The Astros franchise began playing professionally in 1962, but baseball had been in the city as far back as 1888 – in the form of a minor league team, the Houston Buffaloes. Multiple previous attempts had been made to bring professional baseball to Houston – including a failed attempt to purchase the St. Louis Cardinals in 1952, and a failed attempt to start a 3rd professional league (the Continental League) in 1959. In October of 1960, the National League agreed to two new expansion teams – one in Houston, and one in New York. Both teams were allowed to begin play in 1962.
Originally, the team was named the Houston Colt .45’s, after a “Name the Team” contest was won by William Irving Neder. But, after their first three seasons, their owner completed the construction of baseball’s first indoor stadium, the Astrodome. And, ever since the 1965 season, they’ve been known as the Houston Astros, paying homage to the fact that Houston is the central location of America’s space program. People from all around the country came to watch the Astros play – but, not because of their performance on the field. The Astrodome was nicknamed “the eighth wonder of the world,” and many were fascinated with the idea of indoor baseball.
As a franchise, the Astros have had limited success. In 52 seasons of existence, they have only made 9 playoff appearances. And, until 2004, they had never won a playoff series. They made it as far as the World Series in 2005 (their lone National League pennant), but were swept by the Chicago White Sox. In 2013, they began play in the American League, in an effort by MLB to even out the two leagues. But, even though they haven’t won much regarding the playoffs, that doesn’t mean they haven’t ever been winning. Until 2011, they had never lost as many as 100 games in a season (a feat accomplished in the first year of their expansion counterpart’s existence – the hapless ’62 Mets). And, of 52 seasons, they have had winning records in 24 of them.
Somewhere along the way, someone must have told the Astros that it was en vogue to retire jersey numbers. They’ve retired 9 players’ jerseys, only one of whom is in the Hall of Fame (see below), and most of whom barely had a couple All-Star game appearances. Choosing the top 5 in the history of the Astros was a little easier than some other teams have been. When you begin looking at all the statistics, these guys rose to the top again and again.
5. Craig Biggio (’88-’07) – one more time, I’ll say it – simply accumulating statistics shouldn’t be enough to make you a legitimate HOF candidate, or be considered an all-time great. It was tempting to leave Biggio completely off this list, in favor of Jim Wynn or Jose Cruz, because when you compare their average year to Biggio’s, they’re quite comparable. The only reason Biggio ranks ahead of either of those two in most categories is because he has over 3,000 more AB’s than anyone else in Astros history. His average full season was .282/.364/.434/.798, 15 HR, 62 RBI, and 21 SB. And, the only reason he has 3,000 hits (a coveted milestone – one he reached without even once leading the league in hits), is because he hung around 3 seasons longer than he should have, so he could bat around .250, and accumulate those last 400 hits. And, while no one else is saying it, I’ll go ahead – I find it awfully peculiar that he hit more home runs at the ages of 38 and 39 than ever before in his career – which also happened to coincide with this late-career push for 3,000 hits. But, I digress. Biggio led the league in doubles 3 times and stolen bases once. He made 7 All-Star appearances, and won 4 Gold Gloves at second base. On the Astros’ all-time list, he ranks 9th in OBP (.363 – greatly assisted by his 5 seasons leading the league in HBP while wearing armor on his elbow and leaning in), 1st in runs scored (1844), 1st in hits (3060), 1st in doubles (668), 3rd in HR (291), 2nd in RBI (1175), 2nd in stolen bases (414), and 1st in runs created (1822).
4. Lance Berkman (1999-2010) – Berkman is about as “homegrown” of a talent as you’ll ever see. He went to high school in New Braunfels, TX (about 150 miles west of Houston), college at Rice University (in Houston), and was drafted in the first round of the ’97 draft . . . by Houston. While with the Astros, Berkman made 5 All-Star game appearances, and finished in the top 5 of MVP voting 4 times. He led the league in doubles twice and RBI once. And, while none of that sounds overwhelmingly impressive, take a look at his average full season in Houston: .300/.413/.559/.972, 31 HR, and 103 RBI. On the Astros’ all-time batting list, Berkman ranks 4th (.296), he’s 1st in OBP (.410), 2nd in SLG (.549), 2nd in OPS (.959), 3rd in runs scored (1008), 5th in hits (1648), 3rd in doubles (375), 2nd in HR (326), 3rd in RBI (1090), 3rd in OPS+ (146), and 3rd in runs created (1303 – though, if you compare his rate of runs created per plate appearance, it’s the best in Astros history).
