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The 2021 Astros Were a Good Team. But They Needed to Be Great.

Houston came into the World Series looking like the favorite. But the differences between this group and the Astros’ 100-plus-win teams of the recent past ultimately proved to be its undoing.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’m going to let you in on a secret. If we replaced about 80 percent of postseason baseball analysis with the phrase “shit happens,” we’d probably have a more honest and accurate accounting of the sport. Past the first round of the playoffs, virtually every team remaining is good enough to win it all. They’ve all made smart roster decisions, weathered inconvenient injuries, and bounced around in the torrent of fortune that carves a season’s narrative out of unhewn rock.

Every decision, from pitch-level calls to pitching changes to roster construction, gets pored over in exacting detail when a championship hangs in the balance. But this late in the year, there is no comfort in the process, only in results.

Why did the Astros lose the World Series? In simple terms, it’s a zero-sum game, and they came up against an Atlanta team that had just pulverized the Brewers and breezed past the Dodgers. The Braves got hits at the right time; you’ll never find a clearer series turning point than their back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning of Game 4. And they pulled heroic pitching performances out of the couch cushions all series: Ian Anderson’s no-hit bid in Game 3, Kyle Wright dancing between the raindrops in Game 4, Max Fried rebounding from the near amputation of his foot to shut Houston down in the first inning of Game 6.

The Astros, meanwhile, left the door open. Framber Valdez, Houston’s erstwhile no. 1 starter, ended the series with a 19.29 ERA. The rest of the Astros’ starters went so short in their outings that manager Dusty Baker had to start rookie Luis Garcia on short rest in Game 6. And in the third inning, Garcia hung a breaking ball to Jorge Soler who—apparently unaware that while NASA’s human spaceflight headquarters are in Houston, missions are launched from Florida—put the ball into orbit.

Alex Bregman played through a wrist injury and went 2-for-21, while looking every bit like a man with only one working arm. Carlos Correa, in perhaps his last games for the franchise he’s come to define, had only one extra-base hit in six games. Yordan Álvarez, who was on fire throughout the ALCS, went 2-for-20 in the World Series. And the Astros’ trademark conga line offense went missing; they were an astonishing 1-for-22 with runners in scoring position in four losses, including Game 6, when not one but two balls up the middle turned into rally-crushing double plays.

In short, the Astros got outplayed. The Braves hit better, pitched better, and had better timing. It’s not really a matter of effort or planning—nor is it reasonable to expect the Astros to have a spare Bregman-quality third baseman lying around in case the original got hurt. It’s just baseball.

But looking beyond the cruel fatalism of the postseason, there’s a legitimate question: Is there anything the Astros could have done differently, any cracks in the foundation they should have shored up, that could have resulted in a different outcome?

The 2021 Astros were a great team; they won 95 games, took the AL West without breaking a sweat, and had a fairly easy run through the first two postseason rounds to win the pennant. But in terms of talent, this incarnation of the team is a step down from the club that won 100 games three years in a row from 2017 to 2019.

What’s the difference between a 95-win team and a 107-win team? On one level, nothing. This year’s Astros had a great lineup, good defense, good starting pitching, and a very good bullpen that only got deeper after the midseason acquisitions of Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman.

But the 2017-19 Astros had two things this year’s club didn’t: a deep bench, and at least one ace starting pitcher.

Early in that three-season run, then-manager A.J. Hinch moved players around to fit matchups and made defensive substitutions frequently. Jake Marisnick and Derek Fisher brought speed off the bench. Evan Gattis had serious power from the right side. But this postseason, with the bench already shortened to near-uselessness by the team’s 13-man pitching staff, Dusty Baker had few options, particularly after left-handed-hitting catcher Jason Castro went on the COVID list.

Jose Siri and Chas McCormick—both speedy right-handed-hitting outfielders with power and swing-and-miss issues—made each other redundant. Aledmys Díaz is also a right-handed hitter, and an average one at best; he batted only seven times the entire postseason. Marwin Gonzalez, a switch hitter who batted .199 this regular season, was often Baker’s first choice for pinch-hitting duty. Things got so dire that in Game 5, Zack Greinke was called on to pinch hit, and to both his and Baker’s credit, he singled. That unit offered no opportunity to platoon and no genuine offensive threat; it was all about surviving long enough to get José Altuve back to the plate.

