For a team that lost 324 games the last three seasons -- and is off to a 7-16 start in 2014, a 113-loss pace -- the Houston Astros are surprisingly popular among intelligent baseball fans. They're run by Jeff Luhnow, the outsider who famously overhauled the Cardinals' dominant farm system, and they feature multiple former Baseball Prospectus writers, including the likeable Kevin Goldstein as director of professional scouting. This is a brain trust you find yourself cheering for: These are the barbarians who bum-rushed the gates.
The source of the Astros' appeal, though, is what we should probably call The Astros Project. The Astros are an irresistible test tube case: What would happen if you stripped everything -- everything -- away from a franchise and started completely from scratch. The Astros didn't just trade away every veteran and bring the payroll dangerously near the minimum; they even replaced just about everyone in the office. They moved from the National League to the American League. They changed their colors from black, brick red and tan back to blue and orange. All that's really the same about the old Astros and the new Astros? The name and the stadium. For now.
It's fun when people try new things, and while it's worth noting that the owners probably didn't mind the payroll slashing (and fans generally are paying major league prices to watch a team bottom out on purpose), you find yourself giving the Astros the benefit of the doubt. It's exciting to see smart people doing something different. You want to see it work out for them. You want them to, eventually, succeed.
Which is why it's probably time for the manager to get with the program. Because all this new school innovation that's making them so likable is being completely undone by a manager who is starting to look like a reactionary, delusional idiot.
* * *
It would be fair to say that the last fortnight of Bo Porter's professional life has not been among his proudest. (It has been even worse than that time he failed to understand basic substitution patterns.) I'm beginning to wonder if losing 111 games in a season caused something in his brain to pop.
It all started on April 17, when third baseman Matt Dominguez made as dumb a baserunning mistake as you will ever see. When asked about the play after the game, Porter stood, silent, for 17 full seconds, rage building, veins bursting. He suppressed an explosion that night. But only temporarily.
Two games later, it all bubbled to the surface. The Astros, as the Astros tend to do, fell behind 7-0 in the first inning to Oakland. A's shortstop Jed Lowrie, batting for the second time in the inning, decided to bunt.
Now, let's stop for a moment and consider whether or not this was a terrible thing for Lowrie to do. On one hand, the score is 7-0, and bunting in a blowout is generally considered poor sportsmanship by The Baseball Community. On the other: It was the first inning. Can you possibly be piling on and rubbing it an opponent's face in the first inning? Also, even though the Astros were down 7-0, they were still trying to win, as evidenced by the fact that they were actually shifting against Lowrie; that's the reason he decided to put the bunt down in the first place.
To put in place a defense to stop Lowrie from getting a hit, and then getting mad at him because he attempted to do something to counter that defense, only because you're already down by a lot of runs, is unreasonable in the extreme. (This was Lowrie's exact case.) It's pretty tough to argue that Lowrie did anything even slightly wrong.
Fortunately, Bo Porter didn't argue anything: He just started screaming.
Which person, to you, seems more insane and more qualified to be the cool, level-headed manager of a Major League Baseball team: Bo Porter or Jose Altuve? Porter was flipping out as if Lowrie had jumped in his pool or something. It was baffling what Porter's problem was. Porter made it even worse when he had Astros reliever Paul Clemens throw at Lowrie later in the game, in retaliation. Baseball remains the only activity left in America where grown men, when they are angry about something, throw objects at people. (Clemens, being an Astros reliever, missed his target.) The whole thing, mercifully, seemed over.
Until last night. With the Astros down 8-1 in the seventh inning against the A's again -- these seven-run deficits, they're an epidemic in Houston! -- Lowrie came to the plate against Clemens again. Earlier in the game, Houston outfielder George Springer had been hit by a pitch, and no one thought much of it. Well, almost no one.
This time, on his first pitch, Clemens didn't miss:
It is worth noting that the Astros claim that Clemens was acting on his own. After the game, Clemens said it was a mistake, that it was just a pitch that got too far inside on him. The only problem with that? Bo Porter.
"I think the game of baseball takes care of itself. George Springer got hit tonight, and it's part of the game," Porter said afterward, which happened to be nearly the exact same thing he said after Clemens tried to hit Lawrie earlier in the week. Lowrie cut through all the junk. "It's flat out embarrassing," Lowrie said. "There's no other way to say it from every perspective. That kind of conduct shouldn't be condoned … I still don't understand why it was made into a big deal to begin with. He throws at me twice in Oakland, and then throws at me again today. For a number of reasons it's embarrassing. I had him in an at-bat before, I hit a double off him, and then he throws at me the first pitch. I've never seen anything like it. It hit me in the back leg. I'd be curious what his answer was, or what Bo's answer was. It's pretty obvious that he was throwing at me on purpose for the third time."
Basically, Bo Porter, as the public face of this supposedly likable Astros organization has decided that the fact that Jed Lowrie bunted against his shift in the first inning of a seven-run game -- something almost no one other than Porter seriously thinks was wrong -- means there should be a lifetime bounty out on him. Even under the vague, confusing umbrella of unwritten rules, this makes no sense. It's reckless and moronic. He's a toddler carrying around a gun without a safety.
I don't know what's going on with Porter and the Houston Astros. Maybe he has just lost too many games and has snapped. Maybe he's just an angry person. Maybe he is a time traveler who has come to us from the future, and it turns out Lowrie, via the butterfly effect, needed to be hit to stop future Hitler or something. But right now, he's making that whole organization look worse than 111 losses ever could.
* * *