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The Astros Had a Plan, but They Didn’t Have a Destiny

Tanking positioned Houston to face the Dodgers in the 2017 Fall Classic, but in a post-dynasty league, the Astros’ Game 7 win was just as improbable as any team’s—and will be just as hard to repeat

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday, the Astros won the World Series, outlasting the Dodgers in a Doomsday vs. Superman series that cracked the top 10 of all time in excitement and trailed the leaders only because Houston’s hold was too tight in Game 7. Among the players who helped the ’Stros to a 5–1 win in the clincher were the young stars of their series and season: Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers, Carlos Correa, and World Series MVP George Springer, who homered again to seal the 10th-best postseason series ever by Championship Win Probability Added. All four were first-round draftees, products of the down years that preceded and enabled the Astros’ success. The blueprint that proved unpopular in non-sabermetric circles during those 50-something-win-seasons seems inexorable and unquestionable now that the plan has paid off: Be bad; get good; win the World Series.

The Astros’ win was predicted, but it wasn’t preordained. And although they’ve constructed a roster that seems destined to star in the dying days of several Octobers to come, treating this title as a prelude to dynasty, as some did when the Cubs ended their drought a year ago Thursday, undersells the difficulty of what Houston did. What the Astros accomplished this week was bold and brilliant. But it was never automatic or meant to be, which makes it only more memorable and worthy of champagne.

Modern baseball is beyond dynasties. In the 16 years since Luis Gonzalez’s Game 7 blooper ended the dominance of the Jeter-Rivera Yankees, three clubs have won back-to-back pennants, and three others have won multiple titles in non-consecutive seasons, but no one has strung together World Series wins.

No team since 2000 has defended its title because post-Selig baseball is designed to knock champions off their perch. There are 30 teams, maybe with more on the way. There are do-or-die play-in games and three real rounds of playoffs. There are measures put in place to shrink the spending gaps between teams and bring about competitive balance: the luxury tax, and revenue sharing, and caps (hard or soft) on spending in the amateur and international markets. Every team’s process is “smart” by the standards of a decade ago, and no team is giving away wins, unless it’s in exchange for fewer losses later.

We’re well past the eras in which the richest, most talented, or most intelligent teams could count on cruising to the series—when the route was more direct, and a large swath of the league wasn’t trying to compete in the present or plan for the future as much as it was trying to make payroll and live to play another day. If a franchise wins back-to-back titles now—let alone three straight—it won’t be because it outspent or outclassed its competition to such a degree that the odds were in its favor on Opening Day. It will be because the team put itself in position to make the playoffs time after time, and because in at least two of those times a bunch of things broke right. In this hypercompetitive, 10-playoff-team era, the closest we can come to a dynasty is a team that always wins its division.

This year’s World Series was a matchup between two teams that have done as much as anyone to secure their spot in the postseason for the foreseeable future—which in baseball is disturbingly brief. Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton—one of the few BP authors whom the Astros haven’t yet hired—found that from 2000–15, the correlation between teams’ current-year records and their records the following year was .526, where zero would represent no relationship and 1 would mean a perfect repeat; two years out, that fell to .394, and three years out, it dropped to .196, barely better than random.

The Dodgers, who represent baseball’s best argument that money still matters (in that they’ve managed to outspend the expensive mistakes mostly made by a previous regime), have made success seem much more consistent than it is for most clubs, winning the NL West for five consecutive years and posting an MLB-best record this season that leaves little reason to think that their streak is in danger. They too have drafted and developed well, made astute trades and signings, and assembled both a young, enviable, and cost-controlled core and a formidable front-office brain trust. But they haven’t won a World Series since 1988.

That the Astros have, for the first time in franchise history, is another endorsement of the once-controversial tanking tactics that brought them to this point. Although the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers are often cited as tanking trailblazers, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow had been on the job for 18 months by the time Sam Hinkie was hired. Hinkie, whose efforts have yet to produce a winning regular-season record, was ousted early last year; if the concrete he helped pour ever forms the foundation of a winning team, he’ll watch it from afar. The Astros, and the still-employed Luhnow, not only pioneered the tanking craze that’s since spread to other sports, they perfected it on the first try, absorbing the jabs of tanking critics alone until the game’s competitive conditions—and their own progress—created copycats like the Cubs.

