Rise of the Underdogs!
by Jim Silva
The 2016 hot stove league had a couple darlings, including the Cubs in the National League and the Astros in the American League. Many baseball professionals picked the two teams to face off in the World Series. Both teams are viewed as young and exciting, but only one of them has any realistic chance left of still having games to play as pumpkins are being carved as the Astros fell short of the wild card. The Chicago Cubs have captured the hearts of America, or at least the hearts of anyone who ever lived in Chicago plus a bunch of bandwagoners, while the Astros have been a disappointment for most. Why did two of the most exciting teams at the start of the season end up in such different places as 2016 winds down?
Let’s start with some franchise history, shall we, since it’s important to know where you’ve been to know how you got to where you are now? As the country celebrated its centennial, the National League version of the Chicago Cubs named the Chicago White Stockings were born. The proto-Cubs started play in the National Association starting in 1870, but became a charter member of the National League in 1876. The team, led by Ross Barnes, their slugging 2nd baseman, Al Spalding, essentially their pitching staff, and Cap Anson, their 3rd baseman, won the very first National League Pennant with a mix of good pitching and great hitting.
In 1890, with a name change to the Chicago Colts, the National League team, playing in West Side Park, was led by Cap Anson still, but a different pitcher – Bill Hutchinson. The Colts would never finish higher than second, and by 1898 had changed their name to the Orphans. The first Orphans team featured league-leading pitching headed by Clark Griffith and his over 300 innings of 1.88 ERA work, which also led the league. Griffith, who would later own the Washington Senators, stayed with the National League club for two more seasons.
Finally, in 1903, the team became the Cubs. Playing in West Side Park until 1916 when they were purchased by Charlie Weeghman who moved them into Weeghman Park (later purchased by William Wrigley), the Cubs took only three more seasons to make it to the third World Series ever, where they would fall to their crosstown rivals, the White Sox, in six games despite winning 23 more games than the Sox in the regular season. The Tinker to Evers to Chance Cubs would make it back to the World Series each of the next two seasons beating Ty Cobb and the Tigers both times. From 1906 through 1910, the Cubs won an average of 106 games a season, won the National League pennant 4 times, and won the World Series twice (they lost to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1910). 1910 was the last time player-manager Frank Chance would lead the Cubs to the World Series and it wasn’t until 1918 that the Cubs would win another pennant. Led by pitcher Hippo Vaughn, the 1918 Cubs fell to the Red Sox in six games, with Babe Ruth winning two of the four games for Boston as their starting pitcher.
From 1919 through 1927 (when Cubs Park was renovated and renamed Wrigley Field), the Cubs couldn’t muster even a second place finish in the National League. But in 1928, led by “Rajah” – Rogers Hornsby – the Cubs rode their league-leading offense and excellent pitching staff to another pennant. Once again, the Cubs lost the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics, this time in five games, to an A’s team packed with future Hall of Famers. 1932 came as did another World Series loss – to the Yankees this time – in a sweep. In 1935 it was the Tigers again – this time led by Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Schoolboy Rowe. The Tigers took down the Cubs, in spite of Chicago’s deep starting rotation and potent offense, in six games. The Cubs made it back to the Series, hoisting another NL pennant in 1938. Unfortunately, they once again faced a Yankees juggernaut led by DiMaggio and a cast of Hall of Famers. The Yankees outscored the Cubs 22 to 9 while sweeping them again.
The next time the Cubs won the National League Pennant would be the last time – 1945 – with a starting rotation made up of five pitchers who won at least 11 games and a pitching staff that led the league in ERA at 2.98. Their offense was tough too, leading the league in batting average and on-base percentage. In the Series, the Cubs leaned heavily on pitcher Hank Borowy who took the decision in 4 of the 7 games. Borowy, who was a mid-season purchase from the Yankees, was outstanding in the regular season and pitched reasonably well in the Series too, faced three batters to start game seven, but failed to record an out and was lifted. “Prince” Hal Newhouser, Detroit’s future Hall of Fame starter, got the win in a rout ending the Cubs season with a loss in the World Series for the seventh time in their last seven World Series appearances. In four of those seven World Series matches, the Cubs had won more regular season games than their opponents. The Cubs have the longest streak of World Series losses uninterrupted by a victory as well as the longest streak of seasons without a World Series win – that one stands at 108 years and counting. They haven’t even sniffed the World Series since that loss in 1945.
In the off-season prior to the 2012 season, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be the President of the team, and Jed Hoyer to be the general manager. During the Epstein-Hoyer years the Cubs have won more games each season after their initial 101 loss season in 2012, winning five more game in 2013, then seven more games in 2014. They won 24 more games in 2015 (capturing the second wild card spot, pushing past the Pirates in the play-in game, then getting swept by the Mets in the NLDS), and six more games in 2016 for a total of 103 wins – the most in the majors. That is quite a climb from dead last five straight seasons to the best record in baseball and World Series favorites. Their excellent farm system and deep pockets have proven a deadly formula for climbing back from the dead that wouldn’t have happened without the talent of Epstein and Hoyer. Now the Cubs are about to face the winner of the Dodgers-Nats series for the right to play in the World Series. Is it next year yet?
Houston came to life in 1962 as the expansion Houston Colt 45’s, the same year as the New York Mets. The two teams participated in an expansion draft to populate their major league rosters. The expansion draft was clearly designed to strip money from the new owners and place it in the pockets of the established owners, as the existing major league teams received hefty prices for each player taken. After taking two players from a team at $75,000 a piece, the Mets and Astros would take one more player at $50,000 and then that team who had lost three players to the Mets or Astros would have to make two more “premium” players available at $125,000 each. Just for comparison Willie Mays, who was 31 and a well-established star, was paid $75,000 in 1962. Mickey Mantle, who won his third MVP in 1962, made $90,000. As none of the players made available in any part of the draft were anywhere near the caliber of Mays or Mantle, the fees paid to acquire players were exorbitant to say the least. The fees went to the existing owners of course.
