One of the coolest things about seeing the Houston Astros on baseball’s biggest stage is that millions of others are discovering what those of us in Houston already knew.
These Astros are the real deal.
Yes, that energy is real. Yes, that enthusiasm is real. That talent is real, too.
In George Springer and Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, the Astros have players who are going to be stars for years to come. In Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus and a long list of others, the Astros have solid contributors.
Here’s how baseball people pay a player one of their ultimate compliments: They say a guy could be a contributor on a winning team. That’s Jason Castro and Chris Carter and Jake Marisnick and a whole bunch of others.
Marisnick may just stand head and shoulders above the others as an example of why Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and his staff are smarter than a lot of others.
The Astros do not know how much Marisnick will hit. They think he has a chance to hit, but they aren’t sure. However, from the moment they acquired him from the Marlins in the Jarred Cosart deal, the Astros believed his defense and base running would be so good that they could accept a little less offense.
In other words, they saw a greater whole than simply offense or batting average. They saw a guy capable of impacting games in a variety of ways.
And all those ways contribute to winning.
Anyway, the Astros aren’t a surprise anymore. Nor are they a fluke. Baseball’s landscape has changed so dramatically that the key thing is to be playing well at the right time of the year.
The Astros recovered from a terrible slide to win six of their final eight games of the regular season. Now they’re 2-0 in the postseason after victories over the Yankees and Royals.
They’ve got miles to go.
But with every victory, they become a bit more dangerous. This isn’t about confidence. When a team has won as much as the Astros have over the last six months, that confidence is there.
A.J. Hinch nursed it along brilliantly, first in Spring Training, later in the opening two months of the regular season. He simply refused to let other people’s expectations matter.
When a team spends 139 days in first place, there’s an inner-confidence that grows among the group. That’s what the Astros have.
Those five rookies aren’t seeing the world for the first time. They’re now comfortable. They now know that they belong.
Collin McHugh is another great example. The Astros got him on waivers. They saw him as a guy who could change speeds, command the strike zone and win.
If others focused on the fact that he didn’t throw 99 mph, that was their problem. In terms of pitching variables–velocity, location, movement–McHugh has two of three.
If the Astros get what they think they’re going to get from Scott Kazmir in Game 2, the baseball world may feel as if it’s been turned on its head.
McHugh gave the Astros six solid innings, and then four relievers finished up. Now the pressure is squarely on the Royals to win Game 2.
Otherwise, they’re facing an elimination game in Houston on Sunday. Dallas Keuchel will put his 15-0 home record on the line in that one.
The Astros went through so many peaks and valleys during the season, and they barely made the playoffs. But Hinch did a masterful job keeping them focused in one direction.
Near the end of the season, there were good signs. Springer was hitting. The bullpen was getting outs again. Jose Altuve was Jose Altuve. Chris Carter was hot, too.
Luhnow has done a fabulous job constructing this roster. Maybe the Astros have arrived a year ahead of time. Luhnow doesn’t agree with that, but still.
The Astros are a confident group at the moment. They’re young and talented, too. That’s a good combination to have in October.
Our spring interview was winding down when I said something to Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak about his relationship with team owner Bill DeWitt Jr.
“Oh,” he said, “we’re in lockstep.”
He didn’t mean that he and DeWitt agreed on everything. He didn’t mean they always saw the world the same way. He simply meant that the Cardinals speak with one voice.
When they make important decisions, they talk them out, weigh the pros and cons and arrive at a decision. DeWitt has the final call, but he gives everyone a voice.
Once the decision is made, it’s not a DeWitt call or a Mozeliak call. It’s a Cardinals call. There’s confidence and resolve.
And this, perhaps more than anything, reveals the greatness of the Cardinals.
They are baseball’s model franchise. At least they’re on the short list. They do not spend the most money or make the splashiest moves.
They’re patient in giving their own players a chance to play. But they’re also unafraid to make big bold trades. Mozeliak has pulled off a couple of beauties the last 18 months.
