There are some similarities between the 2016 Astros and the 2005 Astros - both were coming off a playoff run. Both had fairly high expectations for that season. Both started off in a piss-poor way and had a pretty giant hole out of which to climb. And...um...well that might just about do it, but let's see what the 2016 Astros can learn from the 2005 Astros.
The 2005 Astros lost a 9-0 game to the Reds on Memorial Day, getting held to five hits by the legendary Reds battery of Aaron Harang, David Weathers, and Todd Coffey. The 9-0 score was run up in the 9th after Roger Clemens allowed 4H/2ER, 7K:1BB in 8IP. So, down 2-0 in the top of the 9th, John Franco allowed hits to all three batters he saw (7.36 ERA), then Russ Springer allowed 3H/4ER, 1K:1BB in 0.1IP (8.62 ERA), then Chad Qualls had to come in to clean it up and get the final two outs to lower his ERA to 5.55. The loss dropped the 2005 Astros to 18-32, last in the NL Central, 15 games behind the Cardinals. Only the Rockies - at 14-35 - had a worse record in the National League.
So what happened? After that 9-0 loss, the Astros finished the season with a 71-41 record - best in the NL by four games, and a game better than the A's to post the best record in all of baseball. How did they do it?
1. They needed all the help they could get from the offense.
The Astros averaged 3.56 runs/game over the first 50 games of the season. Their 178 runs scored was 18 runs fewer than the NL's next-worst, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and was the lowest run total in baseball. Over the final 112 games the Astros improved by over a run per game, scoring 4.59 runs/game until the end of the season.
As a team following that 9-0 Cincinnati loss they were hitting .239/.306/.377. They had only hit 37 home runs as a team, and were striking out almost seven times a game.
Outside of Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensberg the offense was a black hole over the first 50 games. Check it:
Ensberg: .281/.386/.525 (.911 OPS)
Biggio: .291/.349/.525 (.874 OPS)
Bagwell: .250/.361/.398 (.759 OPS)
Vizcaino: .239/.301/.358 (.659 OPS)
Lane: .218/.268/.391 (.659 OPS)
Everett: .222/.281/.377 (.658 OPS)
Lamb: .200/.257/.384 (.641 OPS)
Taveras: .250/.300/.335 (.635 OPS)
Ausmus: .248/.325/.295 (.620 OPS)
Berkman: .216/.318/.297 (.615 OPS)
And then someone flipped a switch. From May 31 through the end of the season they hit .264/.330/.421. They went from averaging 0.74 home runs per game to hitting 1.1 homers/game.
Berkman: .307/.427/.566 (.993 OPS)
Ensberg: .284/.389/.571 (.960 OPS)
Lane: .288/.336/.546 (.882 OPS)
Palmeiro: .272/.327/.435 (.762 OPS)
Biggio: .253/.314/.443 (.757 OPS)
Lamb: .259/.300/.442 (.742 OPS)
Ausmus: .262/.361/.344 (.705 OPS)
Burke: .253/.316/.388 (.704 OPS)
Taveras: .308/.336/.344 (.680 OPS)
Everett: .258/.293/.359 (.652 OPS)
Bagwell's shoulder forced him out of the lineup and he was replaced at 1B primarily by Lance Berkman. That, combined with Mike Lamb's improved play and versatility allowed Phil Garner to field a more potent lineup. You had two guys with an OPS over .760 over the first 50 games, and then as a team they posted a .751 OPS, which is an improvement of almost 70 points...as a team.
2. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the pitching staff tightened up.
The Astros allowed 226 runs over their first 50 games, or 4.52 runs/game. This was middle-of-the-road as far as the NL went in 2005, but the offense was so poor that the pitching staff had almost no room for error, and they made more errors than they had room.
The pitching staff posted a 4.37 ERA/1.30 WHIP over the first 50 games of the season, but the problem wasn't the top of the rotation:
Clemens: 3-3, 76IP, 1.30 ERA/0.86 WHIP
Oswalt: 5-6, 75.1IP, 3.23 ERA/1.17 WHIP
Pettitte: 3-5, 63IP, 3.71 ERA/1.25 WHIP
So just to be clear, the Astros lost 20 of the first 32 games in which Clemens/Pettitte/Oswalt started. Combined they threw 214.1IP, 187H/64ER, 176K:55BB for a 2.69 ERA/1.13 WHIP. Clemens was on the wrong end of a 1-0 loss in three of his first four starts.
