Late-bloomer Ronel Blanco makes history for Astros; Jose Altuve has 3,000 hits in his sights

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Ronel Blanco no-hit the Blue Jays for the Astros’ first win of the season, Ken looks at Jose Altuve’s quest for 3,000 hits, Shota Imanaga had a brilliant debut, and we poke around Statcast for some fun home run stats. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal — welcome to The Windup!

Ronel Blanco: From the car wash to the history books

Well, that’s one way to avoid a shaky bullpen.

After a 0-4 start to the season, the Houston Astros turned to Ronel Blanco, who had never pitched more than six innings in any of his previous seven big-league starts. By night’s end, he had the first no-hitter of the 2024 season.

If you look at the Astros’ list of international signings in 2016, two names stick out above the rest: Cionel Pérez, who signed for $2 million, and Teoscar Hernández ($20,000). Hernández is still the biggest bargain of the class, but Blanco’s bonus was just $5,000. When he signed, he was 22 years old — ancient by the standards of Dominican signings, where the most highly touted prospects sign at 16 — and washing cars for a living.

Blanco didn’t make his big-league debut until he was 28, and before last night, he had a career ERA of 4.78, and his FIP (5.91) suggests that he’s been the recipient of a bit of good luck. The only reason he was put into the rotation was that the Astros’ starting pitching has been decimated by injuries.

None of that mattered last night. Blanco threw 105 pitches, 73 for strikes, against the Toronto Blue Jays. All seven strikeouts came on a devastating changeup that also led to the sort of bad contact that makes for a long (or, I suppose, short) night for opposing hitters. As Rome tells us here, only four balls were hit harder than 90 mph, and only three were hit into the outfield.

The Astros have now thrown at least one no-no in each of the last three seasons, with Framber Valdez no-hitting the Guardians last August, and Cristian Javier pitching the bulk of two separate combined no-hitters in 2022: against the Yankees in June and the Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series.

Ken’s Notebook: 3,000 hits would be ‘dream’ for Altuve

In Jayson Stark’s recent story on baseball’s missing milestones, he wrote that according to Bill James’ Career Assessment Tool, the Astros’ Jose Altuve entered the season with only a 14 percent chance of reaching 3,000 hits.

Jayson found that projection to be surprisingly low. I agreed with his assessment. And, after speaking with Altuve last weekend in Houston, I’m even more convinced that he has a reasonable shot at 3,000. The reason, believe it or not, is Altuve’s five-year, $125 million extension, which begins next season.

The deal not only gave Altuve peace of mind — he, his wife, Nina, and their two daughters, 7 and 3, are comfortable in Houston — but also made 3,000 more of a tangible goal. As he put it, “The contract being five years, plus the one right now, it gives me a little chance to get there.”

A little chance? Altuve, who turns 34 on May 6, enters Tuesday’s play sitting on 2,054 hits. He would need to average about 160 over the next six seasons to reach 3,000. Yet, it is hardly a given. By the end of the contract, he will be 40. And he has not reached 170 hits since 2017, his last of four consecutive seasons of 200 or more hits.

The biggest factor for Altuve might be staying healthy, and that is not entirely in his control. He averaged 144 games in 2021 and 2022, but did not play until May 19 last season because of a fractured right thumb he suffered when Daniel Bard hit him with a pitch during the World Baseball Classic. He also missed time in July with a strained left oblique.

Obviously, no one knows what the next six seasons might bring, but Altuve said teammates, friends and family members already are asking him about 3,000. So, even if he isn’t necessarily thinking about the milestone, he is constantly reminded it is within his reach.

“It’s obviously something I would like to accomplish,” Altuve said. “As long as we’re winning, that’s the No. 1 goal. But absolutely, it would be a dream come true.”

During our conversation, Altuve showed me video of his older daughter riding horses and talked about taking her to tennis lessons. After night games, he said he often drives both of his children to school, then goes back to sleep.

If contentment can help him get to 3,000, he is well on his way.

“We’re happy,” Altuve said. “I know what I want now. I know exactly how I want everything to be. I can go play the game.”

