MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

When Springer goes, the Astros go

When Springer goes, the Astros go

HOUSTON -- Two notable things happened to the Astros right after manager A.J. Hinch flip-flopped Jose Altuve and George Springer at the top of his batting order:

1. The Astros got hot.

2. Springer got insanely hot.

All with one little tweak to his lineup card. Take a bow, A.J. Hinch.

"I wish I had done it two weeks earlier if I'd known it was that absolute," Hinch said.

Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Springer, Altuve and other #ASGWorthy players

At the time of the switch last week, Houston was among the most puzzling and disappointing teams. Widely picked to win the American League West, the Astros were 17-28 and 10 games out of first place on May 22.

In a pair of conversations that lasted a total of around 30 seconds, Hinch summoned the two players to his office and told them that Springer would hit leadoff, Altuve second. For seven weeks, Altuve typically had hit first, Springer second.

Things changed instantly. Sure, better starting pitching and a solid bullpen were factors. Regardless, the bottom line changed immediately.

The Astros are 8-2 since, including a 3-0 loss to Zack Greinke and the D-backs on Thursday. They've crept to within five games of .500 at 25-30. Houston's offense has increased from 4.0 runs per game to 4.6. And Springer has gone on a tear that may get him a spot on the AL All-Star team.

"Springer is setting the tone right now," Altuve said. "He's getting on base, scoring. When you score first, the game just seems different. We play better when we score first."

Springer is batting .432 with four doubles, four home runs and nine RBIs since the switch. He began Thursday ranked first in Wins Above Replacement among all AL position players at 3.2, as calculated by Baseball Reference.

Springer's walk-off home run

Offensively, Springer is second among AL outfielders in hits (64) and fourth in home runs (13), runs (35), on-base percentage (.377) and OPS (.897). Defensively, he is among the best on the planet. Springer is third among AL outfielders with nine defensive runs saves and second in outfield assists with six.

There's also the energy Springer brings to the team whether it be in the dugout or with a highlight-reel catch in right field. Those game-changing plays have become as much a part of the identity of the Astros as Dallas Keuchel's beard.

"For me, that's everything," Springer said of his defense.

Springer recalls a 2013 conversation with veteran Torii Hunter in Detroit for emphasizing the importance of both parts of his game.

"I told him I was struggling at the plate," Springer said. "He said, 'No, you're doing great. You're doing everything you're supposed to do. Just remember one thing: Offense will always come and go, but your glove will stay.' That has really stuck with me.

"I understand that I can be 0-for-4 at the plate, but I can go out in the field and impact the game with a throw, a catch, stop a guy going from first to second."

Springer's throw nabs Weeks Jr.

Back to that switch in the batting order.

"I'd always flirted with that," Hinch said. "I batted Altuve leadoff at the start of the season because I wanted him to have the liberty to run the bases a little more aggressively in front of Springer.

"But I love the on-base skills of George Springer and the threat of the extra-base hit and the dynamic that George brings. I liked the idea of Altuve hitting with an extra guy on base who had some speed. I wanted him to have a chance to hit when a single or double would score Springer.

"George becomes a better hitter when he's less fixated on production and more fixated on setting the table for the guys behind him -- a perfect marriage."

How did one tweak change an entire team?

"A lot of times, it's changing their mindset and their approach subtly," Hinch said. "When they struggle, they don't need massive changes. Sometimes, a subtle move like that will change the perspective just enough and allow them to relax and be the hitter they are."

One other thing. When Hinch told Springer of the change, he offered one piece of advice: "Be a good player."

If that sounds simple, it's actually not.

"For George, I think a lot of times, guys at this level with his skill set try to be superhuman," Hinch said. "They try to do everything to the Nth degree, especially George. Being a good player to him doesn't have to mean hitting the ball over the train tracks, even though he can do it. He doesn't have to go 4-for-4 with four extra-base hits. It might be a single to right or making a diving catch. There are multiple ways to be a good player and help your team win on a nightly basis."

Having endured the toughest of starts, the Astros say they never lost confidence that they'd eventually dust themselves off and get back into contention. That part of the deal remains a work in progress.

"We've obviously had our struggles," Springer said. "I guess this is how you would expect us to play. I think all year we've been a confident group. We know who we are. We understand who we have here. You just have to go out and play. We have to enjoy the day and the game.

"As skip says, 'You just want to go out and do what the game tells you to do. You want to slow yourself down, and if it requires you to get somebody over, you do it. If you've got to drive 'em in, you do it.' We've finally as a team been able to do what the game is asking us to do."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.