Like most teams that win the World Series, the 2018 Astros did not complete the two-peat, winning 103 games during the regular season but falling to the Red Sox in five, thus keeping the 2000 Yankees as the most recent team to win more than one World Series in a row. Russia may be the stumbling block for empire-builders, but despite arguably having a better team than in 2017, the Astros’ failed to repeat due to the implacable foe of World Series champions: a ten-team playoff in a sport in which teams are relatively close together in quality.
Well, the 2017 Astros won the World Series. Which, if you didn’t already know that for some odd reason, you should probably at least have noticed unless you have a strange habit of not reading the opening paragraph to articles.
In my not-so-humbly-expressed opinion, borne from decades as a baseball fan and a couple more as a curiously paid observer, the greatest danger facing any championship team is inaction. When everything has gone right and a team has won baseball’s top honor, there’s a real tendency for that team to decide that each and every player on that championship roster helped lead the franchise to the fated promised land, like some sort of strange, baseball-specific Calvinism. Teams like the 2002 Angels, the 2005 White Sox, and the 2015 Royals all had disappointing follow-ups to their trophy runs and faded out of contention quickly.
While 2017’s follow-up wasn’t the most action-packed one for the Astros, as the team didn’t have many glaring weaknesses, they did still find it in themselves to pull of one off the offseason’s biggest trades, picking up Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates and making a deep rotation even deeper. The trade was a bit of a dice roll; Cole had never really fulfilled his early promise in Pittsburgh except for one shining season. But Houston thought the short-term upside in Cole was greater than the long-term value in the pitchers they gave up to acquire him, and showed they weren’t afraid to continue to tinker with the rotation, even leaving Collin McHugh in the bullpen.
With a deep rotation made deeper by the addition of Cole, and the quartet of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and George Springer all still in their twenties for a few more years, Houston, like the other large-market teams, largely avoided dipping their toes into a weak free agent market.
Houston didn’t have as obvious a cakewalk as the Cleveland Indians coming into the 2018 season, but very few saw a lot of real resistance for them in the AL West. Of the 40 FanGraphs writers and contributors who made 2018 staff predictions entering the season, 38 chose the Astros to win the West. In ESPN’s panel, 29-of-29 picked Houston.
And the ZiPS SuperComputer© didn’t beg to differ. While the computer thought the Angels had at least some path to a division title if certain not-too-crazy things went right for them, with a 95-67 projected record for Houston, ZiPS projected the Astros to have the second-easiest divisional crown, with 83.9% odds of winning, just behind the Indians at 84.4%.
The reasons for the optimism were, in foresight and hindsight, quite obvious. The Astros were overflowing with awesome, deep talent and had the resources to trade for in-season help if UCL tears somehow proved to be contagious. The team’s weak spot in 2017, designated hitter, looked to be an improved if not a league-beating spot, with the retirement of Carlos Beltran. And in any case, there wasn’t a lot of help available in free agency at that spot.
Somewhat boringly, a lot of things went right for the Astros; 103-win teams tend to have more than their fair share of breaks go their way, simply because lucky 100-win teams are more likely than unlucky 106-win ones.
That’s not to say everything fell on the sunny side for Houston. Some wounds were self-inflicted. The team made the controversial decision to acquire then-suspended reliever Roberto Osuna at the end of July, a move that read to many as unforced error, given the nature of Osuna’s suspension and the availability of other relievers on the market.
Others were just the way the game goes. Josh Reddick didn’t repeat the best season of his career and Yuli Gurriel’s power dropped off (not surprising for a 34-year-old). Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve both missed time due to injury, the former more seriously with a larger dropoff in play.
But as in the 143 episodes or so of The Simpsons in which Homer gets fired from the power plant before the first commercial break, things mostly worked out. The offensive losses hurt, but the team’s choices in role players arrested some of the loss, with Max Stassi, Tony Kemp, and Tyler White all making very real contributions to the team’s win total. The offense dropped from first in the AL in runs scored to fifth, but this was mirrored by an improvement from fifth to first in the team’s ERA.
Justin Verlander’s 2018 post-trade mojo continued to prove strong, and Gerrit Cole finally had became as unhittable as furious Pirates fans spent years hoping he’d be, seeing an almost 50% bump in his strikeout rate from 2017 after mostly giving up on his sinker, which batters had slugged nearly .500 against that year.
All told, Houston’s rotation collected 22.5 WAR in 2018, a franchise best. Not even the mid-1980s Astros, with Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott’s changeup and the weird world in which Jim Deshaies was a strikeout machine, were able to match that.
Probably the weirdest 2018 phenomenon for Houston was that despite winning games at an impressive clip, they weren’t truly able to pull away from the rest of the division until the last week or so of the season. Pythagorean Magic may sound like a really bad educational video game someone buys for their kids, but it was enough to keep Seattle in the race, to the extent that the Astros actually lost first place for a few days during a twelve-game winning streak.
And after the Mariners returned to earth or their Soundgarden albums or whatever it is Seattle people do in 2018, the Oakland A’s proved nearly as resilient. Despite finishing with 103 wins and never having a losing month in 2018, Houston never established a division lead greater than six games.
What Comes Next?
The big challenge facing the Astros in the present, and over the next few years, will be in dealing with what is a transitional phase in the team’s rotation, one of the big 2018 strengths. Of the five primary starting pitchers for the Astros in 2018, three are already gone: Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency, and Lance McCullers to Tommy John surgery. Verlander, Cole, and McHugh are all free agents after the 2019 season.
Even with an optimistic return from McCullers, that’s an awful lot of quality pitching turnover in a very short period. The team still has an above-average farm system with legitimate rotation candidates, one of whom, Josh James, looks assured of a 2019 spot. But it’s easy to see why when talking with the Miami Marlins about a possible J.T. Realmuto trade, Houston has reportedly been adamant about not giving up Forrest Whitley.
2019 ZiPS Projection – Alex Bregman
I’m going with Bregman here simply because I received a barrage of requests during his breakout 2018 for a ZiPS look into his future. And since I occasionally like to give the people what they want, let’s crank out some Alex Bregman goodness.
Yup, that’s a bonafide star. Enough of one that if Carlos Correa roars back in 2019, the Astros face some very interesting long-term questions. Imagine a world in 2020 in which the Astros are able to make a long-term deal with Bregman but not Correa. Bregman’s defensive numbers at third were hardly amazing, but he did a decent job filling in at short for Correa in 2018. At what point do you start to talk about a Correa trade, especially for a piece that fills up another hole, say in the rotation? It’s not so far-fetched.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.