While Houston’s offense disappointed throughout the series, it also had little margin for error. In the 2019 World Series, the shortest start by any Houston pitcher was Greinke’s 4 2/3-inning performance in Game 3. Greinke and Justin Verlander threw 11 innings each in that series; Gerrit Cole pitched 14. In 2021, José Urquidy’s five-inning start in Game 2 was the only instance in which a Houston starter qualified for a win; nobody else threw more than four innings.

Even in 2017, for all the talk about Hinch making up his rotation on the fly, Astros starters made it through five innings in five of seven World Series games. Verlander and Dallas Keuchel carried the Astros through the first two rounds of those playoffs just to get that far.

The 2021 Astros rotation was very good. That group ranked third in the AL in ERA-, second in wins above average, and fifth in fWAR. But it was egalitarian, which is a weakness in the playoffs, when the Rangers and Royals aren’t on the schedule and every ball in play could end the season. This year, 129 pitchers threw 100 or more innings, and seven of them were Astros. The highest ranking of those in K% was Cristian Javier, who was in the bullpen by the World Series. The only other Astro in the top 30 was Lance McCullers Jr., who strained a muscle in his throwing arm in the ALDS and took no part in the rest of the postseason. Garcia ranked 36th, Valdez 74th, Urquidy 80th, Jake Odorizzi 84th, and Greinke 115th.

From 2017 to 2019, the Astros could always call on some combination of Verlander, Cole, Greinke, Keuchel, and Charlie Morton—but now those guys are either old, injured, or wearing other uniforms. This year’s team had more above-average starting pitchers than it could use, but nobody who could pitch deep into games and flip a series on their own. Valdez looked like he could be that guy after his dominant start in Game 5 of the ALCS, but Atlanta tore him to pieces in the World Series, and that’s when things ultimately turned.

Sure, the picture looks much clearer in retrospect. If Valdez or Garcia had pitched up to their potential, nobody would be talking about the Astros’ rotation as a weakness. If injuries hadn’t relegated Greinke to the bullpen and knocked McCullers out of action entirely, we’re not having this conversation. Hell, Verlander is still technically on Houston’s books—imagine if he’d been healthy instead of recuperating after Tommy John surgery.

Also, it’s not like aces made all that much of a difference for other teams this postseason. We’re 19 months into a bizarre, pandemic-triggered reimagining of pitcher training; just about every pitcher is feeling the effects of a ramp-up from 60 games in 2020 to 162 in 2021. As much as the Astros missed Cole this October, he pitched in these playoffs and would probably prefer everyone forgot about his brief wild-card cameo. The Dodgers featured an entire rotation of inning-devouring Cy Young candidates: Max Scherzer, Julio Urías, Walker Buehler, and Clayton Kershaw. And by the end of the season, Kershaw had gotten hurt, Scherzer had gotten gassed, and the Dodgers’ scramble to fill innings had left Urías and Buehler at less than their best. The Braves had even less trouble with L.A. than they did with Houston.

All of which is to say this: There is no foolproof team-building method in baseball. There is no guaranteed path to victory. Every team has weaknesses.

But the difference between a 95-win team and a 107-win team is the number and severity of those weaknesses. Every time a new champion is crowned, we fall over ourselves trying to extrapolate a lesson, something the other 29 clubs might copy. The Braves had the worst record of any playoff team. By season’s end, they had basically two and a half healthy starting pitchers, and the most crucial component of the club—the outfield—had replaced a top-five player in the game with a bunch of guys GM Alex Anthopoulos picked up for peanuts.

It’s very easy to look at that roster and think that the key is to just get into the playoffs somehow, flip the switch at the right time, and not worry so much about the regular season.

But I look at the Astros and take the opposite lesson. The playoffs are unpredictable, so why leave anything to chance that you don’t absolutely have to? Legitimate title shots don’t come around that often—just ask the Braves—and the Astros just lost one for want of one more good starting pitcher and a left-handed bat off the bench.

Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference: These Braves were so hot they could’ve played a new series every week until Thanksgiving and not lost. But as the Astros head into the offseason potentially having to replace both Correa and Verlander, we’ll find out whether their future plan is to get hot at the right time, or try to get so good they won’t need to.