And the bullpen was an early disaster, as well:
Springer: 15.2IP, 8.62 ERA/1.66 WHIP
Harville: 13IP, 6.23 ERA/2.08 WHIP
Qualls: 24.1IP, 5.55 ERA/1.56 WHIP
Lidge: 22IP, 3.27 ERA/1.36 WHIP
Wheeler: 21.2IP, 1.66 ERA/1.06 WHIP
Lidge was okay. Wheeler was fantastic. Then you had a whole bunch of bullcrap trying to close out games.
Over the final 112 games of the season, the Astros allowed 383 runs - the fewest runs allowed in baseball, and 45 runs fewer than the NL's 2nd-lowest total by the Cardinals. This was thanks to a 3.14 ERA/1.20 WHIP.
The rotation was unbelievable, or at least the top of the rotation was. Over the final 112 games:
Pettitte: 14-4, 1.86 ERA/0.94 WHIP
Oswalt: 15-6, 2.81 ERA/1.22 WHIP
Clemens: 10-5, 2.19 ERA/1.09 WHIP
Backe: 6-5, 4.78 ERA/1.58 WHIP
Wandy: 9-9, 5.46 ERA/1.47 WHIP
Clemens had notoriously bad luck, despite throwing 211.1IP with a 1.87 ERA, the Astros went 15-17 in his starts because he apparently pitched so well that he made the Astros' bats go silent, as well as their opponents' bats. Clemens lost five 1-0 decisions over the course of the season, and didn't give up a run in all five. The Astros scored two or fewer runs in 15 of his 32 starts. No wonder he went back to the Yankees.
But the bullpen's performance was where real improvements were made:
Qualls: 55.1IP, 2.28 ERA/1.05 WHIP
Wheeler: 51.2IP, 2.44 ERA/0.95 WHIP, 9.06 K/9
Lidge: 48.2IP, 1.85 ERA/1.05 WHIP, 12.95 K/9
Springer: 43.1IP, 3.32 ERA/1.02 WHIP
Gallo: 20.1IP, 2.66 ERA/1.38 WHIP
3. They took advantage of bad teams.
The 2005 Astros and the 2005 Cardinals were so good (30 games over .500 and 22 games over .500 down the stretch, respectively) that the Brewers were the only other NL Central team to end the season over .500, and their 57-55 record gave them an 81-81 record. The Cubs went 54-59, the Reds went 52-59, and the Pirates were 45-68.
The 2005 Astros went 30-22 against NL opponents. They went 8-1 against Cincinnati, 8-3 against Pittsburgh, 6-5 against Milwaukee. This helped the fact that they went 8-13 against the Cubs and Cardinals combined.
The 2005 NL West was God-awful. The Padres won the division with an 82-80 record, for crying out loud. The Nationals finished last in the NL East and were one game worse than the Padres. and the Astros went 16-9 against NL West teams down the stretch. But if we talk about playing the worst teams in the National League in 2005, the Astros finished the season 32-13 against sub-.500 National League teams down the stretch.
4. They started to win close games.
Again, perhaps this sounds familiar. The 2005 Astros were 5-10 in 1-run games; 7-16 in games decided by 1-2 runs up until Memorial Day. For the last 112 games the Astros went 18-11 in 1-run games and 33-20 in games decided by 1-2 runs.
So the formula set by the 2005 Astros:
1. Hit better
2. Pitch better
3. Take advantage of playing soft teams
4. Win close games
It's an over-simplistic formula, and it's worth remembering that the 2005 Astros dug themselves such a hole that, even with the best record in baseball after Memorial Day, they still finished eleven games back of the Cardinals and didn't win 90 games. It took going 6-0 against the Phillies - five of those games were decided by one run - to take the Wild Card over Philadelphia by one run. The 2016 Astros are not as far back in the division as were the 2005 Astros. Maybe the 2016 offense is better than the 2005 offense (we'll just go ahead and say that Keuchel/McHugh/Fister isn't Clemens/Oswalt/Pettitte). Maybe the 2016 Astros can recreate the magic of 2005, but they're going to need a lot of help along the way.