What is the true secret to the Astros’ enduring success?

HOUSTON – There are few teams for which the other 29 fans know which players were on the roster five years ago. Actually probably only one, the Houston Astros.

The similarities and differences between the 2022 Astros and the 2017 team is a source of well-deserved fascination and conversation. There are two reasons for this, and whether they are intertwined is only a matter of speculation and consternation. Are these Astros the Astros? Who were later found to have cheated by illegally stealing signs in an elaborate operation. Are these Astros the Astros? Who won 101 games, the World Series, and has reached at least the championship series every year since.

Their continued success makes them look like a dynasty; a consistent powerhouse with a winning formula and a unique identity in the sporting landscape. And yet, the forced literal change at the highest levels that steals the characters and their continued relevance has inspired the temptation to distinguish the current iteration from what came before, or at least downplay the connection.

“It begs the question,” general manager James Click — hired to replace Jeff Luhnow, who was fired immediately following the results of MLB’s investigation in January 2020 — said of all of Houston’s wins over the past half-decade, “where does it come from?”

It really is. Because they’ve been so dominant for so many seasons, it’s only natural to look to the passing line from 2017 to now, what makes them the Astros, what makes them win. But to find it and hold it as ideal in the game would be to celebrate cheaters.

Even though everyone else still counts on it, these Astros played baseball. And after Saturday night in Houston, the 2022 team has at least one very important thing in common with the 2017 team: a championship. And (hopefully) one very important difference: there is no rising star.

The Houston Astros celebrate their 4-1 World Series victory against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Houston.  (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
The Houston Astros celebrate after their World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

To win it all, capped by a 4-1 victory over the fledgling Philadelphia Phillies, the 2022 Astros were on their own.

With the Astros leading three games to two, the World Series returned to Houston this weekend. They won 106 games in the regular season, mixed the division series and the championship series to reach their fourth World Series in six years undefeated in the postseason, but they are still chasing the first trophy of a franchise that would not have rival fans calling for it to be abolished.

The Phillies proved gutsy and boring. That is, until their tired arms started to give out and the big bats came up short.

And so the Astros entered the bottom of the sixth trailing 1-0 and proceeded to display some of their most iconic abilities. Catcher Martín Maldonado came to the plate and allowed himself to be hit by a pitch, putting his body on the line to help the team when he knew he was unlikely to do so with his bat; 12-year veteran second baseman José Altuve grounded out to avoid a double play, because even though he’s lost his stride at age 32, he’ll still hustle; rookie sensation Jeremy Peña hit a single up the middle to push his postseason OPS over 1.000 and secure eventual World Series MVP honors; and a largely unheralded minor league acquisition turned one of the best pure hitters in the sport, Yordan Alvarez created a seismic event in one fell swoop by taking his third postseason start to the moon. It would have been a three-run home run anywhere between the foul poles and over the fence, but it will look a lot better in hindsight as it was 450 feet to dead center, over the batter’s eye emblazoned with the Astros’ “H.”

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“Man, that ball was hit hard,” Peña said after the game. “I’ve never seen anything like it. And if I saw it, it was probably from him.”

“I would have to hit twice to hit that far,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who walked and scored later in the inning.

Meanwhile, legendary organizational success story Framber Valdez has kept the Phillies’ lineup largely off balance, and the Astros’ bullpen — the best in baseball during the regular season, with a sub-1.00 ERA this postseason — has silenced even whispers of a comeback.

Regardless of the potential pop in the Phillies’ offense, the game was as good as it got after Alvarez’s homer, his team coming out of the dugout to celebrate as the stadium rocked. From then on it was just a matter of counting the cars. And when Nick Castellanos hit Kyle Tucker in the final out, the Astros became the first team since 2013 to win the World Series at home. In front of the only fans who don’t hate them, they became world champions again.

Yordan Alvarez celebrates his three-run home run during the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series.  (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Yordan Alvarez celebrates his three-run homer during Game 6 of the World Series. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

‘They will make their own decisions’

“I don’t think we want to prove anything to anybody,” said pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., one of five players remaining from the 2017 team. “I think we wanted to prove that we were the best team in baseball, and we did.”

