Miracle that is the Astros gets a bit more miraculous
Let’s take a deep breath and reflect on baseball’s most amazing story of 2015 in the wake of a three-game sweep of the Dodgers and a 117th day in first place.
They won on Sunday because rookie right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. went toe-to-toe with Clayton Kershaw for seven innings and because rookie shortstop Carlos Correa helped manufacture the tying run in the bottom of the ninth and because catcher Jason Castro hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning.
When a team keeps doing magical things, it almost ceases to be magic. The Astros finished a 7-3 home stand with their fourth walk-off win in eight games. They won three extra-inning games in that span.
They are a young club. They are playing with energy and enthusiasm. As for the veterans–Castro, Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, etc.–they may be having even more fun.
After averaging 104 losses the previous four seasons and playing a whole bunch of home games in a nearly empty ballpark, the Astros are the very best story in all of baseball.
This thing has some magic. But this team is solid. It has gotten better during the season with the additions of Correa, McCullers, Scott Kazmir, Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers and others.
The Astros have the look and feel one of those comets that blaze across the sky about once a generation, if that. On the other hand, any objective look at this baseball team would conclude that this is no fluke. No one would even think that if not for the background.
The Astros lost 111 games two seasons. They lost 92 games in 2014.
To come from where they were at to where they are is incredible. They didn’t buy this team, either.
Only the Tampa Bay Rays have a lower payroll than the Astros.
So before we start overlooking the miraculous part of this story, let’s revisit how it happened, one brick at a time.
1. Jim Crane, owner.
He bought the Astros in 2011 and directed the franchise on a new course. Since winning the National League pennant, the Astros had grown old and bad and boring. Their farm system was mediocre, so they pieced a roster together by signing one old guy after another. Crane announced that he would hire a general manager really good at drafting and developing, and he would give him the resources and the freedom to build the Astros as he saw fit.
2. Jeff Luhnow, general manager.
He directed a string of phenomenal drafts while with the St. Louis Cardinals and has done more good work with the Astros, building one of the five best minor league systems in the game. From the 2012 draft, Luhnow’s first, the Astros have had contributions from Correa, McCullers and outfielder Preston Tucker. There’s more talent in the pipeline.
And then last off-season, he changed directions. Instead of trading away veterans, he acquired them—designated hitter Evan Gattis, relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, outfielder Colby Rasmus and infielders Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena. He saw a window of opportunity and added more talent at the Trade Deadline.
He hit on all of them, showing that he’s as good at building a winning roster as building a great farm system.
3. A.J. Hinch, manager.
He had such a terrible record while in charge of the Arizona Diamondbacks that he knew he might never have another chance. He and Luhnow hit it off immediately.
Hinch is comfortable in Luhnow’s analytics world, and the two men have mutual respect for one another, leading to a comfortable exchange of information and ideas, especially regarding defensive shifts, match-ups, etc.
Hinch has passed every other test, too. He’s a tremendous communicator, has built strong relationships in the clubhouse and has expertly managed both the bullpen and the playing time issues.
4. Carlos Correa, shortstop.
Three years ago, he was Luhnow’s very first draft choice. Now at 20, he’s the franchise’s resident superstar, an amazingly gifted, mature, dazzling perform. He’s one of the rare ones who gets it in every way.<p>
5. Dallas Keuchel, starting pitcher.
He’s the ace. He is absolutely brilliant at working through opposing at-bats. He throws an assortment of pitches, changing locations, speeds and movement. His control is precise, his poise unshakable.
6. Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson.
In one off-season, Luhnow turned baseball’s worst bullpen into one of its best, and it begins with these two guys taking care of the eighth and ninth innings.
7. Trade Deadline.
No general manager had a better few days. Luhnow added a top-of-the-rotation arm in Scott Kazmir and a middle of the order hitter in center fielder Carlos Gomez. With Lowrie returning from the Disabled List and with George Springer a few weeks away from returning, a really good, really solid team got even better.
8. They’re better than you thought.
Because the Astros used a revolving-door roster in recent years, they were able to give players they liked a chance. From those opportunities came starter Collin McHugh, relievers Will Harris and Tony Sipp and infielder Marwin Gonzalez. Every single one of them has contributed.
9. Coaching staff.
Hinch inherited one of the great pitching coaches on the planet in Brent Strom and then added to it. Thanks to these guys, the Astros are as prepared as any team in the majors. Thanks to a collaboration with the front office, the Astros have saved themselves dozens of runs with their defensive shifts.
Sometimes all the pieces fit. When the Astros need a hit, they get a hit. When they need a late out, they get that, too. From those early success has grown a steady confidence. With the emergence of Correa, Keuchel, etc., with the additions of Gomez and Kazmir, the Astros match up nicely with almost any team in baseball.
How does all of this translate into October baseball? Stay tuned.