Not being alive a century and a half ago, there's no way of verifying this. But, I really believe this time of year, when every team is stuck in Tanaka Mania and there is nothing of note going on in the baseball world is just as bad as getting caught in the doldrums.
You know, that place on the ocean where the wind suddenly ends and you're stuck drifting listlessly miles from land? That's where we are at right now.
As a result of that, you get articles like this one. It's a premise that is painfully obvious. You know it's hard to get into the playoffs. I know it's hard to get into the playoffs. We both know the Astros were terrible in 2013. But, for some reason, I dove into the research to figure out just how hard it will be to get into the playoffs.
Part of that derived from conversations at the end of last week. As we talked about the Astros in 2014, it seemed like people were missing the chance of luck propelling Houston into that second wild card spot. After all, that second spot means a team can get into the playoffs with something like 85 wins, right? Houston, if things broke exactly right, could totally get there, right?
Since an article that short is of value to no one, let's expand on it with some numbers. Let's start with the first premise of that argument, that it's easy to get the second wild card. Going back 10 years, there have been an average of eight teams to finish with 90 or more victories in MLB. Take out division winners and that means, on average, there are two 90-win teams to scoop up any wild card berth.
Wait, you say. That still leaves one other spot for a non-90 win team. Well, that's the other half of the bad news. Looking back at those 10 seasons, if we take the American League teams who finished just out of the WC berths and average their win totals, we get 89.8 wins.
Yep, that's basically 90 wins. If you're feeling generous, you can say 89 wins is a bare minimum to get that second wild card berth. As you can imagine, 90 wins are pretty hard to get. Sure, 11 teams finished that high in 2013 and in the past four seasons, at least nine teams finished that high each season.
Houston, you might remember, finished with 51 wins in 2013. To get to 89 wins, they'd need to improve by 38 games, which would be the biggest single-season jump by a team by far in MLB history. The previous two record-holders are the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, who gained 31 games, and the Miracle Mets in 1969, who gained 27 games.
And that's just to get the second wild card.
But, let's say that goal is realistic. Let's say Houston shoots for 89 wins and can realistically get into the playoffs with that total. How hard is it to improve by 38 games? I may lose some of you here, because we'll make some math-y assumptions based on wins that you may not buy. We're just spitballing here, though, not guaranteeing they WILL improve by this much.
So, where do we start? How about with third-order wins. Based on its run differential, Houston played like a 57-win team last season. That means they only really need to make up 32 wins to get into the playoffs. That's a jump, but not far off from what the Rays did.
Add to that another nine wins for the bullpen normalizing in one-run games. Last season, Houston went 18-36 in one-run games. This record is more a product of luck than an indicator of how good or bad a team is, and teams should win about half their one-run games. Plus, this should be an area where the bullpen additions help the most, so let's normalize that record and add nine wins to our total.
That brings us to 66 wins, meaning we still have 23 wins to go.
Now, we start with player additions. Dexter Fowler and George Springer may not be huge upgrades or MVP candidates or anything, but they should provide plenty of value over the black hole outfield of 2013. Add in seven wins for both of them and we're at 73 for the season. (If you're counting, that's a plus-5 win swing for Fowler, assuming he replaces the minus-3 outfield production of right field in 2013 with plus-2 performance in Houston and a plus-2 from Springer because he's Springer).
From here, it gets dicey. Continuing with our new additions, let's assume that the Jesus Guzman platoon at first base leads to two more wins, as he and Brett Wallace or whoever else complement each other nicely. Let's also add two wins for Scott Feldman over Jordan Lyles' production in 2013. That gets us to 77 wins, still 12 off of the playoff number.
Again, we're in smaller and smaller margins of improvement here. Let's assume both Jose Altuve and Matt Dominguez take small steps forward and each add a win to their 2013 totals. Let's also assume Robbie Grossman and (gulp) Jonathan Villar play like league-average regulars at their respective positions, meaning we add four wins total for that duo. We are finally to 83 wins and a .500 record, but we're still a ways off from the playoffs.
Add in single win improvements for Brett Oberholtzer and Dallas Keuchel and the Astros are very close at 85 wins, but still four wins away. How do they get there? It's anyone's guess. Will Chris Carter provide those four by himself, putting up John Sickels' mythical MVP season? Will two starting pitchers step up and become rotation mainstays? Will a handful of rookies make impactful debuts?
However you get there, those four wins are dubious. Heck, the last five paragraphs are dubious, meaning the best-case scenario for this team may be somewhere around 70 wins.
What did we learn from this? Absolutely nothing. Remember the beginning of this piece? You already knew what I was going to find out. If Houston has aspirations at the playoffs, it needs to take a step forward in 2014 before getting there in 2015. The math says so.