- Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
- Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
- Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
- Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
- Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association
HOUSTON — The orange-clad spectators beneath the roof of Minute Maid Park were blaring. The train above the Crawford Boxes was whistling. Around the infield, a small horde of jubilant players turned into a writhing pile of celebration.
For the second time in franchise history, the Houston Astros are World Series champs. This time, they got to win it in front of their fawning fans deep in the heart of Texas.
That part was novel, but much else looked familiar. For the third time in four seasons, the Major League Baseball season ended in Houston. The Astros’ two titles have come in a six-season span, with the first the infamous championship of 2017. In each season between that title and this one, the Astros advanced to at least the ALCS, pushing their streak of appearances in that round to an amazing six.
Given these simple facts, one obvious question springs to mind: Are we watching baseball’s newest dynasty?
The answer depends on how you define the word, but you’d have to be a title-or-nothing absolutist to produce any answer but yes. These Houston Astros, champions of baseball, are a dynasty, and the reasons why go beyond a simple count of series wins and championship flags.
In truth, the dictionary definition of a dynasty has less to do with an uninterrupted tenure of dominance than with the concept of succession — one group rules over all others, even as the specific identities within that group evolve.
In the compressed world of 21st century American sports, the Astros have achieved a version of this — a six-year period of dominance that has featured a rotating main cast of players and executives, but which has racked up five division championships and yearly playoff runs.
Since 2017, Houston has averaged 98.4 wins per 162 games played. That’s a level few others have reached during the divisional era. The Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz Atlanta Braves reached 100.8 wins per 162 during their best six-year streak. The Jeter-era New York Yankees peaked at 99.9. The Earl Weaver Baltimore Orioles got to 98.8 and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the 1970s topped out at 99.1.
The Astros’ chief current rival for dynastic supremacy is the Los Angeles Dodgers, with 105.8 wins per 162 over the last six seasons. That’s a level reached only by the dead ball era Chicago Cubs. But the Astros have two titles to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ one over that span, they beat L.A. in their only head-to-head postseason matchup in 2017 and they own 52 playoff wins to the Dodgers’ 40. Only the early 21st century Yankees have won more playoff games over six seasons.
This all sounds pretty dynastic. Nevertheless, what really marks the 2022 Houston Astros as a modern-day dynasty is this title team bears only a slight resemblance to their previous title-winning version. Only five members of the 2017 champs are still on this year’s roster. The team’s strengths and on-field style have evolved. The key decision-makers are different.
And, perhaps, the way history will come to judge this second Astros title team will prove to be very different, as well.
TO BE SURE, considerable segments of baseball fans will never let certain Astros completely forget past transgressions. That was evident throughout this playoff run, as even unknown rookies, like designated hitter David Hensley, became the target of illogical choruses of boos in Philadelphia during the World Series. No one really even knew who Hensley was, but he was down there, wearing that Houston orange. Boo!
But take a closer look at the celebratory pile after the last out on Saturday. Side-by-side photographs of that pile and the one after the last out at Dodger Stadium that ended the 2017 series would be illustrative, because so few of the young men depicted would be in both photos.
In 2017, Jeremy Peña was a 20-year-old standout shortstop for the University of Maine. No one knew he’d be a third-round pick the following June. No one predicted that he would become the successor to Carlos Correa, one of the most gifted two-way players in Astros history, and would prove more than worthy. Among other feats, Peña became the first rookie shortstop to win a Gold Glove, edging out, among others, Correa.
In the postseason, Peña was a pillar in the Astros’ title run, hammering four homers and flashing his award-winning defense, all while presenting himself like a been-there-done-that veteran during his media appearances.
“I never saw it as having to fill shoes,” Peña said after Game 5. “I just had to come in and be myself, play my game.”
What’s not to like about Jeremy Peña?
Framber Valdez wasn’t around in 2017, either. Back then, he was working his way up the Houston organizational ladder, struggling in Double-A. Now, he’s a Cy Young candidate and a World Series hero.
You might hate the Houston Astros, but how can you hate Framber Valdez?
You can go through the same exercise with many of the younger core players on the Astros, like Cristian Javier, who did the heavy lifting in Houston’s historic combined no-hitter in Game 4. In 2017, he topped out in High-A.
What about Yordan Alvarez, who hit a mammoth home run to give the Astros the lead on Saturday night? He didn’t debut in the majors for Houston until 2019 and has quickly established himself as one of baseball’s most feared all-around hitters. What about sweet-swinging Kyle Tucker, who debuted in 2018?
What about veterans such as lockdown closer Ryan Pressly or, for that matter, any of the pitchers? What about Justin Verlander, who joined the Astros during one of the most poignant stretches in franchise history?
For a time, it seemed that would be the legacy of the 2017 team — one of inspiration. Verlander was acquired seconds before the waiver wire trade deadline that season just after the team returned to Houston after being displaced by Hurricane Harvey.