The Cardinals will win the most games in baseball for the second time in three seasons. Over the last three seasons combined, their 283 regular-season victories are the most in baseball.
In that time, they’ve also played in and won more postseason games than any other franchise. They haven’t won a World Series since 2011, and around St. Louis, that’s considered a huge negative.
In St. Louis, the bar is winning championships. Fans and the media expect it. No big deal there. The Cardinals expect that of themselves.
First, there’s stability.
In the last 20 seasons, the Cardinals have had one owner, two general managers and two managers. Only the Yankees have had that kind of continuity.
In that time, only the Yankees and Braves have won more regular-season games than the Cardinals. Only the Yankees have won more postseason games.
Second, there’s the ability to make tough decisions.
Albert Pujols was allowed to leave via free agency because the Cardinals weren’t comfortable with where the years and money had gone. They made the toughest of tough calls to trade one of their favorite homegrown players, Allen Craig, in a roster shakeup.
When Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa departed after the 2011 championship, Mozeliak stayed in house and gave the job to Mike Matheny.
He’d never managed at any level, but he was held in such respect by the organization and by the clubhouse, that the call now seems easy.
His 374 regular-season victories are the most by any big league manager in four seasons at the helm. Of all the hundreds of smart decisions Mozeliak has made, none has been smarter than this one.
The Cardinals won 100 games this season, but it wasn’t easy. Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles tendon in his fourth start. Matt Holliday and Matt Adams missed huge chunks of the season.
Twenty-two teams have scored more runs than the Cardinals. Yet the Cardinals climbed atop baseball’s toughest division on April 17th and have been there ever since.
The Pirates and Cubs might be the second- and third-best teams in baseball, but there was no time when the Cardinals lead really seemed in jeopardy.
Their 2.93 staff ERA is the best in the game. They have the No. 1 rotation and No. 3 bullpen.
The Cardinals have continued to evolve. Their veterans—Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, John Lackey—have produced at a high level, but rookies have been worked into the mix, too.
Outfielder Randal Grichuk has played his way into the NL Rookie of the Year conversation, and outfielder Steven Piscotty provided a late-season boost to the offense.
They’ve been numbingly consistent. They’ve had six straight winning months. They’ve had eight winning streaks of at least five games and just one losing streak longer than three. As a franchise, the last losing month was June 2012 (13-14).
Because the Cardinals are the Cardinals, they understand that baseball pushes a reset button for the postseason. Having not won a World Series since 2011 carries a pressure unique to St. Louis.
Molina is hurting. Adams and Holliday are just back. Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha have had a couple of September hiccups. So has the bullpen.
Still, the road to a championship once more will go through St. Louis. The Cardinals are 100-game winners for the first time in a decade and just the ninth time in franchise history.
In that way, this has already been a special season. To get back to the NLCS, they’ll have to play the winner of a Cubs-Pirates Wild Card Game.
Those two teams might represent the most significant obstacle to getting to the World Series. But the Cardinals have held them off this entire season.
if the Cardinals do not win their 20th pennant or 12th World Series, only one thing seems certain. They’ll be right back in contention in 2016. That’s the Cardinal way.
I hope the Red Sox remember to send Ben Cherington a thank-you note when they make the playoffs in 2016
When the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, they knew they’d caught lightning in a bottle, or whatever you choose to call it. They’d had a magical run after hitting on a string of unheralded free-agent signings and didn’t believe the same group could win again.
Rather than go on a free-agent spending spree, they hoped for an infusion of talent from the farm system. This was going to be the Red Sox new way of doing business.
This was the path they’d committed to in the wake of those 2012 trades in which they shipped Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.
If the Red Sox were going to win in 2014, they were going to get another productive year from Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, etc., but they believe there’d be a natural evolution with Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebrooks and other young players working their way into the lineup.
And that experiment flopped. The Red Sox lost 91 games and finished 25 games behind the first-place Orioles in the AL East.
