The following Houston Astros team essay, written by Zachary Levine, appeared in the 2017 Baseball Prospectus Annual. Published in February, nine months before the Astros ended their championship drought with a Game 7 victory over the Dodgers, we thought it would make for a fun re-read now.
Ten years can never constitute a drought. If you’re coming off a title, you’re still in that honeymoon period. If you’re a franchise starting from scratch, you’re not even allowed to use the word drought—three expansion teams have done it in a decade, and one of them had the word “Miracle” in their name.
Down by a run with nobody out and a man on second base in the top of the eighth inning of the first game of the 2005 World Series—if enough prepositional phrases can build a proper stage for this moment—Lance Berkman singled to left field, and Willy Taveras went to third.
Joe Buck, albeit never one to be overly excitable, didn’t think much of it, nor raise his voice. It was a single off the bat with no drama, and despite Taveras’ speed there was never going to be a play at the plate. Buck and Tim McCarver went lefty-righty through the rest of the lineup, dissecting some minor strategy nuance. The road grays in the dugout were perfectly settled and the game rolled right on to the next batter.
Other than it being a World Series game, maybe one person at the time would have recognized the significance of that moment, and certainly nobody would now.
When Berkman and Taveras took their leads, and before a first-pitch strike to Morgan Ensberg, that moment was the closest the Astros have ever come to being champions. Three strikeouts to end the eighth, three outs in the ninth, three more losses and a mostly sad decade later, it still is.
At twenty years, you’re still being kind of a jerk for calling it a drought. There is an element to that passage of time that keeps it from being a dynasty—a twenty-year wait means no players, no manager, and no GM would be the same. And if Texas and Atlanta start a trend, they wouldn’t even be celebrating in the same building. But dynasty and drought aren’t mutually exhaustive, and plenty of teams would kill for this frequency. Stop being a jerk.
According to Dan Hirsch, who keeps championship probability statistics at the Baseball Gauge, that moment in Chicago was the all-time peak for the Astros at 50.9 percent. It’s not particularly interesting that the Astros didn’t win that World Series—51-49 shots lose all the time. Nor is it interesting that they didn’t win it all in their next-closest flirtation in 1980 (peaked at 48 percent) or in 2004 (peaked at 38 percent), when they didn’t make the World Series at all.
But as the Astros begin the 2017 season as a legitimate threat to lift a trophy, it feels somewhat remarkable that in their first 55 years, they have never won it all. Starting at the simplest level, the average team has a 1-in-30 chance to win the World Series (down from 1-in-28 when there were 28 teams, and so on). Accounting for uneven league sizes, there would be an 11 percent chance that a team born in 1962 still would be without a piece of hardware.
The Astros have achieved that 11 percent, in part because they haven’t been very good. According to the Baseball Gauge, taking a freeze frame on July 7 of every season, the chance of not winning it all in any of their 54 seasons jumps to 22 percent instead of 11. But there is plenty of postseason bad luck involved. If they were 50-50 to win every series, including their ultimately successful Wild Card game in 2015, there would only be a 21 percent chance of being blanked to date.
Thirty years in, you start getting generational. The 7-year-old who stayed up super extra late to watch Sundberg dash home let her 7-year-old stay up super extra late to watch Hosmer dash home. Thirty is also exactly what it’s supposed to take in baseball’s steady equilibrium of thirty teams. The first is why they want you to think thirty is a drought. The second is why it’s not a drought.
So when does this become interesting? When does it become less of a fun fact and more a part of the Astros’ identity? According to MLB’s official historian John Thorn, the Red Sox weren’t an officially cursed team until the World Series drought rolled into its sixth or seventh decade.
“I think we must credit [Boston Globe columnist] Dan Shaughnessy for the phrase ‘Curse of the Bambino’ if not necessarily Boston’s Gothic sense of a seven-gabled curse,” Thorn said. “Certainly there was talk of a cursed franchise in 1986, but maybe not in 1975 … and surely not in 1967.”
