On this Monday, when spring training is in full swing and the Astros are full of Bo Porterisms and hope, let's talk about the chances that the Astros could shock the world this season. Tim has already been the champion for that on the site and on the podcast, saying he believes a little Mighty Ducks magic is still possible.
Well, we don't have to look at just a fictional movie to see if a worst to first move is possible. There are two historical precedents for big moves up the won-loss ladder, so let's explore them and see if their rosters can tell us anything about the chances for this year's Astros team to join them.
The 1969 Miracle Mets
This team, seven years after the Mets came into existence and were historically bad, is the first people talk about when they reference worst to first situations. Except, the Mets didn't go worst to first. In 1968, the Mets actually finished fourth in their division and lost only 89 games. That may seem like a lot, but it was an improvement of 12 games over the 1967 season when the Mets lost 101. Before that, the team had lost at least 95 games in every previous season in the franchise's existence.
Still, the fact that the '69 Mets shocked the world and won 100 games and the World Series that season was pretty unprecedented. How did they do it? Well, here were their hitting bbWAR and OPS+ leaders:
Cleon Jones, OF - 6.9 WAR
Tommy Agee, OF - 5.1 WAR
Jones - 151
Art Shamsky, OF - 139
Agee - 122
Ken Boswell, 2B - 103
That's it. No other Met hitter had a bbWAR over 3.0 and no other Met hitter had an OPS+ over 100. Jones had a particularly spectacular season, hitting .340/.422/.482 with 12 home runs, 25 doubles and 16 stolen bases while Agee provided the power as the only hitter to top 20 home runs.
Shamsky was also very good, but only played in 100 games totaling 349 plate appearances, so his impact was somewhat limited. Same goes for Donn Clendenon, who was a big part of that World Series win, but only played 72 games and got 226 plate appearances during the regular season.
Obviously, this was at the tail end of an extreme pitcher's environment that suppressed offense. The league average slash line in 1969 was .250/.319/.369 and the league average OPS+ was 93.
The Mets got by with enough bats to win and give it over to the pitchers. They had a pretty nice rotation, too, with one Hall of Famer there and another in the bullpen. Here's their bbWAR leaders for the pitching staff along with their ERA+ leaders.
Tom Seaver, SP - 7.1
Jerry Koosman, SP - 5.8
Seaver - 165
Koosman - 160
Tug McGraw - 163
Don Cardwell - 121
Ron Tayor - 134
Jack DiLauro - 152
WAR for pitchers isn't perfect, but you can see by the ERA+ numbers what the strength of this team was: run prevention. All six of this team's pitchers who started at least 10 games had ERA+ numbers over 104. That included a great season from Seaver at the age of 24 and a so-so season from Nolan Ryan at the tender age of 22. In fact, the total age of this pitching staff was 25.6, counting the 33-year old Cardwell and the 31-year old Taylor.
That's one are where the Astros can relate. They have a young team, but none of their players are as established as the '69 Mets foundation. Agee had won the Rookie of the Year award two years earlier for the White Sox and was picked up by the Mets in '68. Seaver had thrown 529 innings in the previous two seasons with a 2.47 ERA and 375 strikeouts while Koosman had won 19 games with a 2.08 ERA in '68.
What I'm saying is there was a basis of success already built into this team that doesn't really exist for the Astros right now.
Could they follow this model?
It's not likely. What makes more sense is the 2014 Astros following this model, using the contributions from guys like Jonathan Singleton, Brad Peacock and Jarred Cosart, assuming they become all-world players in the next 12 months and that Jose Altuve takes a big step forward for the offense.
the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays
Here we have a team that literally went worst to first, as the Rays won just 66 games in 2007 and yet won 97 in 2008, losing in the World Series to the Phillies. Tampa Bay had been horrible for every season since 1998, never winning more than 70 games in a single season before streaking through the postseason in memorable fashion.
