The talent scout for the Houston Astros lined up his car so that it faced the hardscrabble pitching mound one evening in the Dominican Republic seven years ago. Under the fading winter daylight, he clicked on his headlights for a better look at the 21-year-old left-hander who had stepped onto the mound.

This was at the end of a long day on which he and a coworker had already watched dozens of prospects show off their skills, and with many miles still ahead of them, they were uncertain if this stop was worth it. To MLB scouts and player-development wonks, 21-year olds are considered ancient.

That’s when the Astros got their first look at Framber Valdez. What began as a routine evaluation of a long-shot prospect turned into a lightning strike of a moment as Valdez spun a couple of the same wicked curveballs that have made him one of baseball’s best pitchers in 2022. He has just finished a regular season in which he led the American League with 201 and one-third innings pitched and set a major-league record with 25 consecutive quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer).

Teammate Justin Verlander is a virtual lock to become the eleventh pitcher in history to win a third Cy Young Award, but Valdez has pitched his way into the conversation with 17 victories and a 2.82 ERA.

With the Astros back in the playoffs for a seventh time in eight seasons, there are few better explanations for their sustained run of success than Framber Valdez and a pitching staff loaded with affordable, homegrown arms. This is a franchise that didn’t win a postseason series in its first 42 years of existence and was known mostly for dumb trades, cheap owners, and inventing indoor baseball. These days, it’s one of the two or three smartest, most efficient, and most successful organizations in the sport.

The Astros just became the first team in American League history to win 100 regular-season games four times in five full seasons, and they are attempting to reach the World Series for the fourth time in six seasons. Winning a second championship is especially important, given how the team’s 2017 title was tarnished by a sign-stealing scandal that prompted owner Jim Crane to fire general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, the two team officials most responsible for initially rebuilding the franchise.

But the Astros have continued to win anyway, getting all the way to game six of the 2021 World Series and entering the 2022 postseason, which begins with today’s Wild Card matchups, as one of the favorites to win it all. It’s not just that Houston continues to win. It’s how the team does it. The Astros of 2022 have baseball’s second-best record and ninth-highest payroll. They’ve lost an avalanche of talent to free agency in recent years—George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton—but they’ve managed to plug those roster holes with value-priced veterans and team-controlled prospects and keep winning. The Astros lead all of MLB’s postseason teams “in homegrown and international talent, both in terms of number of players and [production],” according to

The franchise’s success begins with its ability to find and develop pitching. Its 2.90 staff ERA was the second-lowest in baseball in 2022, trailing only that of the Dodgers (2.80). This season, Astros manager Dusty Baker handed the baseball to a homegrown starting pitcher in 122 of 162 games. Only the Dodgers, the only MLB team to win more games than the Astros, have come close in developing pitching talent.

In addition, Houston’s top seven players in terms of plate appearances—Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, José Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Álvarez, Jeremy Peña, and Chas McCormick—have never played for another major league team. Only Álvarez, acquired as a minor leaguer in a 2017 trade with the Dodgers, has spent a minute in another MLB organization.

Homegrown starters are especially critical because acquiring quality starting via trade or free-agency pitching is costly. (Astros starters led the American League in ERA, innings, and opponents’ batting average this season). The team’s six homegrown starters are making a combined $21.7 million, which is about $14 million less than what the Yankees are paying former Astro Gerrit Cole.

Lance McCullers Jr. is making $15.8 million, while the other five—Valdez, José Urquidy, Cristian Javier, Luis García, and Hunter Brown—have combined salaries worth $5.9 million. MLB payrolls are cyclical based on years of experience, and those young starters eventually will cash in. McCullers was a sure-shot prospect, the forty-first pick of the 2012 draft. All the others are a tribute to scouts who devoted long hours to searching for talent and who saw something special in the likes of Valdez and Javier that other clubs did not.