Along the way, they were reminded that young players do not come with guarantees or timetables and that a large number of minor league stars simply don’t make it.
And that’s why the organization went for a quick fix last off-season by signing veterans Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to deals totaling around $190 million.
GM Ben Cherington also reworked his rotation around veterans acquired in the prior nine months: Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. Cherington was criticized for not adding a true No. 1, but Masterson was once a No. 1 in Cleveland and the other three had sometimes been projected as No. 1’s.
The Red Sox still loved their Minor League depth, but for a franchise constantly in a win-now mode, they hoped those veterans brought more certainty.
Okay, it didn’t work out.
The Red Sox could be headed for a third last-place finish in four years. Ramirez and Sandoval have had tough years, and Cherington departed after Dave Dombrowski was brought in to be president of baseball operations.
Sandoval has a .296 OBP, and Ramirez was so bad in left field that Dombrowski has him penciled in to play first base in 2016.
On the other hand…
The Red Sox could be riding a wave of optimism into the off-season. They’ll enter the weekend having won 22 of 37. Best of all, there have been contributions up and down the lineup.
Since they bottomed out at 14 games under .500 on July 30, the Red Sox are 22-15. In this stretch, they’re leading the majors in runs (6.2 per game) and OPS (.841).
Among the AL’s top 20 hitters since July 30 are five Red Sox: Mookie Betts, sixth at .353; Jackie Bradley Jr., seventh at .351, David Ortiz, eighth at .347, Xander Bogaerts, 10th at .336 and Rusney Castillo, 17th at .319. (Rookie catcher Blake Swihart is hitting .284 in 69 games since being called up.)
Also, the starting pitching has been above average. Red Sox starters are 20-8 with a 3.69 ERA during the 22-15 run. Kelly (1.85 ERA) and Porcello (2.98 ERA) have been very solid in their last seven starts, and Miley has a .388 ERA since the All-Star Break.
Rookie left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez has pitched well enough to be penciled into the 2016 rotation. In 18 starts, he’s 9-5 with a 4.05 ERA.
But he has had four terrible starts—30 earned runs in 15 innings. In his other 14 starts, he has a 1.74 ERA.
If Dombrowski does bring in a No. 1, he could have the makings of a formidable rotation, especially because there’s more pitching depth in the minors.
This free-agent class includes three No. 1’s: David Price, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann. Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto could also be considered No. 1’s.
Dombrowski’s top priority has to be the bullpen. Even if you can look at the rotation and lineup a certain way and see good things, the bullpen needs work.
Since July 30, Boston’s bullpen ERA is 5.79 ERA, third-worst in the majors, behind only the Braves (6.19) and Tigers (5.93).
Some of you—the cynical types—will point out that Dombrowski was unable to get the bullpen right the last three seasons in Detroit.
To say he ignored it would be untrue. But some of the relievers he counted on—Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon, Joba Chamberlain–simply didn’t pitch the way he projected.
At a time when baseball’s best teams are built, in part, around really good bullpens–Royals, Cardinals and Pirates are ranked 1-2-3—Dombrowski can’t get the Red Sox back into contention without fixing this part of his team.
However, given where the Red Sox were a few weeks ago, his off-season work is a lot less challenging now than it was then.
Baseball people warn one another not to trust September stats. In this case, it’s probably fair not to trust any of the numbers the Red Sox have accumulated since they’ve dropped out of contention.
On the other hand, we have nothing else to go on. And these young players are playing the way the Red Sox projected them to play. Turns out, their farm system was as good as they thought it’d be.
If nothing else, Betts, Rodriguez, Swihart, etc., ought to help Cherington land a job elsewhere. Along with that 2013 World Series ring, those young players are a testament to Cherington’s expertise at both building a farm system and a roster.
At a time when five clubs besides the Red Sox are looking for new general managers, Cherington seems unlikely to be out of work very long.
And the Red Sox may not be out of contention for very long.
