Asher Wojciechowski was there at the beginning, on opening day in 2015, the year the Houston Astros started winning again. He lost his first start, struggled in his next two and slipped back to the minors. Soon he was wandering the baseball landscape, bouncing through six organizations before landing in the rotation of the Baltimore Orioles this summer at age 30.
“I would have loved to have just stayed with the Astros and still be pitching for them,” Wojciechowski said last week by his locker at Camden Yards. “I’d be in my sixth year in the big leagues, if that were the case. But it didn’t happen that way.”
To Wojciechowski, and so many like him, the Astros represent the promised land, the big rock candy mountain of baseball. A lot of homegrown talent becomes elite and stays that way. New players learn what works, discard what doesn’t, and evolve with a changing game. There ain’t no snow and the rain don’t fall and the wind don’t blow.
“I always thought, like, ‘These dudes are cheating, something’s going on,’” said the left-hander Wade Miley, who joined Houston on a one-year, $4.5 million contract and is having the best season of his nine-year career. “If they are, they haven’t let me in on it yet. It’s just a really talented team and a good group of guys.”
The Astros won 101 games in 2017, when they captured their first World Series title. They won 103 games last season before falling to Boston in the American League Championship Series. Entering Friday they were 78-44, on a pace to win 100 yet again.
And while teams do not hang banners for performance at the trading deadline, the Astros outdid their peers among baseball’s power elite. The Yankees did nothing. Neither did the sinking Red Sox, the defending champions. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who have lost the last two World Series, tweaked their bullpen and bench. The Astros thought bigger, picking up a couple of useful arms, a catcher and yet another ace in Zack Greinke.
“The teams that should be making the biggest moves at the deadline are the ones that actually have the greatest chance of winning the World Series, rather than those teams that are on the bubble to even make it to the playoffs,” General Manager Jeff Luhnow said, describing the findings of an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.com.
“I do believe that there’s some truth to that. We’ll see, because we certainly took a big risk.”
ImageCreditBob Levey/Getty Images‘We push each other.’
Among the Astros’ deadline pickups was Aaron Sanchez, who had gone 3-14 with a 6.07 E.R.A. for the Blue Jays.
But Sanchez is 27 years old and under team control through 2020. He won the league E.R.A. title in 2016 and earned the Blue Jays’ only victory in that fall’s A.L.C.S. He throws a sinker, a pitch the Astros generally de-emphasize. That made Sanchez a distressed asset willing to entertain changes or build off the small signs of progress he had already made, like Charlie Morton did in Houston two years ago.
“They showed me how my stuff played and showed me how to execute it,” Sanchez said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for me — my mind always knew how to get to that point but I just never knew how to turn that into the game. Their presentation to me was very thorough in how to execute plans.”
Then again, insisted Sanchez, who has thrown more curveballs and four-seamers with the Astros, game-planning is useless without the talent to apply it. Naturally, in his first start for Houston, he fired six innings of a combined no-hitter against Seattle. Sanchez’s next start was even easier — a 23-2 rout over the Orioles. The rookie Yordan Alvarez pounded three homers and the Astros set a club record for runs scored.
“When they came calling and gave me the opportunity to start, I felt like that was perfect for me,” said Sanchez, who was worried a new team might stuff him in the bullpen. “It’s just awesome to be a part of this.”
Luhnow acquired Sanchez and reliever Joe Biagini from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for outfielder Derek Fisher as part of his flurry of activity just before the July 31 deadline. He also reacquired catcher Martin Maldonado from the Chicago Cubs for the utility man Tony Kemp, and he sent prospects — including the former first-round draft picks J.B. Bukauskas and Seth Beer — to Arizona for Greinke, a starter with a Hall of Fame résumé, and $24 million to help pay his salaries through 2021.
The Astros, who have been at the forefront of baseball’s analytics revolution since Luhnow took over in 2011, identify dormant skills, make supporting data easy to understand and access, and cultivate an environment in which players are assertive yet open-minded and share information.
“We push each other,” said second baseman Jose Altuve, the longest-tenured Astro (since 2011) and a former A.L. most valuable player. “We encourage each other to be the best version of the best player we can be.”
Altuve said the players feel a responsibility to match the commitment from the front office, which has increased payroll under the owner Jim Crane as the team kept winning and revenues rose. Miley said he had been struck by how frank his teammates can be.
