Matt’s Musings: The Astros are soaring to historic status
You know who’s loving life right now? Just, like, top of the world in every way? No, not Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I mean, she is, but she’s not the answer I was looking for (watch “Fleabag,” though). No, the person I was thinking of is Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander.
Since leaving Detroit for H-Town back in August 2017, Verlander has won three division titles, one American League pennant, one championship series MVP and a World Series. These are his mind-blowing stats during his time in Houston: 42-15 record, 2.45 ERA, 633 strikeouts and .837 WHIP. The more analytical stats tell a similar story, with a 179 ERA+, 3.00 FIP and a truly absurd K/9 rate of 12.1.
This year, he finds himself in an extremely tight race for the AL Cy Young Award after a phenomenal season in which he put up a 21-6 record with a 2.58 ERA, .803 WHIP and 300 strikeouts. His competition? His teammate Gerrit Cole, who finished his seventh season at 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA, .895 WHIP, and 326 strikeouts. Again, these guys are on the same team.
Verlander’s three-year run of success is a microcosm of the Astros’ over the same period of time. From 2017-2019, Houston is 311-175. That’s a winning percentage of .640, and their combined run differential (often a good predictor of postseason success and the actual quality of a team) over this run is +739. Unbelievable.
Perhaps the craziest thing about these Astros is just how bad they were merely six years ago. They finished 51-111 in 2013, the worst record in the majors by 11 games. It was their fifth consecutive losing season, and while they would improve in 2014, they still finished 70-92.
But those in baseball circles saw what the Astros were building. What they saw excited them. The cover of the June 30, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated features outfielder George Springer and the caption “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” The article details how the Houston front office based many of their ideas on the “Moneyball” philosophy popularized by Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane. However, unlike the constant retooling Beane does, the Astros took their lumps for years before they found success. The years of failure made Houston the laughingstock of baseball.
But they kept with it, and it paid off in spades. Through the draft and the minors, the Astros built one of the most formidable cores in the league. They brought stars Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yordan Alvarez through their farm system, as well as former Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel, who won a Cy Young Award while with the team.
In 2015, Houston got their first taste of success by making the postseason as the second wild card, winning that game before bowing out to the eventual champs, the Royals. In 2016, they again finished above .500, but it was not enough to earn a wild card spot. They were close, but still not quite there. So, in 2017, the Astros began to make moves. They signed free agent starter Charlie Morton to a two-year deal, and, seconds before the waiver-trade deadline, traded for Tigers superstar Verlander. This was a signal of intent from the Houston front office, a message that they were ready to do what was necessary to win.
Houston won the World Series that year, beating the Dodgers in seven games in a thrilling contest. Springer won World Series Most Valuable Player, Altuve won AL MVP, and Verlander kept thriving.
After a “disappointing” season in 2018 in which they “only” made the ALCS before the 108-win Red Sox knocked them out, Houston has returned with a vengeance, winning 107 games and posting a +280-run differential. Their rotation is the best in the majors, with Verlander, Cole and mid-season acquisition Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young winner himself, dominating offenses. Their lineup is also arguably the best in the majors, hitting for both power and average. Bregman has been the main man in 2019, though Alvarez, a rookie, has been a revelation, with Altuve, Springer, Yuli Gurriel and Michael Brantley also performing at all-star levels.
The talent across the board on this roster rivals any ever seen in the history of baseball. However, their greatness comes from their utter dominance of baseball over the last three years. To use a basketball term, they are a superteam. Full stop.
This postseason presents a steep hill for the Astros, with every AL team winning at least 96 games and the Yankees and Twins winning 103 and 101, respectively. If they navigate that gauntlet, their Senior Circuit opponent could be their World Series foe from two years ago: Los Angeles. LA’s roster is arguably as talented as Houston’s (although I wouldn’t make that argument). The Dodgers do have the added motivation of trying to finally get over the hump after seven years of division titles and two straight Fall Classic appearances without a world championship.
No matter how you look at it, this Astros team is great. But another ring would vault them above mere greatness, and into the upper echelons of history.