'Heart and soul' of Astros? Altuve has suggestion

May 16th, 2019

steps from the Astros’ spring clubhouse and into the bright Florida sun. Something catches his eye. Inside a nearby indoor hitting and pitching area, a young pitcher is positioned on a mound with cameras trained on him.

Springer’s eyes brighten, and a smile spreads across his face. He knows the cameras are to examine the pitcher’s mechanics, release point, etc. Or it could be something else.

“Don’t do it!” he screams. “They’re trying to clone you!”

Teammates and coaches erupt in laughter, and the work day has begun. Astros manager AJ Hinch, standing near the scene with a group of reporters, shrugs.

“And that’s George,” he said.

And more. As he begins his sixth Major League season, Springer probably is the player who best represents what the Astros have become and what they want to be. He represents it on the field with his production, relentless energy and unbridled joy.

Springer represents it off the field with an assortment of community projects, most notably by being a role model, spokesperson and fundraiser for the Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY). His goal, he says, is to help youngsters understand that they can manage speech impediments as successfully as he has managed his own.

Now about that style of play. To understand it, go watch a video of him finishing off an inside-the-park home run by sliding face first into home plate on Tuesday night at Comerica Park.

At that moment -- smiling, tired, thrilled -- he could have passed for the happiest person on earth, and a lot of the people around the Astros believe that’s what he is and why his presence is so important to the team with baseball’s best record (29-15) and largest division lead (7 1/2 games) entering Thursday, before it heads to Fenway Park for a weekend series against the Red Sox.

Springer’s sister, Lena, had her own take.

Springer’s smart, happy chatter is a constant for the Astros in the dugout and clubhouse. Hinch considers that part of him so important that in past years he has asked him to remain in uniform and do his thing even when he’s on the injured list.

“George is the heart and soul of this team,” second baseman Jose Altuve said recently. “We feed off what he brings.”

Oh, and Springer puts the finishing touch on every Astros victory by serving as the DJ for the nightly clubhouse celebrations. When Hinch talks about Springer, his admiration is obvious.

“He’s as consistent as anybody we have,” Hinch said. “He shows up every day with a lot of energy. He loves to play. He knows he can get better. He was raised to always pick on himself and make himself that much better. He’s real. He’s relatable. I think that’s why our fans like him. He resonates in our clubhouse. He connects with everyone.”

One of the most consequential decisions Hinch has made in his five seasons in charge of the Astros was to move Springer into the leadoff role on May 24, 2016. At the time, it was an unconventional choice, since Springer seemed to be more of a slugger than the prototype leadoff hitter. Now the prototype is Springer.

When Red Sox manager Alex Cora moved Mookie Betts to the top of his lineup last season, he told him he wanted from him what the Astros have gotten from Springer.

Since the move, the Astros have baseball’s best record (300-185) and second-highest scoring offense. In that time, Springer has scored the second-most runs in the American League and has an .852 OPS.

For an organization driven by data, Hinch’s decision was atypical. He wanted Springer there to set a tone in games, and to occasionally kick things off with a home run, which has happened 29 times.

“He’s huge for our club there,” Hinch said. “There’s a reason I hit him first. Some of it is run potential, but a lot of it is the energy he provides and the threat he provides.”

Springer began this season with two All-Star selections and a World Series MVP on his resume. Now at 29, he has taken his game to an even higher level as Sarah Langs laid out this week. His hard-hit rate has increased dramatically amid a series of changes to his approach, including more of a first-pitch attack mode. Amid a slew of numbers -- first in the Majors in home runs (16) and runs (39), and first in the American League in RBIs (40) and OPS (1.051) -- perhaps the most impressive one is a 2.5 bWAR, which is approaching his number for all of 2018 (2.7).

As the Astros sprint toward a fourth postseason appearance in five seasons, Springer could be the most serious challenger to Mike Trout and Betts for the AL Most Valuable Player Award. To Springer, it’s simpler than any of that. It’s about playing.

“The culture that’s been made here the last three or four years is we expect to win, expect to compete, in and out, up and down, top to bottom,” Springer said. “I think everybody has the same idea of what we want to do, and that’s first, win the division. And then we’ll see what happens after that.”

He’s one of the faces of the most successful stretch the Astros have had, including back-to-back 100-win seasons and winning the 2017 World Series.

“I’m extremely proud of that,” he said. “I think it’s an honor to wear an Astros jersey. To play on the road and see Astros fans everywhere in all different walks of life is something special to me. I know the guys in this clubhouse are very close with the community. This is the best place to play. I love it here. The guys love it here. The fans are unbelievable. We’re never going to take that for granted.”