Its been almost 3 months since the Astros won their first World Series Championship. What a wild ride it was. I still get a thrill whenever I watch highlight videos of the clutch home runs and big plays that made them #1. With a bit of the perspective that time brings I thought it would be interesting to reflect on some of the audacious, unorthodox, creative and/or unusual acquisitions the Astros’ management made through the years to help create this great championship team. Included are videos of some of the heroic plays these players made. If you are like me, you never tire of reliving these great moments.
Before I show you my list I’d like to explain how I prioritized these moves. I don’t claim this is scientific but I did create a rough rubric to put these events into some semblance of a logical and sensible order.
First, for my nine unorthodox acquisitions I assumed that regular season production and post-season performance were equal in importance. In other words, helping get the team to the playoffs in the first place and helping it win them were both important.
To figure the value each player on my list added to the team’s chances during the playoffs I used a statistic called cWPA, or championship win probability added. This measures how much a players’ performance increases his team’s chance of winning the World Series. Although regular season performance enters into this statistic, it heavily weights post season performance, giving the most weight to World Series performance.
To measure regular season contributions I used the simple WPA, or win probability added, which measures how much a player’s performance adds to his teams’ chances of winning a typical game. The score my players received was the average of these two numbers. But to make this work as an average I had to multiply the cWPA by 10, since the highest cWPA (George Springer by the way) is about .5, and the highest WPA is about 5.
No doubt there can be disagreement about how audacious some of these acquisitions really were. I thought about adding an audacity quotient but how do you figure that? I did not include any simple amateur draft picks because these are always hit and miss affairs for every team. ( Sorry George Springer and Dallas Keuchel. You’re not here) However two of these moves involved draft strategies that were far from simple or orthodox and are included.
Here are the moves.
9. Trading your best relief pitcher in 2012 and the only dividend turned out to be the "player to be named later." He becomes an All Star in 2017.
8. Letting a 29 year old, out of options, AAAA career failure occupy the last spot on your pitching staff.
7. Not signing your #1 overall draft pick in 2014.
6. Trading for an unheralded Rule 5 draft pick six years ago and sticking with him even though back then he was so not good.
5. Paying $14 million for a 33 year old, mediocre at best, oft injured, free agent pitcher who only threw 17 innings the previous year.
4. Signing a 32 year old Cuban free agent for $47.5 million who never played in the Major Leagues and who played a position that was already occupied in the Astros organization.
3. After failing to make a meaningful addition at the trade deadline, acquiring a future Hall of famer with seconds left on the clock before the waiver deadline.
2. In 2012 drafting with your #1 overall pick a 17 year old who was generally graded several pegs below #1 in order to save money.
1. After telling the 5’6", scrawny, 16 year old Venezuelan kid to go home after the first day of tryouts, the Astros decided to sign him anyway after he returned on day two.
Below is a chart with the ratings for each player acquired in these moves in the same order as above, from least valuable to most.
#9 Chris Devenski—Drafted in the 25th round by the White Sox and the player to be named later in the 2012 Brett Myers trade, Devenski broke out in his 2016 rookie season with a 2.16 ERA in over 100 innings of starting, long relief and short relief work. Though not quite as efficient in 2017, he made the All Star team, making him, according to my research, only the sixth PTBNL to do so.
His rating was brought down by a negative cWPA rating caused by generally poor play off performances, like every other Astros bullpen regular. Nonetheless he was the winning pitcher in the indispensible WS game 2 , extra inning victory over the Dodgers, finishing the game with a very satisfying strikeout of Yasiel Puig. Despite his playoff woes, for this he is historic.
#8 Brad Peacock—Drafted in the 41st round by the Washington Nationals, in his first two seasons with the Astros, 2013 and 2014, Peacock threw about 210 innings, with an ERA around 5. He spent most of 2015 and 2016 in the minors, throwing only 37 innings combined in the big leagues. He pitched well in spring training 2017 and, being out of options, the Astros took a chance giving him the last roster spot. Before the season Fangraphs had this to say: "Peacock pitched himself back into relevance late last year, but it doesn't look likely that he'll have a prominent role on the Astros' pitching squad in 2017."
