It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not there, nor there.
“There” in the first case being Houston, where the Astros are not exactly living up to their previous billing. And the other “there” being Philadelphia, where the Phillies had no billing at all, much like the last few years, but are most definitely outstripping whatever measly expectations were laid upon them before the beginning of this season.
The Astros: so far, falling on their faces.
In fact, both teams–the expected good and the expected awful–are sitting quite close to each other in the overall standings, proving once again that in all things, but particularly sports, this prediction thing is quite difficult indeed.
Houston fans could be forgiven if they are finding themselves prone to false memories of newly-minted Astros glory. The team is coming off last year’s wild card season, their first playoff appearance in a while, and we haven’t even reached the year of their presumed World Series triumph yet, but their expected rise to the top of the game has already hit a significant bump in the road.
The Astros got off to a really stinky start, winning only 7 games in April and quickly bottoming out in the AL West. That’s not a level of performance that is designed to win friends and influence people. They have shown some recent signs of life, going 6-4 in their last ten, including a home sweep of the Athletics–a team that knows a thing or two about falling off the table–before dropping three of four to the Texas Rangers, who lately have been tormenting their cross-state rivals in much the same way demented boys pour salt on slugs or pull the wings off flies. Even looking on the bright side, the Astros’ improvement still only has them at 29-32, good for third place in the division but 8 games back of the Rangers, and far below the lofty heights their fans and promoters were expecting from them.
“You may be able to get away with making predictions in rote, by the book sports like football and basketball, but in other sports…everything’s up in the air until the championship is settled.”
Of course, disappointments are often relative. That Astros record may rankle folks in Houston who had big dreams for their team, but the almost identical 29-31 record posted so far by the Phillies looks like manna from heaven for fans in Southeastern PA, who had gotten used to the idea that their club’s halcyon days had departed for a slightly less brutal neighborhood than South Philly.
Indeed, the Phils were 26-21 and challenging for the lead in the NL East before they started getting slapped around by the Chicago Cubs, who have beat them like a gong in two series so far. Throw out their games against the league-leaders and the Phils are 28-26 against the rest of MLB–not exactly world-beating, but vastly better than what even close observers of the club thought they’d see by this time in the season. Or any other time this season, for that matter.
How have the Phillies been doing it? Ironically–or maybe not–the same way the Astros did it, until this past April: with a slew of young talent, especially in the starting rotation. The bulk of Philadelphia’s WAR leaders are pitchers, particularly the young starters Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vincent Velasquez, and Jeremy Hellickson. That should bode well for the team’s future. Of course, pitchers are notoriously subject to injury, and if big trouble is developing with Velasquez–he came out of his last start early–then the Phils might take a step back in short order, and this season’s early success might vanish in a puff of resin.
Then again, the team has also been doing it with a slew of one-run victories while being outscored by a pretty hefty margin. All that does not bode well for continued success for the rest of the season. But, given the expectations coming in, the Phils may have done their good deed just by laying the foundation for some hope for the future. At the very least, they’ve lifted themselves high enough to have dropped the mantle of National League Dumpster Fire onto the Atlanta Braves.
Aaron Nola: laying a foundation.
And what of the Astros? How do they get back on track? Well, they probably already are back on track; Houston’s record after April has been 22-16; if they maintain that pace for the rest of the season, they’ll finish with around 87 wins. If they improve upon that pace, which seems perfectly doable, given their potential and expectations, a 90 win season and a playoff spot seems achievable. But winning the AL West, at the moment, looks out of reach.
What is the moral of this story? There are three morals, actually, and they’re all favorites here at The DFR:
- Play the young guys. Turnover isn’t such a bad thing on professional sports teams, and getting new young talent in there is generally a much better bet than hanging onto too many under-performing veterans. (When the Phillies are finally able to shed Ryan Howard, that may be when they really start to take off.)
- Nobody really knows anything. Going into a season, any season, things tend to be much murkier than so-called experts would have you believe. You may be able to get away with making predictions in rote, by the book sports like football and basketball, but in other sports–better sports, to be frank–everything’s up in the air until the championship is settled. (Cubs fans take note of that last part; everything that’s happened so far is just that: “so far.”)
- Don’t panic. Much as with this past hockey season–which witnessed a series of premature obituaries in this space for certain teams–a slow start doesn’t necessarily doom a team. Nor does a hot start necessarily guarantee success down the road.
All of this illustrates the wisdom contained in that hoariest of old sayings: that’s why they play the games. Remember that the next time somebody starts boasting about winning next year’s World Series. It could still be the Astros…but maybe, just maybe, it could be the Phillies instead.