No sooner had the confetti finished falling along the parade route for the 2022 Astros and their dominant run to glory, when the attention turned to 2023. Most of the lineup was projected to return, and those that were lost didn’t figure to impact the squad all that much. Most had the Astros as favorites to do what no team had done in 23 years: repeat as champions. Unfortunately, the Astros managed to be the 24th straight WS champion to NOT repeat, courtesy of the Rangers in an emotionally fraught ALCS.
In one respect, it might be a bit harsh to say that 2023 was a “failure”. The team, even as they fell 16 wins short of last season’s pace, did win its 6th straight full-season AL West Championship. They also managed to successfully complete its 10th straight post-season, winning at least one playoff round, and they returned to the ALCS for the 7th straight time. The Astros were once again baseball’s gatekeeper, as any team that wants to get to the World Series had to go through them.
Still, for this team, it is World Series or bust. That they busted against the in-state rival Rangers, a team that Houston effectively owned for most of the regular season, makes this a bitter pill for Houston fans to swallow. Then again, welcome to baseball, where one team can dominate another in the regular season and, somehow, fall short in a playoff series. The Rangers can and should celebrate like mad right now, especially after being the second team in North American pro sports history to win a 7-game playoff series by winning four road games.
How did it happen? Prior to the start of the season, I did this article, discussing how it could all go wrong for the Astros. I didn’t exactly intend for it to be a prophecy, but in all the not-unwarranted optimism for Houston, there were some things that could derail the squad. Some of those came to pass, especially the discussion about the rise of the AL West (sob). A few things happened a little differently, and then we had quite the Baseball Black Swan.
Injuries certainly played their part at the start of the season. McCullers and Garica were lost for the season. The Astros also lost significant time from Altuve, Alvarez, Brantley and Urquidy. In hindsight, the loss of Garcia and McCullers might have done the most damage with second and third-order effects. The loss of nearly 60% of the starting rotation forced younger arms like Hunter Brown and JP France to pitch an inordinate amount of innings, and they wore down in the final weeks of the season. Without arms like Garica or McCullers available for the post-season, the vaunted starting pitching just didn’t have it (relying on a struggling Valdez), and in a battle royal of a series against Texas, the arms just didn’t get it done.
The West was by far a tougher division than most projected. While the Angels again failed to take advantage of their generational talents, and the As were more focused on their pending move to Vegas, the remaining teams (Seattle, Texas, Houston) turned the West into a triple-threat blood match. Coming into the last week of the season, all three had a chance to win the division and/or miss the playoffs completely. That two AL West teams remained to fight for the World Series, even as the “vaunted” AL East failed to actually win a playoff game, validated the claims that the West would be a major battle.
For Houston, there will be questions about the team’s leadership. The off-season moves by Crane and the lack of a GM were points of contention throughout the season, especially since the big-money moves (Jose Abreu, Rafael Montero), didn’t live up to their contracts. At the trade deadline, the Astros added some arms to fill in the major gap in pitching depth (Verlander, Graveman), but at the cost of 3 of their top 5 prospects from a farm system that isn’t teaming with top prospects. Then, the season-long questions about why Baker stuck with Martin Maldonado over Yanier Diaz at catcher, despite the latter being a better bat and defensive player. With Baker liking riding off to his vineyard to prep for his future Hall of Fame invitation, the Astros will be faced with bringing in a new manager.
Then we come to the Black Swan of the season:
Sometimes, things happen in baseball that just don’t make sense. Even if it seems obvious in hindsight, it can still seem unbelievably unexpected. With the fall of the 2023 Astros, perhaps the most prominent and most unforeseen was the sudden inability to win at home. This is hard to figure. The team clinched the 2022 World Series at home, and between 2020-2022, the team won more than 66% of its MMP dates.
Granted, there were times in this run (2017, 2018) when the Astros actually won more games on the road than at home. However, the delta between road and home wins was never as significant as it was this season. The Astros finished a combined 56-30, the best overall road record in the majors. Their 5-0 playoff road record is trumped only by the Rangers 8-0 mark. They swept the Braves at their field and won road series at Baltimore and Tampa Bay. In the playoffs, they continued their domination at Globe Life (3-0).
Yet, this very same team finished 40-47 at MMP (1-5 playoffs). They were swept by the Reds, Yankees, Mariners and Royals and went 7-22 in their last 29 home games (including playoffs). The only place the Astros had a worse winning percentage outside of MMP, where they played more than three games, was Toronto (1-3 in a 4-game set). All discernible metrics were worse for the Astros at home vs. the road. At one point, it was thought that some of the new signage and changes to MMP were adversely impacting the home team, but even fixing those changes did little to change their MMP fortunes.
This defies so much of what is known and expected for a home team. The Astros had over 3 million fans come to visit, and given the struggles of the Texans and Rockets, the Astros are the sports kings of Houston. All the studies and numbers say home-field advantage is a thing, but not for the 2023 Astros. Granted, much of the downturn of the Astros’ home fortunes came with the downturn in starting pitching and the struggles of the team to hit with runners in scoring position (the classic Astros’ bugaboo).
Then again, the inexplicable home struggles are not completely alien. The home sweep by the Red Sox in the 2018 ALCS and the nightmare 0-4 WS home record of the Astros in 2019 stand out here. Houston now holds the distinction of being the only team to lose a 7-game playoff series by losing four home games...twice. Throw in the 1-2 home record against the Braves in the 2021 World Series, and sometimes, it is hardly home sweet home. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of these home failings rates as the worst.
There is no one sole cause for this failure, but if you are looking for that sporting Black Swan, the curse of MMP is it. Injuries, a tougher division, some regression and some leadership issues...sure, that could have been considered. Home field disadvantage: Not in the top 100 for anyone’s issues.
Thus, the Astros get the earliest start on their off-season since 2018. Outside of Houston, there is much rejoicing, especially in Deep Southern Oklahoma. When playing the heel, it can be fun to get over on everyone, but when you fail, the schadenfreude is particularly acute. So it will be for the Astros, who are unquestionably MLB’s reigning villain.
Perhaps there are some benefits, as the team gets a longer rest, a chance to get healthy, and the added motivation of revenge and overcoming where they fell short last season. Does it suck? For a fan, yes, yes, it does. Especially since that defeat came at the hands of the in-state Rangers and all of those associated feelings with the Dallas-Houston rivalry. Yet, this is not as painful as the World Series failures of 2019 or 2021. The team validated its run with a second World Series within a 6-year window. Much of the core is coming back, and even with the weakest full-season team during this run, the Astros still got to the seventh game of the ALCS. Seven straight playoff appearances is nothing to sneeze at, with only the Dodgers with a longer playoff appearance streak, and whose post-season resume would you rather have?
Maybe the aura of Astros’ invincibility is over. Maybe the Rangers and other powers can displace Houston as the kings of the AL. Yet, you sell this team short at your peril. If the Astros are the real baseball villain, how many times does the villain seemingly fall to final defeat, only to return more dangerous than ever? They have at least one more run with this cast and crew, and thus far, Houston has been able to reload as well as any team. Still, for the Houston fan, that is the future. For the present, we acknowledge the Rangers win and move on to gear up for next year. Until Spring Training.