HOUSTON — What do you do when you have a speedster and a Gold Glove-caliber defender roaming center field in Triple-A? If you’re the Houston Astros, you ask him to play shortstop.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is crazy, we’re actually going to try this,'” Myles Straw said Monday.
Straw, 25, is arguably the fastest player in the Astros organization and he is a stellar gloveman who received a cup of coffee late last year, and shuttled between Triple-A and the bigs this year. The team loves his athleticism and baseball instincts, so, in spring training, they approaching him about playing shortstop.
“It was a tough transition at first,” Straw admitted. “I’m pretty athletic. They believed in me as a team and as an organization. Went there and played some games in Triple-A at first, kind of got the hang of it. Where I need to be on certain plays.”
Teams experiment with players at new positions all the time in the minors. You might see a catcher play third base, a shortstop slide over to second, a left fielder give first base a shot. Rarely does a team move a top-notch center fielder not only to the infield, but to shortstop, the most demanding position on the diamond.
Straw’s move to shortstop proved to be more than an experiment. When Carlos Correa went down with a broken rib in late May, the Astros called up Straw, and it wasn’t long until he found himself starting big-league games at shortstop after playing the position for the first time in spring training. He never even played shortstop in high school.
“They said you’re coming up for Carlos. I was like alright, I’ll back up some games, worst comes to worst I’ll be the third string shortstop,” Straw said with a laugh. “Sure enough, they threw me in there right away, and I’m like there’s nothing you can do now other than buckle down and play. Just got to be ready.”
Straw started 14 games at shortstop this season — he also started one game at second base, another new position — and played 185 total innings on the infield. That was after only 30 games and 245 1/3 innings at shortstop in Triple-A. He did not make an error at short and was credited with one defensive run saved in the small sample size.
“When I first came up here I was pretty nervous, just getting my first game in,” Straw said. “It’s just kind of a thing where it takes reps in games to kind of get used to it. The confidence came along. I’ve came a long way since I started.”
For Straw, a former 12th-round draft pick who led the minors with a .358 batting average in 2016, the versatility only helps his chances of sticking with the ultra-talented Astros going forward. Fourth outfielder Jake Marisnick is a non-tender candidate this winter, at which point Straw could take over as the fourth outfielder and emergency infielder going forward.
Of course, there is more to Straw’s game than speed, outfield defense, and the shortstop experiment. In 56 MLB games this year he hit .269 with a .378 on-base percentage, and nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (24). Baseball America‘s preseason scouting report suggests Straw can be the pesky bench player pretty much every World Series contender has on their roster:
Straw’s opposite-field approach rarely makes him a threat to hit the ball over an outfielder’s head. That approach has worked so far, and he’s steadily drawn walks despite lacking the power to frighten pitchers who are behind in counts. Straw handles velocity and doesn’t get the bat knocked out of his hands despite his bottom-of-the-scale power, projecting as an above-average hitter. His 70-grade speed helps him beat out infield hits and makes him a threat to steal anytime a base is open. He can play all three outfield spots in part thanks to a plus-plus arm. In center field, he’s an above-average defender excellent coming in on balls, but he needs his speed to make up for slower reads on balls over his head.
The Astros have had success helping players change positions in recent years. Marwin Gonzalez was a minor-league infielder who has since played MLB games at every position except pitcher and catcher. Tony Kemp went from second base to the outfield. Alex Bregman made the more traditional transition from shortstop to third base. Position changes happen.
Rarely does a player — with Gold Glove-caliber tools at his natural position — move from the outfield to the middle infield, however. Usually it’s the other way around. The game moves much quicker on the infield and there are so many nuances. Where do I go for the double play? Who covers on a stolen base attempt? Where do I go on a cutoff play?
Straw made the transition from center field to shortstop on the fly this year at the highest level of the minors. The Astros approached him with the idea in spring training, so he didn’t have an offseason to prepare, and less than three months later he was starting an MLB game at the position. The move now has Straw in position to carve out a long-term role with the Astros.
“I’ve come a long way at shortstop,” Straw said. “I’m pretty proud of that.”