- The Astros aren't the plucky underdog they appear to be; they're a major-market team that opted for a shameless tanking strategy.
Don’t blame Jose Altuve if this October’s World Series seems a little smaller than it should be. Blame the Astros; blame Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow; blame management consulting; blame Drayton McLane; blame Major League Baseball.
Houston and its data-driven front office have been commended throughout 2017 for just how exceptional the ballclub has been: Astros hitters finished second in the American League in homeruns but last in strikeouts. They also led the league in batting average, with 19 points between them and second-place Cleveland. (Altuve, who hit .346 with 24 homers, deserves the league MVP award.) They were one game back of the Indians for the AL’s best record—101–61 in 2017, from 51–111 in 2013. That’s some turnaround.
But those of us with intact memories cannot forget why exactly the Astros were in such a bad place four seasons ago: They tanked. They fielded a team with a $22 million payroll, by far the lowest in baseball, with a 34-year-old Erik Bedard the only player earning more than $1 million. They had been hardly better in 2012 (55–107) and would still be wretched in 2014 (70-92), the year Sports Illustrated declared them impending champs in 2017.
The defiantly non-contending teams they fielded were responsible for some of the lowest moments in recent MLB history, including this three-base sacrifice bunt from 2012 and this walk-off pop-up from 2013. Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, and Scott Feldman made Opening Day starts. A 2012 game drew a 0.05 Nielsen rating; the team bested that with at least one 0.0 number in 2013. Empty seats were standard at Minute Maid Park. The ‘Stros drew three million people four times from 2000 to 2007; from 2012 to 2014, they didn’t clear 1.8 million.
What was their reward for all of this, for scaring off their fans and subjecting the rest of us to some ugly baseball? No. 1 overall picks in the June draft in 2013 and 2014 after holding the same pick in 2012 (Carlos Correa), and the second and fifth overall picks in 2015 after putting the screws to ’14 selection Brady Aiken. Those picks would turn into third baseman Alex Bregman and trade chips for pitchers Justin Verlander and Ken Giles. (It’s worth noting that Luhnow’s deservedly unloved predecessor, Ed Wade, acquired Altuve, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel.) And one more thing—according to Forbes, those 2013 Astros were the most profitable team in history.
Sure, when Crane bought the Astros from Drayton McLane in 2011, they were in the midst of a 56–106 campaign, their third straight below .500. The farm system and major-league roster were bare. While the team’s big-league payroll was still robust, there’s every reason to think McLane was just trying to keep up appearances for the sake of securing a lucrative new TV deal (he did) and eventually boosting the purchase price. (Befitting the utter tawdriness of the whole affair, the franchise sale and the Astros’ TV network would be the subjects of litigation within years; McLane should never be mistaken for John Henry or Larry Baer.)
And Houston’s success after exiting tank mode does indeed testify to the cleverness of Luhnow’s organizational roadmap. Who knows if any other front office spotted the concealed promise of Charlie Morton, the career fourth starter who pitched a phenomenal Game 7 in the ALCS? Would other teams have stuck with Dallas Keuchel when he had a 5.20 ERA in his first two seasons? Would they have believed in utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, who was worth four wins to Houston in a breakout 2017? (Although this bunch did give up on J.D. Martinez 128 homers ago. You never know.) Lots of teams have lost as part of rebuilding efforts and then just kept on losing.
But there’s something uncomfortable about how proud the Astros were back then of their tank, especially since they needn’t have tanked to get where they are today. While losing makes the process easier, even winning teams can acquire elite amateur talent through effective scouting and shrewd trading. That’s what Luhnow did when he was in St. Louis. And the analytics-centric regime Luhnow hired—the team was written up in Businessweek, for chrissake—could have brought its insights to bear on a .500 team, too.
Plainly they tanked to save cash, which is to say Jim Crane’s cash. Even as the Astros have increased their payroll to No. 15 in baseball, Crane has continued to invent explanations for his prudence. Before this season he told Papercity magazine: “We’ll spend money. But we won’t spend money we don’t have. People think we’re a big revenue team, but we get no revenue sharing—we’re neutral—and we spend what we make. [Ed.:Houston is the fifth-largest metropolitan statistical area in the U.S. There’s no reason for the Astros to receive revenue sharing.] We want to win. We want to invest in the team, but we have to be shrewd about how we spend that money. (The) L.A. (Dodgers) went bankrupt. The Rangers went bankrupt. We will not go bankrupt.” Spare us the strong words—both franchises entered bankruptcy because of the dire financial predicaments of their owners, which had more to do with debt and divorce than overspending on player salary.
These days the sports world has largely made peace with tanking, thanks in varying degree to the advent of superteams, the inadvertent public advocacy performed by the Philadelphia 76ers’ former general manager/guru Sam Hinkie, and the Cubs’ title in 2016, which served as proof positive that tanking works. In baseball alone, the Reds, Padres, Phillies, White Sox, and Tigers have tank jobs underway.
It’s the norm now, and it will continue to be until baseball makes perverse draft incentives a thing of the past. But we’re under no obligation to forget what happened. These Astros, despite all their on-field and organizational brilliance, retain a whiff of those deliberately awful clubs, making them a slightly diminished World Series representative for the American League.
Also, come on. They’re a National League team.