We’ve come a long way, baby. And Houston, we definitely do not have a problem.
Returning to the MLB playoffs for the fourth time in the past five years, the Houston Astros captured the American League West championship for the third consecutive season Sunday. And in the process, the Astros posted their third straight 100-win season.
To grasp just how remarkable that feat happens to be, keep in mind that the Astros became only the sixth team in history to win at least 100 games in three years running, joining the 1929-31 Athletics, 1942-44 Cardinals, 1969-71 Orioles, 1997-99 Braves and 2002-04 Yankees.
And if the Astros finish the regular season with the best record in baseball, they will enter the postseason as the hands down favorites to win their second World Series in three years.
Pretty amazing, right? Now for the rest of the story.
For some, it’s still not easy to forget how Houston opened the same decade with back-to-back-to-back 100-loss seasons. That’s right, sports fans. As this decade began, Houston owned the monopoly on baseball misery.
In 2011, the Astros (56-106) posted their first 100-loss season in franchise history. Then in 2012, the Astros made it one loss worse (55-107) by posting the worst record in baseball. But the ultimate agony of defeat came in 2013 when Houston’s move to the American League ended with a 15-game losing streak and a franchise worst 51-111 record.
If you were a life-long Astros fan living through it, one had to wonder if this would ever end. Even back in the beginning, Houston’s decades of mediocrity were never this bad. And the glory days of the Killer Bs in the 1990s and early 2000s seemed very, very far away.
But then in just two seasons, the Astros were back in the MLB playoffs. In 2015, Houston surprised the baseball world by posting an 86-76 record and making the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Two more years later, the Astros were World Series champions for the first time in franchise history.
With that said, Astro fans are loving life right now, and it’s never been this good. This season marks the 13th time the Astros have made the postseason, including three years in a row. Houston only managed that once before, when the Astros and the Killer Bs — Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman — won three consecutive National League Central titles from 1997-99.
In fact, Houston has made the playoffs in four of five years since Astros manager AJ Hinch took over prior to the 2015 season. Over the last three seasons, the Astros have won more games than any other team in baseball.
But the process that built this formidable franchise began after Houston hired Jeff Luhnow, one of the smartest front-office guys in recent memory, in December 2011 after the first 100-loss season. But he didn’t come to Houston to become an instant savior. Luhnow’s process meant losing games at a record pace in the beginning to win later by trading good players to stockpile draft picks.
“You never get hardened to the point where you don’t feel every loss,” said Luhnow at the time. “It’s hard for the fans to understand that we suffer just as much as they do. While it’s painful to watch the team lose, ultimately the rewards are going to be there.”
Indeed. In this decade alone, the Astros have used first-round draft choices for players like George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.
But that’s not all. Luhnow built a farm system strong enough to make the trade for Justin Verlander in the last minutes of August in 2017. He followed that up by bringing in Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 2018 offseason trade acquisition.
And let’s not forget this season’s trade deadline shocker when the Astros traded four prospects for two-time Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, putting together the MLB’s most lethal 1-2-3 starting pitcher trio heading into the playoffs.
“It’s a little crazy,” 2017 AL most valuable player and perennial all-star Jose Altuve said. “My first three years we lost 100 games, and now we’re one of the few teams that are winning three seasons in a row 100 games. I think we deserve it, because the way that we’ve been working hard as a team and as an organization, to be to this point is pretty cool. It’s pretty special for us.”
So special and so dominate that all-star third baseman Alex Bregman has a shot at challenging Mike Trout for the American League Most Valuable Player Award this season, either Verlander or Cole will walk away with the AL Cy Young Award, and Cuban Yonder Alvarez appears to have the AL Rookie Of The Year Award all wrapped up.
From the agony of defeat to the thrill of victory, Luhnow always believed the Astro way would prove to be the right way. There was nothing worse than being an Astros fan during the process. Now, there’s nothing better.
We’ve come a long way, baby.