Let’s start with Matt Williams asking Anthony Rendon to bunt even though it’s not why the Nationals most likely will miss the playoffs
First, you’ll say that Anthony Rendon is a professional hitter and that if his manager asks him to lay down a sacrifice bunt, he should be able to do that.
You are entitled to your opinion.
You are also wrong.
One of the things Jim Leyland tells every young manager is this: “Know your team.”
Translation: Know what your players need, both physically and emotionally. Also know what they can and can’t do. Play to their strengths.
When Williams asked Rendon to bunt the tying run into scoring position in the bottom of the ninth inning on Tuesday, he was asking a player to do something he hasn’t done very much.
In 1,332 major league plate appearances, Rendon has laid down four sacrifice bunts—two in 2014 and two in 2013. He had no sac bunts in 373 minor-league plate appearances.
Never mind that taking the bat out of one of his best offensive player’s hands is a very questionable call. That’s a separate issue.
With a critical game on the line, Rendon was asked to do something way out of his comfort zone. Besides that, isn’t a team more likely to score with a runner on first and no outs instead of a runner on second and one out?
Williams seemed to compound the issue by keeping the bunt on when the count went to 3-1. If he had that one to do over, he’d probably take another approach.
When we dissect what happened to the Nationals in this profoundly disappointing season, we will not begin with Matt Williams asking Anthony Rendon to bunt.
That decision was just one subplot in a season filled with them. How were so many of us so wrong about the Nationals? For about the last three seasons, they’ve gotten plenty of Best Team in Baseball labels on Opening Day.
In defense of us…
Since Opening Day 2012, the Nationals are 351-273 (.563). Only the Cardinals (363-262) and Dodgers (352-272) have won more games or had a higher winning percentage.
Unfortunately, the Nationals are just 3-6 in the postseason in this stretch. Meanwhile, the Giants (23-10) and Cardinals (20-19) have both had success when the lights are brightest.
To win 351 games over three-plus seasons tells you the Nationals have talent and a winning culture. There simply isn’t some fatal flaw in the organization.
There are nights Williams leaves himself open to a string of second-guesses with his handling of the bullpen. This is no small thing.
Managing a baseball team in 2015 isn’t like managing one in 1975. For one thing, there are no more walls between the front office and manager.
Or there shouldn’t be.
Front offices can supply managers with stacks of data dealing with lineups, defensive alignments, pitch counts, bullpen strategy, etc.
Managers are still in charge of the personalities and convincing players that what’s best for the team is best for every player. And perhaps most important, the manager must manage the bullpen.
The Nationals play hard. Effort simply isn’t an issue. Has Williams made some questionable choices in the late innings? Yes, he has.
But the dynamics of his staff changed dramatically this season. While the offense is better (4.43 runs per game vs. 4.23 runs per game), the pitching staff is nowhere close.
Last season, the Nationals rotation had a 3.04 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, both No. 1 in the majors. This season, the rotation has a 3.84 ERA (ninth) and 1.23 WHIP (eighth).
Bullpen? Same story. Last season’s had a 3.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 72.6 percent success rate at making good on save chances. This season, those numbers are down across the board: 3.65 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 67.3 percent.
Washington’s defense is worse too. Using MLB.com’s defense efficiency rating, the Nationals have slipped from .693 (15th) in 2014 to .681 (24th) in 2015.
This season, baseball’s top three defensive teams are the Astros, Blue Jays and Royals. All three teams are in first place. Likewise, the top three bullpens belong to teams headed for the postseason: Royals, Cardinals and Pirates. Right behind are the Astros (fifth), Mets (eighth), Blue Jays (ninth) and Yankees (10th).
At a time when teams are constructed around solid bullpens and defenses, the Nationals are short in those areas.
On the other hand, if the Nationals had gotten the same work out of their rotation as they did in 2014, there might not be a bullpen problem.
Last season, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister went 44-22 with 578.2 innings, 522 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA.
This season, they’re 24-21 with 355.2 innings, 288 strikeouts and a 3.90 ERA.