3. Nolan Ryan (’80-’88) – now, before someone flips out and says that I’m crazy to suggest that any of these other guys were better than Nolan Ryan, let me remind you of a few things: first, this is a list of the best Astros to ever play, and Ryan was only in Houston 9 of his 26 seasons; second, Ryan was past his prime when he came to Houston, though he was still very good; third, Ryan’s average season in Houston was a 12-10 record, with a 3.13 ERA, and a 1.21 WHIP; fourth, he only pitched one of his seven no-hitters while in Houston; fifth, he only made two All-Star game appearances while in Houston. But, while in Houston, he did accomplish several milestones: he cracked the 3,000 strikeout barrier, surpassed Walter Johnson‘s all-time strikeout record, and his no-hitter was his 5th, which broke Sandy Koufax‘s record. He led the league in ERA twice, and strikeouts twice, while in Houston (including a 1987 campaign that saw him lead the league in ERA – 2.27 – and strikeouts – 270 – but finished 5th in Cy Young voting, because of his atrocious 8-16 record, thanks to some pitiful run support). Ryan ranks 1st on the Astros’ all-time list in ERA, among pitchers to have pitched at least 1,000 innings (3.13), 6th in wins (106), 1st in K/9 (9.06), and 1st in K’s (1866).
2. Roy Oswalt (’01-’10) – it sounds ridiculous to even say out loud, doesn’t it? Roy Oswalt was better than Nolan Ryan. But, when you begin looking at their overall numbers, it actually makes sense. They pitched nearly the same amount of time in Houston (Oswalt had around 20 more starts), so the “accumulation” categories aren’t going to be overly skewed in one guy’s favor. Their average seasons were comparable – Oswalt’s was 15-8, 3.23 ERA, and a 1.20 WHIP. But, Oswalt made 3 All-Star appearances, and finished in the top-5 in Cy Young voting 5 times. Oswalt was also runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting in 2001. And, on Houston’s all-time lists, Oswalt ranks 2nd in wins (143 – 1 shy of Joe Niekro), and among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched, he’s 6th in ERA (3.24), 1st in win pct. (.636), 3rd in WHIP (1.20), 4th in K/9 (7.42), 2nd in K’s (1593), and 2nd in K/BB ratio (3.57).
1. Jeff Bagwell (’91-’05) – I’ve read some of the suggestions that Bagwell was involved in PED’s, but I’m not totally convinced. The guilt-by-association that some have used, is related to Caminiti. But, they played together for 3 years before Bagwell had his breakout power season – which also was at the age of 26, and Caminiti’s last season in Houston. It also was 1994 – which is a little ahead of the PED curve. Also, Bagwell never led the league in HR – hitting 40+ just 3 times, at the ages of 29, 31 & 32. After his age-32 season, Bagwell’s OPS declined steadily, as you would expect, until he retired after just playing 39 games at the age of 37. I’m not saying it’s an impossibility that Bagwell used PED’s – just that it certainly isn’t as clear as some seem to want to make it. Bagwell was the first, and only, Houston Astro to win Rookie of the Year (’91), as well as the only MVP in their history (’94). He had 2 other top-3 finishes in MVP voting (’97 & ’99), was a 4-time All-Star, and won a Gold Glove in ’94. He ranks 2nd on the Astros’ all-time batting list (.297), 2nd in OBP (.408), 3rd in SLG (.540), 3rd in OPS (.948), 2nd in runs scored (1517), 2nd in hits (2314), 2nd in doubles (488), 1st in HR (449), 1st in RBI (1529), 6th in stolen bases (202), 1st in OPS+ (149), and 2nd in runs created (1788 – and 2nd only to Berkman, when it comes to runs created per plate appearance).
That’s my list. What’s yours?