Toolshed: Astros' Straw dashing, slapping

Fresno outfielder leading Minors in steals but power yet to come

Myles Straw, who made his Triple-A debut June 16, has been caught stealing six times in 47 attempts this season. (Jamie Harms/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | June 22, 2018 10:00 AM

It's not all that difficult to fathom, even this far in advance.

The date is Sept. 19, and the Astros are hosting the Mariners at Minute Maid Park. Because of a fantastic midseason run back in June, the home team holds a 10-game lead in the AL West and could clinch the division title with a win over visiting Seattle. But the two sides are tied, 3-3, when Evan Gattis reaches with a single in the bottom of the ninth. Manager AJ Hinch quickly turns to his bench and calls over a prospect who was added to the club when rosters expanded earlier in the month.

Myles Straw emerges from the dugout and replaces Gattis at first base. The Houston crowd begins to stir. The fans know. The Mariners know. Straw knows. He's there to steal second.

That's a dream scenario right now, but considering the way Straw uses his 70-grade speed, it could very well be reality in three months' time.

"It's the same as it's been ever since Rookie ball," the Astros' No. 20 prospect said. "They want me to go when I get the chance. Deep down, I know that's my talent. If I can steal a lot of bases, that's what is going to get me my shot at the Major Leagues, which is the main goal for anyone in this game. I'm going to use it in any way I can to make that goal happen."

Straw is off to a tremendous start in that department. At about the halfway point of the Minor League season, the 23-year-old outfielder leads the Minors with 41 stolen bases in 70 games between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Fresno. No one else in the Minors has more than 32 thefts, and no one else in the Houston system has more than 24. What's more, Straw's total is already a personal career high, usurping the 38 bases he stole in 57 more games last season.

Video: Art of The Game: Base Stealing with Myles Straw

Straw is the elite when it comes to stolen bases in the Minor Leagues. But there's a difference between showing one mighty impressive skill and being a full-fledged, well-rounded prospect, and that difference will impact how Straw fits into the Astros' future plans.

Don't get it wrong; Straw is having a strong offensive season by several measures. The 5-foot-10 center fielder batted .327 with a .414 on-base percentage in 65 games with Double-A Corpus, ranking in the top five in the Texas League in both categories. When Fresno center fielder Drew Ferguson went down with a wrist injury on June 13, Straw's numbers, both at the plate and on the basepaths, paired with his strong defensive ability to make him the easy pick to replace Ferguson on the Fresno roster. Though it's only been five games, he's been very much the same player at the Minors' highest level, going 10-for-23 (.435) with a .480 OBP in that small sample.

But here's the thing that's different about Straw's hitting in the current age of baseball. While most of the game -- the Astros front office included -- has stressed a focus on launch angle and getting the ball in the air to make better use of a hitter's power, Straw's offensive game is very much a ground campaign, and that appears unlikely to change any time soon.

The California native hit 55.8 percent of his balls in play on the ground during his time at Double-A -- the exact same percentage he put up over 114 games at Class A Advanced Buies Creek in 2017. That ground-ball rate was second-highest among qualified Texas League hitters. Unsurprisingly, only 11 of Straw's 82 hits during his time with Corpus Christi went for extra bases, and his .064 isolated slugging percentage was fourth-lowest on the Double-A circuit.

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Before the season even began, the Astros said they intended to make Straw a more complete hitter, one whose skills would translate more easily to the game's top level. That intention hasn't quite actualized yet.

"He really just needs to start turning on the ball a little bit more and looking up the middle instead of the other way," director of player development Pete Putila said during Spring Training. "He does have bat speed. He just doesn't always tap into it during the game. That's something we're stressing with him to improve the offensive production. The contact is great. He's going to be a productive Major League player. But in order to maximize that, we're trying to get him to turn on the ball more and focusing on hitting line drives and having some of those turn into homers."

Straw said this week that he's had some discussions with the organization about changing his swing path to add some power, but as a player who has gone deep only three times 342 career games, he doesn't think a radical change would do much good.

"They've mentioned it but not as much with me as they would with someone who has the chance to hit 30 homers or something like that," he said. "They kind of just let me hit line drives and don't talk to me too much about all of that. I want to take advantage of my speed best I can, and this is working for me."

Straw's tendencies toward slap-hitting extend beyond keeping the ball on the ground, however. In fact, there's another category in which Straw leads full-season Minor Leaguers -- opposite-field rate. As of Thursday, the right-handed hitter has put 46.6 percent of his balls in play toward right field, a higher percentage than any other Minor League hitter with more than 300 plate appearances this season. He's pulled 26.5 percent of his balls in play and sent 27.4 percent up the middle. Straw insists, however, he's aiming to make contact and put the ball toward center as his primary goal.

"I'm just looking to stay in the middle of the field," he said. "Trying to go to right or trying to pull the ball, neither one of those is the best idea for me. If I'm just trying to stay middle, I can get to the inside pitch, I can get to the outside pitch and go from there."

That approach might point toward the genesis of his lack of power -- his desire to put the ball in play as much as possible. In fact, the No. 20 prospect in the system is quite good when it comes to that. With strikeouts on the rise across the game, Straw has still struck out in only 14.7 of his plate appearances at both Triple-A and Double-A this season. That's great, but on a philosophical level, Houston and probably every other organization would be willing to see a player accumulate a few more whiffs if it meant more long fly balls.

"We try to stress actual offensive production. You can explain it any way you want, but runs are runs and they come from extra-base hits and doing damage and whatnot," Putila said. "I think players around the game are starting to realize that. Every team has an analytics department. Every team talks about OPS. They see the guys that are getting paid. It's a little less of a challenge getting through to players on that, but fearing the strikeout is a big thing for guys. They tone it down a bit. But the power production is definitely huge for us."

What resonates most from Putila's spring forecast, though, is probably the sentiment that Straw will "be a productive Major League player." Right now, that production could come as a pinch-run specialist who, when he does get the chance to hit in The Show, turns his singles into doubles with stolen bases. But the speedster still has a chance to prove he can be more at Fresno, where the likes of J.D. Davis, Derek Fisher, A.J. Reed and even top prospect Kyle Tucker all have to find their own ways to stick out because of the AL West leaders' crowded Major League roster. Straw's speed may separate him from that pack, but he might need to do a little more if he's going to be something other than a bit player come September.

"It's not really talked about here," Straw said of Houston's roster crunch. "Maybe guys know deep down in their heads that they could play for other [Major League] teams right now. There's plenty of them that have been up and down, and everyone here is obviously super-close. But it's something we all can't control. We can just compete as we all do, and it'll all work out the way it's supposed to."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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