What Major League Baseball Was Like When: The Astros Last Won the World Series

Welcome to segment 2 of the “What the MLB Was Like When” series, where we’ll be focusing on the 2017 season, when the Houston Astros last won the title. For the last article, on 2018 and the Red Sox’s last championship, click here. To read other articles from this series, click here (this won’t show you much until more articles are done). Remember, this is more about the league than about the team that won the World Series, although there’s plenty to talk about specifically about them too. So, let’s go back to 2017 and remember what the MLB was like.

 

Award Winners

MVP

American League: José Altuve, Houston Astros

Other finalists: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees; José Ramírez, Cleveland Indians

National League: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

Other finalists: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds; Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

José Altuve finished his fourth consecutive 200 hit season, in a time when the feat was increasingly rare, with just 4 players getting 200 hits in 2017, and had added power in ’16 and ’17 despite his 5’6, 165 lb frame and earned the AL MVP award for the division-winning, eventually World Series-winning, Astros. Judge came the closest we’d seen a rookie to the MVP award since Ichiro won it in 2001 despite leading the majors in strikeouts. He did this by breaking Mark McGwire’s rookie record for home runs (49) by hitting an American League-leading 52 homers, while also drawing 127 walks. These two being the top two vote-getters makes me wish they would put them on a podium to see if Judge (6’7) would be taller than Altuve despite the lower place on the podium. Ramírez went from good to great by, similarly to Altuve the year before, adding power while retaining great contact hitting, with his home runs jumping from 11 to 29 as part of an increase of 31 in extra base hits.

Stanton had always been a great power hitter, but after injuries limited him in 2014 and ’15 and playing on a Marlins team lingering around .500, no one had him pegged as a likely MVP winner. He put up a stat line too good for voters to ignore when he hit 59 home runs and collected 132 RBIs, both league-leading, along with an NL-best .631 slugging. It was just enough to put him 2 vote points ahead of Votto, on another team not competing for the playoffs in the Reds, who had 36 homers to go with the league lead in walks (134) and OBP (.454) and the NL lead in OPS (1.032), which nearly earned him his second career MVP award, having won one in 2010 on a more competitive Reds team that made the playoffs. Goldschmidt’s Diamondbacks at least made the playoffs, as a Wild Card team, and drove in a lot of runs like Stanton while hitting 36 home runs like Votto to go along with Gold Glove defense at first base, but he trailed just behind them in enough categories to finish slightly behind in the highly contested race that also saw Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies receive significant support.

Cy Young Award

American League: Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

Other finalists: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox; Luis Severino, New York Yankees

National League: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

Other finalists: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers; Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

Kluber led the league in wins (tied with Kershaw at 18), ERA (2.25), complete games (5), shutouts (3), and WHIP (0.87) and cruised, with 28 of 30 first-place votes, to his second career Cy Young Award and collecting the most MVP vote points (101) of any pitcher that year. He actually struggled in April and got hurt in his first start in May, but upon returning on June 1, he posted a 1.62 ERA the rest of the way. Sale finished his sixth consecutive season in the top 6 of Cy Young voting without winning the award even once after leading the league in strikeouts (308) and innings pitched (214 1/3) and collecting 17 wins with an ERA just under 3. Severino was a young breakout in 2017, making his first All-Star appearance at 23 and finishing the year 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA for the Wild Card Yankees.

Scherzer won his second consecutive and third career Cy Young Award, cementing himself as one of the top pitchers of his generation while leading the National League in strikeouts (268) and WHIP (0.902) and a career-best 2.51 ERA for the division-winning Nationals. Kershaw led the NL in ERA (2.31) and tied Kluber for the league lead in wins with 18, but only pitched 175 innings in 27 starts, which is likely what kept some voters from putting him #1 on their ballot. The former #1 overall pick, Strasburg posted a career-low 2.52 ERA, but similar to Kershaw had a low innings total allowing Scherzer’s body of work, along with his typically great strikeout total, to stand out on the ballot.

Rookie of the Year

American League: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

Other finalists: Andrew Benintendi, Boston Red Sox; Trey Mancini, Baltimore Orioles

National League: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

Other finalists: Paul DeJong, St Louis Cardinals; Josh Bell, Pittsburgh Pirates

Judge, as we mentioned earlier for his runner-up MVP finish, hit a rookie record 52 home runs while posting an OPS of 1.049 and driving in 114 runs while scoring 128 himself. Benintendi hit 20 home runs and stole 20 bases in his rookie year with the Red Sox to finish as the runner-up for ROTY. Mancini hit .293 with 24 home runs for the Orioles, keeping all the significant AL ROTY award vote-getters in the AL East. Bellinger also won ROTY unanimously while picking up some MVP votes by smacking 39 homers and putting up a .933 OPS while playing plus defense between first base and the outfield. DeJong hit 25 home runs while playing solid defense in the middle infield on a developing Cardinals team to collect most of the second place votes. Bell hit 26 home runs as the Pirates’ first baseman to impress the BBWAA writers more than other NL rookies for third place.

