The Astros desperately needed a boost. With superstars Yordan Álvarez and José Altuve sidelined for most of July, and the high-powered Rangers threatening to run away with the American League West, Houston had to get more from the familiar faces in its lineup.
World Series MVP Jeremy Peña responded with his roughest month yet. Two-time All-Star Alex Bregman was good. Two-time All-Star Kyle Tucker was at his best.
The reigning champs’ top hitter during this fateful stretch, however, was a utility outfielder who hadn’t locked up a starting job when spring training broke in February and was briefly demoted to Triple-A last summer. Chas McCormick’s 2023 breakout has been equal parts incredible and invaluable. Ask those around him, and they’ll tell you it’s the culmination of three years of lessons.
“I think I’m just making sure to do the little things a little better,” McCormick told FOX Sports. “Mentally, I just know how hard this game is. You get a little bit of success, and then they make adjustments and you start struggling again.”
In what has been a career year, July represented McCormick’s best-ever month. He tallied six home runs, 23 RBIs and a .351/.440/.688 slash line in 22 games. If Shohei Ohtani wasn’t, well, being Shohei Ohtani, McCormick might’ve earned AL Player of the Month honors. Instead, he settled for Player of the Week following the All-Star break, thanks in part to a multi-home run game against the Angels that sparked a four-run comeback victory.
Despite the fact McCormick has played a key role in keeping the Astros afloat — they’re currently 2.5 games back in the division and 2.5 games up in the wild-card race — the modest veteran doesn’t look at it that way. It helps, he said, that Houston has such a deep roster.
“No matter what, when guys are down, we have a lot of good players,” McCormick said. “I don’t tend to put too much pressure on myself to carry this team, because I think we have a really good team.”
A plus defender who regularly switches between all three outfield spots, McCormick’s focus this past offseason was to attack his weaknesses at the plate. He admitted the biggest motivator for improvement was his upcoming arbitration.
Every offseason, players with anywhere between three and six years of MLB service time are eligible to negotiate adjusted salaries while remaining under team control. The 28-year-old McCormick, whose $752,500 salary is currently a shade more than the league minimum, will enter that process for the first time this coming winter. In speaking to his agent before this season began, McCormick identified specific skills in need of refinement.
“This is kind of my first time being able to make some money,” McCormick acknowledged. “So, me and my agent talked in the offseason. He was like, ‘Third year is your platform year. It’s important. If you can hit righties better, if you can hit off-speed better, if you can steal more bags, then you’ll get a little bit more money.’ But yeah, you still gotta be blessed about what you’re making, no matter what you make in arbitration.”
Whatever the incentive for McCormick, it’s working. His 142 OPS+ is up 33 percent from the previous two seasons. He’s already set career highs in home runs, doubles and steals (despite fewer at-bats). And his splits are stellar against all pitchers.
McCormick has always excelled at crushing left-handers, but this season he’s been able to do damage against righties, too. His .830 OPS versus the latter marks a nearly 200-point jump from last year (while his OPS against southpaws is up 45 points). He’s also been one of baseball’s five best hitters against four-seam fastballs. But nothing encapsulates his growth quite like his success this year against sliders, a pitch in which he sports a 156 wRC+ this year after posting a 2 last year (yes, a 2).
“When I’m hitting sliders and fastballs, then it’s hard for them to pitch to me — especially if I’m hitting them against right-hand pitching,” McCormick said.
Off the field, McCormick is lauded by his teammates for his dedication to the game.
“His work ethic is awesome,” Bregman said. “He’s on the first bus to the field and he’s hitting early every single day, working on his craft.”
Those who have watched McCormick’s progress since his 2021 debut have noted how much he’s matured over the years — particularly as it relates to his early work. They’ve seen McCormick place greater importance on preparation, whether it be showing up to the ballpark early or studying opposing pitchers.
They believe that commitment has made him a more confident player.
“You gotta grow up,” Astros manager Dusty Baker told FOX Sports. “If you don’t grow up, you’re gonna grow out of this game. As a manager, you want to see improvement. That’s the one thing you want to see. You don’t want to see stagnation, or going backwards. You want to see them improve. And if you have the baseball savvy and intellect, and if you stay healthy, you’re going to get better.”
McCormick’s popularity in Houston gained traction last year when fans at Minute Maid Park started doing the Chas chomp. Anytime McCormick crushed a home run, hands flew up in the air, both in the stands and in the Astros dugout. Their arms extended straight out in front of them, H-town fans and McCormick’s teammates started clapping in unison, much like the University of Florida’s Gator chomp. The celebration inspires McCormick.
It also makes him a fan favorite on a team full of them.
“Is he a celebrity in Houston? Maybe, maybe,” Bregman laughed. “Everyone’s doing the Chas Chomp, after all.”
They’ve been doing it more than ever this summer — and they’re not going to stop, if he doesn’t.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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