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The Astros Tanked Their Way To The Top

It took 56 years, three stadiums, a name change, a league change, a couple of heart-breaking near misses and some of the ugliest jerseys in sports history, but this morning the Houston Astros can finally call themselves world champions.

After beating the Dodgers 5-1 in Wednesday night’s World Series Game 7, the Astros made the list of teams to never win the title a little smaller and capped one of the most exciting World Series in history. The series had some of everything, from record-breaking home runs to crazy twists and even a marriage proposal in the postgame celebration. After the dust settled, the Astros were left standing as very worthy champions of a season in which all the best teams were unusually good. The Astros earned every bit of their first championship.

By now, the Astros’ story is well known. To get to their current perch atop MLB, the team lost a ton of games — nearly 600 from 2009 to 2014 — and bottomed out in the manner of the NBA’s most notorious cellar-dwellers. Once GM Jeff Luhnow took over in 2011, the plan was for those rebuilding seasons to yield highly drafted prospects who would either blossom into stars themselves or serve as trade chips for veterans who could help the team as it took shape. The team lost at least 106 games in each season from 2011 through 2013, but the plan worked out brilliantly. The Astros’ 2013, ‘14 and ‘15 farm systems contained some of the best collections of young players any team has developed in recent memory, and almost all of them played a major role in this championship run.

George Springer, Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Chris Devenski all emerged from that farm system. It also served as the backdrop to Ben Reiter’s now-immortal 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story hailing the Astros as “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” That story chronicled the sabermetrically-inclined Houston front office as it set the wheels of its rebuilding plan into motion. In an era where young players were beginning to produce more and more of the value in major league baseball, the Astros’ bold youth movement was the right experiment at the right time.

Of course, Houston’s postseason path was never free of doubt, except maybe at the very end. They played 18 total postseason games — only one fewer than the maximum, and tied with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (a team Luhnow helped build) for the most by a World Series champion in history. They had to battle back from a 3-2 deficit against the New York Yankees in the ALCS, and probably would have faced a similar hole versus the Dodgers if not for a pair of miracle comebacks in Games 2 and 5. The Astros could very well be the most talented team in baseball, and there will be the temptation to see them as a “team of destiny” in retrospect, but they sure didn’t make things easy for themselves along the way.

In that and many other ways, the Astros’ triumph mirrored that of the Chicago Cubs’ last season. Both teams engaged in long, difficult rebuilding operations that spanned multiple seasons and required faith in a plan as the losses piled skyward. Both teams were led by young stars acquired through the draft during the lean years. Maybe these past two seasons are a referendum on tanking as a viable championship strategy, or maybe it’s just a coincidence. But you can bet MLB’s copycats are paying attention. We probably haven’t seen the last World Series team to emerge from a protracted, painful period of designed futility.

The natural question to ask about the Astros is whether they can return to the World Series in Octobers to come, and there don’t seem to be many reasons why not. Although they’re older than they seem, practically all of their core talent is under team control (and cheaply so, in most cases) next season. There’s a reason the 2018 World Series betting markets opened with Houston ranked narrowly behind the Dodgers.

For now, though, the nation’s fourth-largest city can celebrate its first championship since the 1995 “Clutch City” Rockets. And baseball fans can go into hibernation for the next four months, give or take a stray free agent signing or Hall of Fame vote. The Astros’ championship was a fitting end to a tremendous season, and we can only hope for more of the same next year.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.