Fister has pitched so poorly he was removed from the rotation. Strasburg has made just 18 starts, and his ERA has increased from 3.14 to 4.35.
Zimmermann is still rock solid, with his ERA up from 2.66 to 3.32. He’s the ace.
What’s amazing is that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo added Max Scherzer to what was already baseball’s best rotation. His 3.03 ERA is very solid.
In 18 starts before the All-Star Break, he had a 2.11 ERA. In 10 starts since, he has a 5.12 ERA. In his last six starts, he’s 0-3 with a 6.35 ERA.
In his most important start of the season, he was unable to hold a 5-3 lead on Monday night against the Mets, and the series unraveled from there.
So a little this, a little that. Everyday lineup hit hard by injuries. Mediocre defense and bullpen. Starters performing below what their career numbers say they should.
And at times, the manager has had some calls blow up in his face.
With Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann all headed for free agency in a few weeks, the Nationals were always going to be significantly different in 2015.
Now it’ll be interesting to see how Rizzo reshapes the club. Here’s some free advice: think bullpen and defense.
Despite the disappointment, the Nationals are still in a good place. They’ve got a talented big league roster and a fairly deep farm system.
They’ve got Michael Taylor ready to step in for Span in center and Trea Turner in line to play shortstop in place of Desmond. If Rizzo devotes the off-season to deepening his bullpen, the Nationals could be right back in contention.
Again, that 351-273 record the last three-plus seasons indicates there’s far more right than wrong. But missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons says some change is needed.
Rizzo has been steadfast in his support of Williams. Once the season ends, though, he surely will look at not just the Xs and Os, but also the tone.
Williams is a tremendous baseball man, a guy who cares about his players. He deserves to shoulder some of the blame for what went wrong.
But he’s also a thoughtful man and surely will evaluate himself along with all his players. If I were general manager, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring him back.
Sure, the fans are down on him. That goes with the territory. Williams becomes the face of all the failure. The popular move would be to fire him.
That might not be the correct call.
Do you think Bruce Bochy is a better manager now than he was in his second year? Joe Maddon? Bob Melvin? Joe Girardi?
Here’s guessing Rizzo and Williams will have a series of long chats after the season to consider all that went right and all that went wrong.
They should not lose sight of the fact that the Nationals aren’t far away, that a major overhaul isn’t needed. As the Royals, Blue Jays and Pirates have reminded us the last four years, winning is a process and not usually a smooth road.
The Nationals aren’t fatally flawed.
Neither is their manager.
Well, that was an awkward couple of days, wasn’t it? If nothing else, it gave the columnists a chance to climb up on their soap boxes and preach about the way things ought to be. If outrage was a marketable commodity, we’d be driving big cars and wearing silk boxers.
And then Matt Harvey took it all back.
We may never know what happened to prompt that essay saying he definitely would be available for the postseason. For two days prior, indications had been otherwise.
Now it’s the Mets who are saying that the rest of Harvey’s season will be determined on a start-by-start basis depending on how he’s feeling, his workload, etc.
In other words, we’re right back where we started before agent Scott Boras all but accused the Mets of not caring about his client’s health.
This couldn’t be more ridiculous. The Mets have been cautious with Harvey. He’s not in the top 50 in pitches thrown. He’s not in the top 20 in innings. In his last four starts, he has averaged 98 pitches.
If this is what a club looking to abuse a pitcher looks like, what does that make all those college baseball coaches? Anyway, it made for good copy and ignited talk radio’s Nitwit Nation.
This storm comes at a time when the Nationals have gotten back to within four games of the Mets in the NL East as the two teams open a three-game series in Washington.
The Nationals have won five in a row and are feeling confident, feeling they finally may be the team a lot of us thought they’d be. This series essentially starts the postseason for both teams.
Let’s say Harvey goes out on Tuesday and pitches seven shutout innings and the Mets win. At that point, all will be forgiven.
