George Springer infuses Astros with much-needed talent, energy

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Houston Astros' Jose Altuve (27) congratulates George Springer (4) on his two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles in the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Houston. The Astros won 3-1. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Springer homers again, Astros beat Orioles

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve (27) congratulates George Springer (4) on his two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles in the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, May 29, 2014, in Houston. The Astros won 3-1. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

George Springer is dancing. It's more than two hours before first pitch, and the Houston Astros' clubhouse isn't quiet so much as it is in energy-conservation mode, and if his teammates have learned anything about Springer during his six-week major league career, it is that he does not conserve his fuel so much as burn through it like a Funny Car.

Dexter Fowler (L) and George Springer celebrate Thursday's win over Baltimore. (Getty)
Dexter Fowler (L) and George Springer celebrate Thursday's win over Baltimore. (Getty)

He is moving, constantly moving – 24 years, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds of perpetual motion, an affront to the laws of thermodynamics. He is walking up to fellow outfielder Dexter Fowler, who's supine on the couch, and needling him with questions, and then laughing, and then moving on to catcher Jason Castro, and asking him to plug in his iPad and turn on a song called "Derp." When Castro does, Springer is planting his feet in the ground, bobbing along to the electronic thump, until the hook hits and kindly suggests to "Turn the [expletive] bass up!"

And then it's not just Springer. It's him, and it's Fowler, and it's even designated hitter Chris Carter, who a minute earlier looked askance at Springer, and they're all dancing. Not because this song is particularly catchy or because they want to impress anyone. No, there's just something about being around George Springer that makes people want to dance.

There is a rule in sports: Rookies shalt know thy place. Thy place in the NFL is paying for gigantic restaurant tabs, and thy place in the NBA is wearing Hello Kitty backpacks, and thy place in baseball is other varied sorts of hazing. All of it is typical alpha preening, obnoxious and juvenile and meant to remind rookies that their place inside of a clubhouse is best served with open ears and a closed mouth.

Every so often comes along a rookie who not only gives less than a thousandth of a damn about such conventions but carries the sort of energy that makes their usual enforcers either forget about them or just not care. One of George Springer's teammates in the minor leagues and now with the Astros, shortstop Jonathan Villar, said: "It's like he's too happy." To which Springer responded, rather perfectly, "I don't think you can ever be too happy playing baseball."

George Springer's.10 home runs are tied for 11th in the American League. (Getty)
George Springer's.10 home runs are tied for 11th in the American League. (Getty)

It didn't come out as some syrupy, cloying, scripted twaddle. Nor is it that Springer happens to be in the midst of a ridiculous, bordering-on-historic month, though that can't hurt his optimism. Over his past seven games, Springer has hit seven home runs. In May, he is hitting .319/.413/.702 with 10 homers. For some perspective, in Jose Abreu's seemingly otherworldly AL player- and rookie-of-the-month-winning performance, he hit .270/.336/.617 with 10 homers. And during his record-setting debut month in 2013, Yasiel Puig went .436/.467/.713 with nine fewer RBIs than Springer's 25.

So there is reason to dance, yes, not just in the clubhouse but the Astros' maligned front office, which received Springer as a going-away present as the final first-round pick of former general manager Ed Wade. Springer went 11th overall in the loaded 2011 draft, and he slipped that far mainly out of concerns that his gaudy tools wouldn't manifest themselves against greater competition.

Springer grew up in Connecticut, son of a lawyer and a gymnastics coach, grandson of a Panamanian immigrant who became a local NAACP leader and renowned educator. The name George Chelston Springer means something in the northeast: fairness and intelligence and the sort of charisma that just makes people want to follow.

Astros brass sensed this early. It went beyond the home runs and stolen bases and glove in center field, the near 40-40 season he had between Double-A and Triple-A last year. He thinks. He reasons. He understands that his 52 strikeouts in 170 plate appearances are far from ideal, but he's philosophical about them: "It's an out. That's how I look at it. Some people pop up 100 times to shortstop. Mine happen to be strikeouts. Yeah, obviously, you can say you want to improve on your contact rate, but the second I change and try to put the ball in play is the second I become who I'm not. You strike out? You strike out."

The Astros are the most analytical organization in baseball, and even they understood that with someone like Springer, someone who can catalyze a room, intangibles and immeasurables exist.

"This is a young team," Fowler said. "Everyone loves him. He performs. And he knows how to carry himself. The guy's talent is off the charts. He's going to be a very special player."

Springer doesn't remember how old he was. Maybe 7, maybe 8. He just remembers seeing the player with the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats: the way he moved in center field, how he swung the bat, the general sense of je ne sais quoi with which he played. He went home and told his dad that night he had a new favorite player.

His name was Torii Hunter.

"He has fun," Springer said. "I just try to emulate what he does. Be who I am, but at the same time do things how he does it. Because he does them the right way."

Torii Hunter is in his 17th major league season. (AP)
Torii Hunter is in his 17th major league season. (AP)

This spring, Astros manager Bo Porter introduced Springer to Hunter. They exchanged contact information and have kept in touch. Hunter often mentors younger players, particularly African-American ones who look around the game and don't see nearly as many with a shared cultural experience.

Springer reminds Porter of Hunter as much as he does players like Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria, who stepped into a clubhouse as rookies and immediately took on the role of prominent voice.

"He's just being George Springer, which is good," Porter said. "Different personalities develop over time. A lot of times, people come into the setting and aren't who they are. And it takes away their ability to feel the freedom to impact a ballclub. One of the things I love about George is he is who he is. He's going to have fun."

Same goes for the Astros. After years of misery, they're showing signs of beginning the turnaround that GM Jeff Luhnow and his lieutenants expected as they bulked up their minor league system. Springer is one of the first high-end prospects to graduate. Shortstop Carlos Correa is another potential superstar on the come. They've got a world of pitching talent and could add another high-end arm with Carlos Rodon, Brady Aiken or Tyler Kolek with the No. 1 overall pick in next week's draft.

"It's happening," Springer said. "It's been happening. Things don't change overnight. The guys in this clubhouse now are extremely talented. This is a good team despite the wins and losses."

The best part: Because they waited two weeks into the season to call up Springer, he's theirs through at least the 2020 season. The Astros tried to sign him to a long-term contract before his major league debut, an overture he turned down after some back and forth.

It's a dance they'll surely do again, though next time, as is usually the case with George Springer, he'll be the one taking the lead.

 

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