For the Cubs, it was acknowledged and sourced much quicker. Per the Chicago Tribune, the Billy Goat incident of 1945 (37 years after the last title) prompted a response from owner P.K. Wrigley five years later apologizing for giving the bovid the boot and asking forgiveness. Meaning the team officially recognized it at just 42 years.
As for the Astros, the nation outside of Beltway 8 doesn’t really think of them the same way we thought of the Red Sox and Cubs. It makes one wonder what can retroactively be blamed. The curse of the air-conditioner? The curse of the Colt .45? The curse of Joe Morgan?
When it’s been forty years, you start to wonder. Six of the 14 expansion teams have broken through and won the World Series. Five did it in their first two decades; the other, the Angels, took 41 years. Five of the other babies of the 1960s have rolled past this point with no signs of slowing down, although just two of them have done it in one city.
Whether you think they are cursed or not, they’re running out of time before something starts to develop. Even the most level-headed believe that. For a view into the fan psyche, I asked James Yasko, proprietor of the thoughtful Astros County blog and representative of the majority of Astros fans who have not lived through all 55.
“Never having won a World Series doesn’t define my status as a fan,” Yasko said. “I—as well as most fans, I think— realize that it takes a decent amount of luck in addition to talent to be the last team standing. Had the Astros been in a position to win the 2005 series, you can bet I would have 15 different shirts proclaiming that success. Still, most every logical/sane Astros fan can admit that Randy Johnson and the 1998 Astros should have at least won the pennant.”
He continued through their several close calls and then got to the part about the not-so-close calls.
If you have to wait fifty years, you may never see your team win. Not because you’re going anywhere, let’s hope, but because the team might be. That was the case with the St. Louis Browns, who did the rare eastward move to Baltimore after fifty World Series were played without their winning any of them. The Expos didn’t even make it to fifty before they packed up and headed to Washington. They might win some day, but they’re probably not your team anymore.
Let’s talk for a minute about those not-so-close calls, because that’s a big part of this, too.
When Jeff Luhnow was hired as general manager of the Astros, he presented a five-year plan to work them into a force in the American League West. April will begin Year 6, and there has been mild success. The Astros enter every season—and appear to be set up to do so for the foreseeable future—as a legitimate threat to win the division.
However, the wait in Southeast Texas may have taken its toll. Despite a competitive team and coming off a playoff appearance, the Astros’ attendance has not yet caught up to the levels from even 2009 and 2010. It is 17 percent below what it was in 2008—a third straight non-playoff year and the immediate aftermath of a 73-win season.
“Fifty-five years of not winning hasn’t been as psychologically damaging to me as much as 2011-2014,” Yasko said, referring to a four-year stretch of 232 wins and 416 losses. “But if the Astros don’t win a World Series in the next five years, and the Luhnow Gambit doesn’t pay off with a ring, then the angst might get kicked up to cursed status.”
Sixty years makes two generations, and that’s when decisions start to be made. You didn’t grow up with any parades, and your parents don’t remember any either. Now you have a kid, and there are so many other teams out there. Or have you considered musical theater for him? You’re strong enough to handle this; you’re an adult. But why subject your kid to this?
For years, even dating back before the Luhnow era, the Astros have been a place of opportunity for those not exactly ready for the majors, so you’ll forgive a little bit of skepticism when presented with facts like this: The Astros led the major leagues in WARP for 22-and-under players in 2016.
This one is a good one. I promise. First of all, look at the teams on this list:
Top 2016 WARP from 22-and-under players
|Astros||8.8||Correa, McCullers, Bregman|
*22-and-under players with positive WARP
It’s the Astros and four playoff teams, including both World Series participants. The Astros also have other markings of a team on the rise. Nobody in the American League got more WARP from players under 27, nor did anybody in the AL get more from players in their 20s—period.
