From cheaters to champions: What is the true secret to the Astros' enduring success?

HOUSTON — There are very few teams for whom the other 29 fanbases know which current players were on the roster five years ago. Actually probably just one, the Houston Astros.

The 2022 Astros’ similarity and dissimilarity to the 2017 team is the source of well-deserved fascination and conversation. There are two reasons for this, and whether they are intertwined is itself a subject of speculation and consternation. Are these Astros those Astros? Who were later found to have cheated by illegally stealing signs in an elaborate operation. Are these Astros those Astros? Who won 101 games, the World Series, and have made it at least to the championship series every year since.

Their sustained success makes them seem like a dynasty; a consistent powerhouse with a winning formula and a singular identity in the sports landscape. And yet, the sign-stealing forced literal change at the highest levels and their persistent relevance has inspired a temptation to differentiate the current iteration from what came before, or at least downplay the connection.

“It begs the question,” general manager James Click — hired to replace Jeff Luhnow who was fired immediately following the results of MLB’s investigation in January 2020 — said about all the winning in Houston over the past half decade, “where does it come from?”

Indeed it does. Because they have been so dominant for so many seasons now, it is only natural to look for the through line from 2017 until now, the thing that makes them the Astros, the thing that makes them win. But to find it and hold it up as an ideal in the game would be to celebrate cheaters.

While everyone else continues to reckon with that, though, these Astros have been playing baseball. And after Saturday night in Houston, the 2022 team has at least one very important thing in common with the 2017 team: a championship. And (hopefully) one very important difference: No forthcoming asterisk attached to it.

The Houston Astros celebrate their 4-1 World Series win against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
The Houston Astros celebrate after winning the World Series over the Philadelphia Phillies. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Yordan Alvarez delivers decisive homer

To win it all, capped off by a 4-1 victory over the upstart Philadelphia Phillies, the 2022 Astros were themselves.

With the Astros leading three games to two, the World Series returned to Houston this weekend. They had won 106 games in the regular season, swept the division series and the championship series to arrive at their fourth World Series in six years undefeated in the postseason, but still chasing the franchise’s first trophy that wouldn’t have rival fans calling for it to be rescinded.

The Phillies proved plucky and pesky. That is, until their fatigued arms started to falter and the big bats came up short.

And so it was that the Astros entered the bottom of the sixth trailing 1-0 and set about showcasing some of their most emblematic abilities. Catcher Martín Maldonado sidled up to the plate and allowed himself to get hit by a pitch thereby putting his body on the line to help the team when he knew he was unlikely to do so with his bat; 12-year veteran of the team second baseman José Altuve beat out a ground ball to avoid the double play because even though he’s lost a step at 32 years old, he’ll still hustle; rookie shortstop sensation Jeremy Peña smacked a single up the middle to push his postseason OPS above 1.000 and secure eventual World Series MVP honors; and the largely unheralded minor-league acquisition turned one of the best pure hitters in the sport Yordan Alvarez created a seismic event with a single swing by mashing his third go-ahead home run of the postseason to the moon. It would have been a three-run home run anywhere between the foul poles and over the fence, but it’ll look so much better on the montage retrospectives because it was 450 feet to dead center, over the batter’s eye emblazoned with an Astros’ “H.”

“Man, that ball was hit hard,” Peña said postgame. “I've never seen anything like it. And if I have seen it, it probably came from him as well.”

“I would need to hit it twice to hit that far,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who walked and scored later in the inning as well.

Meanwhile, iconic organizational success story Framber Valdez kept the Phillies’ lineup largely off balance and the Astros’ bullpen — the best in baseball during the regular season, with an ERA under 1.00 this postseason — silenced even a whisper of a comeback.

For all the potential pop in the Phillies’ offense, the game felt as good as gone after the Alvarez homer, his team pouring out of the dugout to celebrate as the stadium rocked. From then on, it was just a matter of counting the outs. And when Nick Castellanos lined out to Kyle Tucker for the final one, the Astros became the first team since 2013 to clinch a World Series at home. In front of the only fans that don’t hate them, they became world champions — again.

Yordan Alvarez celebrates his three-run home run during the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Yordan Alvarez celebrates his three-run homer during Game 6 of the World Series. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

'They’ll make their own decisions'

“I don’t think we’re out to prove anything to anyone,” said pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., one of the five remaining players from the 2017 team. “I think we wanted to prove we’re the best team in baseball, and we did that.”

