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The Best Non-Championship Astros Teams: Remembering 1998, the Big Unit, and Freaking Kevin Brown

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Before the 2017 season, the 1998 Astros probably boasted the best roster in franchise history.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For a long time, and I’m talking nearly two decades, the 1998 Astros were perched atop of a pedestal. After all, that year’s roster won a then-franchise record 102 games, which was the first time the Astros achieved a triple-digit win total in club history. By regular season standards, it was the best baseball team to ever take the field in Houston at the time. That roster became the benchmark for all future Astros teams who hoped to compete for a title.

Unfortunately, we all remember how the 1998 season concluded. Freaking Kevin Brown. Eight runs in four games with five of those arriving in Game 2, which was the Astros only victory in NLDS that year. The lineup that was headlined by two future Hall of Fame players had another disappearing act.

Freaking Kevin Brown.

Although the season ultimately ended in massive disappointment that is life for a Houston fan, the 1998 Astros still hold a fond place in my heart. The roster, in the field and on paper, was legit. By position player WAR, outside of the 2017-19 period, there may not have been a better Astros lineup ever assembled.

Position Player WAR by Season in Club History

Season WAR
Season WAR
2019 40.8
1998 35.2
2017 33.7
1997 31.0
1993 29.4

Led by Moises Alou (6.8), Jeff Bagwell (6.7), Craig Biggio (6.5), and Derek Bell (5.7), the 1998 Astros boasted on the league’s best overall lineups that year by WAR. Only the Braves (37.6) and Yankees (36.1) boasted a higher WAR by position players other than Houston. Can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if the Astros didn’t run into the buzzsaw that was freaking Kevin Brown. Or Sterling Hitchcock randomly in Game 4 when he struck out eleven Houston batters.

Outside of the 102-game win total and subsequent postseason flameout, the Astros’ 1998 season was mostly defined by the Johnson trade from the Mariners at the deadline. At the time of the acquisition, the Big Unit had a middling 4.33 ERA and 3.35 FIP in 160 innings for Seattle, who were struggling with a 48-60 record on July 31. The strikeout numbers were still there, but the results weren’t. Once Johnson arrived in Houston, however, the intimidating southpaw posted a 1.28 ERA and 2.04 FIP in 84 13 incredible regular season innings. Along with Jose Lima, Mike Hampton, and Shane Reynolds, the Astros rotation presented a formidable staff.

Top Four Astros Starters in 1998

Player Wins Losses ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
Player Wins Losses ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
Randy Johnson 10 1 1.28 2.04 35.3% 7.9% 3.3
Mike Hampton 11 7 3.36 4.17 14.9% 8.8% 2.3
Shane Reynolds 19 8 3.51 3.45 21.2% 5.4% 4.5
Jose Lima 16 8 3.70 4.09 17.8% 3.4% 2.7

Acquiring Johnson came at a price though, especially in hindsight with the respective careers of Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen taken into consideration. But the deadline deal was the right one to consummate at the right time, although the end result and Johnson’s eventual departure to Arizona was tough to stomach.

The 1998 season always felt like a lost opportunity for the Astros, who had legitimate championship aspirations. Another season gone from Bagwell and Biggio’s prime. Bell, for example, never got close to his career-best numbers again in 1998. Alou would miss the entire 1999 season following a treadmill incident with a torn ACL. While the subsequent seasons, minus 2000, saw the Astros field competitive teams, those rosters didn’t quite match the excitement of 1998. It isn’t often you see a club with three future Hall of Fame players on an Astros roster, so it was especially painful to lose as early as the NLDS to the Padres.

Freaking Kevin Brown.