This is the first article in a series that looks at the five best players at each position for the Houston Astros. In this installment are catchers and managers
The Houston Astros started as the Colt .45s when the National League announced their 1962 expansion plans two years prior. Originally slated to be part of the potential rival the Continental League, the ownership groups in Houston and New York were given Major League franchises and the new league never posed a threat. However, the American League, still in a sibling rivalry with their older brother, announced an expansion plan of their own a few weeks after the N. L., and the Angels and Senators began play in 1961.
Houston’s first owners were oil magnate R. E. (Bob) Smith and Roy Hofheinz, who spent time as a Texas state legislator, a judge, the mayor of Houston, the campaign manager of future president Lyndon Johnson and the owner of Barnum & Bailey circus. The two owners constantly feuded until Hofheinz bought out Smith in 1967.
The team’s stadium plans got delayed, forcing the Colts to play in a hastily built facility called Colt Stadium, which was completed just one day before the 1962 season began. Three years later, the new stadium was completed, and the team rebranded themselves with a space them due to the city’s ties to the space program. The club was called the Astros, and their new, expensive stadium was called the Astrodome.
While the new dome was considered state-of-the-art, there were problems with the glare on the ceiling panels (requiring $25,000 in off-white paint to cover them so fielders could see fly balls) and the “opinionated” and exploding scoreboard.
However, the one good thing that came from the stadium was a revolutionary playing surface. The grass on the Astrodome infield kept dying, so Hofheinz brought in artificial grass that zipped together on the field. The players liked the new “Astroturf” so much that enough was brought in to cover the entire field. Also, the pitcher’s mound was on a large steel tray underneath the turf so it could be easily transported on and off the field to make room for the many other events held at the Astrodome.
Hofheinz was a free spender, but that got him into trouble. Between the cost of the Astrodome and his hotels and entertainment complex nearby, Holfheinz was $30 million in debt. He suffered a stroke in 1970 and sold the team to General Electric and Ford credit companies five years later. Ford bought out G.E. in 1978 and sold the company to ship designer, New Jersey Devils owner and former Yankees minority owner John McMullen in 1979.
Right after McMullen took over, the team started having success on the field. Despite having six winning seasons in their first 17, the Astros didn’t finish higher than third until their new owner took control. In 1979, Houston finished 1½ games behind Cincinnati in the Western Division, then the Astros went to the playoffs each of the next two years. Houston lost to eventual-champion Philadelphia in the NLCS in 1980 and fell in the Division Series the following year.
Over the next 15 seasons, the Astros only made the playoffs once, a memorable trip to the 1986 NLCS and a six-game loss to the Mets. The team fell in the standings again until the mid-1990s, when McMullen sold the club (in 1992) to Drayton McLane Jr., a grocery store owner who sold his family company to Wal-Mart and became the vice chairman of the company.
On the field, two young stars, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, and the rest of the “Killer B’s” led the Astros to six playoff appearances in nine seasons from 1997-2005. Houston fell just short against St. Louis in the 2004 NLCS but avenged the loss a year later before getting swept by the White Sox in the team’s first trip to the World Series.
After a few more competitive seasons, the Astros transferred to the American League and fell to the bottom of the standings. McLane sold the team to freight company magnate Jim Crane for $680 million in 2011. Despite several rough seasons of poor play on the field, the team kept touting their young talent which was progressing through the minor leagues.
Finally, in 2015, Houston made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. The team has appeared in postseason play eight times in nine seasons and is currently in first place in the A. L. West. Thanks to a talented lineup, especially in the infield, the Astros have reached the World Series four times in the past decade.
However, the team’s first-ever championship in 2017 was tainted by a sign-stealing scandal that was met with some of the stiffest penalties in Major League history. Houston has faced unfriendly road crowds ever since but went to the World Series three times since then. The Astros lost to the Nationals in 2019 and the Braves in 2021 before beating the Phillies last year for their second title.
The Best Catchers and Managers in Houston Astros History
Honorable Mentions – Like most of the other teams before, catcher is the weakest position for the Astros. The players on this list combined for just two All-Star selections and three gold gloves while with Houston. A few of the players had greater success either with other teams or at other positions.
One of those is Johnny Edwards, who earned three All-Star selections and two gold gloves with the Reds in the mid-1960. He spent six seasons with the Astros at the end of his career (1969-74) amassing 466 hits, 25 home runs and 199 RBIs in 634 games. Edwards had 115 hits and drove in 50 runs in 1969, and he won the first of three straight fielding titles that season.
