HOUSTON — When Sports Illustrated published a story in 2014 predicting the Houston Astros would win the 2017 World Series, the magazine chose a rock-solid cover model. George Springer looks every bit the young baseball Adonis as he follows through on a power swing with his tongue protruding between pursed lips, Michael Jordan-style.
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“We were all a little jealous of Springer getting the cover,” said Astros teammate Dallas Keuchel. “But he was the poster child. He was the guy coming out of UConn that was five-tool. We see it now every day.”
Three years after his national media coming-out party, Springer is showing everyone why the Astros selected him 11th overall in the 2011 MLB first-year player draft and gave him a $ 2.52 million signing bonus. At age 28, he has emerged as a franchise pillar in Houston thanks to a wondrous blend of tenacity, ability and geography.
Springer’s path as a burgeoning star and fan favorite in Houston is only fitting, given that the two players most readily identified with the Astros’ organization gravitated to Texas from the same portion of the country. Jeff Bagwell grew up in Connecticut, and Craig Biggio strayed only slightly from his boyhood roots in Smithtown, N.Y., to play college ball at Seton Hall in New Jersey.
Now comes Springer, a New Britain, Connecticut, native who has shown that short high school seasons and a boyhood acquaintance with snow shoveling aren’t necessarily deterrents to success or popularity in the Lone Star State.
“It’s cool to see those guys and to know where they came from,” Springer said of Bagwell and Biggio, Houston’s two Hall of Famers. “It shows a lot of kids up north that you can go out and accomplish a lot, regardless of where you’re from.”
Springer raised his game a level this season, setting career highs for home runs (34), batting average (.283) and OPS (.889) while making his first All-Star team and ranking 10th in the American League with a 5.3 wins above replacement. Thanks to a combination of maturity, better plate discipline and some adjustments in his approach, he reduced his strikeout rate to 17.6 percent compared to 33 percent during his rookie year in 2014. That has helped him better embrace a role as Houston’s lineup catalyst in the leadoff spot.
“It’s crazy,” said Astros right fielder Josh Reddick. “You have a 3-4-5 hitter in George Springer hitting leadoff for a team that has five or six No. 3-4 hitters. He’s not your prototypical leadoff hitter. He’s going to drive in runs and hit it out of the park.”
Offensively, the postseason has been a mixed bag for Springer. He hit .412 (7-for-17) in the division series against Boston before lapsing into a .115 funk (3-for-26) vs. the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. He’s regained his equilibrium against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, hitting .286 (4-for-14) and launching the climactic two-run homer off Brandon McCarthy in Houston’s 7-6, 11-inning victory at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.
While the bat can come and go, Springer’s defense is a given. He made two exceptional plays in the Houston’s 5-3 victory Friday — ranging to the wall to steal an extra-base hit from Justin Turner in the first inning, and charging in hard to rob Chris Taylor of a single on a dunk shot in the fifth.
The two plays brought to mind Springer’s spectacular catch off Todd Frazier to bail out Justin Verlander in Game 6 of the ALCS. The play was impressive enough that Verlander waited along the first-base line to give Springer a high-five as the Astros came off the field after the inning.
“The one thing that stands out to me about George is his willingness to sacrifice his body,” Reddick said. “You don’t see that a whole lot anymore in this game. The way he jumps and gets off the ground is what really surprises me. The catch he made off Frazier was something spectacular. I didn’t know that he could jump that high.”
Springer doesn’t fit the profile of the classic fleet and rangy center fielder. At a sculpted 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he’s more in the Mike Trout than Byron Buxton mold. But his plus-5 defensive runs saved this season tied him for 13th among MLB center fielders with Lorenzo Cain, Ender Inciarte and two others. His success in center is as much about determination, fearlessness and a sense of entitlement as it is about speed and the ability to read a ball off the bat.
“I just believe that the ball gets hit, and I’m supposed to catch it,” Springer said. “If that requires me to hit the wall, I’m just going to try not to hit it with my head. I’m just gonna catch the ball, and if I have to hit the wall, I will. And if I hit the wall and I don’t catch it, I’m going to stand back up and chase it and throw it back in. That’s the mentality I have.”
While Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have generally been cited as the veteran voices who have helped the Astros better navigate the highs and lows of a long season, Springer has emerged as a significant clubhouse influence in his fourth year in the majors. Outfielder Derek Fisher signed with the Astros out of the University of Virginia in 2014, and he instantly noticed how everyone in the clubhouse naturally gravitated to Springer.
“Everybody watches him play and thinks of him as Superman,” Fisher said. “Obviously, he’s good. But people don’t see what kind of person he is. He always has a smile on his face, and he’s the first one to help you out. For me, as a young guy, it’s been big to watch his mindset and how he goes about it. He probably has more fun playing baseball than anyone I’ve seen.”
And why not? Springer is a featured player on an Astros team that is two wins away from its first championship, and he’s been embraced by the folks in his new home in Texas. The reception has been warm enough to help Springer overlook some of the cultural differences between Houston and his native Connecticut.
“It’s two different worlds,” he said. “The driving is totally different. Since I grew up in New England, I’ve had to adjust from the New England style to the Houston style. I don’t know that I can pinpoint it. I just know that it’s different.”
As long as the distinctions don’t prevent Springer from arriving at Minute Maid Park by game time, it’s all good. And if the traffic is too oppressive on a given day, he always has the option of donning his Superman cape and making the commute by air.