This is Part IV in a series endeavoring to cover one oddball event, occurrence, statistic, story, or some other piece of information or minutiae from the game's history that is fun and possibly obscure.
The oddity: Examining Houston's Nearly Unprecedented End to the Season
After sweeping the Mariners in Seattle, the Astros returned to Houston to play three games against the Angels beginning September 13th. In the first game of the series, the Astros endured a couple of late Los Angeles rallies to hang on for their fourth win a row, lifting their season record to 51-96. While still a near lock for 100 losses, Houston had played well enough over the course of the season to fade into obscurity as one of baseball's many bad teams while escaping the ignominy that comes with a historically dreadful record. Yes, they were terrible, but barring unprecedented collapse, they weren't legendarily terrible.
Naturally, the Astros never won another game, closing the season with fifteen consecutive losses. You have to travel all the way back to 1899 to find a team that finished on a worse run. How did they collapse so badly?
Well, one possible reason is simply variance: a really bad team is much more likely to lose a long string of games than a good one, and even if the Astros were a true talent ~100 loss team, a fifteen game losing streak isn't out of the question. Hell, the 2011 Mariners, a much better team than this year's Houston edition, lost seventeen in a row. A fifteen game skid is awful, certainly, but not unimaginable.
Another possible culprit was the schedule. If you had the impression that a lot of fringe playoff teams took advantage of Houston over the last two weeks of the season, you were right. After dropping two games against the Angels, the Astros were swept by wild card challengers Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Texas in succession, and then finished the season by losing three more against a respectable New York Yankees team.* I'm a little surprised that Houston didn't win at least a couple of games during that stretch, but it's fair to say that the losing streak was at least partially related to playing a batch of good teams with a powerful incentive to win.
* - Calling an 85 win Yankee ball club 'respectable' is pretty much the epitome of trolling, and I love it.
Joe Sheehan, excellent baseball author for Sports Illustrated and co-host of one of my favorite baseball podcasts going right now, had a different theory. On the latest episode of the Rany and Joe Podcast, he offered his off-the-cuff idea:
The Astros currently are made up disproportionately of players playing their first major league season. I would not be surprised if fatigue... I think young players playing their first September actually (wear down). We've seen that with a number of guys... I think that was a big part of it. Literally a roster full of guys who had never played in September before. I think that would be part of it. At some point you're exhausted...
It's a compelling thought. While we're conditioned to think of young players as having more durability than veterans, there is something to be said for having experience playing through September, and I remember hearing several players -- at least anecdotally -- discuss how their bodies were unprepared for the season's sixth month back when they were rookies. A team full of rookies, one that was already struggling, would certainly be an ideal candidate for a long losing streak at the end of the year.
The problem with Sheehan's theory is that the Astros actually weren't composed of all that many rookies. At least, not all that many rookies playing their first September. Among position players, only Pedro Villar, Marc Krauss, Cody Clark, Max Stassi, and L.J. Hoes were appearing in their first September. None of them lit the world on fire -- Clark and Stassi combined for only about plate appearances between the two of them -- but only Villar played poorly over the stretch. Hoes and Krauss were actually two of Houston's better hitters over the final fifteen games, posting OPS's of .785 and a .797 respectively.
The rest of the gang -- Jose Altuve, Chris Carter, Matt Dominguez, J.D. Martinez, Brandon Barnes, Jake Elmore, Trevor Crowe, Carlos Corporan, etc. -- largely did play badly, but all of the aforementioned players had experience playing in September.
It's a similar story among the pitchers. The starting rotation held up reasonably well for the Astros -- with rookies Brett Oberholtzer and Paul Clemens each turning in a pair of decent starts over that stretch -- though veterans Jordan Lyles and Eric Bedard each took a couple of beatings. A few young bullpen arms took their lumps, but Houston's relief corps were lousy all season, not just in September. Furthermore, rookies Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, and Josh Fields were three of Houston's most reliable relievers, and the trio combined to allow just one earned run over eighteen innings during the season's final two weeks. Add it all up, and one comes away with the impression that the first-year Astros were actually some of the biggest contributors over the season's final two weeks. It was the other young players who collapsed.
None of this is meant to criticize Sheehan, by the way. He does fantastic work, and if he didn't consistently come up with insightful and thought-provoking ideas, I never would have bothered to check if his Houston-hypothesis had merit in the first place. Nonetheless, it should be noted that, whatever the reasons for Houston's brutal finish to 2013, a widespread reliance on out-of-gas and ineffective rookies was not one of them.
Last week's question asked, "Which Mariner has the most career plate appearances without hitting a home run in a Mariner uniform?" The answer is Charles Gipson, who didn't go deep in any of his 335 plate appearances with the team, or in 31 trips to the plate with anyone else for that matter. He did hit a triple to the warning track once against St. Louis, an event fondly etched in my memory as Gipson was my favorite player when I was just a wee lad.
This week's question is easily researchable, so give yourself a tip of the cap if you get the answer without help from Baseball Reference: who led off the first game of the 1995 season?