If the Royals’ progress over the past decade can be depicted with a gradually climbing arrow on a line graph, the Houston Astros are a dramatic V shape.
The teams that meet in the American League Division Series beginning Thursday at Kauffman Stadium mapped their own courses, with the Royals progressing steadily under general manager Dayton Moore. With a 95-67 finish, they become only the second team in major-league history since 1914 to have an improved record in six straight seasons.
The Astros’ swings in fortune have been dramatic. In 2008, three years after the franchise’s lone World Series appearance, they won 86 games. Six losing seasons ensued, including the disasterous 2011-13 stretch when Houston averaged 108 losses, before their about-face back to this year’s 86-victory campaign.
The Astros’ rise is a story of hope. Just two years ago, the team was being compared to some of the most futile in the history of professional sports.
“I think about it every day,” pitcher Dallas Keuchel said. “My first year in 2012 and 2013, 100 losses. So that’s something I don’t forget and something you’ll never forget just how bad it was and how quickly we’ve turned things around.”
At least few were watching. In the down years, Astros games weren’t offered by Houston’s largest television carriers. The exposure and demand improved this season.
Now, the Astros have grown so popular that a St. Louis Cardinals employee was implicated in hacking Houston’s computer database this summer.
With the team’s accelerated rise, who wouldn’t want the inside scoop?
Skillful drafting and development — see Keuchel, who led the shutdown of the Yankees in Tuesday’s 3-0 Wild Card victory, and rising-star shortstop Carlos Correa — savvy trades and an eye for talent discarded by other teams tell the personnel story of the rapid rebuild.
The Astros stayed away from high-priced free agents and focused their energy on building a young core — building a winner on a budget.
Impatience also was part of the solution.
“One of the things I noticed about our guys, especially the guys who have been here, they were tired of losing,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “The one thing that was important to me in the spring was to get their mindset right, to where our best was good enough on a daily basis.”
Hinch wasn’t part of the triple-digit losing seasons. He got the job this year, his second stint as a manager, having spent parts of two seasons guiding the Arizona Diamondbacks. As a catcher for seven years, including with the Royals in 2001 and 2002, Hinch experienced plenty of losing.
He also spent time with the 2003 Tigers, who finished 43-119.
“You can’t ever be comfortable with losing at this level,” Hinch said. “It will beat you down. And certainly during the rebuilding process I didn’t have to suffer through it like some of the people around here. But there was a great hunger at the beginning of the season. I think we needed to add some belief.”
A charge from the gate provided that belief. The Astros went 15-7 in April and on May 3 had opened up a seven-game lead in the AL West.
Houston struggled in September, when the Astros fell from first place, and didn’t play well on the road all season (33-48) ... that is, until it mattered most. The Astros won four of six at Seattle and Arizona to end the season and clinch the playoff spot.
“We played better and better as the season went on,” Hinch said. “We started to believe a little bit more and the appetite for winning — not just ‘not losing’ — became the greatest focus.”
The Astros muscled their way through the season. No player hit more than Evan Gattis’ 27 home runs, but four others hit at least 22. The team’s 230 home runs ranked second in the majors behind the Blue Jays.
The team’s ERA improved from 4.11 in 2014 to 3.57 this season, sixth best in baseball. Keuchel, tabbed as the Astros’ Game 3 starter on Sunday, is the likely AL Cy Young winner with a 20-8 record and 2.48 ERA. Collin McHugh, Houston’s Game 1 starter, is 19-7 with a 3.89 ERA.
The Royals finished with 91 fewer home runs and a higher team ERA (3.73). But they also finished with 95 victories, and if the teams’ path and structure don’t mirror each other, they’re bound by at least this significant element.
“Both teams have a lot of fun,” McHugh said. “You can tell they have a lot of fun in the clubhouse. They have a lot of fun on the field, and it translates into an exciting game that they play. I think that’s the closest similarity I can see with our team.”