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Shay Whitcomb chases MiLB home run title

Houston Astros' Shay Whitcomb
Shay Whitcomb | Credit: Tammy Tucker

With a week left in the Triple-A season, Shay Whitcomb is on the brink of Houston Astros history. The Space Cowboys shortstop entered Tuesday, leading Minor League Baseball in home runs with 35. Since 2003, George Springer has the most home runs of an Astros minor leaguer in a single season with 37 in 2013.

The player with the most round trippers in Minor League Baseball is awarded the Joe Bauman Home Run Award for that season. Whitcomb, who floated among the top-10 home runs leaders for most of the year, moved into the lead Sunday.

“I tried not to look at it to be honest,” Whitcomb said after learning he took the lead in home runs. “I’ll get tagged in a post or something, and I’ll just swipe off of it really quick because I don’t want to have that change my approach at the plate or my swing in any way, and I want to stick to my strengths.”

Only one Astros prospect has won the Joe Bauman Home Run Award, though, and that hitter won it twice. AJ Reed clubbed 34 home runs in 2015 between two levels and then another 34 in 2017 for Triple-A Fresno, becoming the first player to win the Joe Bauman Home Run Award for a second time.

Whitcomb hit a combined 42 home runs between three levels in his first two seasons. Slashing career lows in 2022 for Double-A Corpus Christi, the righty clubbed just 12 home runs in 118 games. He hit 12 in 46 games for the Hooks this year, earning a promotion to Sugar Land on June 6.

“It’s something that to some might seem like a surprise, but when you add those elements, it’s not that surprising for a guy who did hit a decent amount of homers prior,” Space Cowboys manager Mickey Storey said. “I think it’s a testament to the swing changes he’s made and strength he’s put on.”

The power seen on the stat sheet isn’t a new feeling for Whitcomb. There were instances last season where he felt he came up short on swings.

“There were a lot of opportunities where I could have had so many more homers,” Whitcomb said. “I think it’s always been there, but it’s just a matter of again, having that consistency. … Hopefully, you guys start to see more and more of the results of that work.”

Across 81 games for the Space Cowboys, Whitcomb is slashing .236/.279/.458 in 365 plate appearances. He’s seeing an obvious dip in his on-base percentage, a half of his OPS being weighed down by a low walk rate.

“I feel like sometimes looking at numbers and stats can be a little bit of a trap, when they don’t necessarily tell the whole story,” Whitcomb said. “I try to look at growth and numbers and success in different ways than that.”

Whitcomb has walked 17 times in Sugar Land. He walked 18 times in nearly half the plate appearances in Corpus Christi. Whitcomb’s goal is to combine his power with an improved walk rate, an adjustment he could make in a second trip through the Pacific Coast League.

“I think next year he’ll be in a lot better place, knowing the league, knowing himself, what he’s capable of and how to approach pitchers a little bit better,” Storey said. “We’ll see that walk rate go up a little bit, but he does like to swing the bat. If he doesn’t swing as much, he might not homer as much. It’s a give and take.”

Whitcomb has six games left in the season. He doesn’t know what the future holds for him beyond this week. The 24 year old hopes for an opportunity to be on the Astros’ taxi squad, where Jeremy Peña resided during the 2021 postseason.

If there isn’t an invite to the Arizona Fall League or a call-up to the taxi squad, Whitcomb plans to treat this offseason like a regular one, building as much strength as he can.

“I think it’s just consistency,” Whitcomb said. “I think that’s the name of the game in terms of if you have the tools to have a good offensive year, it’s just a matter of how repeatable you can make those weeks, where you feel good and the swings where it’s all working out.”

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