Javier got a chance because an Astros scout, Leocadio Guevara, had known him since he was a kid. He signed at seventeen for $10,000.  García got $20,000. Urquidy had been such a middling prospect that the Astros left him unprotected in the 2018 Rule 5 draft of minor league players. But by the end of 2019, he’d become the first Astros rookie to start a World Series game when he pitched five shutout innings in game four in Washington. Hunter Brown is a metro Detroit native who grew up watching Verlander pitch for the Tigers and has virtually identical pitching mechanics. He was a fifth-round pick out of Wayne State who made his major league debut in September and was overpowering with a 0.89 ERA and 22 strikeouts in twenty and one-third innings.

And there’s reliever Ryne Stanek. He found himself at a professional crossroads a few weeks after the 2020 season. The Miami Marlins had declined to offer him a contract after a disastrous season in which a bout with COVID-19 limited him to nine utterly forgettable games. In all, he pitched ten innings and gave up eight earned runs and three home runs that year. At 29, he simply did not know what was out there for him. The Astros signed Stanek and went to work on tweaking his repertoire and mechanics. Two years later, he has just finished a regular season in which he appeared in 59 games and compiled a 1.15 ERA, the lowest ever for a Houston reliever.

To unearth one hidden gem would be cause for celebration. To have done it over and over again is a tribute to what Crane has built since purchasing the club from Drayton McLane in 2011. Crane has hired competent executives and given them the resources and freedom to do their jobs. He also has pushed them to make deals they weren’t comfortable making on their own.

That was particularly true of possibly the most important acquisition in Astros history: the 2017 trade for Verlander, completed just minutes before the deadline for playoff eligibility that year. General manager Luhnow, Crane’s most important hire, had hit a wall in discussions with the Tigers and was uncomfortable with the money and prospects Detroit was demanding in return for the established ace pitcher. Crane didn’t care. He wanted Verlander.

And the owner’s insistence has paid off. Without Verlander, the Astros would not have won the 2017 World Series, and they probably wouldn’t have remained so successful over the past five years. “J.V. walked in here and made this clubhouse better,” former Astros catcher Brian McCann once told me. “And it was already a great clubhouse.” Verlander brought a swagger to a roster that had a core of young players with little playoff experience. In Springer, Altuve, Correa, and others, the Astros had an extraordinary amount of talent. Verlander was the final piece.

Pitchers traditionally need a year to regain the confidence of their repaired arms after undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Not Verlander. He missed all of the 2021 season due to the elbow injury and subsequent recovery, and this year, at 39 years old, he’s pitching as well as he has in his 18-year career. His 1.75 ERA in 2022 is the lowest for an American League starter in a full season since former Red Sox ace Pedro Martínez had a 1.74 ERA in his 2000 Cy Young season. 

Even in a season in which the Astros scored 126 fewer runs than they did in 2021, they climbed into first place in the AL West for good on May 12, led the division by nine games at the All-Star break, and finished sixteen wins in front of the second-place Seattle Mariners. They have four of the AL’s top 25 offensive players in Altuve, Álvarez, Bregman, and Tucker, based on Fangraphs’ wins above replacement calculations.

Last winter, fans worried that the loss of free-agent shortstop Correa might put a serious dent in the team’s future chances, yet the Astros remained confident enough to draw a line in their bidding to keep Correa, a franchise cornerstone since 2015. The organization never believed that 24-year-old replacement Jeremy Peña would equal Correa’s production, but they thought he’d be good enough for the team to succeed. Peña won over his teammates and coaches in spring training with his attitude, work ethic, and skills. As Altuve told a reporter: “He’s going to be a superstar.” Six months later, perhaps the greatest tribute to the rookie shortstop is that he has seamlessly blended into one of baseball’s best teams. Plus, the Astros saved about $30 million in payroll, money they’re now free to spend on keeping those homegrown pitchers.

And as the Astros open their postseason run Tuesday against the winner of the three-game Wild Card series between Seattle and the Toronto Blue Jays, the fun will really begin. “I think this ball club expects to be good on a daily basis,” Bregman said last month, when the Astros clinched the AL West title. “We take a lot of pride in going out there every single day and playing hard, and these guys prepare. They show up and compete, and they hold themselves to a high standard. That’s very important in championship teams.”