Mets fans are ticked off because they see him as having threatened to bail on his team. Never mind that it’s perfectly logical to consider his health and his workload in the Tommy John recovery year.
He seems to have had a change of heart after the negative reaction, but words don’t matter. In the end, it’s going to come down to how well Harvey pitches.
Here’s hoping that he’s not going to let the sting of this thing get to him. The Mets are counting on him to be honest about whatever aches and pains he’s feeling. Otherwise, there’s sense monitoring his workload.
He has used this season to re-establish himself as a generational pitcher. He can leave a great rotation for a long time and position the Mets as a contending franchise.
First, though, there’s this series. Think small, fellas. Every game matters. And all Matt has to do is what he has always done better than almost anyone.
No matter how it turns out, the Texas Rangers deserve all kinds of credit for holding things together even while they were coming undone. First, there’s manager Jeff Banister, who has done a tremendous job under extremely tough circumstances. And there are the veteran guys in the clubhouse–Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder, etc.–who set the right tone with their professionalism and work ethic.
One of the things that bothered Rangers GM Jon Daniels a year ago was how his players reacted to losing and to injuries. The 2014 Rangers were decimated by injuries and probably weren’t going to the postseason under any circumstances. But Daniels was especially bothered by sloppy play, poor base running, etc.
That was the one part of last season Daniels thought was inexcusable and had to be fixed. Part of his gut feeling about hiring Banister was that he simply would not tolerate a repeat of 2015.
And the Rangers had plenty of reason to think this kind of second-half hot streak didn’t seem possible. For instance, they were 43-49 and nine games out of first place on July 20.
Every manager will tell you that injuries aren’t an excuse, that it’s still about forming a collective will to overcome any and all obstacles. The Rangers tested that theory by being forced to piece a starting rotation together after playing most of this season without Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez.
They had to look here, there and everywhere for starting pitching. Wandy Rodriguez, who was released by the Braves, made 15 starts. Chi Chi Gonzalez, 23, was a year removed from Class A ball when he made his major league debut on May 30. Ross Detwiler was released after seven starts (0-5, 7.12).
On the morning of August 1, the Rangers rotation had gone 34-38 with a 4.44 ERA. Only five clubs–all of them buried in the standings then and now–had higher ERAs.
But the Rangers were getting better. Martin Perez had come off the Disabled List two weeks earlier and rejoined the rotation. Derek Holland would return on August 19th.
And Daniels made one of the impact acquisitions of the day when he acquired Cole Hamels from the Phillies a few hours before the August 31st non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Suddenly, the Rangers had a rotation that could line up with any other team. In August, the front four of Perez, Hamels, Holland Yovani Gallardo was 10-2 with a 2.97 ERA.
Since Holland’s return, the Texas rotation is among the best in baseball—8-3 with a 2.85 ERA. Only the Astros, Dodgers, Pirates, Red Sox and Cardinals have had better starting pitching in this stretch.
Shane Tolleson’s emergence as a quality closer has stabilized the back of the bullpen, although the middle relief doesn’t compare with that of the Astros.
The Texas offense comes and goes at times as well. All things considered, though, the Rangers have scraped and clawed and gotten themselves back in contention.
They began the day four games behind the Astros in the AL West and leading the Twins by a game in the race for the second AL Wild Card berth. If the Rangers get to the postseason with Hamels, Holland, Perez and Gallardo lined up, we could be seeing a lot of them.
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.
Maybe the coolest thing about this series is that the Blue Jays didn’t shy away from its importance. Even before they got to Yankee Stadium, they said it would be three of the most meaningful games for the franchise in recent memory. Translation: The Blue Jays haven’t made to the postseason since 1993 and were under .500 as recently as two weeks ago. To put it bluntly, not everyone is convinced how good they are.
Yankee fans were all over social media prior to the series pointing out they hadn’t been impressed by a four-game sweep of the Twins. What say you now, kids?
