We attended an Astros game last night, where they managed to disappoint us even though we expected them to lose — instead, they managed to beat the Washington Nationals, a team we actually like.
The game leaves Houston at 32-65, or .330. That’s the worst record in baseball, a slot the Astros have made their own for months now. I wondered last night at what point they’d become mathematically irrelevant, so I did some very basic figurin’.
There are 162 games in a baseball season. If the Astros go on an unprecedented run and win all 65 remaining games, they finish at 97-65, or .599. That’s a respectable figure — league leaders Philly and Boston are above that now, and several others are close to it (the Yankees, the Giants, the Braves, and even the hot-streaking Rangers). The only one of those that matters for this purpose (i.e., National League playoffs) is Philly; .599 is better than everyone else in the National League, so I feel safe saying this bizarre development would be good enough to clinch the NL Central title, or at least the NL Wildcard slot.
Looking a little more carefully at last year’s playoff teams, we see an average 2010 regular season record of .576. For the Astros to finish above that (.580 is the closest possible record), they have to win 94 games, or 62 of the remaining 65 — a finishing run in excess of 95%, or only marginally less absurd than the perfect run required to reach .599.
So, while it is still technically too early to count the Astros out on the strength of arithmetic alone, it does seem damned improbable. And in the next two weeks, they play the Nats again (once), the Cubbies (3 times), the Cards (4 times), and the Brewers (3 times), so odds are they’ll drop those “critical” three games between now and the end of July, rendering even pipe-dream best-possible records unworthy of the postseason.
All that’s just math, though: smart folks like us realize that the AA sad-sacks of Enron field are not going to shift from .330 ball to .950 ball. Let’s look at some other scenarios, ranging from “still absurd” to “depressingly likely.”
What if they win “only” 3/4 of their remaining 65 games? That herculean feat will buy them a reasonable finishing record of .500, which will presumably rescue the 2011 Astros from generations of ridicule. However, even a 75% run through September only gets them as close to the playoffs as, well, the AAA-league Louisville Bats. To be fair, we must admit that a .750 run to finish the season is only slightly more likely than a playoff-worthy .950.
Closer to the realm of possibility is splitting the remaining games. I said “closer,” but not really possible — but if it DID happen, a 33-32 run would let the Astros finish at .400. For most of the year the Astros have been alone in the sub-40% club, Cubbies notwithstanding, so climbing one rung of the ladder would still be nice — even though my guess is that .400 would leave them in the league basement for the year.
Now we’re out of the impossible and improbable, though. What if they continue on their .330 path? That seems positively reasonable! They’d finish at 53 and 109. Astonishingly for a team as meager and feeble as the Astros have always seemed to be, they’ve never before lost 100 games in a year — and in fact haven’t lost more than 90 in 20 years.
I think we’re safe in kissing that record and streak goodbye; to avoid 100 losses, they’ve got to bag 63 wins, or 31 of the remaining 65. A 31-34 season-ending run would be only slightly less miraculous than the .500 split, and even that moral victory still leaves them at .389 on the year.
Frankly, 109 losses might be good news, if their pre-break performance is any indication. Of their 35 games before the All Star game, the Astros lost a staggering 28. If they continue that performance, we can look forward to something like 45 and 117, or a .278 final percentage. Ouch!
To put this in more global perspective, it’s been 7 years since a team lost 109 or more games (the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks went 51-111, or .315), and in the last 40 years it’s only happened three times (the ’03 tigers went 43-119, and who doesn’t love the ’62 Mets at 40-120?).
With those final figures in hand, I realize one final note: The Astros can’t even be exceptionally bad. 109 or 117 losses definitely sucks, but if you’re going to go that far down, have the strength of character to own it. Be the worst team you can be!
The Astros can own the modern era loser record if they manage to win no more than five additional games, finishing at .228 or 37-125. The mark was set by the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics, who went .235 (36-117) back in 1916. Sadly, I suspect our hometown team will blow this opportunity as well.