Almost that entire core remains intact for 2017—a year older, and in a lot of cases in this region of the aging curve, a year better. It’s also a full season of seemingly permanent solutions where before there was chaos. A full season of Alex Bregman and a full season of Yuli Gurriel, both of whom debuted with some promise and both of whom should take their first Opening Day starts at one position or another.
The average life expectancy of an American born in 1950 was approximately seventy years–a little higher for women, a little lower for men.
Year 6 for Luhnow will be Year 7 for owner Jim Crane, who after a flurry of moves to begin the offseason was praised for opening his wallet for the first time. The Astros traded for Brian McCann and laid out $82 million for free agents Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, and Charlie Morton.
The wave was unprecedented, but to describe it as where the investment started flowing in feels incorrect. The Astros’ payroll has been steadily rising, though not to the point of reflecting their market size nor yet in line with Crane’s initial comments upon buying the team. However, this is much more gradual an increase as the team has entered what looks like a sustained stretch of putting together potential drought-busters. Either way, what’s relatively clear is that the holes in the lineup are mostly filled.
What’s even clearer is that the pitching will be what decides this. The rotation went three deep with two-WARP pitchers—Dallas Keuchel, McCullers and Collin McHugh— but was a bit of a mess at the back end, and solidifying that by the end of March or the end of July with a fourth playoff-quality starter from within or outside will be crucial.
At eighty years, they make movies. And good for them, because really all that’s left of the connections are cinematic ones. The olds have the memories of their childhoods, the rest of us only visions of what it must have been like. There’s a hope at eighty years because we still have a few people through which we can experience the full magnitude of the wait, and everything is more magical if you’ve never ever seen it yourself.
Everyone remembers that Sports Illustrated cover from 2014, and if you don’t, you’ll be reminded of it plenty of times should the Astros start slowly. Inside the issue of SI that declared the Astros 2017 World Series champions was a thoughtful article by Ben Reiter, framed at a blackjack table near Lake Tahoe.
“When you’re in 2017, you don’t really care that much about whether you lost 98 or 107 in 2012,” Luhnow told Reiter. “You care about how close we are to winning a championship in 2017.”
At ninety years, you devolve into the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the drought is the prison. You start to turn on each other. Blame of abstract concepts and the unknown turns to blame of what’s very real and very known.
Everyone remembers that cover from 2014, but what you may not remember is the little sidebar that ran inside. Coming in just north of 800 words, the sidebar reported from the future on the Astros’ victory in 2017, a victory led by ace Mark Appel and closer Brady Aiken. OK, so the path to 2017 has taken some strange turns.
Breaking these things is never easy. Remember the Astros’ 48.2 percent chance in 1980? Since championship probability starts from scratch every series, they were 96.4 percent to make the World Series when that snapshot was snapped.
They still would have had to beat the Royals once they got there, but look at it from the other side—down multiple runs with six outs to go in two straight elimination games. That’s how close the Phillies were to entering this century and a new century of their drought without ever having won it all.
The worst part about these droughts goes back to that chance of the Astros going 55 years without a title. The 11 percent figure was actually cheating—that assumes all years are independent, which they’re not. Win one year and you’re more likely than 1-in-30 to win the next, so it’s not quite as extreme as the 11 percent.
But the flip side is that when you lose one year, you’re more likely to lose the next. In probability, a memory-less distribution is one where, if the event doesn’t happen at a given time period, the distribution of likelihood for the next “success” looks exactly the same after that time period than it did before. Given the year-to-year correlation, this is actually worse than a memory-less distribution, but only slightly.
The only thing that really changes is you.
We’ve seen a hundred years before. Just once. We saw how it ended, too. A team that was intentionally bad for years took advantage of that, built the farm system and added major players at the right time. There was a lot of pain in getting to that point and a lot of people who never got to see it. No fan base would ever wish that on anybody. Well, maybe some fan bases would wish it on somebody, but they wouldn’t be invited to the party. And after anything approaching that length of time, you wouldn’t want to miss the party.