In what has become an all-too-familiar tradition, by early September I began looking around at teams whose bandwagons I could jump on. Typically in making these picks I root for interesting stories, forlorn franchises, and players I particularly like to watch play. With an MLB.tv package and pointless Padres games, I found myself watching a lot of Blue Jays, Nationals, Cubs, Pirates Royals and Astros games. For the record, those remain the teams I’m most interested in watching succeed in October unless the Angels hang on to their Wild Card spot. Then go ahead and slide them in to that list if for no other reason than the fact that Mike Trout is always fun to watch and more fun to watch in October.
But this is about the Astros. In many ways I feel like I had found a kindred spirit in the Astros. A controversial and much talked about strip down a few years ago left the Astros with a pretty poor on-field product but an amazing Minor League system. The fruits of all of that losing and embarrassment started blooming in 2015, a year earlier than most expected. Until last night, the Astros had been in 1st or 2nd place in the AL West every day since April 18th. Until last night.
A September swoon has finally caught up with the Astros. Simultaneously, the Angels and Rangers suddenly can’t lose, the Angels in particular as they have now won 7 in a row. It doesn’t help matters for the Astros that the Angels and Rangers play each other 4 times to end the season, all but ensuring that the Astros won’t be able to jump both teams to win the West. And all of this feels so very familiar for a Padres fan. Blowing a seemingly insurmountable division lead, thanks to either a September swoon or a team that suddenly couldn’t lose (Seriously, the Rockies went 13-1 to end the 2007 season to force a playoff. I still can’t believe that. Stupid Rocktober.) It’s perhaps why I’ve found myself so invested in the Astros these past few weeks. I’ve seen this movie, I know how it ends. And I know how it feels.
A big reason for this swoon has been their relief pitching. In the 2nd half of the season the Astros relievers have posted a +4.00 ERA. While their xFIP hasn’t been terrible, the fact remains that when relievers come in for the Astros, runners are scoring. At this point there is no time to regress to the mean. There is only winning games. And you can’t win games if runners keep scoring on you.
The numbers are even more bleak in September, where the relief corps post a 6.00 ERA. Not surprisingly, they are the least used relievers in baseball, having thrown only 72 innings. They’ve allowed 50 runs in those 72 innings. Not ideal.
Which brings us to the part that is Padres related. As you are no doubt aware, the Padres did a whole lot of nothing at the trade deadline. Publicly, this was to “make a push for the playoffs” which feel woefully short. Realistically, I like to believe that wasn’t the case and the hauls they would get back simply weren’t good enough. One such haul that was rumored up until the deadline was a deal that would have sent Craig Kimbrel to the Astros. In the days leading up to the trade deadline, multiple reports came out about how the Astros GM wanted to add “a flamethrower.” Those talks ramped up by the 31st in which it seemed a deal for Kimbrel to the Astros was imminent, then it wasn’t, then it was the Yankees, and then it was the Astros again. At the end of the day, whatever was being offered by the Astros wasn’t enough, nor was any offer from any other team, and Kimbrel remained a Padre. Kimbrel, for his part, has had a stellar 2nd half, posting a 1.80 ERA and an opponents BA of .124.
The Astros were smart in building their team into the contender they are. And perhaps emptying the farm (supposedly the demand AJ Preller had made for Kimbrel was large) wasn’t in the best long term interest of the Astros. But one can’t help but imagine a 1.80 ERA closing games for the Astros and what a difference that would have made. In a season that may slip away thanks to the outcome of less than a handful of games, Craig Kimbrel may have been the difference.