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Why Are the Astros (Still) Here?

It’s been an amazing run but far from inevitable. What are the systemic reasons for the Astros’ improbable continuing dominance since 2017?

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Face it, We’re Spoiled.

For Astros fans, it’s become a ritual. Almost a boring ritual.

  • Seven of the last eight years in the playoffs.
  • Division Champions in every real season since 2017.
  • ALDS winners every year since 2017, six straight seasons, an AL record.
  • AL Champions four out of the last six years.
  • Beat the Yankees in the playoffs four out of the last eight years without a loss, including an ALCS sweep this year. The Astros humiliate the Yankees like the Yankees used to humiliate the rest of baseball throughout baseball history.
  • Beat the NL’s best team, the Dodgers, the only time the two teams have met in the World Series.
  • And yet, most prognosticators had the Astros winning only about 90 games this year, the same number as the AL West competitors, Mariners, actually did win. (The Astros came in with 106 wins, tops in the AL)

Since 2017, the Astros have been the winner of 541 games, second only to the Dodgers, who have won 562. Only the Dodgers and Astros have won 100+ games in five of the last six full seasons: the Yankees only twice. And although the Dodgers have won more games, since 2017, they have been NL champions only three times.

And yet, some Astros fans still complain about their team, arguably the most dominant franchise in baseball since 2017. As though this kind of continued success is some sort of birthright bestowed by God. It is not.

The Astros Continue to Dominate, and Why That’s so Weird

Besides the Astros, only the Dodgers and Yankees have maintained consistent excellence during this period. Their natural advantages, being old, storied franchises representing the two largest cities and media markets, are obvious.

The two teams have consistently outspent the Astros, too. This year the Astros’ total payroll was about $193 million, approximately $70 million less than the Yankees and $81 million less than the Dodgers. This year, the Astros and Los Angeles Angels spent almost the same amount on payroll. Yet the Astros finished 33 games ahead of the Angels, playing in the same division.

Normally championship-level teams have a short shelf life as contenders. But not the Astros. They have been great for a long time now, and their window looks to stay wide open.

Let’s look at what has happened to some of the other winning teams of recent memory, not called the Dodgers or Yankees.

The 2016 World Champions, the Chicago Cubs, won 103 games that year. The following two years, they fell into the low 90s, and since then, they have been strictly middle of the road.

The 2018 World Champions, the Boston Red Sox, have only made the playoffs once since that year.

The 2019 World Series champs, the Washington Nationals, have tanked ever since. The Dodgers won their only World Series in this period in the COVID year of 2020, and last year’s World Champions, the Braves, are admittedly an up-and-coming franchise, but who knows how long that will last?

And besides being located in a not-quite-major media market like New York, LA, Chicago, or New England, there are many other reasons why the Astros should not have been able to keep this going for so long.

  • Since 2017 the Astros have lost major cogs like Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander (2020-2021), George Springer, Carlos Correa, and many others.
  • Since 2013 the Astros have had only two first or second-round draft picks who have made significant contributions in the major leagues. (And they had no such picks in 2020 and 2021 as a punishment for cheating) Their 1st round overall pick in 2013, Mark Appel, was a total wash. Admittedly, their two successful picks, both in 2015, have been truly outstanding: Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker.
  • In the meantime, the Astros emptied their farm system to obtain win-now players like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, and, lest we forget, Carlos Gomez, and many others.

And yet, with a farm system rated near the bottom the last few years, according to MLB Pipeline, the Astros have more homegrown Wins Above Replacement than any other team in this year’s post-season field. (And that doesn’t include Lance McCullers, who was injured almost the whole season)

The point is the Astros franchise is probably the best-run operation in baseball. Although we in Houston may be too close to the action to see it, to the rest of baseball, the Astros’ long run of success looks truly remarkable.

So now we come to the answer to the question of this article, Why are the Astros (still) here?

International Scouting

When un-pedigreed players become major contributors, is it because they were diamonds-in-the-rough that clever and discerning scouts discovered? Or is it because the system knows how to develop stars out of ordinary physical talent?

Probably both. The Astros have many unpedigreed stars, especially in the pitching department. And these are mostly international signees, So let’s take a look.

The Astros pitchers led MLB in team WAR and were at or near the top in every major pitching category, both starters and relievers.

After Justin Verlander, the starters are mostly guys from Latin America. Now, it’s not like players from Latin America are not vigorously scouted and evaluated by every team in MLB. But what’s remarkable is that the Astros found stars that were largely overlooked by every other team in baseball. Like:

  • Framber Valdez. Signed at the ancient age of 21 for $10,000
  • Luis Garcia. Another “old” signee at 19, who inked his deal for $20,000
  • Jose Urquidy. Another 19-year-old signee who came at a little higher cost of $100,000.
  • Cristian Javier. Another late signee at 18, $10,000.
  • Bryan Abreu. Signed at a more normal age of 16 for a still rather paltry $40,000.

The first four rounded out the Astros’ starting rotation after Verlander. They accounted for 56 wins, 10.1 bWAR, and Abreu added four wins and 1.3 bWAR with 60 IP and a 1.94 ERA out of the bullpen. All are under team control for at least three more years.

It is hard to imagine that Astros pitching could have been anything but average, at best, without the quality innings provided by these “no-names.” Could the bullpen have been as excellent without the pressure these pitchers took off of them? And pitching is at the core of the Astros’ success in 2022.

