The culture of losing that the Houston Astros accepted for so long ended with the arrival of Bo Porter, but the sustained winning of games started when A.J. Hinch was hired as manager in 2014.
In his two years as Astros skipper, Porter had some classic rants and tirades, beef with his GM about how he handled his B.I. and won just 110 of 300 games. The team he inherited in 2012 isn’t as polished and talented as the Houston team that currently holds the best record in the American League at 31-20 and got off to the best 50-game start in franchise history before getting blanked 6-0 by the Chicago White Sox on Sunday night.
Ultimately Porter was more of a stop gap. He was a strong personality that was put in place to demand accountability and re-establish a winning mentality despite the fact that wins would be few and far between.
Porter didn’t have the talented players or the experience, but he had the drive and the uncompromising will. While his fire and sharp tongue may have demoralized his youthful team at times, Porter also began establishing a foundation of professionalism and he laid the groundwork for the mental approach and toughness it takes to compete over the course of a 162-game season. The classic example of taking two steps backwards to take 10 forward.
The Astros were actually playing winning baseball near the end of Porter’s tenure and it seemed as if his methods were working, but Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow said he wanted someone who had managerial experience this time around. Hinch fit these qualifications and produced immediate results. Though the Astros certainly weren’t contenders in 2014, for the first time in years they felt like they could at least give cats some solid comp every night. It was a key shift for a team that had lost 324 games over the previous three years combined, including a franchise-record 111 games in 2013.
Championship organizations usually have a tasteful chemistry between the front office and the coaches/managers and they are usually on the same philosophical page. Luhnow felt that he needed to find the “perfect” guy to execute the organization’s vision for the future — and with the least possible resistance.
“I think A.J. is going to be the manager that’s going to be here when we win the World Series,” Luhnow said at the time of the hire.
In Porter’s final campaign, he was fired on September 1 and replaced on an interim basis by Tom Lawless. The Astros finished 70-92 and fourth in the AL West, but Porter left Hinch a lot to work with. It’s comparable to the situation with Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr in the NBA. Jackson laid the groundwork of mental toughness and a winning attitude, but the front office wasn’t “comfortable” with his approach. Kerr has taken Jackson’s original recipe, added some personal spices and come up with a masterpiece of a meal; a squad that is just four wins away from its first NBA Championship since 1975.
Like most players, Porter barely paid attention to advanced stats when he briefly balled in MLB from 1999-2001. But when he became the youngest manager in ML, he started to delve deeper into the inside-baseball side of the game. Hinch’s obession with analytics, his comprehension of these numbers and the ability to apply it to the front office’s decision making is what makes him a modern-day upgrade over Porter.
Houston is one of eight MLB franchises to never win a World Series. They’ve been mired in a long rebuilding process and haven’t finished above .500 since going 86-75 in 2008. Porter’s progress was more internal and then Hinch took over a team bursting with potential and made a 19-game improvement over the previous season, to end a streak of three straight 100-loss seasons.
“The goal is to win championships,” said Hinch, a 40-year-old former catcher who spent seven seasons in the majors with the Athletics, Royals, Tigers and Phillies. He managed Arizona from May 2009 until July 2010, when he was fired after a 31-48 start. He was also the vice president of professional scouting for San Diego from 2010 until August.” We need to build on the success that this organization has seen.”
On the field, the success starts with 2014 AL batting champion and baseball jacker Jose Altuve. The 5-foot-6 Altuve finished with some enormous stats; a franchise-record 225 hits and a .341 average, becoming the first Astros player to win a batting title. The 24-year-old also led the AL with 56 stolen bases and he’s picking up where he left off this season, with an even stronger and more confident cast. He’s hitting around .300 and among the leaders in stolen bases. However, his swagger as a leader on a winning squad is where he’s most valuable. He’s a central figure in Houston’s rebirth.
Despite early struggles, Chris Carter is coming off seasons of 29 and 37 homers. He has 8 this year and is sure to get hot. His bat and leadership will also play a major part in Houston being able to keep its eyes on the prize. The emergence of George Springer, the organizations top prospect in 2014 has the club excited as well. Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, hit .231 with 20 homers and 51 RBIs in 78 games and signed a $10 million, five-year contract after being called up in June. His season was cut short when he injured his left quadriceps on July 20, and he didn’t play again. Springer is still figuring it out, but he is another example of why the Astros are so optimistic about a World Series sniff in the future. This season he is showing the combination of power and speed that will electrify ‘Stros fans, when he puts it all together.
Dallas Keuchel is the Astros player that is getting the most shines this season and he deserves the props. He started to blossom last season posting a 2.93 ERA and a team-leading 12 wins in 29 starts. He’s been lights out this season. He has a 7-1 record and a 1.76 ERA with a K-to-BB ratio of 39/13 and a WHIP of 0.95 to lead a formidable rotation that is third in the AL in ERA (3.54).
Another key element in establishing a winning franchise is holding down the fort at home. Houston is 16-12 at Minute Maid Park and Keuchel is the main reason why. The bearded hurler is 5-0 with a 1.05 ERA there. His performances let the opposition know that it’s a new day in Houston. The oil is up and so are the Astros and historically so is their pitching when they are contenders.
It’s been a long time since the Astros were relevant. I remember them battling it out with the Mets in the late 80s for NL supremacy and losing a riveting NLCS in 1986 to Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter and those crazy boys from NY. That Houston staff had Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott (the original master of the splitter) just killing dudes with K’s. In 2005, they had a stacked staff as well with Yankees defects Andy Pettitte (179, 2.39), and Roger Clemens (138 with a league-low ERA of only 1.87) as well as Roy Oswalt (2012, 2.94) who was at his peak.
They have a similar formula this season and the scary part is, they haven’t reached anything close to their full potential. In past years, MLB Nation would wait for the Astros to fade out. That’s not happening this season. MLB has a problem and it’s Houston.