How the Houston Astros Finally Hit on a Formula That Worked for Them


He and Craig Biggio, another Hall of Famer who spent his full career with Houston, finished just one season in last place. They were mostly good, but never good enough. Bagwell and Biggio reached the playoffs six times together but advanced to the World Series only in their final trip, in 2005, when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox.

Astros fans get a daily reminder of that loss in the team’s television analyst, Geoff Blum, who hit a 14th-inning homer at Minute Maid Park to win Game 3 for Chicago. Blum played only 33 career games for the White Sox and 580 for the Astros. Now, at last, his viewers might forgive him for his fling with an enemy.

“Please, finally!” Blum shouted in the clubhouse celebration on Wednesday night. “Although it’s going to be weird to see those two rings side by side.”

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Craig Biggio, left, and Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros in 1992. They reached the playoffs six times together but advanced to the World Series only in their final trip, in 2005, when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox.

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Getty Images

When the Astros earned their ring in Game 7, they wore orange jerseys for the first time in the World Series. That look is not as distinctive as their famous rainbow jerseys — worn from 1975 through 1986 and on throwback nights today — but orange is a part of their identity.

In the team’s first logo, orange smoke from a pistol formed the letter C in Colts. They were 64-96 in their inaugural season — far ahead of their hapless expansion brothers, the Mets — and within a few years they had budding stars like Rusty Staub and Joe Morgan. Alas, the Astros lost most of Morgan’s prime after a trade for the slugger Lee May.

When Morgan returned as a free agent, in 1980, the Astros lost an excruciating National League Championship Series to Philadelphia despite leading the decisive finale by three runs with Nolan Ryan on the mound. Six years later, they felt the sting of another N.L.C.S. loss, this time to the Mets, again despite a three-run lead in the final game. Both heartbreakers took place at the Astrodome.

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Rusty Staub, pictured in 1963, played for the Houston Astros from 1963 to 1968. He played in the major leagues until 1985.

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Ed Widdis/Associated Press

“It’s not easy to do,” said Biggio, who played two decades with the Astros through 2007. “What did we have, the third-longest drought or whatever it was for the World Series? They’re hard to get, and they’re special to get.”

The Astros chased a ring in so many different ways. They made early forays to the Dominican Republic for Cesar Cedeño, and to Venezuela for several high-impact prospects like Bobby Abreu, Freddy Garcia and Johan Santana — who mostly thrived elsewhere.

They had a habit of luring Texas-bred aces through free agency, like Ryan, Doug Drabek, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. They made shrewd trades for Bagwell and others, and drafted future stars like J. R. Richard, Lance Berkman and Biggio.

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Astros second baseman Joe Morgan turned a double play against the Philadelphia Phillies’ Lonnie Smith in the 1980 National League Championship Series. The Astros lost, despite leading the decisive final game by three runs with Nolan Ryan on the mound.

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Associated Press

None of it led to a title, and by 2012, Jim Crane’s first full season as owner, the team had the worst record in the majors. George Springer was a top prospect, but Altuve and Keuchel were not highly regarded around the game. Crane revived orange as part of the Astros’ color palate when the franchise moved to the American League in 2013, but otherwise looked forward, not back.

“We came in on the 50th anniversary, so we got a lot of bang out of that,” Crane said in an interview at his office in the summer of 2012. “But really we can put our own mark on it next year. We’re going to do that. We’re going to change the uniform, we’re going to remodel the stadium a little bit, freshen it up and create some new spaces.”

Crane did not want to shift leagues, he said. But baseball required it as a condition of the sale, to even the leagues at 15 teams apiece.

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Astros relief pitcher Dave Smith slammed down the ball in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 N.L.C.S. after the Mets scored three runs in the ninth inning to tie the score. The Mets won, 7-6, in 16 innings to advance to the World Series.

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Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press

“People say, ‘Are you mad about it?’” Crane said then. “Not really. If we’re going to win a World Series, we got to beat everybody.”

They have done that now, largely with an approach that leans heavily on analytics under General Manager Jeff Luhnow. On the field after Game 7, Crane explained that he had learned to value analytics after studying several franchises while trying to buy a team.

“I could see some of the stuff they were doing that we weren’t doing,” he said. “And then I said, ‘You know, to really get good, we’ve got to challenge that and go a step further.’ So we allowed Jeff to do some of those things, and we’re still doing it and hope to build the organization to an even stronger position.”

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Fans cheered before the Astros’ final regular-season game in the Astrodome, on Oct. 3, 1999.

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Donna Carson/Associated Press

Luhnow had made his mark in the last decade by finding amateur talent for the St. Louis Cardinals, leaving a business career for an industry that still apologizes, in some corners, for relying on numbers.

After Game 7, the Astros’ pitching coach, Brent Strom, said the team had targeted Charlie Morton — the surprise winner that night — partly because of the appealing spin rate of his pitches. The Astros helped Morton become the best version of himself through data that showed he should throw more curves and four-seam fastballs, and fewer sinkers.

It was sound reasoning. Yet in the middle of his explanation, Strom added, almost reflexively, “I hate to say this.”

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