In the 1970s, influential psychologist Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions experienced in all human cultures. I’m not sure if he studied sports fans, but I’m guessing you had one of the following six reactions to the Houston Astros beating the Oakland Athletics on Thursday and moving on to the American League Championship Series:
1. Happiness. You’re an Astros fan. You’re ecstatic. You’ve gone on StubHub looking to see if any of those 11,000 World Series tickets are available. You have a big smile on your face, you’re texting upbeat messages to your friends, you finally dug out that “2017 World Series Champions” T-shirt to wear with pride and you will clear your schedule to watch the upcoming games.
2. Surprise. Maybe you’re an Astros fan, but probably not. You’re just a baseball fan. You don’t really care all that much about the cheating scandal from the offseason. You’re just shocked the Astros actually beat the Twins and now the A’s — without an injured Justin Verlander, mind you — after going 29-31 in the regular season. You have neither a positive nor a negative sentiment about a sub-.500 team possibly reaching the World Series, and you kind of like this NCAA tournament-style bracket. You will keep watching the playoffs because you like baseball.
3. Disgust. You’re a baseball fan and you don’t like what the Astros did and feel their 2017 title is forever tainted and you certainly didn’t want them to advance. You don’t really like the expanded playoffs. You don’t feel good about it, but you’ll keep watching. Plus, it will be fun to have a team to root against in the ALCS.
4. Anger. Everything about the Astros already makes you sick. You didn’t think the punishment was severe enough. They soiled the game. The Astros advancing makes you sweaty, you don’t want to talk to anyone, and you vow to drink White Claw and watch “Seinfeld” reruns until spring training starts. You definitely aren’t going to watch the ALCS.
5. Fear. You can’t believe a sub-.500 team will reach the World Series. Maybe it’s time to just give up sports altogether and finally read “Heart of Darkness,” which you skipped in high school English class and just skimmed the CliffsNotes version.
6. Sadness. You can’t believe Brad Pitt isn’t going to reach the World Series … again.
Three reasons to root against the Astros in the ALCS:
1. They were cheaters.
“I know a lot of people are mad,” Carlos Correa said after the Astros swept the Twins in the first round. “I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they gonna say now? We’re a solid team. We played great baseball. We won a series, on the road, in Minnesota. So what are you gonna say now?”
Correa was a little more diplomatic after Thursday’s 11-6 win over the A’s, saying the Astros did not use the idea of fans not wanting them here as motivation. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re motivated because we want to win. We want to be able to bring another championship to the city of Houston. We know what it feels like so we want to be able to have that feeling once again. 2017 was such a special year celebrating with the fans in Houston, so the thing that motivates us is to get to feel that again.”
2. They finished 29-31 in the regular season, outscoring their opponents by just four runs.
This was the potential hazard of a 16-team playoff format — or of any future 16-team or expanded playoff format. A mediocre or even sub-.500 team can get hot at the right time, and if two of them get hot, suddenly the World Series doesn’t feel that important. You are crowning the winner of a tournament, not the best team in baseball. This goes against the long tradition of baseball: It’s supposed to be hard to make the playoffs. The more teams that do make the postseason, the less important the regular season becomes.
No matter which side of that debate you stand on, however, we have to acknowledge that this was not a usual season. Is 60 games even enough to evaluate a team? It’s possible — and perhaps even likely — that the true talent of the Astros is much higher than that of a .500 team. Consider the Astros’ worst 60-game stretches over the past three seasons — seasons in which they won 100-plus games each year:
2017: 29-31 (July 6-Sept. 13, minus-5 run differential)
2018: 33-27 (June 20-Aug. 31, plus-54 run differential)
2019: 35-25 (June 7-Aug. 17, plus-80 run differential)
They didn’t have any 60-game stretch like 2020 in 2018 or ’19, but they did have a similar stretch in 2017, which they rebounded from to win the World Series (with the help of Verlander, acquired via trade on Aug. 31, and a few garbage cans).
Now, it’s pretty clear the 2020 Astros aren’t as good as the 2019 Astros. Gerrit Cole is gone. Verlander and Yordan Alvarez were injured. At one point, the Astros had a bullpen with nine rookie pitchers. Last year, the Astros went 50-17 in games Cole and Verlander started in the regular season, but they still went 57-38 in games started by everyone else — which is still a 97-win pace over a full season.
The Astros went 2-7 in extra-inning games, but a primary culprit to their struggles in the regular season was the offense. Yes, it was minus the prodigious talent of Alvarez, but all the regulars declined in wOBA from 2019, when the Astros had one of the best lineups in MLB history, several significantly so:
Player 2019 2020
George Springer .401 .373
Jose Altuve .374 .274
Michael Brantley .367 .356
Alex Bregman .418 .339
Carlos Correa .380 .303
Yuli Gurriel .364 .276
Josh Reddick .308 .299
What happened? Bregman has said he never felt right all season except for a game or two, but is that an explanation or just something you say? Altuve, for sure, looked awful all season, constantly pulling off the ball. The haters will suggest the Astros were just cheating in 2019. It could be that the players did feel pressure to perform in the wake of the cheating scandal. It could be that the Astros lollygagged through the regular season, knowing that in a weak division they were pretty much assured of a playoff spot.
Anyway, as the offense erupted in the AL Division Series win over the A’s — slugging 12 home runs in four games and averaging 8.3 runs against a very good Oakland pitching staff — we’re reminded that, yes, there is a lot of talent in this lineup, no matter the regular-season numbers. In other words, maybe the 60 games were just an aberration and the Astros are back.
“You know, we never gave up because we had a down year offensively,” Correa said. “We didn’t stop going to the cage, we didn’t stop staying motivated out there, and I think that helped us in this series. We kept going to the cage every day, we kept putting in the work, and it showed in this series and we were able to be successful.”
3. You’re a Dodgers fan and the thought of losing another World Series to the Astros is unbearable.
Reasons to root for the Astros:
1. Dusty Baker. The legendary manager probably needs a World Series win to get elected to Cooperstown, a fitting ending to a great career as a player and skipper. Plus, he’s 71 years old and wears wristbands with his photo on them. How can you not root for him?
“It’s been a long, tough road, but we’re halfway there. I’m thankful and happy. But I still have some happiness left to get,” Baker said.
2. Altuve and Bregman are still the undersized mighty mites who are so fun to watch.
3. Did you see Correa jump on that hanging slider from Frankie Montas?
4. Framber Valdez’s curveball.
5. Springer’s annual October brilliance.
6. All those rookies. Eight of their 13 pitchers on the roster against the A’s were rookies.
7. Michael Brantley, professional hitter.
8. Zack Greinke starting another Game 7 of the World Series.
9. You rooted for the Stormtroopers.
OK, you’re not going to root for the Astros. But in this strangest of seasons, it’s perhaps apropos that we have a losing team just four wins from the World Series. No, it’s not exactly a Cinderella story. This is not George Mason reaching the Final Four. It’s a familiar face, a team with a recent history of great success. They might be the bad guys in the baseball landscape of 2020, but sometimes the bad guys win.