Chase Utley: One of the Best Ever

If you are reading this, there is a remarkably decent chance that you are a somewhat invested baseball fan. As a baseball fan, you probably ...

One of the best offenses ever missed the playoffs...

 The Houston Astros have transformed themselves into the premier franchise in all of MLB, consistently reigning atop the league since their emergence in 2015 (yes, 2015. They were the 2nd best team in baseball that year. Literally. Look at the SRS rankings for 2015. The Blue Jays were 1st by far, and then the Astros were 2nd. They just had a tough schedule and lost a lot of close games. You could argue the Royals were better because run differential undersold their winning ability due to their excellent bullpen, and they had made the world series the year before, so their success was somewhat sustainable. However, this is completely irrelevant to the article and do not need to turn this into a completely different article.*) Anyways, this was not always the case. Their tanking efforts in the early 2010s are well documented, but the events leading up to those dark days are often ignored. 

From 1997-2005, the Astros made the playoffs 6 times (back when making the playoffs was a challenge), including a 102 win season in 1998 and a World Series trip in 2005. They were led by Hall of Famers and lifelong Astros Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, but they had many lesser known cameos from other star players. The list of these players includes but is not limited to Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Carlos Beltran, Ken Caminiti, and Luis Gonzalez . They also were supported by other more homegrown talent such as Billy Wagner, one of the best relief pitchers ever,  Lance Berkman, Mike Hampton, Octavio Dotel, and Roy Oswalt. In this stretch of consistently great baseball, Houston had just one losing season. This year happened to be their year 2000 season, the first of the new millenium. Let's talk about it.

The 2000 Astros A lineup, in my own opinion, is as follows:

Position: Player, age (triple slash)

C: Mitch Meluskey, 26 (300/401/487)

1B: Jeff Bagwell, 32 (310/424/615)

2B: Craig Biggio, 34 (268/388/393)

3B: Ken Caminiti, 37 (303/419/582)

SS: Julio Lugo, 24 (283/346/431)

LF: Lance Berkman, 24 (297/388/561)

CF: Richard Hidalgo, 25 (314/391/636)

RF: Moises Alou, 33 (355/416/623)

Just from looking at their stats alone, you can tell that this lineup was insane. For those of you who don't know who Mitch Meluskey is, he was an uber talented rookie who ranked 43rd in Baseball America's top 100 prospect list the year before. He also was a massive bitch. For example, he punched his teammate in the face because he didn't want to wait in line for the batting cage. After his excellent rookie campaign, he got injured, played a handful of more games a few years later and then retired. Complete waste of talent. While this might be the case, his rookie season was excellent and, at this point in time, he was an excellent player.

First baseman Jeff Bagwell needs no introduction. He was a bonafide hall of famer, and his excellent 2000 season was arguably one of his weaker years during his prime. As for second baseman Craig Biggio, 1998 likely marked the end of his hall of fame prime and at this point, Biggio was more of a B tier stud having a down year. Former MVP Ken Caminiti, who had returned to Houston after dominating NL West teams in San Diego for many years, was at the end of his rope, but still absolutely raked in around the 60 games that he participated in. Then, at shortstop, we have a rookie Julio Lugo, a very solid but frustrating player that was good but was never very consistent. We can't say the same about Lance Berkman, also a rookie, who absolutely raked and would proceed to have one of the best offensive careers the MLB has ever seen. In center, we have Richardo Hidalgo, a guy who had two absolutely absurd seasons (2000 and 2003) and some decent seasons in between. He likely wasn't as good as his 2000 and 2003, but likely not as poor as the rest of his career. Definitely a great player, on average. And finally, in right field we have Moises Alou, a man who peaked in his late thirties and was one of the most exciting players of the late 90s and early aughts. 

This was their best lineup, and while the team as a whole wasn't quite THAT good, Astros batters ended the year with a collective 288/372/497 triple slash good for an 870 OPS and 938 runs scored (had they been in the American league with a DH, their run total would have been even higher). In comparison, Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez, who finished 4th in AL MVP voting in 2022, hit 280/355/514 for an 869 OPS. Imagine, throughout an entire season, injuries and all, your average hitter is the equivalent of a top of the line MVP candidate. Then, imagine playing through that entire season, and going 72-90. That's right. A team with an 870 OPS, chock full of hall of fame talent in their prime, won 72 games. How did that happen?

The obvious answer is pitching. The Astros allowed 944 runs and had a 5.42 staff ERA. Remember the pitchers I mentioned earlier? Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettite, Mike Hampton, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner? Well, only two of those pitchers were on the 2000 team. Billy Wagner was already established as one of the best relievers in baseball, and he finished 4th in Cy Young voting in 1999. However, kind of like Josh Hader in 2022, he absolutely fell apart for a short stretch of time, posting a 6.18 ERA in 27 innings before getting surgery on a torn flexor tendon. He returned to form in 2001, and remained a premier relief ace until his retirement after the 2010 season. Octavio Dotel, originally called up as a starter, was absolutely horrendous in his first season in Houston. He pitched 91 innings as a starter to the tune of a 5.84 ERA. Of course, the Astros made him their closer late in the year, and he was much stronger the rest of the way, striking out 13 batters per 9 innings and maintaining a very solid for the era 4.24 ERA. Over the next 3 seasons, Dotel was one of the best long relievers the league has ever seen. However, for 2000, his performance still left something to be desired. 

Jose Lima was another massive disappointment for this pitching staff. After an excellent 1999 in which he racked up 246 innings to go along with a 3.58 ERA, 3.76 FIP, and a 125 ERA+ en route to a 4th place cy young finish (tied with his teammates Billy Wagner. Mike Hampton, another Astro, finished 2nd that year before being traded to the Mets in a package that landed Houston Octavio Dotel. What a team. They won 97 games.), Lima was awful in 2000, posting a 6.65 ERA over 196 innings. His career went downhill from there, as he eventually pitched for the Detroit Tigers. 

The rest of the pitching staff was rather insignificant, and this article isn't about them. Dwight Gooden pitched a crisp 4 innings for this team in his final season before heading to the AL East, first joining the Rays and sucking, and then joining the Yankees and actually pitching quite well. He logged some innings in the playoffs, including an inspiring 4 run outing over 1.1 innings in the Yankees 11-1 game 4 loss to the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS. Truly incredible stuff. 

So, the 2000 Astros were quite good, but they also weren't. They did a good job rebuilding their pitching staff after this atrocity. Ironically, their 2005 world series season came with a massively over the hill Biggio and Bagwell duo on a team that scored just 693 runs. Of course, they had Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettite, and Roger Clemens all having incredible seasons, leading to 89 wins and an eventual national league pennant. This old and beat up roster is what caused the Astros to descend into baseball hell, before ascending into baseball heaven where they currently reside. I'm not really sure how I want to wrap up this post so I guess this is it.

*on top of all of this, the 2015 Astros easily had the most sustainable long-term roster, which is very relevant here. This was the year before Altuve truly broke out and became one of the best offensive second basemen ever, but he was still established as a bonafide star. Carlos Correa established himself as possibly the best shortstop in baseball at the modest age of 20. George Springer had broken out as something of a late bloomer. The rest of the supporting cast was a bit unrecognizable but still solid, and then their young pitching staff had finally broken through. The 2016 season was really wacky and in hindsight was one of the most wasted seasons of talent ever, but they were still the 11th best team in baseball despite the horrendous performance from their depth. This is completely irrelevant to this article but I love writing about baseball lore.

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