Surprising almost everybody by starting the season with stellar relief pitching, he eventually became a fixture in the rotation, going 13-2 with an even 3 ERA. He had the second highest WAR among Astros pitchers. Like Devenski his cWPA was deflated by poor pitching in the ALDS and ALCS, but in the World Series he came up big, with a 2.45 ERA in 7 innings. He pitched 3.2 scoreless innings in game 3 to get the save. And he pitched 2 scoreless in game 7 before handing the ball over to Charlie Morton.
Scoreless innings by Astros relievers in the World Series came at a big premium. No lead was safe. But Brad Peacock came through when it mattered most even though, at season’s start, it was doubtful he’d even be in the Astros organization.
#7 Alex Bregman—After having the worst record in baseball for the third straight year, the Astros had the privilege of drafting first in 2014, picking pitcher Brady Aiken. When his physical revealed a potential elbow problem the Astros reduced their offer to the youngster and he refused to sign. This was highly embarrassing to the Astros, and the move was much maligned. In fact, the Astros were the laughing stock of baseball. It was the first time in many years that a team had failed to sign a #1 overall pick.
But the Astros were secure in the knowledge that they would be compensated with the #2 overall in the 2015 draft. With this they got ss Alex Bregman from LSU. Converted to third base, by age 23 he hit at a 128 OPS+ clip in 2017, his first full season. His cWPA was sixth highest in the Major Leagues. In the World series he had two home runs and 5 RBI. He will forever be a Houston sports legend, getting the game winning, walk-off hit that scored the miraculous 13th run in the 10 inning game 5 of the World Series. It was the Greatest Hit in the Greatest Game Ever Played, in the only World Series the Astros have ever won.
Oh Yeah. Brady Aiken? Tommy John Surgery and going nowhere.
#6 Marwin Gonzalez—Jeff Luhnow’s first move as new GM of the Astros was to trade for Rule 5 draft pick Marwin Gonzalez, whose minor league career since 2006 had been unremarkable. True, the Astros were the worst team in baseball, but still it was an ordeal keeping him on the roster for the whole year as required to keep Rule 5s. He played only 80 games, with 205 at bats, and an OPS+ of only 65. After his first season Fangraphs advised: "The Astros may have drafted Marwin Gonzalez in the 2012 rule 5 draft, but you shouldn’t make the same mistake…Just stay away."
In 2013 he was even worse. But he has steadily improved ever since, and according to my research has the 6th highest career WAR at 9.2 for a Rule 5 pick who stuck with the team that committed to him through his first season. Historically, only 26% of Rule 5 draftees stay on the major league roster for the full first year.
In 2017 he had an OPS+ of 149, lead the team in RBI, and was 19th in MVP voting.
Like Bregman, he will always be remembered for his World Series heroics, hitting a ninth inning home run against shut down closer Kenley Jansen to tie the amazing game 2. The Astros went on to win 7-6 in 11 innings tying the series heading back to Houston. It was the first time in 98 games that the Dodgers had blown a lead going into the 9th inning.
#5 Charlie Morton—The Astros signed free agent Charlie Morton for $14 million over 2 years in 2017. He was 33 years old. His career ERA was 4.54, and due to injuries had only averaged 89 innings per season, 17 in 2016. Fangraphs called him "an interesting late round gamble."
And that’s what the Astros did; they gambled that the increased velocity he had shown in those 17 innings would translate into greater success going forward. Indeed, from a career ERA+ of 84, all in the NL, in 2017 Morton posted a 109+ for the Astros. And including postseason he managed 175 innings.
But like so many on this list, Morton is best remembered for his playoff heroics. He was the winning pitcher in game 7 of the ALCS, hurling 5 scoreless frames. And he was the winning pitcher in game 7 of the World Series, pitching the last 4 innings and closing the game with 3 confounding, wonderous, shutout innings. Considering the work of the regular bullpen at the time, the Stros may not have won the game without him. His cWPA was the third highest in MLB. For $7 million.
#4 Yuli Gurriel—In an article entitled Astros bet on Yulieski Gurriel’s talent despite creating infield logjam, Sports Illustrated concluded: "this acquisition is a large gamble within the context of the Astros’ roster," questioning both where he would play and whether he was worth $47.5 million at age 32.
Though very shaky in the early season as first baseman, he adapted well and contributed 126 OPS+ hitting. And the best hairdo in baseball. But his biggest contribution to the Astros’ championship was his Game five home run in the World Series. With the Stros down 4-1 and facing Clayton Kershaw and the Dodger’s bullpen behind him, it appeared inevitable that the Stros would go down 3-1 in the series with little hope of winning the Series after that. But with two men on Yuli crushed one beyond the Crawford Boxes to tie the score and reawaken hope, eventually sparking the 13-12 miracle victory. Nuff said.
