Back when the Tigers annually were plowing through their division, making impromptu October travel arrangements playoffs require, and visiting the occasional World Series, a certain team from Texas was having its issues.
The Astros from 2011 through 2014 lost 416 games. They were 56-106 in 2011 and a year later managed to finish a game worse.
Other than employees, there weren’t a lot of people at Minute Maid Park. And not a lot more were watching on television. Not Astros games, anyway.
Tonight the American League’s best team slides into Comerica Park for a weekend series. The Tigers, who were whipped in three of four games the teams played during a May trip to Houston, will get a second taste of a big-league construction project now carrying a 67-34 record.
It is status, this penthouse place the Astros occupy, a team from Detroit would be happy to match as its own roster remodeling begins. But it won’t be as simple as trusting professional sports’ cycles to deliver an eventual ballclub as solid and as enduring as the Astros have forged.
They have not so much invented a blueprint as they’ve perfected one.
It began with super-smart drafting, in early and in later rounds. It’s been a process sustained by talent identification and development particular to general manager Jeff Luhnow, a former Cardinals star scout who became Astros GM in December, 2011, not long after a new owner, Jim Crane, arrived and decided his big-league team would be built with its own stamp on skill and youth.
Luhnow has mixed into his renovations a steady stream of helpful trades. Basic to his moves and strategies has been a faith in analytics and stretching their boundaries. He sees nothing in baseball’s universe as being particularly fringe when behind those extra steps or forays might be a player who can make a difference in a game or in a season.
Richard Justice, a columnist for MLB.com who has covered big-league baseball on a national scale for four decades, is based in Houston and has followed the Luhnow era intricately.
He mentions a particular front-office commandment.
“Spend X amount of time thinking of ideas outside the box,” Justice said. “Their biggest challenge is: What’s the next frontier for the smart guys? Injury prevention? Mechanics?
“They’ve taken pitch-usage and defensive shifts about as far as they can. They wrestle with how much to tell the players.”
Inspect the Astros individually. What you find are specific clues on how philosophy and judgment have helped furnish a possible 2017 championship team at Houston.
Jose Altuve, second base: He is generously listed at 5-foot-6. He weighs 165 pounds. The Astros weren’t terribly bothered by his size when a 16-year-old Venezuelan was signed in 2007.
Altuve is batting .365, has 15 home runs, 32 doubles, and the kind of OPS Miguel Cabrera once would have carried: 1.005. His road on-base average, a statistical novelty in which Altuve specializes, is .502. He has 100-plus more hits than any other player in baseball since the start of the 2014 season.
Carlos Correa, shortstop: He’s on the disabled list with a torn thumb ligament, although you wouldn’t necessarily know the Astros have missed him. Before he departed this month he had 20 home runs, a .320 batting average, and a .966 OPS. He was the first player taken in the 2012 draft, Luhnow’s first, and there have been no misgivings.
Alex Bregman, third base: The Astros don’t miss on their early picks. Bregman was taken as the 2015 draft’s second overall star and two years later is playing in his first full big-league season. He has a .350 on-base percentage.
George Springer, center field: Luhnow can’t claim Springer. He was grabbed 11th overall in 2011’s first round. But his up-the-middle fury embodies, along with Correa and Altuve, how championship teams are assembled. He’s batting .310 with another of those 900-plus OPS readings the Astros flaunt. It includes an on-base percentage of .384.
Marwin Gonzalez, super sub: He’s working a lot at shortstop now that Correa is gone, which is about as close to a regular spot as he’ll see in Houston. One of Luhnow’s grand-larceny grabs, Gonzalez is a switch-hitter who can play about anywhere, and most often does. Luhnow filched him from the Red Sox in a trade for a forgotten soul on the same day the Red Sox snagged him from the Cubs in the 2011 Rule 5 draft. He’s amazing, batting .324 with, of course, an OPS near 1,000.
The Astros have done well even when they haven’t been feasting on some of those draft-day prizes a bad previous season delivers.
Dallas Keuchel, who will start tonight for the Astros after a long layoff, was a seventh-round steal. Lance McCullers, who owns the best curveball in baseball, was a more esteemed prospect (41st overall in Luhnow’s first Astros draft). But he simply underscores that the Astros don’t often miss.
Luhnow has traded well, also, landing Brian McCann (catcher) and Evan Gattis (designated hitter) at bargain prices, as well as starting pitcher Mike Fiers, and splendid reliever Chris Devenski.