Manager of the Year

American League: Paul Molitor, Minnesota Twins

Other finalists: Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians; AJ Hinch, Houston Astros

National League: Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks

Other finalists: Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers; Bud Black, Colorado Rockies

Molitor was named AL Manager of the Year after guiding the Twins to the first-ever postseason appearance following a season with at least 100 losses, beating out Francona, who won his division but that was no surprise following a World Series appearance the year before, and Hinch, who led the Astros from a year in which they missed the playoffs to a World Series title, but it was due as much to player development and additions as it was to coaching. Lovullo won the award for the NL in his rookie year as a manager, leading what was a 69-win team the year before to an inverted record of 93-69 and a win in the NL Wild Card Game before getting swept by the Dodgers in the Divisional round. Roberts led those Dodgers to the best record in baseball at 104-58 and a World Series birth in his second year after losing to the Cubs in the NLCS the year before. Black led the Rockies to just a third-place finish in the NL West, but that was good enough to get them to the Wild Card Game where they ultimately fell to the Diamondbacks in his first year at the helm after failing to make the postseason in any of his 9 years in San Diego.

Gold Gloves (Career GG)

American League:

Pitcher: Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays (1). Catcher: Martín Maldonado, Los Angeles Angels (1). First Base: Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals (4). Second Base: Brian Dozier, Minnesota Twins (1). Third Base: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays (3). Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles Angels (3). Outfield: Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins (1); Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals (5); Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox (2).

National League:

Pitcher: Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks (4). Catcher: Tucker Barnhart, Cincinnati Reds (1). First Base: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks (3). Second Base: DJ LeMahieu, Colorado Rockies (2). Third Base: Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies (5). Shortstop: Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants (3). Outfield: Marcell Ozuna, Miami Marlins (1); Ender Inciarte, Atlanta Braves (2); Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs (5).

Maldonado took full advantage of his first opportunity to start in LA after being a backup for the Brewers for many years by winning his first Gold Glove award, while Tucker Barnhart used improved hitting numbers to earn enough playing time to show off his great defense behind the plate. Buxton and Ozuna were supposed to be really good in the outfield for years to come, but both regressed in 2018 and it’s unclear if they’ll be able to be the great fielders they looked primed to be.

Silver Sluggers (Career SS)

American League:

Catcher: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees (1). First Base: Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals (1). Second Base: José Altuve, Houston Astros (4). Third Base: José Ramírez, Cleveland Indians (1). Shortstop: Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians (1). Outfield: Justin Upton, Detroit Tigers/Los Angeles Angels (3); George Springer, Houston Astros (1); Aaron Judge, New York Yankees (1). Designated Hitter: Nelson Cruz, Seattle Mariners (2).

National League:

Catcher: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants (4). First Base: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks (3). Second Base: Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals (2). Third Base: Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies (3). Shortstop: Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers (2). Outfield: Marcell Ozuna, Miami Marlins (1); Giancarlo Stanton: Miami Marlins (2); Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies (2). Pitcher: Adam Wainwright, St Louis Cardinals (1).

Both the AL and NL first baseman had the same player as Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner, although with the AL first baseman being a weak position that year Hosmer finished just 14th in AL MVP voting, while Goldschmidt finished 3rd, and Marcell Ozuna and Nolan Arenado also won both awards. Justin Upton pulled off the fairly rare feat of getting traded midseason and winning a Silver Slugger award, being an All-Star in Detroit that year (already his 3rd different team to earn an All-Star appearance for) before getting shipped to Los Angeles and finish the year earning a Silver Slugger with the Angels. Cleveland’s left side of the infield duo of Ramírez and Lindor established themselves this season by both earning their first Silver Sluggers of their career. An interesting note from the Silver Sluggers was that the AL had 6 first-time winners, while the NL only had 2, and one was the pitcher.