#3 Justin Verlander—Arguably the greatest, or at least most immediately impactful, waiver deadline acquisition in MLB history, it is hard to know where to put him in this list, since his cWPA and WPA numbers include his time with the Tigers. But I insist his cWPA is too low, because somehow his World Series cWPA was actually -.093. What?
True he didn’t win any games, but he chewed up 12 innings with a 3.75 ERA. With the collapse of the Astros’ bullpen, who else would have pitched 12 innings and given up only 5 runs? He didn’t win game two, but without his quality start they would have surely lost. The Astros don’t win the World Series without Verlander, and they don’t get to the World Series without his 9 inning, one run performance in game 2 of the ALCS, a 2-1 Astros walk-off win. It was the greatest playoff game ever pitched by an Astro.
#2 Carlos Correa/Lance McCullers—With the first overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, the Astros passed on consensus #1 prospect Byron Buxton, instead picking the kid from Puerto Rico, shortstop Carlos Correa. #2 pick Buxton signed for $6 million, #1 Correa signed for $ 4.2 million. What gives?
Lance McCullers. With the money the Astros saved on Correa the Astros signed #41 draft pick (but rated much higher) and top high school prospect McCullers, who required his $2.5 million signing bonus to forgo pitching in college.
So how did creative drafting work for the Astros? Buxton so far has a career WAR of 7.2. His career OPS+ is 87. Correa has a career WAR of 16.3 and a career OPS+ of 138. Add McCullers’ WAR of 5 to Correa’s and the Astros drafted 14 additional wins by going "cheap" on Correa.
Of course, both players came up huge in the playoffs. Correa had a home run in each of the crucial games 2 and 5 of the World Series. And he had the big walk-off double that scored Jose Altuve in the 2-1 game 2 walk-off victory over the Yankees in the ALCS. In the first two ALCS games, both won by the Astros 2-1, Correa had 3 of the team’s 4 RBI.
McCullers saved game 7 of the ALCS with 4 legendary scoreless relief innings throwing almost nothing but curves. He was the winner of game 3 of the World Series, and started game 7, gamely throwing 2 scoreless innings before running out of gas. He was 5th in MLB in cWPA.
Jeff Luhnow’s first draft pick. Buy one superstar, get one free.
#1 Jose Altuve—What else to say. The littlest man in baseball with the biggest heart. Future Hall of Famer and possibly the greatest Astro of all-time when it’s all over. Thank God he came back on day two of tryouts. And thank God the tryout coach on day two saw past the tiny frame and stickball swing and saw right into his big, beautiful, baseball soul. League MVP of course and second in cWPA behind World Series MVP George Springer.
To get to the World Series the Astros had to play 7 games against the Yankees. In the ALCS the Yankees outscored the Astros 22 to 20. Two of the Astros’ 4 wins came by scores of 2-1. In those games, without crucial runs by Altuve and Correa, and crucial RBIs by Gurriel and Correa, the Astros probably would not have won. Not to mention the 9 innings pitched with only 1 run allowed by Verlander. If any of these players did not come through when they did, the Astros probably wouldn't have even gotten to the world Series.
To win the World Series the Astros had to play 7 games against the Dodgers. Both teams scored 34 runs in the series. Games 2 and 5 were extra inning games which the Astros won by 1 run each. Without RBIs and runs scored by Bregman, Altuve, Correa, and Gonzalez, the Astros would have probably lost game 2 and lost the World Series. Without 6 strong innings from Verlander, and a closing win from Devenski, the Astros may have lost the game, and lost the World Series.
Without each and every run scored or produced by Bregman, Altuve, Correa and Gurriel, the Astros would have probably lost game 5 and almost certainly would have lost the World Series.
Without the extended innings of successful playoff and World Series pitching provided by Morton, Peacock and McCullers, the Astros probably don’t win the World Series.
So, I believe it is safe to say, that without each and every one of the audacious and creative player acquisitions highlighted above, the Astros very likely would not have become the World Champions of baseball.
Kudos to Jim Crane for hiring Jeff Luhnow and investing in these players. And kudos to Jeff Luhnow for audacious and creative leadership.