Tony Eusebio had a brief call-up in 1991, then spent the next two years in the minors before returning to the Astros for good. During his nine seasons, all with Houston (1991, 94-2001), he batted .275 with 479 hits, 30 home runs and 241 RBIs in 598 games. In seven career playoff games, he had four runs, nine hits and three runs batted in, and he hit a homer off John Smoltz in a losing effort in Game 4 of the 1999 Division Series.
5. Martin Maldonado – The team’s current started earned a gold glove and a Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award with the Angels in 2017 and won a fielding title with the Astros in 2022. Maldonado is an all-or-nothing player at the plate, batting just .191 with 364 hits, 57 home runs and 161 RBIs in 461 games over six seasons (2018 and 19-present).
His offense picks up in the playoffs, and he has 15 runs, 26 hits, five doubles, three homers and 11 RBIs in 54 postseason games. Maldonado had four runs batted in during the loss to the Braves in the 2021 World Series and went 3-for-5 with an RBI in the win of the Phillies the following year.
4. Jason Castro – He spent eight seasons in two stints with the Astros (2010, 12-16 and 21-22) and missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL and a damaged meniscus. Castro earned his only career All-Star selection in 2013, when he posted career highs with a .276 average, 120 hits, 35 doubles, 18 home runs and 56 runs batted in.
Castro, who homered during the 2009 Futures Game, totaled 513 hits, 71 home runs and 236 RBIs in 717 games. In 12 playoff games, Castro has three runs scored, one homer and four runs batted in. He went 0-for-3 off the bench in the 2021 World Series.
3. Craig Biggio – Before he became a Hall of Fame second baseman, he was a highly touted catcher who spent his first four seasons behind the plate (1988-91). Biggio earned a silver slugger in 1989 when he drove in 60 runs and stole 21 bases. Two years later, he earned his only All-Star selection at the position after hitting .295 with 79 runs, 161 hits, 46 RBIs and 19 steals. As a catcher, Biggio batted .272 with 210 runs, 454 hits, 24 home runs and 153 RBIs in 483 games.
2. Brad Ausmus – He was best known for his defense, earning three gold gloves during his 10 seasons in two stints with Houston (1997-98 and 2001-08). His best season at the plate was 2002, when he had 115 hits and drove in 50 runs.
Ausmus ranks tenth in franchise history with 1,259 games played, and he has 415 runs, 970 hits, 162 doubles, 41 home runs and 386 runs batted in. He has appeared in 35 playoff games with the Astros, totaling 12 runs, 26 hits, three homers and seven RBIs. Ausmus batted .250 (4-for-16) with a run scored in the loss to the White Sox in the 2005 World Series.
1. Alan Ashby – Although Ausmus played in more games with the Astros, Ashby had the longer tenure, spending 11 seasons with Houston (1979-89). His best season was 1987, when he won the fielding title and set career highs with a .288 average, 53 runs, 111 hits, 14 home runs and 63 runs batted in.
Overall, Ashby batted .252 with 282 runs, 736 hits, 136 doubles, 69 homers and 388 RBIs in 965 games. He had three runs, five hits, two home runs and five RBIs in 11 career postseason games. Ashby had three hits and two runs scored in the 1986 National League Championship Series, and he hit a two-run home run off the Mets’ Sid Fernandez in a 3-1 victory in Game 4.
Honorable Mentions – Harry Walker was a two-time champion, a two-time All-Star and the 1947 batting champion during an 11-year playing career spent primarily with the Cardinals. He missed two seasons while serving in the Army during World War II, including earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his missions under famed General George Patton.
“Harry the Hat” spent parts of five seasons as Astros manager (1968-72), posting a 355-353 record. Despite the success of his team in 1972 (67-54 and in second place behind the “Big Red Machine”), Walker had little to no rapport with his players, especially the African American ones (leading to the trade of future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan) and was eager to shift blame to others for his poor game management.
After his pro career ended, Walker took over the new baseball team at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and led the team to a pair of Sun Belt Conference titles in eight seasons. He suffered a stroke and passed away at age 80 in 1999.
Hal Lanier went 254-232 in three seasons at the helm (1986-88). In his first season, the Astros went 96-66, won the National League West and took the Mets to six games in the NLCS. For his efforts, Lanier was Named Manager of the Year. Houston hovered around .500 in each of the next two years before he was let go after the 1988 season.
Art Howe played second base for the Astros for seven seasons and came back a few years later to manage the team for five years (1989-93). He amassed a 392-418 record, but the team never finished higher than third in his watch. Houston went 86-76 in his first season with the club and 85-77 in his last. Howe left just before players like Biggio and Bagwell became stars and led the franchise to its first sustained success.
