The Houston Astros did what they do best again on Friday evening, dropping a 4-1 decision to the Braves in Atlanta. The loss dropped the Astros to 35-72 (.327). Houston's starting pitcher was 30-year-old journeyman Armando Galarraga, he of almost-perfect-game fame. The lineup consisted of Jose Altuve, the promising sophomore second baseman, and seven guys who will probably not be with the Astros whenever it is that they start winning again.
Friday's loss continued an incredibly efficient stretch by the Astros in which they have almost completely stopped winning. The Astros were never a good team this year, just as they haven't been a good team since they were swept out of the World Series by the Chicago White Sox in 2005 (their one "strong" record, an 86-75, third-place finish in 2008, came despite their allowing 31 more runs than they had scored, so we need not consider that team good so much as lucky), and as they went 56-106 in 2011, expectations for this season were not high.
Nonetheless, this year's edition was, at least for awhile, just mediocre. After taking four of five games in a stretch from June 23 to June 27, their record was 32-43 (.427). This was a 69-93 pace: not good, but not historically bad by any means. It was at that point that the wheels, such as they were, came off. From June 28 to present, the Astros have gone 3-29, allowing 192 runs while scoring just 95. This stretch included a 3-24 record in the month of July, which ranks as the fifth-worst month of all time. The 1962 Mets didn't have a month that bad, nor the 2003 Tigers.
The Astros are the best team in baseball, if you allow that "best" can apply to being worst. They have nearly perfected the art of losing.
If the Astros continue their .094 winning percentage the rest of the way, they would win just five more games and end the season 40-122. Now, normally that would be a silly thing to talk about. The infamous Cleveland Spiders of 1899 might have gone 1-34 to finish their last season in the majors, but the Astros will win more than five additional games by accident.
Yet, the Astros do have one thing in common with the Spiders. The Spiders shared an owner with the team that would eventually be known as the St. Louis Cardinals, which was permissible under baseball rules at the time. (This arrangement was known as "syndicate baseball.") Prior to the 1899 season, all of the Spiders' good players, including future Hall of Famers Cy Young and Bobby Wallace, were transferred from Cleveland to St. Louis. The Astros too have been in the business of divesting themselves of their big leaguers. During July, Carlos Lee, David Carpenter, J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, and Chris Johnson all were dealt away. The prospects received for them, as well as veterans Francisco Cordero and Ben Francisco, might or might not contribute to the Astros in the long term, but in the short term, Cordero (whose contract ends with this season) has been disastrous and the prospects have not yet arrived.
The result has been a club staffed by journeymen and non-prospects. It is heartening to see players like Scott Moore and Steve Pearce get unlikely chances at extended playing time, but no one should be under the illusion that they are building blocks for the future, as much as a means to playing out the season with a modicum of dignity. It remains to be seen if dignity is in fact in the offing. Despite that, the Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow have behaved in exactly the way they should have. Neglected for years and long the owners of one of the weakest farm systems in baseball, due to a lavish adherence to the slotting system (the last Astros first-round pick to have an impact in the majors was 1998 selection Brad Lidge), there was little to be gained by half-measures. Yet, half-measures are typically what teams in the Astros' position tend to make.
Consider the Baltimore Orioles. For years, as the team aged and declined, owner Peter Angelos resisted dealing off veterans for prospects. He felt, it has been said, that the team had to make at least a pretense of being competitive as a gesture to their fans. Thus did players from Garrett Atkins to Miguel Tejada find their way to Camden Yards despite their budging not a bit the team's chances of competing in the AL East. Despite a strong start, it remains to be seen if the team's long string of losing seasons will end this year (the .473 pace they have maintained since the end of May would, if continued from this point, see them just squeak by the .500 mark).
Despite nine 90-loss seasons since 1997, the Orioles have never bottomed out, never lost 100 games. Nor have the Cubs, who in that same span have had two 90-win seasons, but also five 90-loss seasons. Every team is different, and one could argue that the Royals have reached the 100-loss mark four times in recent years without it doing them a great deal of good. But generally speaking, it is axiomatic in baseball that a team must decide when to rebuild or God will decide for it (if you prefer a more secular version, substitute Providence, or entropy, or the universe for the Almighty). The Astros weren't going to get much for dubious assets such as Lee, a flawed player with a flawed contract, but they also had more to lose by holding on in the defense of a kind of false pride, the illusion of not being as bad as they are.
Thus, congratulations to the Astros, the best team in baseball at being worst, but also perhaps the best at facing reality. The coming days will be hard, and if they do keep winning only 10 percent of their games, this club will go down in history as one of the worst ever. Yet, after years in denial, they may have just taken the first step into a better world.