Corey Seager stepped up to the plate for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 2017 World Series.
With two outs and the Houston Astros leading by five to one, history would be cemented in a matter of seconds.
“Here’s a ground ball right side, could do it … the Houston Astros are world champions for the first time in franchise history!”
With Joe Buck’s commentary confirming the Astros as the victors of the baseball world, the 2017-18 Major League Baseball offseason would commence the following day, with the other twenty nine teams in the league ready to crush the Astros’ dreams of becoming the first repeat World Series champions since the Yankees won three championships in a row from 1998 to 2000.
While it is uncommon for teams to repeat as champions, the Houston Astros certainly have the pieces in place to tighten their grip on baseball hegemony by winning another championship this coming season. Objectively, the Astros are a better team than they were last season, especially in terms of their ability on the mound. Likewise, manager A.J. Hinch was forced to make a difficult decision this offseason. Two former Cy Young Award winners (Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel) and newly acquired ace Gerrit Cole were among his pitching ranks, and Hinch was faced with determining which star pitcher he should throw on the mound on Opening Day against the Baltimore Orioles in April. Ultimately, Hinch selected Verlander to start against Baltimore and headline his star-studded rotation.
The point remains that general manager Jeff Luhnow managed to add both Verlander and Cole, who were the Opening Day starters for the Tigers and Pirates this past season, respectively, to his already-dominant pitching staff that includes Keuchel. Further, Luhnow was able to add quality to the Astros’ bullpen with the free agent signings of Joe Smith and Hector Rondon. Despite the undeniable strength of the Astros’ pitching, it wouldn’t be outrageous to argue that the Houston squad’s greatest ability lies in its position players. With reigning American League MVP and batting champion Jose Altuve and 2012 American League Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa making up arguably the league’s best middle infield partnership, the Astros have many weapons at their disposal on the offensive side of the game as well. From Altuve and Correa to outfielder George Springer and infielder Alex Bregman, the Astros have myriad youth and talent and justifiably take the top spot of USA Today’s preseason power rankings, ready to defend their World Series title in the 2018-19 season.
Despite the defending champion, Astros, strengthening their ranks for this coming season, it would be irresponsible to mentally hand them the World Series championship already. Every team that wins a World Series has talent, and a vast majority of these teams retain a large enough portion of their key players to realistically repeat as champions come the next fall. However, despite the quantitative, sabermetric factors that remain the same or similar for these squads (including general offensive and defensive statistics, along with Wins Above Replacement), very few teams win back-to-back World Series as a result of the inevitable, largely unavoidable qualitative factors (such as complacency) that set in the year after a team wins the most coveted trophy in the sport. In addition, while “the Astros probably once had an advantage in terms of scouting reports, pitch usage and the dozens of ways they use the massive amount of data they collect,” other teams have began to copy the Astros’ proven methods of winning. Even for those teams that lack the resources to grow their data analytics departments or haven’t extensively scouted what made the 2016-17 Astros tick, the element of surprise the Astros possessed in terms of their strategies could play an unexpectedly large role in the outcome of this season, as “when so many games are so close, little things could add up.”
Building off their World Series championship from last season, the Astros undoubtedly possess the talent necessary to reclaim their throne atop the baseball elite. However, as a result of the aforementioned internal issues and the rise of American League contenders including the Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge-led New York Yankees and the continued threat of National League foes in the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, repeating as champions certainly will be no walk in the park for the Houston Astros.