Free agents also tend to shine at Houston. Both in terms of performance and when costs are analyzed by way of hindsight.
Josh Reddick, Luke Gregorson, Charlie Morton — all were signed sanely and have earned their pay. Carlos Beltran is 40, but still has 12 home runs and is signed only through this year.
Luhnow’s secret isn’t much of a secret. He was a dynamo scout for the Cardinals and always has been in the same cosmos as numbers-crunching GMs Billy Beane and Theo Epstein when it comes to milking analytics.
The Tigers, not coincidentally, have moved more in this direction since Al Avila became general manager two years ago, tripling their analytics team and heavily expanding their development corps.
The question is whether future drafts will match Houston’s in terms of hauling franchise talent to Detroit.
The Tigers are on what could be something of a multi-year descent, with early first-round draft picks the only dividend likely to spill from some potentially tough years ahead.
Their challenge will be to grab — if those super-early draft picks come their way — the equivalent of Correa, Bregman and Springer; to find an Altuve among the position prospects they have focused on in their international drafts, and to swing trades and sage free-agent deals that have made the Astros an all-dimensional delight.
Another of Luhnow’s moves was to find a like-minded manager in A.J. Hinch, a Stanford man and friend of Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus. Hinch didn’t fare as well when he was Diamondbacks manager. But he has found at Houston not only a lovely roster but philosophical compatibility with Luhnow and his allies.
Justice tells a story from earlier this season that’s pure Hinch in style and in the way the Astros operate.
“He didn’t play Bregman, and Bregman wanted to know why,” Justice said.
“Well, I needed to get Marwin in there and so I put the names of all the infielders in a hat and drew one out.”
“So,” Bregman asked, “you drew my name?”
“No,” Hinch said, deadpan. “I drew Correa. But I put it back in there and drew again.”
It’s easy to laugh when you’re in first place and winning two of every three games. But the style plays, and it’s not all a matter of mirth.
Justice recalls last season when Bregman arrived, a year out of college, and was in a 2-for-30 slide.
Hinch moved him from sixth in the order to second.
“This,” Hinch said to him, “explains what the organization thinks of you.”
Ausmus, of course, is known for his dry wit, and for handling players in a manner they say they respect.
But as Hinch knows from his comparative experiences at Arizona and now at Houston, it’s the names you place on that day’s lineup card, and the men and performers who pitch and defend and hit their way toward a game’s score, that makes managing secondary to what Luhnow has made primary with the Astros.
It’s all about collecting talent. It’s all about how a new roster is bolted together. It’s an assignment Avila now supervises. Whether results prove to match the Astros’ renaissance is quite the aspiration for any rebuilding club.
Houston, we have no problem
The Houston Astros’ record since three straight 100-loss seasons:
2011: 56-106 (.346), sixth place, 40.0 games behind
2012: 55-107 (.340), sixth place, 42.0 games behind
2013: 51-111 (.315), fifth place, 45.0 games behind
2014: 70-92 (.432), fourth place, 28.0 games behind
2015: 86-76 (.531), second place, 2.0 games behind; defeated Yankees in AL wild-card game, lost to Royals 3-2 in ALDS
2016: 84-78 (.519), third place, 11.0 games behind
2017: 67-34 (.663), first place
ON DECK: ASTROS
Series: Three games, Comerica Park, Detroit
First pitch: Friday, 7:10 p.m.; Saturday, 6:10 p.m.; Sunday, 1:10 p.m.
Probables: Friday — LHP Dallas Keuchel (9-0, 1.67) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (6-8, 5.81); Saturday — RHP Collin McHugh (0-0, 7.71) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (4-5, 5.48); Sunday — RHP Lance McCullers (7-2, 3.67) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (5-7, 4.50).
Keuchel, Astros: He hasn’t pitched since June 2, and is on the DL with a pinched nerve in his neck. He went five innings in his last rehab start, so he is likely to be on a pitch restriction. Before the injury, though, he was unhittable: an 0.872 WHIP.
Zimmermann, Tigers: Still waiting for the real J-Zimm to please stand up. After posting a strong 62/3-inning win in Kansas City (one run), he didn’t survive the fourth inning in Minnesota in his last start (five runs). Left-handed hitters have vexed him all year (.330/.376/.550/.926).