Call it paradox or hypocrisy, the contradiction is impossible to avoid. The Astros don’t want to look defensive, or like they’re allowing themselves to be defined by the mantle of villains. But above all, each team is each other’s enemy by definition. And the Astros in particular had only two options after being exposed for cheating: they could win or they could lose. Either way, it would be considered a referendum, or at least in relation to the 2017 championship. Maybe it is the real punishment for those indiscretions: Even in their most successful, euphoric moments, after finally returning to the top after years of getting close, the Astros wonder about their deepest source of shame.

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But at least the winners can drink champagne.

“We won tonight. They’ll make their own decisions,” owner Jim Crane said of whether this will stifle naysayers, “but we got the trophy.”

“What’s happened before, it never completely goes away,” manager Dusty Baker said. At age 73, he became the oldest manager to win a World Series. After 25 years, he was no longer the manager with the most games (2,093) without a ring to show for it. Because Baker, of course, wasn’t an Astro in 2017. He was brought in after AJ Hinch was fired along with Luhnow. He was brought to be loved, and he was, and to preside over a new culture with the same victory that he now has.

Afterwards, he talked about how, growing up, he never liked that the Boston Celtics and New York Yankees always dominated.

“But then when I became a player and a manager, I longed to be just like the Celtics and the Yankees. They beat teams,” he said. “You know, it never gets old.”

What makes the Astros the Astros?

Earlier this month, the New Yorker published an opus about whether people change their core selves over the course of their lives, or whether they are the same person they’ve always been. The sprawling piece consults poetry, philosophy, psychology, personal experience and the social sciences. The results are interesting and inconclusive.

One particularly thorough study cited in the article found that over many decades, “people’s moods were persistent.”

“That durability is due in part to the social power of temperament, which, as the authors write, is ‘a machine that designs another machine, which further influences development,'” the article says, citing the study.

In other words, by acting on our innate traits, we are more likely to create conditions in our social environment that reinforce those traits.

The The New Yorker, however, wonders “how much can this kind of work reveal about the deeper, more personal question of our own continuity or mutability? It depends on what we mean when we ask who we are. We are, after all, more than our dispositions.” An example of twins with similar personalities, one of whom is involved in politics, and the other in organized crime, is given.

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So what makes the Astros the Astros? And is it the same as it always was?

They tell you it’s player development, or camaraderie; analytics or ambition; preparation, professionalism and the ever-present expectation of victory.

“Anytime you have an organization that is able to sustain the success that this organization has had, it’s never going to be one thing. It has to be everything,” said Click.

However, some insights should be gained. Houston, known for passing on data, was particularly good at translating geeky stuff into actionable improvements for players. Click attributes that to broader advances in technology and cohesion between the clubhouse and front office.

Ten years ago, it was all abstract, numbers-in-a-table type stuff. Now, “we can talk about release point, we can talk about extension, we can talk about stride length, we can talk about spin rate. Those are things that are tangible to players in a way that I don’t think data has been,” Click said.

(“A machine that designs another machine” is actually a perfect explanation of a franchise that continues to field winning teams by molding players into some optimized image.)

That explanation reflects a commitment to staying on top, and now we’ve gotten somewhere in search of the Astros’ true mood.

“Guys have been talking a lot in the clubhouse the past few games about zero complacency,” Click said. “That also applies to the front office. We know we can’t do the same thing we did two or three years ago. If we do it, someone else will do it and then we fall behind. So it has to be that same zero complacency where you’re constantly updating, constantly reinventing, constantly turning the mirror on yourself to make sure you’re not getting complacent. And it’s exhausting, honestly. …And that can be frustrating for a lot of people because they’re like, ‘I don’t understand, why do we need to change? This works.’ But as soon as you say ‘why do I have to change’, you’re dead.”

Click, by the way, won the World Series after his previous contract expired without a new one. It is widely speculated in the industry that he will not be reinstated.

The Astros are ruthless, ruthless, dedicated to winning at any cost. That’s why they cheated, and maybe they didn’t have to. That is their disposition; sometimes they behave differently. Crane said part of their success in player development is having a five-year plan that is ready to replace anyone, even the core of a winning team. Just look at their World Series MVP — Peña’s success replacing Carlos Correa. Perhaps the passing line is a constant evolution.

So are the 2022 Astros the same Astros as the 2017 Astros? They wouldn’t be the Astros if they were.

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