Playoffs

Wild Card games

AL: New York Yankees over Minnesota Twins, 8-4

NL: Arizona Diamondbacks over Colorado Rockies, 11-8

The AL Wild Card Game got out to a crazy start with both teams scoring 3 runs in the first inning despite both teams starting a pitcher who received Cy Young Award votes, and the Yankees actually pulled Luis Severino after getting just one out. But while the Yankee bullpen stopped the bleeding, Minnesota continued to struggle to stop the Yankees as they scored again in the second, third, and fourth innings and made it 7-4 going into the fifth. Home runs from Didi Gregorius, a three-run shot that tied the game in the bottom of the first, Brett Gardner with a solo homer in the second, and Aaron Judge with a two-run dinger in the fourth to give the Pinstripes some breathing room, set the tone for the Yankees to get to the Divisional round.

The D-backs jumped all over Jon Gray and the Rockies, getting out to a 6-0 lead by the end of the third inning, including a 3-run home run by Paul Goldschmidt in the bottom of the first. But the Rockies weren’t done, picking up 4 runs in the fourth, then shrinking Arizona’s lead to one with a run in the top of the seventh. But Archie Bradley, a relief pitcher, hit the third triple of the day for Arizona with two on and two out in the bottom half and the D-backs were back up by 3 to be able to suffer the back-to-back homers by Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story off of Bradley in the eighth and tack on 3 more in their half of the inning. Fernando Rodney would give up another run in the ninth, but it was too little, too late for Colorado and the Diamondbacks moved on.

Divisional Round

AL: New York Yankees over Cleveland Indians, 3-2; Houston Astros over Boston Red Sox, 3-1

NL: Los Angeles Dodgers over Arizona Diamondbacks, 3-0; Chicago Cubs over Washington Nationals, 3-2

The Indians took the first two from the Yankees via a shutout from Trevor Bauer, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen, then a 13-inning battle that ended when Austin Jackson walked and stole a base to start the bottom of the 13th and Yan Gomes singled him in for a walk-off. But the series turned when they went back to Yankee Stadium as Greg Bird hit a solo homer in the seventh as the only run in game 3 with Severino shutting down the Indians, and the Yankee bats picking up for a 7-3 win in game 4 to go back to Cleveland tied at 2. Didi Gregorius hit 2 home runs in the first 3 innings to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead, and after the Indians got 2 runs in the fifth, the Yankee bullpen shut down the Indians for a 5-2 win to send New York to an ALCS matchup with the Astros.

The Astros took back-to-back 8-2 wins in Houston with Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel getting the job done against the Red Sox before heading to Boston where their pitchers got smacked around in a 10-3 loss in game 3. Game 4 was hard fought, with the Astros tying the game at 3 with a George Springer home run off Chris Sale to lead off the eighth, and Houston would get another run and the lead off of Craig Kimbrel and adding a run of insurance on Kimbrel in the ninth, giving them just enough room to survive Rafael Devers’ home run in the bottom of the ninth off of Ken Giles to secure a 5-4 win and move on to the ALCS.

The Dodgers survived 4 Arizona home runs for a 9-5 win in game one, and then the Diamondbacks would get two more home runs while the Dodgers got just one extra-base hit in game 2, but LA played small ball and ran their way to an 8-5 win with 4 stolen bases. Yu Darvish then was masterful for 5 innings and the Dodger bullpen allowed just one hit in 4 innings to close out the D-backs in game 3 with a 3-1 win.

Chicago got 7 shutout innings from Kyle Hendricks in a 3-0 win in game one against the Nationals, and led 3-1 going into the bottom of the eighth in game 2 before Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman homered as part of a 5-run inning en route to a 6-3 win. As the series left the capital, the Cubs won another pitcher’s duel in a 2-1 victory in game 3 but Stephen Strasburg shut them out in a 5-0 Washington win in game 4. The deciding game 5 was a slugfest, as both teams notched a 4 run inning and drew a lot of walks, but the Cubs pitchers managed to strand 13 Nationals hitters in a 9-8 win for the Cubs to move on in their World Series title defense.

Championship Series

AL: Houston Astros over New York Yankees, 4-3

NL: Los Angeles Dodgers over Chicago Cubs, 4-1

In the AL series between the Astros and the Yankees, pitching decided the winner as only one of seven games had the losing team scoring more than one run, and the home team won all seven games. ALCS MVP Justin Verlander had a complete game one-run effort in game 2 that the Astros won on a walk-off double by Carlos Correa off of Aroldis Chapman, and then delivered 7 shutout innings in game 6 en route to a 7-1 win. Game 7 saw Charlie Morton go 5 innings and Lance McCullers Jr. pitching the last 4 in a shutout that saw homers by Evan Gattis and José Altuve with a two-run double by Brian McCann providing insurance for the World Series-bound Astros.

