For various reasons, the Astros had no business winning the AL West in 2023. For one, using multiple metrics, they were an inferior team to the Texas Rangers this year. Not only did they have a lower run differential, but the Astros also accumulated less WAR.
Secondly, the Astros did their best to give away the division in September. After dominantly sweeping the Rangers, the Astros had 13 of their last 21 games against non-playoff teams, with ten coming against the 100-loss A’s and Royals. The Astros only won 5 of those games, giving the Rangers a golden opportunity to secure the division comfortably.
Lastly, Dusty Baker made several boneheaded personnel choices that cost the Astros at least five wins. The most obvious was not making Yainer Diaz the everyday starter, or at least giving him more starts. Both Maldonaldo and Diaz were healthy the whole season, and yet Diaz received 30 fewer plate appearances. Maldy received 115 starts behind the plate, and Diaz only got 58. Simply flipping their playing times would have likely given Diaz an extra 200 PA’s. Considering that Diaz was a 28% above league-average hitter and Maldy was 32% below league-average, making this simple adjustment would have likely yielded at least two more wins.
With all that said, The Astros needed some luck and some “clutch” wins on their side to pull out the division title. Below are six improbable wins that, especially in hindsight, were critical to the success of the Stros!
1. May 17th against the Cubs, final score Astros 7, Cubs 6.
The Astros were trailing 6-1 heading into the bottom of the 8th inning and did not look good. At one point, the Cubs had an expected win probability of 97%! After a two-run 8th and a two-run homer by Jake Meyers to start the 9th, the Astros looked ready to walk it off. After a single by Tucker and a close play at the plate at home, the Astros walked it off to complete the sweep of the Cubs.
2. June 14th against the Nationals, final score: Astros 5, Nats 4.
Picking this game may seem controversial, but this game had a ton of drama and very likely could have gone the other way. After blowing a 3-run lead in the 9th, the Astros looked to walk it off in the 9th. With bases loaded and only one out, it appeared that the Astros would be able to rally for the win. This is exactly what happened, but it involved a lot more controversy than most Houston fans would appreciate. After Jake Meyers hit a ground ball to the shortstop, the catcher hit Jake on his way to first base, causing the ball to go into the outfield, which allowed Jose Abreu to score the game-winning run. Davey Martinez argued that Meyers interfered with the throw and should have been out, a play which was eerily similar to game 6 of the 2019 World Series. It is impossible to say how extra innings would have turned out, but given the Astro’s poor record in extras in 2023, it is at least a possibility that they would have lost.
3. July 3rd against the Texas Rangers, final score: Astros 12, Rangers 11.
This was the type of game that was hard to enjoy. After jumping out to a 10-2 lead, Javier and the Astros gave up the lead in the bottom of the eighth. If not for a pair of doubles by Abreu and McCormick in the ninth, H-Town’s best would have had one of the worst collapses in team history.
4. July 16th against the Angels, final score: Astros 9, Angels 8.
Coming off a game where they blew a six and three-run lead, on two separate occasions, the Astros looked like they were going to lose another one to a mediocre Angels squad. Going into the 8th, the Astros were down six and had less than, but a trio of home runs by Chas, Bregman, and Tucker gave them the lead going into the ninth. It even appeared like the Astros were going to blow another game when Matt Thaiss hit a line drive into right field with a runner in scoring position. However, Kyle Tucker made a leaping catch to record the final out and give the Astros a series win over the Angels.
5. August 8th against the Orioles, final score: Astros 7, Orioles 6.
In one of the highest-leverage home runs of the season. Kyle Tucker hit a grand slam off Felix Bautista to take a one-run lead in the ninth. I hate to oversimplify things, but in a season that came down to a tiebreaker, that homer by Tucker felt like the most important swing of the year.
6. September 29th against the Diamondbacks, final score: Astros 2, Diamondbacks 1.
This game happened a few days ago, so I won’t recount all the crazy twists and turns. However, between the gold glove caliber play by Pena to save two runs in the 8th and the double that just missed being a game-tying homer in the ninth, it is safe to say that the margins in this game were razor thin.
What a weird regular season
What is most remarkable about the 2023 regular season is how much of it went wrong. From several major injuries to critical players, to losing easy games down the stretch, to extreme managerial malpractice, it is surprising that the Astros didn’t miss out on the playoffs entirely. In a season where a tiebreaker decided the division, every game counted. The Astros lost several games they should have won, but it is certainly a lot more enjoyable to remember the exciting games they won, especially after they clinched the division. Regardless of the postseason outcome, I think the one word most fans will use to describe the 2023 regular season is, “frustrating” for all the reasons previously stated. However, the Astros managed, against all odds, to pull through anyway. Perhaps that will make this season even more special when fans look back in the coming.