5. Phil Garner – Like Howe, he was a player with the Astros for seven seasons in the early 1980s, but “Scrap Iron” led the team to a 277-252 record and playoff appearances in the first two seasons of his four-year stint as a manager (2004-07). Garner took over for Jimy Williams midway through the 2004 season and led Houston to a 48-26 record and a spot in the NLCS, where the club fell to St. Louis in seven games.
The Astros went 89-73 the following season and got some retribution on the Cardinals to reach their first World Series. However, Garner’s club got swept by the White Sox, finished 1½ games behind the Cardinals in the N. L. Central in 2006 and fell to last the following season, leading to his firing in August.
4. Larry Dierker – He was a two-time All-Star and the club’s all-time time leader in games started, innings pitched, compete games and shutouts over his 13-year Astros career. As the team’s field boss, he went 435-348 in five seasons (1997-2001).
Dierker led his team to the postseason four times, but each time Houston lost in the Division Series. The Astros’ 102-60 record in 1998 was the team’s best to that point and Dierker won the Manager of the Year Award as a result. However, the following year, Dierker was forced to miss about a month after suffering a grand mal seizure during a game in June that was caused by blood vessels in his brain rupturing.
After a 72-90 mark in 2000, the Astros went 93-69 and won the N. L. Central the following year. However, Houston got swept by Atlanta in the Division Series and Dierker retired after the series.
3. Bill Virdon – He was the Rookie of the Year with the Cardinals in 1955 and a gold glove center fielder with the Pirates in 1962 during his 12-year playing career. Not only is he the club’s all-time leader in managerial victories (544-522 in eight seasons from 1975-82), but he led the Astros to their first two postseason appearances.
After four inconsistent seasons, Houston went 89-73 in 1979 and finished behind only Cincinnati in the National League West. The Astros increased their win total by four the following year and reached the playoffs for the first time before losing to the Phillies in the NLCS.
Virdon and the Astros finished in third place in the first half of the strike-shortened 1981 season then won the division in the second half before falling to the eventual-champion Dodgers in the Division Series. Virdon was let go after posting a 49-62 record in 1982. He managed two seasons with the Expos before retiring in 1984. Virdon passed away in 2021 at age 90.
2. Johnnie “Dusty” Baker – There is very little he hasn’t done during his 26-year managerial career. He has led five franchises to postseason play a total of 12 times to this point, won three Manager of the Year Awards and saw his young son nearly get involved in game action as a batboy. Baker also led the Giants to the World Series in 2002, but he hadn’t won a title before coming to Houston prior to the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
Baker was tasked with leading the Astros out of the sign-stealing controversy that clouded their 2017 championship and brought them back to respectability, with the team posting a 313-219 record in the four seasons since his arrival (2020-present). His .588 winning percentage is second-best in team history.
After falling to the Rays in Baker’s first season, Houston has reached the World Series both years since. Following a loss to the Braves in 2021, the Astros went 106-56 in the regular season (the second-most victories in franchise history) and 11-2 in the playoffs to win the second championship in team history in 2022. Baker has the Astros in first place as of mid-September this season.
1. A.J. Hinch – When the Astros returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2005 World Series, it was under Hinch’s watch. Houston earned a Wild Card spot after an 86-76 record in 2015 and, after missing the playoffs the following year went 101 and 61 and won the club’s first World Series title in 2017.
The Astros won 103 games the following year but fell to the eventual-champion Red Sox in the ALCS. In 2019, Hinch led Houston to a franchise-record 107-55 mark and wins over the Rays and Yankees in the playoffs before losing to the Nationals in the World Series.
Although the young hitters were impressive throughout Hinch’s tenure, the 2017 championship was tainted by a sign-stealing controversy that resulted in $5 million in fines, losses of Houston’s first- and second-round draft picks in 2021 and ’22, plus Hinch, bench coach Alex Cora (who by then was managing the Red Sox) and general manager Jeff Luhnow receiving one-year suspensions in 2020.
Hinch ranks second in team history in victories and his 481-329 record gives him a franchise-best .594 winning percentage. While Cora was brought back by the Red Sox after his suspension and Luhnow left baseball to own and manage soccer teams in Spain and Mexico, the Astros hired Baker and Hinch went to the Tigers, where has endured three straight losing seasons.
Houston Astros Catchers and Managers
Houston Astros First and Third Basemen and Designated Hitters – coming soon
Houston Astros Second Basemen and Shortstops – coming soon
Houston Astros Outfielders – coming soon
Houston Astros Pitchers – coming soon
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Arizona Diamondbacks First and Third Basemen
Arizona Diamondbacks Second Basemen and Shortstops
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