Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Playing With House Money": A Count/PointerCount discussion

Not Hank and I exchanged testy emails today over the validity of the "playing with house money" idea and winning before your favorite team is expected to be good. Here it is:

Okay, Not Hank. You and I disagree on something major and yet insignificant at the same time: I think that the idea of baseball teams winning more quickly than expected, or playing with house money, is an empty idea - a defense mechanism for disappointment. Why do I think this?

Success in baseball is not guaranteed. Just because the Astros were better than Buster Olney, Keith Law, etc. expected them to be, and didn't expect them to be good until 2017, it doesn't mean that the Astros didn't waste a gigantic opportunity. 

We can look back with hindsight and see that the Astros should have pulled the trigger on Kimbrel or Chapman. We also don't really know what San Diego and Cincinnati were asking in return for two of the best closers in baseball, and it must have been a lot, seeing as how they played out their days on meaningless teams in a meaningless existence. Scott Kazmir was so bad that he actually hurt the team's playoff chances - not something you expect from a major trade deadline acquisition.

But by the time the bullpen imploded, it was too late to do anything about it. Rightfully so, the Astros thought the bullpen could right itself in September, as they had performed pretty damn well to that point in the season. Yeah, there were skids, but nothing like the bottom falling out and reminding us all of what it was like in 2011-14 - just a feeling of dread whenever the starter wouldn't throw a Maddux.

Still, the Astros joined/will join 29 other teams in not winning the World Series this year. And there's a lot to feel good about with the Astros heading into 2016 and beyond. But I'm not going to take solace in the Astros "playing with house money," because it assumes the Astros will have more success in 2016, and 2017, infinitum.

I'm not willing to make that jump. When Bryce Harper found out the Nationals had landed Max Scherzer he asked, "Where's my ring?" Look at the Nationals now: you can't, because they're all dead. I'm willing to assume that the Astros should be good for the foreseeable future, but I'm not going to assume they'll skate into the postseason every year because they did it this year, when all but maybe 30 people in the world didn't think they had a chance. 

Now, you were saying?


First off, this concept that the only successful outcome of a baseball season is a World Series Championship, is just flat out something that I cannot agree with. That's how a Yankees fan sees baseball. I hate how Yankees fans see baseball.  I will most likely weep uncontrollably for a good three months when the Astros win their first. Our Christmas pictures will be awful. But, what does that have to do with this year? You and I muddled through the Crynasty. We blogged about it. We tweeted about. We joked about it. But we hated every minute of it. I don't remember exactly what you said, but it was something about Luhnow was either going to be the reason your kids were Astros fans for life or hated baseball forever. In the middle of 111 losses, I could see it going either way. After Correa broke his leg, and Appel continued to struggle, and the Aiken thing blew up. I got really nervous that it was leaning the other way. We were so disillusioned by bad baseball, that some of us were over the moon ecstatic by just not losing 100 games. 70-92 is awful, yet we were celebrating it. I tweeted something lauding the fact that they were only 4 games under .500 for a 50 game stretch or something. I am not proud of that, but we were desperate. 

So what are looking for in baseball season?  And what does it mean that "the Astros were playing with house money?" The enjoyment of baseball, to me, is about hope, not guarantees. The 2011 -14 seasons were marked, most of all, by the absence of hope. We knew the plan, and maybe could put some hope in that plan. But the plan was ephemeral. It offered no real comfort when the Astros lost 15 straight games to end the season. No real comfort when Robbie Grossman was in the outfield instead of J.D. Martinez. No real comfort when Kris Byrant was knocking on the door for the Cubs while the Astros were upset that Appel dared to pitch in their bullpen. 

And it all changed sooner than we imagined. If this plan was going to work, it was going to work in 2016, 2017 and beyond. We weren't even supposed to know whether it was going to work or not this year. .500 ball, maybe, optimistically. Correa getting a full year in the minors for the chance to see him in 2016, when the real future started. Keuchel and McHugh maybe establishing themselves as dependable 3 and 4 starters, so we can sign an ace in 2016. An offense that can score runs in bunches, but strikes out too much to really be successful. A .500 team can still go both ways - back down to 70 wins or up to 90. Instead, Keuchel is the ace they were looking for, Correa forced himself to the majors, the offense finished sixth in the majors in runs scored. They took the defending AL Champs to 5 games in the ALDS, and had them on the ropes. 

Everything you said is true. They missed an opportunity and there are no guarantees. But there is hope. I am legitimately excited for 2016. I don't care that they exceeded Keith Law's expectation, or Buster Olney's or whoever. They exceeded my expectations. People don't look at me with a mix of sympathy and confusion when I walk around Birmingham in my Astros gear. And that's why them winning earlier than expected is important. Because they made baseball fun again, instead of a chore. We are now one of the fan bases, in spring training in 2016, that can dream about winning the World Series. Not in five years. But now. And after what we went through? That is a successful season.     

Whose side are you on?