A SILVER LINING

How Astros somehow harvested success where MLB planted a crop of excuses, failure

Could the Astros be MLB's saving grace? Composite image by Jack Brame.

You need another reason to admire the Houston Astros as a model sports franchise? You know the Astros, the team that lives within its budget, still puts a fantastic product on the field and wins year after year? And has intelligently built an American League dynasty?

The other day, former Yankee captain and current CEO of the Miami Marlins Derek Jeter was asked, why do you think young people are choosing the NFL and NBA and turning their backs on baseball?

Jeter blamed the kids. He told the Knuckleheads podcast, “Kids nowadays are into instant gratification, right?” Years earlier, he said pretty much the same thing to the Washington Post. “I think some of the other sports are sort of the sexy sports,” suggesting that baseball was a more thoughtful and deliberate game than football and basketball, it takes longer for players to reach the big leagues, and perhaps young people aren’t up to the long-form challenge of baseball.

What he should have said was, “It’s our own fault. Life is passing baseball by.” Like the Pogo comic strip, we have met the enemy and it’s us.

There’s no disputing that the NFL is our national passion and the NBA is surging here and around the world. If you want to know why baseball is reeling, maybe Jeter isn’t the guy to ask. He runs the Miami Marlins. There are 30 teams in MLB, the Marlins finished 30th in attendance in 2021. They averaged only 7,933 fans at loanDepot Park. He blames young people for veering away from baseball? It looks like all ages in Miami want little to do with the Marlins.

While sports fans gravitate to fast paced entertainment, baseball has slammed the brakes on putting the ball in play. Despite a slew of rules designed to speed up the game, the average MLB game sleepwalked to 3 hours and 10 minutes in 2021, the slowest in history. Back in the ‘70s, games lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes.

MLB attendance has fallen five years in a row. Last year’s average attendance hit a 37-year low. TV ratings are down 12 percent from 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

But there is a silver lining, the saving grace for baseball, hope for baseball’s future. It’s the Houston Astros.

Houston may be the only city that has all three major sports – NFL, NBA and MLB – and baseball, clearly and unchallenged, owns the market. Right now the football and basketball team aren’t even putting up a fight.

The Astros have won more games since 2017 than any other American League team. You know the numbers: they’ve been in the post-season five straight years, played in four consecutive ALCS, won four of the last five American League West titles, played in three of the last five World Series, and won the franchise’s first and only championship in 2017.

The Astros haven’t won over Houston by themselves, though. It takes a village, in Houston’s case, village idiots like the Texans and Rockets. If there were a popularity contest between the Astros, Texans and Rockets … the Astros would win by forfeit.

In other cities where the NFL dominates, like Seattle and Green Bay, fans wonder if their quarterback will go to another team. In Houston, fans wonder if their quarterback will go to jail. The Texans trade or release their most popular players and get very little in return. The Texans will be paying three head coaches next season, two of them no longer with the team. They’re one of the teams being sued by Brian Flores claiming racism.

Nobody likes the owner, nobody trusts the general manager after his recent press conference, nobody believes the franchise puppeteer is still here, and nobody believes the new coach was management’s first or second or even third choice.

The Houston Rockets, while not perceived as a halfway house for the dysfunctional, are foundering with a 15-43 record good for last place in the NBA’s Western Conference. The team has no stars and no veterans with All-Star pedigree. Well, they do, but John Wall, is making (not earning) $41 million this year despite playing no games. Wall is not hurt. He wants to play. Before the season started, the Rockets told him to go away and stay there. The team won’t play him and can’t trade him. This is how teams operate in the Bizarro World.

Pro sports these days are driven by star power. Houston loves us the Astros. They’re killers on the field and icons in the community. The team is loaded with shining stars. Yuli Gurriel is the defending American League batting champion. Jose Altuve is the franchise’s GOAT, it’s time to stop that debate. Alex Bregman is poised for a big comeback season and makes one heck of a Breggy Bomb salsa. Kyle Tucker is a budding superstar and Triple Crown threat. Yordan Alvarez hits homers at a historic pace. Michael Brantley is solid as a rock. And Justin Verlander is back! We’re crossing our fingers for the season to start.

The Astros games are fun and tickets are affordable. Rockets and Texans are flatlining duds and tickets are crazy expensive. Let’s see, Texans season tickets or send Johnny to college. Sell the damn team, Cal.

Yeah, baseball is in decline, Derek Jeter blames young people, another labor dispute is turning fans off, and the game is grinding to a stop. The NFL and NBA are dumping all over baseball, all over the country.

Except in Houston.

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Justin Verlander has been a pleasant surprise coming off Tommy John surgery. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

As baseball passes the quarter pole of the 2022 season, the Houston Astros are right where we thought they’d be - first place and overwhelming Vegas favorites to win the American League West, and holding the second-best record in the AL.

But as Jerry Garcia put it, “what a long strange trip it’s been.” This wasn’t the route baseball analysts figured for the Astros. Remember the start of the season? The Astros were returning a power-packed lineup that finished 2021’s World Series run with the top team batting average in the American League, .269. Sure, pitching might be a question mark with Justin Verlander returning from two years out with Tommy John and Lance McCullers recovering from injury.

Still the Astros figured to have enough firepower at the plate to overcome their pitching concerns. With the A’s waving a white flag on the season, the Angels likely to fade and the Mariners and Rangers headed nowhere, the rest of the Astros season is merely a formality – it’s all about getting their pitching rotation ready for the post-season and Dollar Dog Nights.

But instead of the Astros beating down opponents with offense, it’s pitching that’s propelled them to the top of the standings. Yes, he’s destined to Cooperstown, but who saw Verlander, age 39 and two years on the sidelines, at 6-1 with a crazy, shrinking 1.22 ERA. Nobody is supposed to come back from Tommy John at that age like that.

Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Rafael Montero, Ryne Stanek, even Jake Odorizzi, are performing above expectations.

Now those awesome bashers at the plate? Let’s not pile on and exaggerate how bad they’ve been … but disappointing is putting it mildly. Historically disastrous might be closer. Let’s crunch the numbers.

Monday night the Astros batting order was: Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker, Jeremy Pena, Jose Siri, and Martin Maldonado. You’ve got batting champs, All-Stars, an MVP, solid hitters and promising young players up and down the order.

How’s this? Every single player is hitting below his lifetime average (with the exception of rookie Pena who didn’t have a career average heading into 2022). The team batting average, .230, is 10th in the American League. That’s what you call a team slump. If anything, the Astros are not who we thought they are. It’s really a wonder they’re in first place.

Altuve is hitting 25 points below his career standard. He’s followed by Brantley (-16), Bregman (-49), Alvarez (-35), Gurriel (-67), Tucker (-29), Siri (-29), and Maldonado (-86).

That’s a collective 336 batting average points below what was expected if the Astros had just a normal year. Yeah, baseballs are kept in humidors like fine cigars this year, but the ball ain’t that dead.

Here’s an even bigger surprise, this time a happy one. Remember the citywide hand-wringing, oh what are we going to do without Carlos Correa this year? Well, rookie Jeremy Pena isn’t just sticking his finger in the dike, he’s leading the regulars with a .287 average, seven homers and 22 RBI. He’s the Astros MVP so far and has to be the leader for Rookie of the Year.

That irreplaceable guy Pena replaced? He’s batting .268 with two home runs and 14 RBI somewhere else.

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