Has George Springer Of The Houston Astros Lived Up To The Hype?

There’s no reasonable way George Springer can be considered a disappointment; he’s one of the best young players in baseball. And yet…has he become something of a post-hype sleeper?

Before the 2014 season, Springer was a consensus top-20 prospect in baseball — if only just barely, squeaking in at #18 at Baseball America, #20 at Baseball Prospectus and #21 at Major League Baseball’s own in-house prospect rankings. The book on Springer was that he had great power potential combined with a real aggressive approach at the plate that led to two things: lots of extra-base hits, and lots of strikeouts. In 2013, he homered 37 times in the minors, along with hitting 27 doubles and four triples across Double- and Triple-A.

Those numbers came with riders, of course. Houston has its Double- and Triple-A affiliates in the Texas League and Pacific Coast League, respectively — two of the biggest hitters’ leagues in minor league baseball, especially the PCL. But they were indicative of a fundamentally effective and, almost as importantly, extremely engaging way of playing the game of baseball. Springer’s style thrummed with energy, of things always happening — sort of the way Bryce Harper played for his first few years with the Washington Nationals, though perhaps with less grandiosity and a bit less swagger.

And when Springer got his promotion to the big leagues, he made good (and bad) on much of that promise: he hit 20 home runs with eight doubles and a triple in his first 78 games while playing an aggressive right (very occasionally center) field, and of course, striking out 114 times. One hundred fourteen times in 78 games! One hundred fourteen times in only 345 plate appearances! And then in the middle of the year, the Astros lost him for the rest of the season to a quad injury.

The next year was a new year for Springer, in which he did…well, most of the same stuff. He once again played an extremely aggressive right field, once again hit for good-but-not-great power with 16 home runs, 19 doubles and two triples, and once again struck out a lot — 109, this time, in only 102 games because, once again, Springer was hurt. This time a fractured wrist was to blame for him missing July through to September.

But there was an important difference between his 2014 and 2015 seasons, working around the injuries: Springer figured out how to hit for average at the major league level. Not well enough to make it a major tool of his — we’re talking going from hitting .231 to .276 here, which is a big jump but still leaves him well shy of the coveted .300 benchmark — but that adjustment was enough to turn Springer into a very valuable player because of another one of his skills that has remained constant: an excellent batter’s eye.

Springer walked 89 times in 180 games his first two seasons up with the Astros, which yes, pales in comparison to his 223 strikeouts over that period of time, but it’s not like striking out eliminates the times he got on base. This points to Springer’s aggression at the plate, which his batter’s eye is complemented, not overridden, by. It’s useful to think of Springer, then, as a sort of Adam Jones-type hitter with much, much better discipline at the plate — leading to overall better offensive numbers for Springer in his career than Jones has put up in any season, 2012 being the one year he came close.

Springer was healthy for all of last year, and showed off what he could do over a full campaign: pretty much exactly what he’d done the previous two years, except over 162 games. And this was…something of a disappointment. Not really, of course; he was still a 124 OPS+ outfielder who had finally proven that the injuries that struck him down the past two years weren’t necessarily part of who he was as a player. But Houston fans were hoping, on some level, that a full year’s worth of exposure at the major league level, combined with his learning experiences the last two years, would unlock Springer’s second gear and send him into the top tier of major leaguers playing the game today, along with his teammates Jose Altuve and, arguably, Carlos Correa (who hit about as well as Springer did but from a much more defensively valuable position).

That didn’t happen, and that’s fine. It’s fine because Springer doesn’t need to be the guy who puts this team on his back, and with the signings of Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick — and the acquisition of Brian McCann via trade with the New York Yankees — the Astros are in a position where Springer doesn’t need to start hitting 40 home runs a year for their offense to be very, very productive.

That lack of pressure, of course, could be what lets Springer find that next level. He remains an endlessly aggressive hitter with a great eye maturing into his power prime, and he’s not exactly been a slouch at the plate so far in his career. If he just continues being a 120-something OPS+ guy forever, that’s perfectly fine. He’ll make many millions of dollars and have a very long, successful career. But if there is another, higher level for George Springer to unlock, he’ll have a chance to show it off this season, after everyone’s forgotten about him as the next big thing on the Astros roster.

And he’ll have a chance to do it as a center fielder. He won’t be the best center fielder in the American League unless Mike Trout suffers a season-ending injury in the first month — but there’s absolutely no shame in second.

By Jonathan Bernhardt