An Ode to the Astros’ Veterans

When the accolades are being given out for this 2017 Astros championship, they’ll deservedly go to the club’s young core. They were spectacular. World Series MVP George Springer led the way in the final seven games with an OPS over 1.400, five home runs, and enough exuberance to exhume the dead. Possible regular-season MVP Jose Altuve led the club with a 1.021 postseason OPS and seven home runs. Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa combined for nine wins this year. Indeed, no team club received as many wins from players aged 28 or younger than this Houston Astros team.

We shouldn’t forget the veterans on this squad, though, a collection of players who not only offered important production but supported their younger teammates all the way to the end.

The Astros hitters over 30 — led by Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Josh Reddick — compiled the 17th-most wins among 30-somethings across the league. It doesn’t look like a lot, but that group may have helped change what had been a losing culture in Houston most recently.

“There was a lot of concern about where this thing was going,” said general manager Jeff Luhnow after the game, “and culture is a hard thing to quantify. From the young guys that we’ve had here — Altuve, [Carlos] Correa, Springer, [Alex] Bregman — they were developing their own culture, and the thing that we were missing was the McCann, Beltran, been there, done that, been in every situation and can help these guys through it, and that was useful.”

Speaking of being there and doing that… Beltran, whose signature postseason moment was once a non-swing at an Adam Wainwright curveball to finish a Mets pennant bid, stepped to the plate for the Astros earlier this postseason in a late and tight situation. His task: to face Craig Kimbrel in Boston, with two runners on and his team clinging to a skimpy one-run lead in the ninth inning of the final game of the series. Beltran doubled. In the process, he not only exorcised some of his demons, but showed the sort of veteran cool that only a 40-year-old coming off his worst season and facing one of the best closers in the middle of his prime can really exude.

We may scoff at things we can’t measure, but maybe the measurements just currently don’t exist. Take game-calling, for instance. It isn’t a part of WAR. But it’s massively important to a cobbled-together staff like the Astros have. McCann can directly affect the team’s wins and losses by understanding simultaneously both his pitchers’ strengths and opposing hitters’ weaknesses. When we last tried to measure game-calling, McCann was the sixth-best starting catcher in baseball by our estimate.

It’s easier to see how important the veterans were on that pitching side. The pitchers under 28 on this squad were a more muted 13th in the big leagues overall, while the pitchers over 30 came in sixth.

Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton, Collin McHugh, Will Harris: it’s easy to see the older pitchers who fueled this team during the regular season. As Dave Cameron pointed out this morning with regard to Charlie Morton, each of these pitchers had promise. With a few adjustments — a lower arm slot or more four-seamers and cutters — they were major pieces of a championship team.

But how do you know that these players will make the adjustments you’re asking of them? You circle around to makeup again.

“When you bring veterans in, it can be a terrible thing, honestly, because it’s a different type of game now then when they first came up,” said young Lance McCullers in the raucous clubhouse after the game. “But those guys came in and said everyone be who you are and we’re going to support you, and we’re going to win a championship. You can’t put a price tag on what these guys mean.”

That’s how you get Morton, choking down tears to explain how meaningful it was for him to play with this team, against such storied franchises, and pushing aside any mention of his work in relief instead of his regular role as a starter.

“I started with a clean inning and worked from the stretch,” he said after the game. “Was it really that different?”

The shine of the star is bigger with Justin Verlander, but the story is the same. Here was a veteran willing to throw his hardest throughout the postseason, open-minded enough to work with a new pitching coach to find his changeup, and wily enough to leave a now-rare pitch in his back pocket. Taken all together, you’ve got quite a staff despite some of the struggles of the homegrown core.

It may not have come to fruition, though, without the support of the most veteran crew in the entire Astros organization — ownership. It’s not maybe the sexiest group to salute in a sport flush with cash. How hard is it to own a team that will double its value if you give it long enough, no matter what you do? But an ownership group that’s supportive without being meddlesome is typically a necessary condition to winning — and one you don’t find in every city.

“We had to focus on developing our own, and when the time is right, adding to it,” said Luhnow. “We made some mistakes. The hardest part was making sure that Jim Crane and the ownership group stayed as a supportive group, and they did. We got a lot of criticism when things weren’t going well, we lost 100 games the first two years here, and their support meant the world to me because it meant that we could keep going and had a few more years to show that this thing would work out.”

Had ownership pulled the plug on Luhnow’s group at any of those easy moments along the way, that group — which includes sabermetric darlings like Mike Fast (Director, Research and Development), Colin Wyers (Analyst, Research and Development), and Kevin Goldstein (Special Assistant to the General Manager, Player Personnel) all formerly of Baseball Prospectus — may never have had this chance to implement their plan of developing a core and adding savvy veterans with upside on the cheap.

“The biggest reason we got here is we have a bunch of studs,” said 29-year-old stud Dallas Keuchel after the game. Keuchel’s occupies a place somewhere between the club’s young core and its grizzled veterans. “Homegrown talent grew up, we sprinkled in some veterans, we sprinkled in some youth, we sprinkled in some draft picks that hit, and that’s it. Now we’re here.”

“We’re on top of the world, literally,” he continued through the spray of champagne. “It feels delicious.”

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

This Astros team is going to be my go-to retort whenever I hear someone say that veterans are a waste of money.