In the wake of the Cubs’ victory last year, winning a post-tanking title now seems like a certainty, but it’s far from a lock. Given time, every team that tanks to stockpile prospects should get good again, but not every such team will get great—and not every one that gets great will win a World Series. The audacity of Sports Illustrated’s June 2014 prediction that the Astros would win the 2017 title wasn’t the idea that the Astros would be good three years down the road. Although the ’Stros were en route to a 70-win season that summer, and coming off worse finishes in previous seasons, they were one year away from winning a wild card; the pieces were already in place. No, the headline was so gripping because it implied a degree of predictability that doesn’t exist.

The Astros had first-round picks aplenty, but first-round picks often flop. (Even the Astros didn’t pick perfectly, missing on 2013 top pick Mark Appel with Kris Bryant on the board.) Just as the Cubs were both smart and lucky when they plucked Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks away from other organizations and watched them win or come close to winning Cy Young Awards, the Astros were both smart and lucky when Dallas Keuchel became an ace, and when José Altuve turned into a presumptive MVP, and when Marwin González morphed into a slugger. Even Luhnow wouldn’t have predicted those outcomes when he inherited Altuve and Keuchel, or when he traded for González just hours after his hiring. The Astros won the World Series with Charlie Morton on the mound, throwing 98, something even Morton probably wouldn’t have thought possible in 2014.

For the Astros—or any team—to reach this point, most of their big swings had to connect, but some of their seemingly smaller swings had to turn out to be big in retrospect. Their mistakes—and yes, they’ve made decisions that they would want back—couldn’t be devastating. And then, once they had built a team that could consistently win over the course of a six-month regular season, they also had to triumph in three small-sample playoff series, all of which they were losing at some stage. The Washington Nationals could testify to how hard that is. So could the Cubs, who topped the Nats in this year’s NLDS but fell to the Dodgers a round later, after spending most of their projected-to-be-dominant season battling the projected-to-be-bad Brewers in the NL Central. And so could the 2016 Astros, who were expected to build on their 2015 wild-card win but instead sat out October.

In theory, these Astros should be back in the classic sometime soon. Only four Astros from the World Series roster are free agents, and none of them (Carlos Beltrán, Cameron Maybin, Luke Gregerson, and Francisco Liriano) would significantly hurt the 2018 team’s outlook by leaving. Although Houston had help from 30-somethings such as Justin Verlander, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and Brian McCann, this title wasn’t the last gasp of a club whose window is closing. Most of the Astros’ core is at or approaching its peak, with their young sluggers’ futures tied to this team far into the future.

According to Neifi, a player evaluation and projection system that’s licensed to major league teams, the combined value of the Astros’ players under team control, at both the major- and minor-league levels, dwarfs that of any other team, exceeding the second-place Indians’ total by $244 million. (The Dodgers rank third.) Most of that value comes from homegrown guys—draftees and international signees—some of whom predate the current regime. There is no other club that wouldn’t want to be where the Astros are, not only because of the rings they have on order but because of their chances of acquiring more. On top of that, the Astros’ payroll this season ranked 17th, so they can recruit from outside if they want to, keeping pace with the rise in revenue that’s sure to result from their championship glow.

The Astros are one of the clearest cases in sports of a well-designed strategy that was also well executed. They’ve proved that temporarily losing is one way to win. But although their course, like the Cubs’, was correct, their destination was always in doubt—even on Wednesday, as the Dodgers stranded 10 runners that on a different day they might have driven in. Because we could see the Astros’ renaissance coming long before it arrived, their triumph feels different, but it’s also the same as every World Series win: a beautiful, improbable, and precious event that’s unlikely to strike in the same place next year. That’s all the more reason for the Astros to celebrate today.