Every reaction to the Astros’ 2022 World Series triumph also considered the sign-stealing scandal that smeared the franchise’s 2017 championship. From local Houston media to national baseball outlets (including The Ringer), everyone seems to be grappling with this latest title’s redemptive possibilities.
Sportswriters—heck, all human beings—naturally construct narratives, forming familiar patterns out of discrete data points, and this one is so obvious as to be unavoidable. Stories of redemption are as old as stories themselves.
But as some writers suggest that you “have to hand it to the World Series–winning Astros” or that you have to “face it” that the Astros are “one of the great teams of modern times,” or question whether the Astros deserve the dynasty label after two titles and six ALCS appearances in as many years, I want to take a longer-term view of Houston’s latest championship. With the acknowledgment that Houston’s title window remains wide open, I don’t think the redemptive story arc is so clear-cut. History might still remember the Astros in basically the same way, even after their 2022 trophy.
In a vacuum, of course, the 2022 Astros were an extraordinary team. They won 106 regular-season games, the seventh-most of any World Series winner since integration (and the third-most in the wild-card era). In the playoffs, they went 11-2 and never faced elimination.
And that season-long greatness merely extended an extraordinary six-year run. (The 2020 Astros snuck into the expanded playoff field with a 29-31 record—but that was perhaps a small-sample fluke due to the COVID-shortened schedule, and they reached the ALCS anyway.) Since 2017, the Astros have more playoff wins than 28 other teams have playoff games.
Most Playoff Games Since 2017
And that success persisted despite tremendous turnover, both on and off the field. The 2022 Astros are a mostly different club from the 2017 version. In the wake of the trash-can-based sign-stealing scandal, they replaced their manager and general manager, and they also cycled through much of the roster, filling the roles vacated by stars like George Springer and Carlos Correa with mostly internal replacements.
It’s true, as many writers have pointed out in examining the club’s triumph, that most of the Astros’ 2022 standouts weren’t holdovers from the 2017 championship team. Of the top eight Astros in championship win probability added against the Phillies, seven joined the club in 2018 or later. It’s not fair to scorn rookie Jeremy Peña—the ALCS and World Series MVP as Correa’s shortstop replacement—or Framber Valdez for the misdeeds of their predecessors.
Astros Championship Win Probability Added Leaders in the 2022 World Series
Yet the oft-cited fact that only five players remained from the 2017 title team also misleads when considering the emotional effect of this Astros title on the baseball landscape. Focusing on the quantity rather than the identity of those players understates their prominence. It’s not as if the only players left were a backup catcher and some mop-up relievers—Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Justin Verlander are probably the team’s three best-known stars, and Yuli Gurriel infamously sparked a different controversy surrounding the 2017 World Series.
And from a longer-term vantage point, when predicting how history might remember these Astros in a decade, or a century, I don’t think this difference particularly matters. A dynasty definitionally spreads across time. In the world history sense, a “dynasty” needs multiple rulers; in the sports sense, it needs multiple titles, or at least consistent competitiveness for years. Yet I think that, counterintuitively, history flattens most sports dynasties into one representative group, regardless of the particular points at which each member played.
Here’s what I mean, with some examples: Roger Clemens didn’t pitch for the Yankees’ 1996 or 1998 title teams, but he’s still remembered as a core part of the Yankees’ late-’90s dynasty. Few modern baseball fans probably know that Ken Griffey Sr. wasn’t a cog in the Big Red Machine during their first World Series appearances. Neither Brandon Belt nor Brandon Crawford had debuted when the Giants won the 2010 World Series, and Matt Cain didn’t pitch in the 2014 playoffs, yet that trio is still lumped in with Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey and the other Giants who won three titles in five years. I’d posit that even now, many baseball fans don’t realize that Gerrit Cole joined the Astros in 2018, after they’d already won their tainted title, because he seemed so central to the contending team when he was a member.
Years from now, when the specific memories of Yordan Alvarez’s Series-clinching homer have faded, the overarching narrative of this era’s Astros may not make the careful, nuanced distinction that only five players carried over from the first title-winner to the second. Rather, history will conflate all the important Astros from 2017 to 2022 (or 2024, or 2026, or however long this current run extends).
Nor do I think the 2022 Astros will be remembered for their pitching dominance—even though, to be clear, they were a dominant pitching team. This season, the Astros ranked eighth in runs scored, but second in runs allowed; they ranked sixth in fWAR among position players but first among pitchers. They were just as pitching-oriented during their playoff rampage, as they allowed nine total runs in the ALCS and five runs in four World Series victories. Houston’s relievers enjoyed the best collective bullpen performance in playoff history. Most of all, four Astros pitchers combined for only the second no-hitter in Fall Classic history.
Yet after Houston led the majors in wRC+ in 2017, 2019, and 2021, I predict it’s more likely that—barring further seasons to come in which the Astros’ arms greatly oustrip their bats—this era’s Astros are remembered primarily for their offense, which is inherently tied to the scandal. I don’t think history will easily add the actually, the pitchers led the way in 2022 caveat.
To be clear, the players don’t have to care about the intricacies of their future legacies. They won the title; as closer Ryan Pressly said after recording the final out of the 2022 postseason, “We don’t really give a shit what they say. We won. We’re the best. Ain’t nothing they can say about it now.”
But I still feel confident that history will continue to care and have its say. The story of these Astros will always include a disclaimer in the first sentence, no matter how many titles they win. History will append a but to every celebratory summary of their accomplishments, which amount to the fruit of an initially poisonous tree. They won two titles (and counting), but they first precipitated MLB’s greatest scandal in decades. They inaugurated a dynasty, but with the help of a trash can. They served as perhaps the most representative team of an entire era of the sport, but that was for better and often for worse (and not just because of the sign-stealing).
Much of the broad, national, fan-fueled anger at the Astros stems not just from their admitted cheating, but from their lack of punishment. The 2017 title wasn’t stripped; the players weren’t punished. But in the wake of their second, presumably clean title, I’m more confident than ever that the 2017 Astros will suffer a cosmic punishment in the future—an eternally tarnished legacy.
I’d guess most modern baseball fans don’t know much, if anything, about the 1917 Chicago White Sox, who won the World Series with one of the best teams of the Deadball Era. Yet I’d guess most modern baseball fans do know a lot about the 1919 White Sox, who produced a shattering scandal.
It’s not a perfect comparison, because these Astros have won a lot more than the White Sox from a century ago. But history has a way of reducing complicated narratives to the most remarkable moments, with the most familiar arcs. If baseball still exists in 100 years, if the internet still exists in 100 years, maybe someone reading this column will reflect on whether the Astros actually managed to transcend their scandalous origins, or if my suspicion was right and their other achievements remained as muted as the White Sox’s title in 1917.