Chris Taylor and Justin Turner shared NLCS MVP honors as Taylor homered in a game one win for the Dodgers, Turner homered and drove in 4 in game two, another LA victory that also featured great pitching from Rich Hill and 4 perfect innings out of the bullpen for the Dodgers. Taylor homered and tripled in the game 3 win on Yu Darvish’s one run in 6 1/3 innings, and after a loss in game 4 that still featured a home run by Turner, game 5 saw Taylor score 2 runs and Turner score one and drive in another in an 11-1 dominating close-out game.

World Series: Houston Astros over Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-3

MVP: George Springer

Game one of the World Series featured two former Cy Young winners in Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel, and both of them pitched well but Justin Turner’s two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth would be the difference in a 3-1 game for the Dodgers. The pitching staffs were getting the job done in game two as well until Marwin Gonzalez homered in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 3, then in the 10th José Altuve and Carlos Correa hit back-to-back home runs. But in the bottom half Yasiel Puig homered and the Dodgers would tie the game and send it to the 11th, where George Springer smacked a two-run homer, and despite one more home run by Charlie Culberson, the Astros hung on to win, 7-6. A 4-run second inning that featured a Yuli Gurriel home run powered Houston to a 5-3 win in their first home game of the series, but a 5-run top of the ninth by LA in game 4 including a Joc Pederson 3-run home run earned them a series-tying 6-2 win. Game 5 was a back-and-forth slugfest, with both sides having 3 innings with 3+ runs scored, and 5 different Astros homered, including regular season MVP Altuve and eventual WS MVP Springer before Alex Bregman hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 10th to earn a hard-fought 13-12 win. Back in LA, the Dodgers survived a home run by Springer in the third and won, 3-1 to force a game 7. Springer led off the deciding game with a double as the Astros pushed across two runs in the first. They gave Lance McCullers Jr. a bigger cushion with 3 more in the top of the second including a 2-run shot by Springer. The Dodgers threatened in the sixth with 2 hits and a walk pushing across a run but Charlie Morton was able to get out of it and finish off the 5-1 win to give the Astros their first ever World Series championship. Springer won the MVP award by going 11 for 29 with 3 doubles, 5 home runs, 5 walks, 8 runs and 7 RBIs in the series.

Unusual Notes

This is where we get to a lot of the things history won’t remember, or aren’t important but are just interesting stories that come from a year of baseball.

First-time champion

The Astros were the first first-time champions since the Diamondbacks and Angels won their first championships in 2001 and ’02, respectively. The 15-year gap between the MLB crowning new champions was the longest since the 20-year separation between the Tigers winning their first title in 1935 and the Brooklyn Dodgers winning it all in 1955. The Yankees won 12 titles in that span. Yikes. This time it was the Red Sox and Giants as the top teams in the gap, both winning 3 World Series in that span. The Astros finally joined their 1962 expansion counterpart, the Mets, who had already won two World Series, in 1969 and 1986. The Texas Rangers are now the only team founded before 1969 (which has the Nationals, Padres, and Brewers all still without a title) to have not won a World Series, as the Rangers were founded in 1961 and lost back-to-back World Series in 2010-’11.

One-time All-Stars

In what will be a recurring section of these articles, every year has a few players who made the All-Star game just once in their career, whether by having a year far better than any other in their career or by some odd circumstances, and while it’s somewhat speculation to say these players won’t be All-Stars again, let’s take a look.

Yonder Alonso hadn’t hit double-digit homers before 2017, and then he had 20 by the All-Star break with the A’s and was slugging over .500 after not getting over .400 earlier in his career. He slowed down a bit in 2018 and has really struggled at the start of 2019, now with the White Sox. At 32, a big bounceback doesn’t look likely for Alonso. Zach Cozart was a smooth-fielding shortstop with the Reds who had a career year in 2017, earning an All-Star appearance with a career high in batting average, OBP, slugging, home runs, and runs. He signed with the Angels that offseason, who already had a great shortstop in Andrelton Simmons, and took a backup infield role. Now 33, he likely won’t be making a return appearance to the Mid-Summer classic. Avisaíl García owned a .258 career batting average before 2017, then hit .330 with a career-best 50 extra-base hits. He hit .236 the next year, and while he’s now playing better in Tampa Bay and turning 28 in June, he may never again reach that 2017 peak. Jason Vargas had been an effective bottom of the rotation type pitcher with a career ERA a touch over 4 when he had a great start to the 2017 season with the Royals, carrying a 2.62 ERA into the All-Star break, but lost it down the stretch with a 6.38 ERA the rest of the year and has been ineffective with the Mets since 2018. At 36, he’s likely closer to being done in the majors than he is to a return to quality pitching.