So, what kinds of contributions did they get from the batters? Here are the fWAR leaders and OPS+ leaders:
Evan Longoria, 3B - 5.5
B.J. Upton, OF - 5.0
Carlos Pena, 1B/DH - 3.7
Longoria - 127
Pena - 129
Ben Zobrist - 120
Upton - 108
Cliff Floyd - 111
Gabe Gross - 101
Eric Hinske - 109
Dioner Navarro - 100
Hey! The Astros already have one thing in common with this team and that's the presence of Carlos Pena! Good things are bound to happen now, right?
The first thing that jumps out is the lack of upper-tier fWAR stars again. Neither Longoria nor Pena had super seasons compared to the rest of the league hitting-wise, but provided a lot of value defensively and on the base paths. That upped their WAR totals and put them solidly in the All-Star range.
But, this team didn't have a clear-cut MVP candidate on offense, which is important to consider since the Astros don't seem to have one either (unless you count the Monster Formerly Known As Brett Wallace). They did have a big collection of solid hitters, though, as eight different players collected at least 200 plate appearances with OPS+ numbers above 100. The league average OPS+ that season was at 100, so this team basically had eight different league-average hitters in the lineup.
The same can be said of fWAR, as the Rays didn't have a ton of players with high WAR scores, but did have eight with at least 2.0 WAR or better and another four with WARs higher than 1.0. That's a model the Astros could easily follow, but would need to get better in a hurry at a number of positions, considering they only had two players over 2.0 fWAR last season and one of them now resides in Oakland.
So, if the Rays hitters were deep without one standout, was this also a team led by its pitching staff?
Here's the Rays leaders in fWAR and ERA+ for the 2008 season:
James Shields, SP - 4.1
Andy Sonnanstine, SP - 3.5
James Shields - 124
Scott Kazmir - 127
J.P. Howell - 199
Grant Balfour - 287
Dan Wheeler - 142
Matt Garza - 119
Trever Miller - 107
Sonnanstine - 101
Edwin Jackson - 100
Once again, this was a team built on depth over overpowering performances. The bullpen was the backbone of that staff, anchoring guys like Kazmir and Shields starting performances. The other thing that stands out about this staff is how young they were. Of the five starters who had at least 10 starts, the oldest was Shields at 26 and they averaged 24.6 years old.
This, too, is a very doable scenario for the Astros to follow. The Rays bullpen consisted of castoffs like J.P. Howell having an excellent season, finding a gem like Grant Balfour and getting a solid season out of Dan Wheeler. Troy Percival was supposed to be the closer, but he was hurt and not very effective, so Rays went with a closer by committee approach that proved effective.
Could the Astros duplicate this?
Yes and no. The Astros pitching staff might come together like the Rays. If Lucas Harrell does his thing again, Bud Norris bounces back from a bad 2012 campaign, the Astros would only need a John Ely or Alex White to step up and give them a solid top three. Add in a rejuvenated Erik Bedard or Phillip Humber and this rotation could be as solid as that Rays staff.
It's the offense that may struggle. You figure that the Astros could get a B.J. Upton-level season out of Jose Altuve. Upton that year hit .273/.383/.401 with 44 steals and nine home runs. Altuve won't have that many steals or that gaudy an on-base percentage, but could have a higher batting average to bring his OBP up closer than it would be based on his patience alone. Add in his more premium defensive position and a bounce-back year for his defensive stats there and he could get to around 4 WAR.
That still leaves a Longoria-sized hole in the lineup. Who equals that? Matt Dominguez? Not likely. Brett Wallace? If you listen to John Mallee, maybe.
There is one possibility. Maybe Chris Carter turns into the masher that John Sickels predicted before. He'd have to hit REALLY well to cover his defense in left, but you could envision him being a 4-win player if you squint real hard.
That 2008 Rays team captured lightning in a bottle. The 2013 Astros aren't likely to do the same, but there is a blueprint they can use. If enough of these low-level acquisitions can come in and provide some value, with enough guys playing at that 2.0 WAR level, then anything is possible.
Hey, it's spring. If you're not going to be hopeful now, when should you be?