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The Many Ways of Being Bad: The Astros, Then and Now

But, however many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive.

This was famously said by noted evolutionary biologist and all around crotchety, controversial atheist Richard Dawkins as part of one of his most famous explanations of the logic of evolution and natural selection. My feelings toward Dawkins are mixed but I’ve always loved that quote, in part because it seems so parallel and thus applicable to other aspects of life. It is almost always easier to get things wrong than right.

I think of it a lot in respect to the zero-sum world of sports, with a slight twist: However many ways there may be of being great, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being bad, or rather not great. Baseball, like all major sports, crowns but one champion per year. Every year there are The Best and The Rest. So, in a sense, it’s categorical. But it is also a matter of degree. Some non-champions are quite good, some are quite bad and most are somewhere in between. The differences can be important, entertaining and instructive.

Those differences matter to most fans, at least on some level. I for one am glad the Astros have had multiple good and great runs during my nearly forty years as a fan. At the end of the season, however, if your goal is to win a World Series – and that is indeed the oft-stated ultimate goal of this front office – the Astros have always found one of the infinite ways to not be great.

Let’s take a look, with the help of a few indicative percentages, at four periods in Astros history that represent vastly different ways of being bad, or not great.

In the Beginning: 1962-1968

For the first seven seasons of franchise history, beginning with The Colt 45’s, our telling percentage is .419. That was the club’s average winning percentage during that seven-year stretch. The club was understandably quite bad but also consistently not horrific, never getting below .400 or above .444. This was before my time but on the surface there is nothing particularly unusual to report here: expansion clubs are expected to be bad and the Colt 45’s/Astros were no exception. Really, just going by the record, it could have been much worse. (I’m looking at you, 1962-1965 Mets.)

Great but not Great: 2005

Our percentage of note here is .000. Or, if you have, like me, fond memories of Blutarsky in Animal House, we’ll put it in GPA format -- 0.00. That’s your team’s percentage in any given series if you get swept, as the Astros did by the White Sox in the World Series. That team, and some of the other Astros teams during that Biggio and Bagwell era, was great by many standards. I loved those years and this organization would be lucky to have another run like that. But as well as those teams were put together, something somewhere, somehow was missing. Whatever that missing ingredient was, it left us swept by the juggernaut that was the 2005 White Sox.

The Organization Bottoms Out: 2007-2009

Here our percentage – .480 – is deceptive. That is the winning percentage of our Houston Astros during that three-year period. This team under Luhnow has fared far, far worse. (More on that below.) As fans, we look back on that poor run, like the Michael Palin prisoner shackled to the wall of the cell in Life of Brian, angrily taunting his new cellmate: You lucky bastard! What I wouldn’t give for a .480 team!

But I would argue that those years saw the organization, as opposed to the MLB club, bottom out. We all know the story. It’s a time we love to hate and love to argue about. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty details or the debates over who was most at fault for letting the organization get to the point where it had an essentially empty farm system; an ageing, injured core; and an unsustainably bloated payroll. Suffice it to say that what was left was a historically ill-equipped franchise in need of a full, time-consuming rebuild.

The Team Bottoms Out: 2011-2014

Fast forward to a new era, with a new owner, a highly-touted GM. The farm system has gone from Worst to First. The team has gone from old and ageing to the youngest in the Majors. Our payroll was cleaned out, fell to infamously low standards and is now rising, if slowly and in piecemeal fashion. The future looks bright as guys like Springer start trickling up and on to the big league roster.

And yet this team is truly horrific. Our percentage of note here is .331. That is our winning percentage to date during these three-plus seasons. It has actually, somehow, ticked down this year due to our current 5-13 record. How about this for a number: 42.3. Any guesses as to what this figure represents? That’s the average number of Games Back the Astros finished the last three seasons. As a team, not organization, this is what hitting the bottom looks like. It is far and away worse than any other Astros era and worse than all but a handful of teams historically. Let’s look at a few more figures. Attendance has plummeted accordingly, drawing over 1.6 million only two years running, compared to the two plus million pulled in consecutively from 1997-2011.

So let's take a time out from our bickering over regression, Chris Carter, payrolls, the front office, and promotions and demotions, to pat ourselves on the collective back for being here on this board in the first place. The fact that we remain loyal, avid fans is a testimony to our character as well as -- let's face it -- and indictment of our sanity. There is certainly no confusing us with bandwagon fans. Let's also recognize that this trying run of historically, cover-your-eyes awfulness is just another way of being bad.

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