The Houston Astros are on a roll, but that isn’t news to many people; they’ve been on one for most of 2022. They already have a 13.5-game lead on their division, which is nearly unheard of before the All-Star break, and their record through 81 games is an impressive 53-28. They just completed an 8-game win streak and are an MLB-best 15-5 in their past 20 games. With all of this in mind, as the team just crossed the halfway mark of the season tonight, many are beginning to think: does this team have what it takes to be the best in Astros franchise history?
Since coming into the league in 1962, the club has won the world series once and the AL pennant 4 times. In my opinion, however, one of those pennant-winning teams does not deserve to be in consideration for the best Astros team of all-time. The 2005 Astros may have made it all the way to the World Series, but they only won 89 games and didn’t fully turn it on until the playoffs. They were also clearly inferior during the regular season in comparison to teams such as the 1998 and 2018 Astros, who weren’t as successful in October.
Keeping the scope of the entire season in mind, and not just the way it ended, the Astros have five clear candidates to be considered the best teams in franchise history. They are, in my opinion (chronological order): the 1998 team that lost the NLDS at 102-60, the 2017 team that won the World Series at 101-61, the 2018 team that lost in the ALCS at 103-59, the 2019 team that lost in the World Series at 107-55, and the 2021 team that lost the World Series at 95-67. For any fans of other teams that may be reading this, especially of a certain team in New York, your grievances with the 2017 team are duly noted, but they won the World Series so they have to be put into consideration by default, asterisk or not.
The earliest candidate on that list is the 1998 team, whose lineup was led by the three-headed monster of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Moises Alou. They also had plenty of positive momentum heading into the postseason on the heels of a trade to acquire hall-of-fame pitcher Randy Johnson, but they were dispatched by the underdog Padres in 4 games in the NLDS after the bats went silent against San Diego’s top-heavy rotation.
Everyone remembers what happened in 2017. A well-rounded team led by Altuve, Bregman, Correa, eventual World Series MVP George Springer, and others, brought home their first championship after beating the Dodgers on the road in a winner-take-all Game 7. The already-solid starting rotation, headlined by Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel, got better with a buzzer-beater trade that sent Justin Verlander to Houston. That same core got Gerrit Cole at the 2018 trade deadline and won 103 games, which was a franchise record at the time, but they were bested by the 108-win Red Sox in the ALCS, who would go on to become one of the best championship-winning teams in recent memory.
Adding Yordan Alvarez and Jose Urquidy from within the system, as well as a few established veterans from the free-agent market, helped elevate the Astros from elite status to downright absurd in 2019. They won 107 games and looked like a sure bet to win the World Series again, but they fell in Game 7 at the hands of the Washington Nationals, who were one of those teams that were dubbed a “team of destiny”: an underdog that never failed to launch a big comeback when their season depended on it. The 2021 team featured fewer household names with the earlier departures of Cole and Springer in free agency, but between the emergence of Kyle Tucker at the plate and Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia on the mound, a bit of young blood mixed with the established core won the Astros yet another AL pennant. In a situation not too different from 2 years prior, they fell to the Atlanta Braves in 6 games in the World Series.
In all, those teams boast 4 of the 5 best regular-season records in Astros history. The 2022 team currently has a .654 winning percentage, which comes out to 106 wins when prorated over the whole season. That would put them one behind the 2019 team for the club’s regular-season wins record. In 2019, the Astros were 50-31 after 81 games, which this year’s team is currently outpacing. In terms of win/loss record, the 2022 Astros are currently on a fairly strong trajectory to be the best regular-season team in club history.
Offensively, the best-ever Astros team in terms of both runs scored and wRC+ was also the 2019 roster. This is where the 2022 team is slightly lacking. They currently have a wRC+ of 117, which would place third among this group, but they’re still having some trouble translating those hypothetical runs into reality: they’re on pace to score 727 runs, which would be worse than all of the aforementioned teams. Some of that, however, can be attributed to the sudden change in run environment that has occurred in 2022: offense is down across all of baseball, so by the time the season ends, it might be wiser to consider era-adjusted metrics such as wRC+ for comparison’s sake.
Out of all the candidates, the team with the best pitching staff was the 2018 installment, by multiple measures. They lead the pack in era-and-park-adjusted ERA and FIP, but the 2022 team is currently 2nd and 3rd respectively in those categories. This is an incredible achievement, especially considering how much money the Astros had invested in their rotation in 2018 with Verlander and Cole, compared to 2022 with homegrown talent such as Valdez, Garcia, and Javier.
The 2022 Astros are currently on pace to win roughly the same amount of games as the record-setting 2019 team did, and they’re not much worse offensively. As well, they’re on the same plane in terms of pitching as the 2018 team, their historical gold standard in that regard. In short, if this season’s Astros can continue their current regular-season pace, as well as win a championship, then they will certainly be the best team in franchise history.
This year was the year that the team started to look weaker on paper for the first time in a while. Losing a platinum-glove shortstop to free agency, as well as the perceived strengthening of divisional opponents over the offseason, made it seem reasonable that the empire the Astros had been constructing would fall. However, they sit here at the halfway mark of the season in possibly the best shape they’ve ever been in their history, which is a clear testament to the strength of the organization.