Breaking down who should bat second for the Astros
The Astros have a problem on their hands. No, contrary to what you may be hearing elsewhere, it isn't what moves the Yankees may or may not be making. After the Astros reached an agreement with Michael Brantley on a one-year, $12 million contract (with incentives), the Astros problem is that they are too loaded.
How does one construct a lineup of Jose Abreu, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Jeremy Peña and Kyle Tucker? We sorted that alphabetically and it would still strike fear in the hearts of opposing managers. Having to craft a lineup with that much depth is a good problem to have.
Realistically, we can assume Jose Altuve will bat leadoff, while Yordan, Bregman and Tucker bat 3-4-5. It's a safe bet that the recently signed Jose Abreu bats sixth. That leaves the second and seventh spot open.
Since landing in Houston, Michael Brantley's spot in the order has fluctuated between second through fourth. He spent most of his time hitting third or fourth during the George Springer era, but after Altuve slid into the leadoff spot in 2021, Uncle Mike bumped up to second. In 2021, Brantley hit .309 with a .799 OPS in the two-hole.
Brantley batted second in all 64 games of his injury-shortened 2022 season, hitting .288 with a .785 OPS, though his quality of contact was even higher and should see a boost with the banning of the shift.
Brantley has made Dusty Baker’s job easy since his arrival. He knows if Brantley is second in the lineup, Jose Altuve will be protected by a contact machine, .300 hitter that bats from the left side. Now that’s he’s healthy, putting Brantley back in the second spot should be a no-brainer, right?
Not so fast…
Brantley’s injury left Baker scrambling to find a two-hole hitter last year. Most of the options Baker tried failed. Then he turned to a rookie and everything changed.
Jeremy Peña got off to a hot start to the year, but faltered as teams threw him less fastballs and more sliders. His strikeout rates rose as his home run rates plummeted. Out of other options, Baker turned to Peña in the second spot. Houston, and for that matter Peña, never looked back
Counting the playoffs, the Astros finished 53-9 when Jeremy Peña hit second. Peña himself of course went on to win both ALCS and World Series MVP.
In 49 regular season games batting second, Peña hit .290 with 13 home runs and an .837 OPS. His playoff numbers were even more impressive, hitting .345 with an 1.005 OPS. Can Dusty really afford to slide a bat like that down the order?
So what does he do? If he wants to stagger his lefties and righties throughout the lineup so opposing teams can’t turn to a lefty specialist reliever for three straight outs, we’d likely see something like Altuve, Brantley, Bregman, Alvarez, Abreu, Tucker, Peña. But can a bat like Kyle Tucker really see the sixth-most at-bats on your team? With the shift gone, his numbers will resemble video game on the easiest difficulty. And can the reigning ALCS and World Series MVP justifiably bat seventh?
Or does Baker roll out his playoff lineup and slot Abreu sixth and Brantley seventh? A hallmark of the golden era of Astros baseball has been the depth of the team and willingness for top talent to hit in the bottom of the order. Carlos Correa hit .279 with a .926 OPS in 2019 and was batting seventh in the World Series.
The Astros lineup is fearsome. Either option Baker rolls with, Houston should score runs in bunches. If it were up to me, I’d go with Brantley.
Peña’s late season surge was fueled by an adjustment to his leg kick that allowed him to lay off the off-speed that had given him fits. As teams continue to adjust back to him, how will he respond? With Brantley, you’ve got a walking .300 hitter with a decade-long career to back it up. Assuming health, Uncle Mike is a sure thing.
If he falters after injury, or if Peña is just so good he commands more plate appearances, Baker can always make a switch. Truly, any way he rolls out his first seven will be a nightmare for opposing pitchers to navigate.
Houston won 106 games and a World Series last year without Jose Abreu, and for the most part, without Michael Brantley (he played in only 38 of their wins). Adding them to a championship team feels laughably unfair. Astros fans, we are in for a special season.