Professional athletes resist the labels those of us in the media put on certain games. What’s a “statement game” anyway? If the Blue Jays had been swept by the Yankees this weekend, they would still have 49 games remaining and be right back at it Tuesday night at home against the Athletics.
The Blue Jays and Yankees will play one another 10 more times, including three next weekend in Toronto. Whatever statement the Blue Jays managed to make this weekend would have a short shelf life.
Okay, we understand that. That said, it was a great three days for the Blue Jays. An important three days for the franchise. A validation of their transformation.
At the moment—and this is a key phrase—the Blue Jays appear to be the American League’s best team.
In beating the Yankees by scored of 2-1, 6-0 and 3-0, they answered three significant questions about themselves:
- Is their rotation good enough in the wake of David Price’s arrival in a Trade Deadline deal with Detroit? Three Toronto starters—R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada and Price—allowed baseball’s second-highest scoring offense one earned runs in 20 1/3 innings.
(The Yankees hadn’t been shut out in consecutive games at home since May 12-13, 1999—a stretch of 2,665 games.)
Their pitching has been really good for awhile. In winning 11 of 12, the Blue Jays have trimmed their deficit in the American League East from eight games on July 28 to 1 1/2 today. Their starters are 10-0 with a 1.78 ERA in this stretch.
- Is their bullpen good enough?
This part of the roster has caused general manager Alex Antopolous one headed after another. He has used 27 pitchers in all. Six different Blue Jays have at least one save. Three different Blue Jays have at least four.
With a surplus of starting pitchers, the Blue Jays shifted one of baseball’s best arms, 22-year-old Aaron Sanchez, back to the bullpen. His presence in the bullpen and the deals for veterans Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins has transformed that part of the Blue Jays as much as Price deepened the rotation.
Since July 28th—that was the day the Blue Jays acquired shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies and told the world they were in a “go for it” mode—Toronto’s bullpen has been baseball’s best.
They’ve got a 1.78 ERA since then, and in three games against the Yankees, Toronto relievers allowed no earned runs in 7 2/3 innings.
(Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran were a combined six for 33 with one extra base hit this weekend.)
- Would they blink?
Yankee Stadium can intimidate. There’s all that history. There are those thunderclap ovations. The Blue Jays handled it all. They won a one-game game in 10 innings on Friday. They were in a scoreless game on Saturday until Ivan Nova hung a breaking ball to Justin Smoak with the bases loaded in the sixth. On Sunday, they scored a run in the top of the first and never surrendered the lead. The Yankees left seven men on base and went zero for five with runners in scoring position as Estrada and three relievers tossed another shutout.
- Now what?
The Blue Jays will play one of the biggest home series in years next weekend when the Yankees come to Toronto. But that’s how pennant races are. The Blue Jays have gotten to within 1 1/5 games of first place, but that just means there’ll be more tests to pass, more big games to play.
Okay, almost all. First, though, a little Cooperstown tourism plug. If you have a chance to visit, do it. It’s perfect. That’s Cooperstown itself and that’s the Hall of Fame. If you’re a baseball fan, it will fill your soul. If you’re an American history buff, it will be a great experience.
Here’s your 2015 Hall of Fame checklist:
- 310 Hall of Famers
- 215 players
- 119 voted in by writers
- 47 of 70 living Hall of Famers will be in Cooperstown for induction ceremony.
- 2016 ballot has one slam-dunk first-time: Ken Griffey Jr. Also on ballot: Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner.
- Deserving holdovers from 2015 ballot: Mike Piazza, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Jeff Bagwell, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines.
- Hall of Famers by position/jobs: 77 pitchers, 16 catchers, 21 first basemen, 21 second basemen, 16 third basemen, 24 shortstops, 21 left fielders, 23 center fielders, 24 right fielders, 1 designated hitter, 23 managers, 10 umpires, 33 executives.