It is questionable to me whether the Astros would have made the playoffs without these players or, at least, win the division without these Latin pitchers.

And where would the Astros have been in the playoffs without these guys? The Astros won the ALDS and ALCS largely because of their pitching. Framber Valdez pitched 12 innings this postseason and allowed only two runs. Cristian Javier won game three of the ALCS, shutting out the Yankees on one hit. Luis Garcia closed the last five innings of the 18-inning marathon with Seattle, holding the Mariners scoreless and allowing only two hits. And Bryan Abreu added 6.1 scoreless innings in relief in the Division and League Championship series.

Here’s another player that belongs in the category of scouting find: Yordan Alvarez.

Sure, he came to the Astros in the glorious Josh Fields trade. But the Astros scouting department was all over Alvarez, and the Dodgers just happened to get him first. But when the Dodgers asked the Astros who they would take for Josh Fields, the Astros front office did not hesitate in saying they wanted Alvarez, even though he hadn’t even played a single game in the minors yet.

The Astros understood what a diamond in the rough Yordan was far better than the Dodgers.

Player Development

Again, it’s hard to tell whether players like those above are great finds or the product of great player development. But there is no doubt player development is a major part of the Astros’ success.

Especially pitching development.

The Astros have consistently developed seemingly lesser talented pitchers (including the ones mentioned above) into significant MLB contributors. Guys like Dallas Keuchel, Colin McHugh, and Will Harris. And they have taken a number of more established major leaguers to a new level, Ryan Pressly, Ryne Stanek, Rafael Montero, Gerrit Cole, and Charley Morton, just to name a few. Even Justin Verlander would tell you that the Astros Nerd Cave has extended his career and taken it back to the level he had in his youthful prime.

But the Astros have also had success developing position players of lesser pedigree.

They have managed to find at least suitable over-achievers from the lower ranks of their depleted minors to replace superstars George Springer and Carlos Correa.

Twenty-first-round draft pick Chas McCormick has not made anyone in Houston forget first-round draft pick George Springer, but he’s actually an above-average producer. In only 119 games, McCormick produced 2.0 fWAR to Springer’s 4.2 in 139 games in 2022. So if Springer produced 1.5 to two games more than McCormick, at Springer’s salary, that would have been about $12 to 15 million per game won if he played instead of McCormick. Pretty expensive.

McCormick’s 2022 wRC+ was 114, meaning 14 percent above the league average. And his Defensive Rating was slightly above average as well, per Fangraphs. And I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading an article on this site what a pleasant surprise McCormick has been in the playoffs.

A little like our old center fielder.

Another seemingly over-producing product of Astros player development is rookie Jeremy Peña, the ALCS MVP. Peña was a late third-round draft pick. It is a long shot for players drafted around 102 like Peña to make much impact in the big leagues. Peña was considered a defense-only shortstop when he came up, and he is a skillful defender, but he has developed a versatile and even powerful hit tool beyond expectations since being drafted in 2018.

And during the season, Peña showed intelligence and an ability to adapt to major league pitching.

For about $29 million less, Peña produced one less fWAR than Carlos Correa, 3.4 to 4.4. And Peña has turned out to be a clutch playoff performer, too, so far.

Doing It the Old-Fashioned Way

So the Astros are still here. Sure the Astros are an analytically-driven franchise, but they are still here the good old-fashioned way; by finding hidden talent that other teams have overlooked and developing their talent better than anyone else.

It is part of the DNA that Jeff Luhnow planted in the organization learned in St Louis, and it is also part of the DNA that GM James Click has brought over from Tampa Bay.

In baseball, as in all business, creativity and resourcefulness are surer ways to find a winning formula that lasts than just throwing money at problems. Once agile but eventually stodgy behemoths like Sears die, replaced by imaginative upstarts like Amazon.

Which leads me to the last reason why the Astros are still here.

Money Discipline. And Letting Young Players Grow.

The Astros have been adroit and conservative with contracts. They extended core players like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander, and Ryan Pressly, and made a few key free agent signings, but they have let many high-priced free agents walk: Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, George Springer, Carlos Correa, and others.

Relying on free agency to build a team is always tempting. You hate letting a Cole, a Correa, or a Springer walk. And who wouldn’t want an Aaron Judge on their team? But relying on expensive free agents to fill a roster is like drug addiction. It might give you a temporary lift, but in the long run, it is debilitating. Ask the Yankees. And yet, the only thing anyone in New York can think of right now is: who will they sign next year to fill in their gaps. (Not to say that the Yankees totally neglect scouting and player development, of course,)

Meanwhile, Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole continue to fail in the big games for the value of the GDP of some African countries. Cristian Javier, the $700,000 man, got the W in Game 3, pitching a shutout; Gerrit Cole, the $324 million man the Stros let walk, got the L, beaten by a home run hit by George Springer’s cheap replacement.

And a $700,000 rookie shortstop with a lot of love in his heart got ALCS MVP.

Meanwhile, Correa Time is relegated to the time he gets to talk on TV about how good his former team is. (But we still love you Carlos)

The Astros have filled their gaps the old-fashioned way, through resourceful scouting and player development, but without excessive dependence on free agents. They have had the courage to trust a new crop of players to grow into important roles. That is why they are still here in 2022. And why they will be back again in 2023 and beyond.