The Houston Astros played a better game than the Oakland A’s on Monday in Game 1 of the 2020 ALDS. Both teams hit well and knocked out the opposing starting pitchers relatively early, but the A’s made a key defensive error and the Astros took advantage. The runs weren’t earned, but the victory was.
After the game, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers offered the following quote, via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle:
“We have a good team. We may not have the big names, big bank accounts, but we got guys with balls. We got a good team.”
Wow, that’s a whopper. Stare at those words all you want, and they will never begin to make sense.
The Astros have said some odd things this year, during their tour of complete obliviousness to how much and why the national public is so mad at them for their cheating scandal. They skipped the part where they show remorse or atone in any way, and moved straight to an alternate reality where they’re hard-luck heroes and their critics are being unfair haters. Now apparently that fantasy has extended to them being plucky no-name small-budget underdogs.
What team does McCullers think he’s on? Did he get traded to the A’s in between the final out and the post-game interview?
Let’s begin with the big bank accounts. The Astros have the fourth-highest payroll in the majors, trailing the Yankees and Dodgers and virtually tied with the third-place Red Sox. They’re spending well over twice what the A’s are, and it would have cleared $200 million if the full season had been played. Eight players were set to earn eight figures (the A’s have two), four were over $20 million (the A’s have none), and two are over $32 million (twice the highest salary in A’s franchise history).
How about the big names? Their rotation is led by a former Cy Young winner on a $200 million contract. Their second baseman is a recent MVP winner, and their third baseman finished runner-up last summer and fifth the year before. Five members of their lineup have been elected by fans as All-Star starters in just the last three years. Most of their roster played in two of the last three World Series. McCullers’ characterization is the literal polar opposite of the truth. They have the biggest names.
All of that isn’t to say the Astros didn’t face adversity this summer. Even leaving aside the deserved mockery they’ve received from 29 other fanbases, they incurred a ton of injuries, far more than their fair share. The list included reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, All-Star closer Roberto Osuna, and Rookie of the Year slugger Yordan Alvarez. That’s a lot to lose all at once, and there were others who missed time but made it back for October.
But it’s not as if they’re the only ones dealing with injuries, even if they got it worse than average. The A’s are missing Matt Chapman, and don’t get it twisted — he’s the best player on either injured list in this series. If you listen to fWAR, then he and Verlander are tied over the last two seasons, with Chapman entering his prime and Verlander due for late-30s decline. If you listen to bWAR, it’s no contest. And Oakland doesn’t have five other superstar hitters to pick up the slack when they lose their best player.
In the replies to Rome’s tweet (remember, Rome is just the messenger, he didn’t say the quote himself), some folks suggest that McCullers may indeed have been referencing the loss of Verlander, and the fact that the pitching staff has six rookies to fill in all the gaps. And sure, not everything went perfectly for Houston, as it never does for any club. But just because you have some new guys in the clubhouse doesn’t cancel out the bevy of stars surrounding them. All 28 names don’t have to be superstars for it to be a big-name roster.
Remove Verlander’s enormous salary, and the Astros still have a Top 10 payroll that towers over Oakland’s. Remove him (and Osuna and Alvarez) from the roster, and it’s still packed with inner-circle All-Stars, including a backup Cy Young, and an MVP infielder, plus a different All-Star reliever to take the 9th inning. McCullers himself once started Game 7 of the World Series in the very stadium where this interview was conducted.
Why does this throwaway quote strike such a nerve? Probably because it came while the Astros are playing the team that it actually describes. The A’s truly don’t have big names, nor big bank accounts. Oakland is the one reeling from losing their best player right before the postseason, and without superstar depth to replace him. McCullers’ words could not be less accurate in regard to his own club, and on top of that it feels like he’s stealing the underdog virtue straight from the opposing clubhouse. It’s a steaming plate of what the actual hell.
Don’t get me wrong. The Astros should be proud of their win on Monday. They earned every bit of it, and McCullers wasn’t wrong about one thing: They have a good team. But own what you are. You are not, in any way, shape or form, the unknown small-budget club. Not even without Verlander. Cut that trash right out. There’s nothing wrong with being the big-budget superstar juggernaut, but own it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to redeem yourselves on the field this year to silence the doubters, but accept why that’s necessary, and that it’s directly due to your own past transgressions.
Own who you are, Astros. Don’t pretend that you’re the A’s. Be happy if you win, but don’t act like you’re the Cinderella upset. You’re literally the reigning American League champions. With an asterisk still attached.