July 19, 2024

Three Astros All-Star takeaways: Ronel Blanco’s omission and Jose Altuve’s decision

HOUSTON — For the eighth consecutive season, the Houston Astros had at least three players selected to the All-Star Game. No American League team has accumulated more All-Stars since 2017, though Houston had a compelling case for at least one more at this season’s Midsummer Classic in Arlington.

As it stands, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker could comprise the Astros’ contingent. Tucker is on the injured list and won’t participate in the game. Whether Altuve will attend has become an annual July mystery.

On Wednesday, Alvarez said he planned to attend and play in the game. Then, on Saturday, he got hit by a pitch in his right knee and missed Sunday’s game. Injuries have sidelined Alvarez during the past two All-Star Games to which he’s been selected. Time will tell whether he misses for a third time.

Altuve’s All-Star approach

Houston hitting coach Alex Cintrón concluded his career as Altuve’s began, so player and coach can commiserate over the complexities of a sport in a constant state of evolution.

Pitching is better than Cintrón ever witnessed during his nine major-league seasons, a fact Altuve will reiterate to anyone who will listen. Altuve did it again over lunch on Wednesday afternoon in Toronto, while the two men marveled at Altuve’s first-half transformation.

News of a ninth All-Star selection awaited Altuve upon his arrival at Rogers Centre after a peculiar — and prolific — first half for the face of Houston’s franchise. His slash line resembles what so many are accustomed to seeing while his status as a sparkplug remains unchanged.

What has altered is Altuve’s approach. Aggression is his trademark, but the first 90 games of this season have accentuated it like few other stretches of his storied career. Altuve is swinging more, walking less and selling out for slug, something he seemed to swear off two seasons ago.

“I think his mentality is trying to hit homers, doubles, (raise) his OPS and get on base to help the team,” Cintrón said. “In the past, he was hitting the ball to right field more, taking infield hits, taking walks. Now, he’s going out there trying to slug.”

Altuve hasn’t always succeeded. He finished Sunday’s game with a .464 slugging percentage, which would be the seventh-lowest first-half mark of Altuve’s career. Altuve’s chase rate is nearing 40 percent and he is on pace to strike out 100 times in a season for the first time in his career, but somehow the production remains commensurate with his expectations.

Only three qualified American League hitters awoke on Sunday with a higher batting average than Altuve’s .310 clip. He trails Luis Arraez and Bobby Witt Jr. for the league lead in hits while owning the Astros’ third-highest slugging percentage. If Altuve sustains this, he will remain on the pace needed to reach 3,000 career hits.

This season, Altuve is swinging at the first pitch 47.3 percent of the time — the highest mark of his career — and is seeing his fewest pitches per plate appearance since 2017. More than half of Altuve’s contact has been hit to the pull side, odd for a player praised for peppering all fields who brought a career 41.9 percent pull rate into this season.

“Because of the pitching,” Cintrón said. “For him to be able to be good, he needs to be aggressive. Guys are throwing 100 (mph). That’s something that he has talked about with a lot of people, including myself and players his age. I played in 2011. The pitching today is not even comparable. Guys are throwing east to west, so he has to try to pull the ball more.”

Ronel Blanco has a 2.53 ERA, which ranks fourth among qualified American League starters. (Gerry Angus / USA Today)

Blanco’s omission from the All-Star team is one of the process’ biggest oversights. His body of work more than merits a place on the American League’s pitching staff, but the sport’s insistence that each team be represented may have squeezed Blanco out of a crowded group of starting pitching candidates.

The Angels’ Tyler Anderson, White Sox’s Garrett Crochet and Mariners’ Logan Gilbert are all the only selections from their respective clubs, though Crochet is deserving of a selection no matter his uniform. Gilbert and Anderson were put on the team by Major League Baseball.

Three of the AL’s other starters — Tarik Skubal, Corbin Burnes and Seth Lugo — have a lower ERA than Blanco, meaning Cole Ragans and Tanner Houck beat out Blanco for the final spots. Houck was elected via the player ballot while Ragans got selected by MLB.

Blanco entered Sunday allowing the lowest batting average of any qualified major-league starter. His 2.53 ERA is the fifth-lowest in the sport. Blanco has been a revolution for Houston’s injury-ravaged rotation and remains the only pitcher in baseball to throw a no-hitter this season.

Thirty-four other starters entered Sunday with at least 100 innings, including everyone who made the American League All-Star team. Ragans has thrown 109 2/3.

Blanco has only thrown 96 innings, a byproduct of his 10-game suspension in mid-May after failing a foreign substance check. Blanco did not appeal the suspension but maintained he did not use anything illegal.

Whether the workload or suspension weakened Blanco’s candidacy is a mystery. He is an obvious candidate to replace a pitcher who is injured or opts out of the game, but even that may come with a caveat.

Blanco is scheduled to start Tuesday’s series opener against the Miami Marlins at Minute Maid Park. Provided Houston stays in rotation, Blanco is lined up to pitch Sunday’s first-half finale against the Texas Rangers, rendering him unavailable for the All-Star Game and — perhaps — a spot on the team altogether.

Will Altuve attend?

Altuve hasn’t attended an All-Star Game since 2018 at Nationals Park. Fans elected him to start the game in both 2021 and 2022, but Altuve opted out of both exhibitions citing nagging injuries, neither of which required a trip to the injured list.

In 2021, all of the Astros’ All-Stars skipped the game alongside Altuve. Tucker, Framber Valdez and Justin Verlander attended the 2022 game and were showered with boos during introductions at Dodger Stadium. Altuve’s last All-Star Game appearance came before the revelations of Houston’s electronic sign-stealing scheme.

According to the collective bargaining agreement, players named All-Stars are required to attend and participate in the event unless they are on the injured list on the Sunday immediately preceding the game, they don’t play in their team’s final two games immediately preceding the All-Star Game due to injury or “the club advises (a player) to refrain from baseball activities during the All-Star break to treat a chronic injury or condition.”

Getting hit by a pitch in the left hand on Friday night could allow Altuve to exercise the last rule in the CBA and bypass his third consecutive All-Star Game. Altuve did not play during Saturday’s game but returned to the starting lineup during Sunday’s 3-2 loss.

Barring another injury, it’s difficult to envision Altuve missing any of Houston’s upcoming six-game homestand, which concludes with three games against the Texas Rangers. If Altuve skips the All-Star Game, it could allow Marcus Semien — whom Altuve beat out in the fan vote — to start the exhibition inside his home ballpark.

“The only thing I can say right now is thank you to everyone who made this possible — my coaches, my teammates here supporting me every day, the Houston fans,” Altuve said when asked on Wednesday whether he would attend the game. “I’m really happy. I know they’re happy. Thank you again. I’m looking forward to keep playing games and winning games for you guys.”

Absent from that answer: a “yes.”

(Top photo of Jose Altuve: David Berding / Getty Images)