To rub dirt in the expansion teams’ wounds, since the draft happened right after the World Series, existing teams hadn’t yet culled players they would have taken off the 40 man roster anyway, or promoted players from the minors who they wanted to protect. It made for a very weak, overpriced pool, and it meant that the Astros and Mets were horrible right from the start. They weren’t able to take any top prospects unlike the American League expansions teams had done a year before. The Astros did a remarkable job not finishing last in the National League in their first season. They still managed to lose 96 games besting the Cubs and the horrific Mets who lost 120 games. One of the reasons they did as well as they did was luck. Yes, I know it sounds odd to say that the Astros got lucky when they lost 96 games, but when you consider the field from which they had to pick their beginning roster, it’s amazing that they ended up with seven players who were able to post more than 2.0 WAR in 1962, but they did.
Turk Farrell posted far and away his best season in 1962 accumulating 7.0 WAR. He had earned no higher than 3.0 WAR in any previous season and would never put together a season after that worth more than 3.8 WAR so the Astros clearly caught lightning in a bottle with Farrell. The man who was second on the team in WAR, Don McMahon, was purchased early in the season so he doesn’t really count if you are only looking at expansion picks, but McMahon also put up the most WAR of his career for Houston earning 3.8 WAR out of the pen. McMahon had a long career almost exclusively as a reliever but never put up a year like 1962 before or after. Pitcher Bob Bruce put up his first WAR above 1.0 with a 2.1 WAR in 27 starts and five relief appearances. Bruce would go on to put up even better seasons, but 1962 was definitely a breakthrough for the then 29 year old hurler. Right fielder Roman Mejias in his age 31 season cobbled together his first and only WAR above 0.7. With a WAR of 2.5 mostly based on a good offensive year, Mejias clearly exceeded expectations. The Astros wisely flipped him after the season for All Star shortstop Pete Runnels who unwisely stopped playing well and was done for good after two seasons in Houston. Still, the Astros knew they had gotten lucky and cashed in their chips. Jim Umbricht was 31 when the Astros acquired him and had never posted a positive WAR in the majors to that point. Houston got his best two seasons from a WAR standpoint as he posted 2.4 WAR in 1962 and then 2.0 WAR in 1963 but died – yes died – before the 1964 season, succumbing to cancer. Umbricht was primarily a reliever with good control, who would likely have become a mainstay in the pen had things broken differently for him. 1962 was not Ken Johnson’s best year, but it was his first season with a WAR over 1.5 as he put up 2.6 WAR as a 29 year old starting pitcher. His next season with Houston was the best of his career as he posted 4.1 WAR. Johnson pitched until he was 37 and accumulated over 20 WAR for his career, but he was done as a rotation stalwart at 35. Bob Aspromonte was the 7th man on the Astros to put up more than 2.0 WAR in 1962 (he managed 2.1 WAR) – his first positive WAR season of his career. It was the second best season of his career from a WAR standpoint. Aspromonte was a starter for Houston for seven seasons before heading to the Braves.
That’s either good scouting or excellent luck when you pick that many guys off the scrap heap and turn them into something better than a replacement level guy you would find in triple-A, so the Astros really should have been much worse than they were. They wouldn’t make the playoffs until 1980, their 19th season, and they wouldn’t get to the World Series until 2005 where they lost to the White Sox. To date that is the Astros only trip to the Series. They are most definitely moving in the right direction having won 86 and 84 games in the last two seasons. The average age of their hitters is 26.6 years old (that should go up next year), and while their pitchers averaged 28.9 years old this past season, they are likely to get younger on the mound as they sift through the wreckage of their rotation and incorporate their young guns charging from the minors.
How did the Astros reach these new heights? Part of the formula involved tanking it for several seasons. Obviously, when you move up in the draft you still have to pick well and trade well to make the better picks pay off, and the Astros have mostly done that. Starting with the 2010 season (and you could argue for even earlier) the Astros scrapped their roster and chose not to compete in order to rebuild their roster through the draft. The ‘Stros had the very first pick in the draft for three straight seasons (2012 through 2014) and used those picks to nab Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Brady Aiken. They “earned” those picks by losing 106, 107, and 111 games from 2011 through 2013. But it isn’t just those first rounders who have turned the team around. Their current roster is sprinkled with draft picks from those lean years – Carlos Correa and fellow first rounder George Springer topping the list – as well as players who were acquired via trades (like Evan Gattis) using some of their draft hauls. Now the Astros have a core that they can ride for quite a while – remember the position players’ average age of 26.6 mentioned above – and a middle of the pack farm system that would rank higher if they hadn’t just graduated several players to the big club.
So is tanking the way to play it when it is clear that you don’t have enough horses to compete for the next season or two? Should everyone try to compete every year? I guess that question is up to the fans who buy tickets and merchandise, and the commissioner/owners to answer since it seems to be de rigeur in MLB and the NBA these days. It has worked for the Cubs and the Astros as both teams are poised to compete every year for the next few seasons at least. It is certainly painful for the casual fans to watch their team lose 100 games a year, and it could certainly be addressed by MLB if they wanted to make it harder to tank in the future. Perhaps they should look at fantasy baseball to find measures taken to prevent tanking in the future, but that assumes that baseball thinks tanking is a bad thing. In the meantime it is a great time to be an Astros fan and the best time in the last century to be a Cubs fan, so enjoy the ride!