When a major league baseball team finishes last one year it is not expected to finish first the next. Even a team that finishes next to last is ordinarily not expected to be a playoff team the next season.
Both happened for the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in 2015. Think about that. Two teams dragging up the rear in the 2014 American League West both wound up being in the 2015 MLB post season. Two of just five teams still standing from the 15 team American League after the 162nd game.
As we know the Astros were the Wild Card and defeated the Yankees to go on and challenge the Kansas City Royals, defending American League champions and the club with the best record in the American League over the full season.
The Rangers who started the season slowly came on strong down the stretch, as the Astros had problems playing .500 ball from mid season, and were able to overtake the Astros for the American League West title in the final days of the season. Texas had fallen behind the Astros in 2014 due in large part a result of injuries to key players, but were a bit healthier in 2015 and they had an older more experienced team.
The Astros had lost 92 games in 2014 after dropping 111 the season before. But the club was integrating more of their top prospects to a club that had added some journeymen veterans for stability. Starting pitching was far better than the average team and improvement in the bullpen was a primary objective. General Manager Jeff Luhnow pulled that off. Other than closer Luke Gregerson who held his spot all year some tweaking needed to be done inside the season as those effective early in set up roles fell off and had to be replaced.
The offense built was very strange and often frustrating. It consisted a a great deal of power but not many really good hitters. That made it an all or nothing style. If the club was hitting home runs they scored in large totals. If not, they would be every easy to retire. Other than Jose Altuve there was not a hitter in the lineup even close to being on the .300 level. (Carlos Correa who joined the team in June was solid as was utility star Marwin Gonzalez, but were usually in the .275-.280 range.) Most were barely able to hit in the .240s and many far less than that. This limited opportunities to score especially when a high percentage of their outs came from not even putting the ball in play. Striking out was the singularly most common method of being retired. Fortunately the starting pitching led by 20 game winner Dallas Keuchel and 19-game winner Colin McHugh kept the run totals low for the opponents in most games and the Astros didn’t need to score a great deal. The club average runs per game was misleadingly high since a 10-3 win might be followed by three or four games in which the most the team would score was two or three. But thanks to their starting pitching they would likely win a few of them.
To be fair it must be pointed out that the club struck out so much because they were taking a lot of big swings regardless of the count. No doubt those big swings resulted in more home runs than the more traditional “two-strike approach” would have which was important for a team that had such low batting averages. If a team is loaded with hitters with averages ranging from less than .200 to the low .240s those hits they do get need to feature a large number of home runs or even fewer runs will be produced. A .220 hitter who hits mostly singles can’t play in the major leagues for long. A .220 hitter with 25 or more home runs will keep getting a look.
From 70 to 86 wins was a huge leap for the Astros even if they had not made the post season. But they did by a game and entered the playoffs with the worst record of the 10 teams from either league. But the were in and no one will remember that circumstance for long.
And they held up well when the pressure was on. Winning the Wild Card game in New York put the Astros on center stage. Then they took on the team with the best record in the American League in the best of five Division Series. It was a series they could have won, too. At some point they led in all five games. They could only win two of them and the heartbreaking slow death in game four will be remembered as the difference. Leading by four with eight outs to record, the Royals came to life and peppered Astro pitching with base hit after base hit. Then the next game back in Kansas City the Royals superiority finally won out.
The Rangers situation was different. They had won the first two in Toronto, but when coming back to their home field could not close out the Blue Jays. Yet they had a lead late in game five when inexplicably they could not make relatively simply plays on defense. The Jays climbed back into a tie game before a Batista three run homer dashed all Ranger dreams. Like the Astros, the Rangers could have won, but in the end the better club took the series and moved on.
If there is an object lesson to all from this it may be that teams who can put the ball in play and not necessarily with mammoth home runs have a better chance in winning games than those that don’t. Certainly Batista’s home run was mammoth. But all those misplays made by the Rangers could not have happened if Jay hitters had not been making contact.
And in the Kansas City case they had a number of soft and bloop hits in their comeback. But they were making contact.
They say that having a chance to be in the post season is one of the greatest learning opportunities any player can have. With the pressure on, things are seen and learned that cannot be from a regular season game in May.
Both the Astros and Rangers have learned a lot. Management and players have learned what needs to be boosted to not only win more games in the regular season, but to be able to advance further in the post season.
There will be significant turnover on both teams before next season begins. Some of it will be caused by simple financial matters with players eligible for free agency or large raises. Others will be made to improve the club. For the Astros that might be filling a spot with a higher average hitter or finding bullpen arms with power arms. Perhaps another starting pitcher if a hole results from a free agent moving on.
Most of the improvement must come internally. George Springer has to work to cut down on his strikeouts. If he can learn to do that he can become a real star. If not he may be a player with “potential.” That term is not good to use for a player 26 years old with two or three years of major league experience. The same for Jason Castro and any number of other players who may or may not return. Carlos Correa is already on the right track. Next year he could blossom into a superstar .300 hitter with power. Jose Altuve is not immune to needing to improve. He had a very poor record hitting in clutch situations for the type of overall hitter he is. His numbers with runners in scoring position, for example, were well below his numbers overall. They should be at least roughly equal. It may be nothing more than his trying too hard and putting undue pressure on himself. He may have to do nothing more than relax and understand pitchers are trying to get him out by him getting himself out with his proclivity for swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. That is correctable.
Will late season hero Colby Rasmus be back? What about Valbuena, Carter or Marwin Gonzalez? All had their moments and the injury to Gonzalez hurt the club. He was one of the better hitters for average with some power and could play multiple positions. Rasmus can be a free agent as can several other members of the club. Others are under team control but may have shown enough to coveted and be included as parts of trades GM Jeff Luhnow may be able to make to repair some of the other areas on the club that need fixing.
In the spring some more members from the highly regarded Astro farm system will have chances to make the club. Third base and first base are two positions that could have open competition. The pitching staff and perhaps even a spot on the catching staff will have competition. The 2016 Astros won’t be a mirror image of the 2015 Astros. But that is good. The 2015 team accomplished more than anyone could have ever dreamed. The object is to make the 2016 edition even better.