How the Astros survived a scandal of their own making to win another World Series title

That the 2022 Houston Astros are World Series champions is of course the biggest story from the recently completed Fall Classic. Somewhere in line behind that headline is the fact that the Astros have now successfully rebounded the embarrassments and diminishments of the semi-recent sign-stealing scandal that roiled baseball for so long.

Whether you think the Astros’ winning the belt and the title five years after they won their first completes some kind of redemption arc probably depends upon how you feel about the scandal in the first place. Were the Astros the most egregious offenders or merely the ones who got caught among their fellow dishonest travelers? Whatever the case, the 2022 championship validates the Astros’ standing as one of the great teams of recent history, and how they managed to journey from pariahs to conquerors merits further exploration. Let us now pretend to have such insights.

They dodged serious sanctions

By way of unnecessary reminder, the Astros were found to have used the replay-review monitor to steal signs from the opposing catcher and, often by banging a trash can, alert the batter when a pitch was about to be thrown certain. This was in violation of the rules, and after MLB conducted its investigation, it levied penalties that seemed stiff with regard to precedent but in reality may not have been all that meaningful in historical terms of on-field impact. Specifically, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were suspended for the 2020 season (Luhnow and Hinch were promptly fired by owner Jim Crane), the club was fined $5 million, and the Astros lost their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.

None of those things have significantly affected the on-field product we’ve seen since discipline was handed down. Yes, those lost draft picks may eventually be felt, but it’s too soon far that to have happened yet. As for the loss of their lead decision-maker in the front office and in the dugout, that had the potential to hurt the franchise, but, well, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it did given how the Astros have fared since.

They’ve survived turnover on and off the field

Speaking of that last point, the Astros replaced Luhnow with James Click, formerly of the Rays and their front-office incubator, and Hinch with Dusty Baker, one of the most accomplished managers of the modern era. Since the Luhnow-Hinch tandem was dismissed, the Astros have won at a .599 clip during the regular season (versus .594 under Hinch), and they’ve won two pennants and – now – a World Series in a span of three years .

As for on the field, the Astros in recent years have lost five especially notable free agents in Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, George Springer, and Carlos Correa. They seamlessly filled those voids with an outstanding (largely) homegrown rotation, a wise investment in Justin Verlander, the continued development of Yordan Alvarez, and the emergence of rookie ALCS and World Series MVP Jeremy Pena. Lurking in the background, of course, are Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman – the two core members of the 2017 team that the Astros chose to sign to long-term extensions.

Not many organizations could survive yet alone thrive despite such drains of talent in the front office and in the clubhouse, but the Astros have done just that in the post-scandal years.

They’ve developed starting pitching

Time was when the only knock on the Astros was that they weren’t particularly adept at turning promising pitching prospects into useful big-league pitchers. Names like Mark Appel, Forest Whitley, Francis Martes, and Josh James stand out as unfortunate examples (although the book isn’t yet closed on all of them). That unfortunate trend has changed, however, and it’s largely due to the Astros’ success in developing international signees. Their 2022 rotation included the homegrown likes of Framber Valdez (signed in 2015), Luis Garcia (signed in 2017), Jose Urquidy (signed in 2015), and Cristian Javier (signed in 2015). That’s to say nothing of Lance McCuller Jr., whom the Astros drafted out of high school a decade ago. They’ve had some misses over the years, but thanks largely to those international signees it’s no longer really true that the Astros don’t develop pitching well. To withstand the losses of moundsmen like Cole, Morton, and Keuchel, you have no choice but to do that.

They’ve thrived in the playoffs

As of Saturday night’s clinching win in Game 6, the Astros are 28-14 in the postseason under the Click-Baker combo. That’s a .667 winning percentage, and across a full 162 games that comes to a 108-win pace. Yes, the sample size is small, but that’s playoff dominance or something close to it over the last three years. The Astros have been among the best teams in baseball during the past several regular seasons (the heavily abbreviated 2020 campaign is the exception), but as we so often see, regular-season greatness does not always yield postseason success. These most recent Astro models, however, have avoided such October-November flops, and now they have a ring to show for it.

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