When and Why Did the Houston Astros, the 2005 National League Champions, Move to the American League?

In baseball’s so-called era of parity, the Houston Astros find themselves in familiar territory each October.

The 2021 season marked the fifth straight year that Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and the rest of the 2017 World Series champions reached the American League Championship Series. Their first appearance in the best-of-seven series might have still felt strange for those who grew up watching the likes of Nolan Ryan dominate in the National League.

The Houston Astros joined the American League in 2013

It’s infrequent when teams move leagues or divisions in North American sports. That’s good news for Jacksonville Jaguars fans who still get to boast that their team remains in the NFL.

The Astros joined that club following the 2013 season when they left the NL Central for the AL West. From the team’s first game in 1962 through a 5-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Oct. 3, 2012, the ‘Stros belonged to the NL.

Unlike international soccer, there was no performance-based relegation involved here. The NL had 16 teams to the AL’s 14 since 1998, and it was decided in advance that the Astros would switch leagues. According to The New York Times, the move occurred because of an intended desire to see the Astros and Texas Rangers have more of a rivalry.

Indeed, the Astros hosted the Rangers on March 31, 2013, in a nationally-televised game at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Altuve had two hits and Rick Ankiel, the former starting pitcher-turned-outfielder, hit a three-run home run in the Astros’ 8-2 win.

The victory proved to be a rare sight for Astros fans that year. Houston went a league-worst 51-111 and earned the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft.

Houston has dominated the American League in the Jose Altuve era

Any talk about the Astros’ recent dominance requires a disclaimer regarding the team’s sign-stealing scandal. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic in 2017 that the organization used video cameras to film the opposing catcher’s signs during parts of the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Cheating is only part of the Astros’ overall success since 2015, though. Houston drafted well — Correa, the first overall pick in 2012, mashed 133 home runs in his first seven seasons — and saw several international signees, including Altuve, grow into All-Star talents. Trade acquisitions Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke all flourished in the starting rotation and helped the team remain an AL powerhouse.

The Astros also benefited from an overall weak AL West. From 2017-19, the Oakland Athletics were the only other AL West team to reach the postseason.

After going 29-31 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 regular season, Houston rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS and nearly reached the World Series. However, Charlie Morton — himself a former Astros pitcher — and the Tampa Bay Rays held on in Game 7.

The Milwaukee Brewers preceded the Astros in switching leagues

The Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves on March 31, 1998.
The Milwaukee Brewers (gray) played their first game as a National League team against the Atlanta Braves on March 31, 1998 | Andy Lyons/Allsport via Getty Images

Remember when we said it’s rare when teams switch divisions and leagues? Interestingly, one of the Astros’ former NL Central rivals can relate all too well.

The Milwaukee Brewers opened play in 1969 as the then-Seattle Pilots. After moving to Wisconsin in 1970, the team remained in the AL through the end of the 1997 season.

Baseball expanded in 1998 and added the Arizona Diamondbacks and the then-Devil Rays. When the AL refused to add the D-Backs over travel reasons, the Brewers switched leagues.

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