Call it a paradox or hypocrisy, the contradiction is impossible to avoid. The Astros don’t want to seem defensive, or like they’re letting themselves be defined by the villain mantle. But first of all, every team is each other’s nemesis by definition. And the Astros in particular had only two options after they’d been exposed for cheating: They could win or they could lose. Either way, it would be viewed as a referendum, or at least in relation to, the 2017 championship. Perhaps that’s the real punishment for those indiscretions: Even in their most successful, euphoric moments, having finally made it back to the top after years of coming close, the Astros are asked about their deepest source of shame.

But at least winners get to pop champagne.

“We won tonight. They’ll make their own decisions,” owner Jim Crane said about whether this will quell the naysayers, “but we got the trophy.”

“What happened before, it doesn't ever pass over completely,” said manager Dusty Baker. At 73, he became the oldest manager to win a World Series. After 25 years, he was no longer the manager with the most games (2,093) under his belt without a ring to show for it. Because Baker, of course, was not an Astro in 2017. He was brought in after A.J. Hinch was fired along with Luhnow. He was brought in to be beloved, and he was, and to preside over a new culture with the same winning, which he now has.

Afterward, he talked about how, growing up, he never liked that the Boston Celtics and New York Yankees always dominated.

“But then when I got to be a player and a manager, I was yearning to be just like the Celtics and the Yankees. They were beating the teams,” he said. “You know, it never gets old.”

What makes the Astros the Astros?

Earlier this month, the New Yorker published an opus on whether people change their core selves over the course of a lifetime, or whether they are the same person they always were. The sprawling piece consults poetry, philosophy, psychology, personal experience and social science. The results are interesting and inconclusive.

One particularly thorough study cited in the piece found that over many decades people’s “dispositions were durable.”

“That durability is due, in part, to the social power of temperament, which, the authors write, ‘is a machine that designs another machine, which goes on to influence development,’” the piece says, referencing that study.

In other words, by acting on our innate traits, we are more likely to create conditions in our social environment that reinforce those traits.

The New Yorker, though, wonders “how much can this kind of work reveal about the deeper, more personal question of our own continuity or changeability? That depends on what we mean when we ask who we are. We are, after all, more than our dispositions.” The example given is of twins with similar personalities, one of whom pursues politics and the other organized crime.

So what makes the Astros the Astros? And is it the same as it always was?

They tell you it’s the player development, or the camaraderie; the analytics or the ambition; the preparation, the professionalism and the ever-present expectation to win.

“Anytime you have an organization that is able to sustain the success that this organization’s had, it's never going to be one thing. It has to be everything,” Click said.

There are some insights to be had, though. Houston, famous for being data-forward, has been especially good at translating the nerdy stuff into actionable improvements for the players. Click credits that to the broader advancements in technology and to the cohesion between the clubhouse and the front office.

Ten years ago, it was all abstract, numbers-in-a-spreadsheet-type stuff. Now, “we can talk about release point, we can talk about extension, we can talk about stride length, we can talk about spin rate. These are things that are tangible to players in a way that I don't think the data was,” Click said.

(“A machine that designs another machine” is actually the perfect explanation of a franchise that continues to field winning teams by molding players in some optimized image.)

That explanation reflects a commitment to remaining on the cutting edge, and now we’re getting somewhere in the search for the Astros’ true disposition.

“The guys have talked a lot in the clubhouse over the past few games about zero complacency,” Click said. “It applies to the front office also. We know that we cannot do the same thing that we did two or three years ago. If we do that, somebody else is going to do that and then we fall behind. So it has to be that same zero complacency where you're constantly updating, constantly reinventing, you're constantly turning the mirror on yourself to make sure that you are not getting complacent. And it's exhausting, honestly. …And it can be frustrating for a lot of people because they're like, ‘I don't understand, why do we need to change? This is working.’ But as soon as you say ‘why do I need to change,’ you’re dead.”

Click, by the way, won the World Series after his previous contract expired and without a new one in place. There is rampant speculation in the industry that he will not be brought back.

The Astros are relentless, ruthless, committed to winning at all costs. It’s why they cheated and maybe why they didn’t have to. That is their disposition; sometimes they act on it differently. Crane said that part of their player development success is having a five-year plan that is prepared to replace anyone, even the core of a winning team. Just look at their World Series MVP — Peña’s success standing in for Carlos Correa’s. Perhaps the through line, then, is constant evolution.

So are the 2022 Astros the same Astros as the 2017 Astros? They wouldn’t be the Astros if they were.