The weird year of the Minnesota Twins

The Twins, as we mentioned before, became the first team to ever make the playoffs after losing 100 games the year before. In the midst of their franchise-record 103 losses they had fired their general manager Terry Ryan in July and that offseason turned control over to Derek Falvey as chief baseball officer and Thad Levine as GM. There were some reports of them wanting to bring in a new manager but owner Jim Pohlad was believed to have made keeping Paul Molitor a requirement for the new GM in his search. Molitor rewarded that faith by winning Manager of the Year while guiding the Twins to the playoffs in the second Wild Card spot. They had some reliable veterans in homegrown talents like Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier, along with Ervin Santana and offseason addition Jason Castro. But while they knew those guys weren’t going to lead this team into the future, they had young talents like Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, and José Berríos but especially Miguel Sanó and Byron Buxton who were supposed to be superstars to carry this team for years to come. But as Sanó and Buxton struggled with ineffectiveness and injuries, and Polanco serving a drug suspension, the Twins struggled again in 2018 and got rid of Molitor as the new front office staff got to get someone they had picked themselves.

Joey Gallo and player value

Joey Gallo was a top-10 ranked prospect by all the major prospect rankings before exceeding his rookie limits in 2016. This was despite about a strikeout and a half per game in the minor leagues because his power hitting was obvious through him hitting 40+ home runs in minor league seasons that are shorter than the big leagues. In 2017 he played his first full season in the majors and hit 41 home runs in 145 games, 532 plate appearances. But he also had less than 100 total hits and 196 strikeouts. Joey Gallo did something that had only previously been done by Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds in hitting more home runs than singles in a full season while qualifying for the batting title (min 502 plate appearances). The difference was Bonds hit 73 home runs to 49 singles (and 177 walks, 35 intentional) in 2001, and McGuire hit 70 homers to 61 singles (162 BB) in 1998 and 65 home runs to 58 singles in ’99 (133 walks) in three of the greatest power-hitting seasons ever. Gallo had 41 homers to 32 singles while drawing a more modest 75 walks leaving his OBP at .333 for the year, just around league average. But that power still made him valuable. Despite average-at-best defense at third base (his natural position that the Rangers later moved him out of), first base and left field, he still provided 3 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball-Reference, slightly better than an average starter. He did a similar thing in 2018 with 40 homers to 38 singles but so far in 2019 he has shown an improved plate discipline and is in line for more walks and (slightly) fewer strikeouts and looks more like player people were projecting when he was a top-10 prospect.

Cups of coffee

A “cup of coffee” refers to a player who had one career appearance in the majors. There were 4 “cup of coffee” players in 2017, including one in John Bormann that’s the truest cup of coffee you can get, pinch-hitting and having just one at-bat in his career. He struck out (he’s currently in Pittsburgh’s minor league system, he could make another appearance but it doesn’t look likely). Kyle Lloyd is still in the Padres minor league system, and he had his cup of coffee in a 4+ inning start against the Mets in which he gave up 4 runs and earned a no-decision. But I was more interested by Seth Frankoff and Dan Slania in part because of the fact that they currently do not have jobs playing professional baseball. Frankoff was a 27th round draft pick out of college and slowly made his way up the minor leagues, with the A’s deciding to move him to the bullpen but the Dodgers and Cubs tried him starting again. His one major league appearance came out of the bullpen, where the first two batters he faced he gave up a hit to a relief pitcher (Chris Rusin) and then a home run to Charlie Blackmon. He was allowed to continue, pitching the fifth and sixth innings and earning a loss in a 5-3 Rockies win over the Cubs that was tied at 2 when Frankoff entered. Slania, on the other hand, was a fifth-round pick out of college who, though the Giants experimented with starting him, was clearly better in a relief role. He was just 25 (Frankoff was 28) when he made his lone appearance, pitching a perfect ninth inning to end a 13-5 Giants win over the Pirates. So it was the end of a blowout, but he faced 3 major league hitters and got them all out, and wasn’t given another opportunity. He pitched in AA in 2018 and had a 2.43 ERA in 70 1/3 innings and was released in March 2019.

Ian Parmley doesn’t count as a cup of coffee player because he played in 3 games, but his first and only start came in a game which his team (the Blue Jays) lost in a walk-off to the Royals, and I thought that was interesting. He went 0-3 with a strikeout and sac bunt. Another brief appearance that caught my eye was David Washington’s 0-6 line with 5 strikeouts between 3 games. He was no longer paid to play baseball by that offseason.

 

The further into the past we go, the more different the MLB will look from today and the weirder things will get in comparison. Until then, we’ll do our best to find unusual stuff in the modern game. To the 2017 Houston Astros, congratulations on winning the World Series. To the MLB in 2017, thanks for giving us some weird times.

Stats and info courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

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