Breaking down Shota Imanaga’s Cubs debut

Shota Imanaga’s career stateside is off to a good start. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Now that Shota Imanaga has made his stateside debut — six shutout innings, nine strikeouts, no walks and just two hits in a 5-0 Cubs win yesterday — we have a little more information to work with. (Take all of this with a grain of salt, since it came against the Rockies.)

First of all, he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and induced 20 swinging strikes. Baseball has kept track of these as a stat since 2008, so here’s a little context: an older article (2022, before the shift ban) that says the average is a little over 11 percent. Imanaga threw 92 pitches, meaning he got whiffs on 21.7 percent of them — nearly double the average. It’s still short of the record (35 by Clayton Kershaw, Jacob DeGrom and … Danny Duffy?) but only two short of a Cubs record (three pitchers).

He got four strikeouts on the splitter, four on the four-seam fastball, and one on his sweeper.

As Patrick Mooney tells us, he also didn’t record a single ground-ball out, which could be an issue once the weather is warmer than 43 degrees. It’s something the Cubs have already identified as a potential speed bump.

But that’s still a pretty good debut, and quite a way to double down on endearing himself to Cubs fans. Given the team’s starting pitching injury woes (made worse by Justin Steele’s hamstring strain on Opening Day), the Cubs needed it.

Heck, they could use a few more Imanagas.

Fun with home run metrics

A conversation with one of our editors sent me down a statistical wormhole: Which home run had the lowest launch angle in the Statcast era (2016-present)?

The answer: There are two, each with a launch angle of 14 degrees.

2016: Carlos Gonzalez off Zack Greinke (exit velo: 117.4 mph, distance: 420 feet). You can see the video here, and Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs actually wrote about this home run. Little could he have known that this record would still stand eight years later. Important note: This blast came in Arizona, so we don’t even have to put a Coors Field Asterisk on it.

2022: Xander Bogaerts off Joe Ryan (exit velo: 113 mph, distance: 392 feet). Off the bat, it looked like a hard liner to the left fielder. But it just kept going and scraped the top of the wall for a grand slam, confirmed by replay. I can hear you asking: OK, what was the home run with the highest launch angle? I’m glad you asked. It was hit at an absurd 50 degrees, and — how cool is this? — it was also hit by Xander Bogaerts!

2021: Xander Bogaerts off Spenser Watkins (exit velo: 102 mph, distance: 343 feet). Speaking of ballpark asterisks … this was hit at Fenway Park. Of course. It looks like a routine fly-out, but it just kept going, scraping the top of the wall of the Green Monster (also confirmed by video replay). It had an xBA (expected batting average) of .017, which led me to one more question: which home run had the lowest xBA?

2022: Anthony Rizzo off Alex Wells (exit velo: 99 mph, distance: 327 feet). Yeah, this one definitely gets a ballpark asterisk. Rizzo hooked a fly ball just inside the right field pole at Yankee Stadium. It counted, like any other home run, but it had an xBA of just .006, meaning that 994 times out of 1,000, that ball is a routine fly-ball out.

Handshakes and High Fives

Joe Maddon joins Starkville to tell us about his experience with Shohei Ohtani and his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara.

Mookie Betts’ move to shortstop has been impressive. As Fabian Ardaya writes, Betts has been working extremely hard at it.

Phillies reliever Connor Brogdon is not a household name, but Matt Gelb does a phenomenal job of reminding us about the humanity of players, especially as their jobs are put in jeopardy.

The Mets are 0-4, the latest loss punctuated by a Carson Kelly home run. And for the first time in 41 years, the Pirates are 5-0.

Our Power Rankings are here. Nos. 1 and 2 are no surprise, but there’s some intrigue in the middle.

David Aldridge asks: is it already time to play the kids in D.C.?

Today in “They are who we thought they were,” the Oakland A’s made five errors last night, bringing their total to 13 in five games. The defense is also bleak in Colorado.

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(Top photo of Yainer Diaz and Ronel Blanco: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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