After years of following teams across many different sports, it’s hard to find a similar snakebitten series of outcomes that have defined the Astros and Rangers head to head matchups over the last few years. In three of the last four seasons, the head to head records have gone as such: (all, of course, in favor of the Rangers): 17-2, 13-6, 15-4.
2017 presents an opportunity for the Astros to right the ship against their I-45 rivals - the series beginning tonight in Houston seems like one of the most important early-season matchups for Houston in quite a few years. And it’s not only the record, but the ways in which Houston has lost to the Rangers - shut down by Colby Lewis on multiple occasions, losing a game started by Lucas Harrell, losing on a passed ball, Carlos Gomez, and every one-run game in between. And that was just last season.
Division and derision has come with it as well, mostly in the form of sabermetric parallels - the Astros’ presumed identity is a younger team with an analytic-heavy front office that is still incapable of solving the Rangers, especially in close games. The Rangers identity? A quality team that was bolstered with aggressive mid-season deals the last two seasons, but seemed to win with intangibles - leadership, strong culture spearheaded by veterans and Jeff Banister and timely hitting.
Those opposite identities have fed the first real taste of the inter-state rivalry over the last two seasons - if you’re on Astros Twitter, read the comments on this post, or know any Rangers fans personally you’ve probably endured some level of trash talk based on the recent record. In a weird way, that outcome imbalance is easier to stomach when it’s supposed to happen - did Astros fans feel worse about the historically-bad 2013 Astros’ 2-17 against a Rangers’ playoff team, or the talented but ultimately disappointing 2016 Astros’ 4-15 last season?
But the Astros have a different-looking team, and with it comes a shot at a new identity, especially against the Rangers. And strangely, both teams have taken parts of their opponents’ identities in 2017.
A pillar of excellence in Arlington has been the Rangers clubhouse culture, headlined by Adrian Beltre and Jeff Banister’s old-school approach. But the Rangers do run a sabermetric - oriented front office, as most teams do now, instead of winning just on one-run devil magic. For example, Jon Daniels let Ian Desmond, who benefited from a BABIP - driven 2016 but fell off during the second half of the year, walk instead of inking him to an expensive extension. Banister also comes from a saber-heavy organization in Pittsburgh, where he served as bench coach for four seasons. The Rangers have also devoted at-bats to younger players, like Nomar Mazara as their three-hole hitter, as well as Joey Gallo.
It’s no secret that the Astros have bought in to some degree of this clubhouse-oriented approach. After faltering with a roster of young players and unproductive veterans, the acquisitions of Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann became an affirmation of the flexible nature of baseball decisions in 2017 - production, especially based on advanced metrics is supremely valuable (the Astros wouldn’t be any better off with a bunch of washed-up veterans, no matter the effect on the clubhouse) but adding quality, veteran hitters who bring different experiences to squad with many younger players has been invaluable so far.
And one of those players began the march toward changing the paradigm against the Rangers yesterday:
Another part of this identity is one we’re mostly unsure of - do the Astros legitimately hate the Rangers? To the disappointment of many, the answer is probably no. Roughned Odor and the Astros’ Venezuelan contingent (Altuve and Gonzalez) have played together for their country. Carlos Beltran spent half a season in the Rangers’ clubhouse just last year. Carlos Gomez is Carlos Gomez - but for all his transgressions in an Astros uniform, there’s nothing to suggest that Astros players ever disliked him. Even the managers, who went face to face after a bench-clearing kerfluffle in 2015, share respect for each based on public comments. (Banister attended the University of Houston as well).
The wild card is Alex Bregman, who may hate the Rangers, which he’s expressed through a series of tweets. Maybe it’s refreshing to see a player come out with some fire towards a team that’s beaten the Astros a lot recently, but it’s all from behind his iPhone - Alex is talking a big game, so hopefully he can deliver this week.
None of that was presented make Astros fans feel like they should hate the Rangers any less, or that the Astros are stealing a page out of the Rangers playbook to beat them - it’s great to see a rivalry that was manufactured by Bud Selig finally take form after years of short interleague series and lopsided results, but the teams now share more in common than the last few years (or fans) might suggest. Astros-Rangers isn’t exactly West Ham - Millwall (apologies for the club soccer reference) or Red Sox - Yankees in 2003. It’s a burgeoning rivalry that is still taking shape, and one where opposing fans may even express more dislike than than the players on the field would.
This week’s four-game slate feels important (and it is), but it’s so early that a bad series doesn’t mean the Astros are destined for another series of letdowns against their friends in the north for the entire season. Also keep in mind that often-discussed concept of regression doesn't mean the Astros deserve to go 17-2 against the Rangers - baseball is an unforgiving sport. Are the Astros better than the Rangers? One month of baseball says yes. Has regression crashed the Rangers back to earth from last season? It looks that way so far. But those questions were also answered in favor of the Astros many times in 2015 and 2016. After a winter of waiting for baseball and another month for redemption against the Rangers, the Astros have a chance to change three years of nightmarish results starting tonight.