Verlander joined a team in the midst of bonding with a community that had barely started sorting out the aftermath of the storm. He’s gone on to become a part of that community while continuing to pitch at a Hall of Fame level.
Really, any remaining vitriol toward the Houston Astros’ roster is likely directed at the only three current Houston non-pitchers who were in the lineup of those tainted 2017 champs. That is: Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Jose Altuve.
Bregman has become a fixture in Houston on and off the field and has maintained his status as one of the game’s best third basemen before, during and after the scandal. He’s remained a constant even as former All-Star teammates like Correa and George Springer moved on to free agent riches.
But the story of the current generation of Astros can’t be told without considering the long twisting journey of Altuve. He was there before the rebuild that created these Astros even began. He was there when the winning started. Heck, he’s been an Astro for so long that the team was still in the National League when he began.
Altuve has been a target for fan disparagement with the rest of his teammates these past few years, all while remaining that same soft-spoken, almost shy athlete he’s always been. The subject of profane chants and some of the loudest boos of any of the Astros, Altuve has still managed to put up All-Star numbers that could someday reach the level of Hall of Fame worthiness.
Altuve is once again a champion. Will things be different for him from here? Can fans outside of Houston, where he will always be adored, return to a place of appreciation for one of baseball’s most unique talents?
THROUGH ALL OF this, the Astros have evolved not just on the roster, but in how they approach winning.
This franchise is an organizational baseball machine that continues to roll even after the scandal led to changes on the field and behind the scenes. James Click, the soft-spoken, analytics-savvy executive, took over one of the most proficient front offices in the game, and under his management, the Astros haven’t missed a beat. In some ways, they’ve even iterated into a higher form, especially given the pitching depth that is the envy of the majors.
Dusty Baker arrived, then, too, and the beloved manager’s very presence restored a measure of integrity to the Astros when they badly needed it. Now, in return, his talented club has given Baker his long-sought, career-culminating first managerial championship.
Not that he was worried.
“Worry just stops you from getting sleep,” Baker said after Houston’s Game 5 win moved it a win from the title. “And there’s an old saying that don’t worry because worry worries about itself. Worry does no good at all.”
Through those additions and plenty more, the Astros have remained at the forefront of the baseball world because of excellence in scouting, development and analytic innovation.
It’s a different team on the field — the 2017 club was more explosive offensively, with a well-rounded lineup of skilled players such as Springer and Correa. In 2022, though, the team does less damage on balls in play, making them more reliant on the long ball to keep the scoreboard turning.
The previous Houston champs were a good, not a great, run prevention team but, thanks in large part to Click’s focus on pitcher development, the 2022 club is absolutely lockdown, ranking among the elite in ERA, runs allowed, strikeouts and walks allowed and defensive efficiency.
It’s a different route to the same place. The Astros have claimed this long-standing success by turning out one prospect after another and making targeted trades and free agent signings. They have fleshed out this style of roster rather than overinvesting in an effort to keep the old core together.
These Astros are not those Astros.
The ongoing iterative process of a great team remaining great while reinventing itself one move at a time begs the question: How long can the Astros be vilified? This has nothing to do with forgiveness or redemption. It’s all about a recognition of a unique, high-functioning baseball machine.
Does this championship allow the Astros to completely turn the page on the scandal? The truth is, they don’t have to, because that happened a long time ago. All of the Astros, those who were there and those who were not, have heard it all over the past few years. It no longer really matters.
“We don’t really care what the fans think,” Pressly said after Game 5 in Philadelphia, where the vitriol was almost tangible. “Everywhere we go, we get booed. It’s Houston versus y’all.”
Amid all of the indignation and controversy and often overheated disdain, the Astros have remained just a baseball organization — better than most, sure, and perhaps the best of all. In doing so, they have become what that 2017 team seemed very capable of becoming: A dynasty.
Dynasties can disappear rather quickly — history is littered with examples of those which dominated for a long time and then suddenly vanished. It could happen to the Astros as well, but don’t bet on it happening any time soon.
There is simply too much talent and redundancy built into the organization and too many smart people still steering the ship in the right direction, even with the immediate fates of Baker and Click, whose contracts are expiring, currently unknown.
Baker could certainly decide to retire so he can wait for the call next year telling him he has been elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager. But if that happens, the Astros will have their pick of worthy successors, perhaps bench coach Joe Espada, a respected voice on the team who has been passed over a number of times in baseball’s managerial carousel in recent years.
The talent, the minor league depth, the financial resources and, perhaps most importantly, the systems (analytics, development, scouting) all remain in place. As long as that is the case, there is little reason to believe this motor is going to sputter. Love them or hate them, it’s your choice. But the Houston Astros have built one of the most efficient baseball machines this century.
The dynasty will eventually crumble, as all dynasties do. For now, though, the Astros have shown everyone, the defenders and detractors alike, that this organization is about much more than one tainted title.
The Astros are the champions not just of the season, but of the current era. They are, in every way, a bona fide baseball dynasty.
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