Here's how Astros became model for success

September 20th, 2019

Much is being made this week, with good reason, about the Astros having three 100-win seasons in a row. But where the Astros are -- if they end up with the best record, they’ll be favorites entering the postseason to win their second World Series in three years -- is just another opportunity to look back at where they were at the start of this decade.

Maybe someday another team will have three consecutive 100-loss seasons in the same decade that ends with them winning 100 three times in a row. Just don’t count on it. The Astros are not just one of the model franchises in baseball. They are one of the model franchises for any sport where teams are willing to tear things all the way down to build something that will last.

People point to the 76ers, and all the games they lost when they were losing more games than anybody in the NBA and stockpiling No. 1 draft choices. The general manager of the 76ers in those seasons, Sam Hinkie, famously talked about trusting “the process.” Meaning the process of losing games now to win later. The 76ers are a talented young playoff team now, one with a future. They haven’t yet won it all the way the Astros did two years ago and might again this year. They haven’t yet done what the Astros have now done, which means win more games across three seasons than anybody else in their sport.

A lot of teams try doing what Jeff Luhnow, one of the smartest front-office guys in recent memory, has done since taking over the Astros. The Dolphins seem to be trying right now in the NFL. But Luhnow has succeeded. In this decade alone, one that included records of 56-106 and 55-107 and 51-111, the Astros have had first-round Draft choices named and and . Springer became a World Series MVP. Bregman has a shot at being the American League MVP Award winner this season if he can beat out Mike Trout. Luhnow built enough of a farm system that he was able to make the trade for in the last minutes of August in 2017. If Verlander doesn’t win the AL Cy Young Award for ’19, his teammate will. Luhnow had enough pieces to trade for Cole, too.

This has been a masterpiece of patience and team-building in Houston. The Yankees are built to last, too, and haven’t had a losing season since 1992 -- another kind of baseball record that may never be broken. The Dodgers never seem to go anywhere, as they keep winning one National League West title after another. The Astros? They went all the way to the bottom. They had three straight years when they looked like the rebooted version of the 1962 Mets.

Pat Riley once said that there was winning in sports, and misery. The Astros were the capital of misery. When they ended the 2013 season with a 15-game losing streak and got to the 111th loss, they had produced the worst record in a decade in baseball. The last game of the season, No. 15 in that losing streak, came in 14 innings against the Yankees. David Stearns, now running baseball ops for the Brewers and then assistant GM to Luhnow, said this to Ben Reiter in Reiter’s fine and prescient book about the Astros, “Astroball: The New Way to Win it All”:

“It was the season that wouldn’t end.”

This is something Luhnow said to Reiter:

“You never get hardened to the point where you don’t feel every loss. It’s hard for the fans to understand that we suffer just as much as they do. I’ve watched every inning of every game for every year I’ve been here. I’m convinced this is the right way to go. While it’s painful to watch the team lose, ultimately the rewards are going to be there. They’re going to be there for the entire city, and anyone who watches the team.”

As Reiter pointed out in the book, Luhnow was part of a generation of modern thinkers in baseball and surrounded himself with modern thinkers like him, obsessed with everything from spin rates on breaking balls to scouting. There were times during the process when the Astros’ payroll was as low as $26 million. They were waiting to spend the way they were waiting for young talent at Minute Maid Park. This year the payroll is $168 million, sixth highest in the sport. When the owner Jim Crane and Luhnow had a chance to get Verlander two years ago and absorb the remaining years and money on the huge contract he’d signed with the Tigers, neither man blinked. It was all part of the payoff on Astroball.

Four years after they lost 111 in ‘13, the Astros won 101. Then 103. Now they are at 100 with nine games to go. Again: There were other lanes, of course. The Yankees have proven that with all those winning seasons. The Dodgers have had two losing seasons in the last 20 and not once since 2005. But the Astros had their own way. Luhnow always said it was the right way. And was right. Nothing worse once than being an Astros fan then. Nothing better now.