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity and showing these guys what I can do out there.”
Straw doesn’t hit for much power like Springer does, but he has some better tools. He’s faster and a better basestealer than Springer, and he’s a better outfielder. Straw can wreak havoc on the bases, but finding a way to get on base consistently will be the key.
“Get on base,” Straw said emphatically when asked what he’s working on this spring. “That’s it. That’s my biggest thing.”
In 469 career Minor League games, Straw posted a .394 on-base percentage, racking up 70 steals in the Minor Leagues in 2018 before getting promoted to Houston later that year. He slashed .269/.378/.343 with eight steals in 56 games for Houston in ’19, but last year, he regressed in limited action. Straw hit .207/.244/.256 in 33 games in ‘20.
“I’m going to have to be more aggressive this year,” Straw said. “I know it; the coaches know it. I’m going to go into this season coming out swinging as a whole. I know pitchers are going to attack me, so staying ready to hit and grinding out at-bats and having good at-bats and having deep counts and working pitchers. ... I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
In a sport where batters are hitting the ball more in the air, Straw may be doing it too much.
Because Straw lacks power, hitting the ball in the air usually leads to outs. His launch angle rose from 9 degrees in 2019 to 15.9 in ‘20. As a result, his fly-ball rate rose, too, from 28.9 percent in ‘19 to 42.4 percent last year. In ‘20, he batted .250 on balls in the air and .364 on ground balls. Most of his outs were fly balls to right field.
In limited action last year, Straw saw his chase percentage and whiff percentage rise as well. What’s more, in 2020, his strikeout percentage rose from 18.8 to 25.6 and his walk percentage declined, going from 14.8 to 4.7.
“I definitely am going to have to need to hit this year,” Straw said. “I know guys are going to attack me as much as they can with the other guys we have in the lineup. Just being ready to hit and staying aggressive and getting on base for those guys is going to be key.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker said Straw is a candidate to replace Springer in the leadoff spot, which might be one of the most advantageous spots in baseball with Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez among those hitting behind him.
If Straw doesn’t hit leadoff, Altuve could be a candidate. He’s started 380 games in the leadoff spot in his career. Kyle Tucker also hit leadoff for three games last year
“It’s going to hard to replace [Springer's] power in that spot, but we’re looking for guys that are going to get on base,” Baker said. “That’s No. 1. You’ve got to put the pitcher in the stretch. Hopefully somebody who’s a threat to steal and have the rest of the guys hitting behind him get more fastballs.
“I’ve thought about that ever since we lost Springer. We got a few candidates. Some like to bat leadoff and some don’t, and it’s going to be an experiment in Spring Training and possibly as the season goes on, even make a couple of other moves if necessary.”