Following one of the most remarkable World Series of all time, in the wake of a matchup defined by historically wild swings in win probability, the Houston Astros engaged in a relatively subdued title celebration on the infield turf of Dodger Stadium. Given that Game 7 was one of the few four-hour stretches in the series that lacked constant tension and drama, it makes sense. As Charlie Morton finished off the Dodgers in the final innings, the conclusion seemed inevitable.
Following the game, the architect of the title, Astros GM Jeffrey Luhnow, briefly took the post-game microphone, addressing an emptying stadium and a national television audience. He did what most winning executives do in such situations: he thanked ownership for their patience and support.
As mundane as Luhnow’s words might have seemed, it’s likely that they transcended mere cliche. Because, where other clubs typically experience ebbs and flows, the Astros took one of the most extreme routes to a title in the game’s history. Ownership had to be open to a lot of losing. Because of the result, however, it’s a path down which other clubs will likely attempt to travel. In a copycat industry such as this one, everyone wants to be like, or at least learn from, the last team standing.
How can your team be like the Astros?
While Houston’s title seemed inevitable for most of Wednesday night, an eventual coronation has seemed probable for some time. A smart team that bottoms out to enjoy premium picks and talent, that finds value in trades and free-agent signings, that improves players through development and training practices — that’s going to be a very successful team. And a lot of people expected the Astros, even during their Disastros Phase, to be quite successful. Houston’s plan wasn’t all that different from the one embraced by the Cubs en route to a curse-ending championship in 2016. Even the Yankees have benefited from a similar model. Each club has provided the industry with a roadmap to building a super team.
While the Astros’ roadmap isn’t unique, it is more extreme. The Astros bottomed out at a $26 million payroll and 111 losses in 2013, a campaign that tied for the ninth-most single-season losses in the game’s history and the most since the 2003 Tigers lost 119. The Astros stunk, in part, because of circumstances within their roster then depleted farm system. They were also awful by design, though.
In reality, the Astros followed an NBA-style tanking model. It made sense. It’s better to be really bad for a while, and position yourself to be really good, than to be mediocre for a long stretch of time. More and more clubs appear to be adopting this mindset: reduce payroll, exchange veteran talent for prospects, and get in better position to acquire elite talent in the draft and internationally. The Astros took a rational, logical approach and maximized the return.
Of course, more teams are operating this way. Even entering the season, there was a pretty clear line between the contenders and non-contenders. And that’s part of a definite trend. Consider: teams that placed last or second-to-last in divisions this year finished, on average, 27.1 games back of their respective division leaders.
Five years ago, it was only 24.4 games.
Five years before that? Just 18.3 games.
While the gap between the Haves and Have Nots has gone through periods of widening and contraction before, while it’s always ebbed and flowed, what’s different about this period is more teams are bad, really bad, intentionally.
While we have perhaps entered an era of super teams, we might also be witnessing an era of super bad teams. This is a zero-sum game.
And having the map, the plan, is one thing. Executing along the way is quite another.
The Astros executed exceptionally well. Their young core is the envy of about every major-league club. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and George Springer are all postseason stars who were homegrown. The Astros drafted mostly well with early selections from 2012 to -14.
Since the 2011 June draft, Astros' picks have produced 43.4 rWAR, regardless of where they earned those wins–second most in MLB pic.twitter.com/ASO200KIcY
— Bill Petti (@BillPetti) November 2, 2017
But it wasn’t just hitting on draft picks that allowed the Astros to post a 121 wRC+ this season as an offensive group, a mark that trails only the batting lines produced by the 1927, 1930, and 1931 Yankees. Player development and the integration of data were essential ingredients. Houston’s staff, for example, helped Bregman to get the ball in the air and off the ground. The third baseman enjoyed a second-half and postseason breakout. This is an organization-wide success story.
There was value found in trades (Justin Verlander, most notably) and free agency. The Astros plucked Charlie Morton out of reclamation bin and all he did was transform himself and become an integral part of the club’s Game 7 victories in the ALCS and World Series.
The Astros’ turnaround from Disastros to World Series champs was actually fairly rapid. Luhnow arrived in December of 2011. Two 100-plus-loss seasons followed, then another losing season, before three straight winning campaigns and two postseason berths. But not every team following such a plan will be so fortunate.
There are a couple entities that have to be concerned about the tanking approach to rebuilding, and about a widening gap between rich and poor clubs.
One is Major League Baseball. If the sport becomes dominated by a few well-run, large-market super teams, there’s going to be fewer interesting and meaningful games. And if more teams attempt an Astros-like rebuilds, they will necessarily have to endure lean years, creating an even wider gap between the Haves and Have Nots. With that gulf expanding, regular-season baseball will be less competitive.
And then there’s the MLBPA, which cannot love the fact that the Astros ran payrolls of $61 million or less between 2012-14 or that 2017 marked just the second time in franchise that club crossed the $100 million payroll mark on Opening Day. Houston, after all, is the nation’s fourth-largest market by population. Players would benefit if they spent like it.
While there is a tax on the top end of payrolls, creating a soft cap for players, there’s no mechanism on the low end of payrolls forcing owners to spend and meet a payroll floor. It’s one reason why owners’ share of revenue keeps increasing.
There’s no wins minimum, either, forcing clubs to maintain a baseline of competitiveness, which also promotes a tanking approach. In the regular season, that means fewer dollars for players and fewer competitive games.
The Astros are an organization-wide success story, a club that followed its own path, an extreme one, to ultimate success. They created a super team in the process. But if the copycats grow in number, it could stress the game in ways that perhaps aren’t good for its overall health. More regulation — win floors and salary floors — might be required. The Astros aren’t going away but joining them is easier planned than executed.