“It all starts with respecting each other and treating each other as men, as friends,” said outfielder George Springer, the World Series M.V.P. in 2017. “I feel completely comfortable going up to any guy in here and saying, ‘Hey, man, this is what I see.’ I think that’s how everybody is here.”
ImageCreditBob Levey/Getty ImagesA marketplace of ideas in the clubhouse
That includes one of the shortest-tenured players: Greinke, a recluse with the news media but very popular with his teammates, who appreciate his generosity and thirst for innovation. Before Miley’s start in Baltimore, Greinke coached him on his curveball — not with a new grip, but with a more aggressive thought process. Miley said the pitch was the best it has ever been.
“When I’m getting swings and misses on my curveball, I’m like, ‘Wow,’” said Miley, who mainly depends on cutters and changeups. “I checked the data and it was spinning faster and it had more break on it. It’s amazing.”
Greinke, while not offering specifics, said one of his new teammates had already told him something he had never considered about pitching. He seems to fit well in a clubhouse that has already impressed him, he said, by how freely teammates trade ideas.
“He’s intellectually curious,” Manager A.J. Hinch said of Greinke. “He wants to know how we operate, and he wants to know how we prepare. He loves talking about baseball, everything from scouting and development to the game-planning.”
Greinke’s first Astros start was against the Colorado Rockies, a team he faced often in the National League West, giving him an early opportunity to compare Houston’s analytical approach to his own. An early adopter of advanced metrics, Greinke said he was encouraged to learn that the Astros’ data was as sophisticated as the models he uses.
“From everything I’ve heard, he’s a great consumer of information, and his appetite for it is very high,” Luhnow said. “So if there’s something in there, he’ll find it and unlock it. But we didn’t trade for him with the expectation that we’re going to make him better. He’s pretty darned good as he is.”
While Houston gave up plenty for Greinke, he became the third ace Luhnow has acquired without sacrificing the jewels of his farm system. The Astros got their deadline haul without giving up their two best prospects — outfielder Kyle Tucker and pitcher Forrest Whitley — and Alvarez, the 22-year-old designated hitter who has been the league’s most dynamic rookie with 17 home runs in his first 49 games.
They also retained their best prospects while acquiring their other aces, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Of the four prospects sent to Detroit for Verlander in 2017, only catcher Jake Rogers has reached the majors. The best of the four players sent to Pittsburgh for Cole in 2018 — third baseman Colin Moran and starter Joe Musgrove — have been roughly league average.
But Luhnow acknowledged that the quantity-for-quality trading model might not be sustainable for much longer.
“We’ve done three years of deals in a row where we’ve traded four tier-1A guys instead of tier-1 guys,” he said, “and we may be out at this point.”
Collecting aces hardly guarantees a championship; Verlander did not win one in Detroit with Max Scherzer and David Price, nor did Greinke with Clayton Kershaw on the Dodgers. But the Astros can expect to have three top starters at their peak, a sobering thought for their opponents.
Like Greinke is now, Verlander and Cole were established stars before they arrived in Houston. Yet both have gotten even better by hunting for strikeouts in this swing-and-miss age. Verlander throws more sliders than he did with the Tigers, Cole more curveballs than he did with the Pirates.
There is always something, it seems, that the Astros can highlight, and the players buy in.
“The analytics help show guys what they do well,” Verlander said. “And I think the veteran guys showing guys how to pitch and talking about how to pitch and how to use their stuff is another big step in the right direction.”
Verlander made certain to emphasize that the Astros would not have won a World Series without the offense of Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, citing grizzled newcomers in 2017 whose contributions went well beyond their middling numbers. More recently, though, new players like Cole and outfielder Michael Brantley have brought both traits: leadership and elite production. It has become the Astros’ way.
All of this makes Hinch, a former catcher, somewhat envious of his own players. Hinch hit .219 with 32 homers in his seven seasons through 2004, accumulating exactly 0.0 wins above replacement. Had he played for the modern Astros, he is certain he would have done more.
“I really do wish I would have had all the information,” said Hinch, adding that the Astros would have found a way to help him use his power. “From a player’s side of it, I absolutely think I would have been the best player that I possibly could have been under our operation.”
That time has come and gone, alas, but Hinch’s players live with that assurance every day. Whether or not they win the World Series, they know they will be the best version of themselves.
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SOURCE : https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/16/sports/baseball/houston-astros.html