David Glass stayed the course. Sometimes, that couldn’t have been easy. Fire this guy. Trade that one. He heard it all. In the end, the Kansas City Royals owner trusted his gut. This wasn’t his first rodeo. Six decades in business had taught him a few things.
In the end, he believed in his people, especially his general manager, Dayton Moore. He never forgot how Moore laid out a blueprint for making the Kansas City Royals great again during that first job interview in 2006.
He remembered Moore saying it wasn’t a perfect plan, that there would be ups and downs along the way. When they’d finished chatting, David Glass was convinced he’d found his guy.
The Royals had to do things a certain way. They could not spend their way to the postseason. They had to build their own foundation through a great minor league system.
Perhaps the best thing the two men have done in nine years together is communicate with one another because this success story didn’t happen overnight.
Moore made some mistakes, but the thing that impressed Glass was how thorough Moore was in his preparation and how he had the ability to assess why things happened the way they did.
Some of us thought the Royals had turned a corner at the end of the 2011 season when Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez arrived. Moore’s plan had begun with building a great farm system, and so, here were the stars of that farm system in the big leagues.
Moore knew otherwise and warned people not to get too far down the road. Winning is complicated. It almost never happens overnight. Good teams are a product of 30 or 35 players contributing.
Go back and look at any successful team the last couple of decades, and almost everyone of them got surprising contributions from people who weren’t in the mix.
In fact, the single most dominant Royal is a guy who ended up in his role almost by accident. Injuries forced Wade Davis into the bullpen in the spring of 2014. The Royals thought it was a temporary detour, that he’d eventually be a starter.
These days, Davis is the best reliever in baseball. In the last two seasons, he has appeared in 103 games for the Royals. In 104 innings, he has allowed nine earned runs. He has 34 walks, 145 strikeouts and an insane 0.78 ERA.
Davis has been in 32 games this season and allowed one earned run. He’s so good that when he gives up a baserunner, it’s news in Kansas City.
Anyway, nine years after Glass hired Moore, it has all worked out the way they envisioned it. The Royals were a sweet story last season as they staged a 41-23 sprint for their first postseason appearance in 29 years, then opened the playoffs with an eight-game winning streak. Their season finally ended with a loss to the Giants in Game 7 of the World Series.
But by the time they were done, they’d completely changed the way we think about the Royals. They were a joy to watch, a team built around a great defense—left fielder Alex Gordon is a nightly highlight reel—and an even better bullpen. They had a great blend of youth and experience in the clubhouse and a manager, Ned Yost, who made it all work.
Could they sustain their success? Yes, they can. They’ve won 13 of 18 games to open up a 4 1/2-game lead in the AL Central. They’ve stayed true to their formula. Their 2.06 bullpen ERA is the second-best in the majors, slightly behind the Cardinals (2.04). Their defense is again baseball’s best.
They’ve got a variety of offensive weapons and a rotation that’s a work in progress. But the Royals have won enough the last 12 months to understand winning that they’ve developed some swagger along the way.
Since the Royals took off in late July last season, they’ve been baseball’s best team, going 95-55, including the postseason. But the 2015 Royals are different than the 2014 Royals. James Shields, Nori Aoki and Billy Butler left via free agency. Moore’s off-season wasn’t about just replacing them, but building roster depth.
No general manager did his job better. In Kendrys Morales, he upgraded the team’s DH production. In Edinson Volquez, Chris Young and Joe Blanton, he signed three affordable starting pitchers who’ve been a godsend for a rotation hit hard by injuries and poor performances.
He also found one of baseball’s great comeback stories in Ryan Madson, who was re-emerged as a top-flight reliever after missing three seasons. In Madson, Blanton and Young, the Royals were rewarded for having smart baseball people who saw things in those guys that other teams apparently didn’t.
Anyway, it’s all working for the Royals right now. Best team in the AL? The Astros and Rays are in that conversation. The Yankees and Orioles are as well. The Athletics seem to have one of those closing kicks in them. But the Royals are a great story, and one of America’s really good baseball teams has a team worth of all those fans.