The 2010s will end without a pennant for the Yankees, the first time that has happened since the 1910s.
HOUSTON — It happened so gradually that it was easy to miss. But when Jose Altuve’s searing drive crashed off the facade above left field here late Saturday night, it was finally official: The mighty Yankees, the most successful team in baseball history, have lost in the postseason more often than they have won.
Twenty-seven championship banners ring the third deck at Yankee Stadium. But with Altuve’s homer, which ended Game 6 of the American League Championship Series and sent the Houston Astros to the World Series, the Yankees have been bounced from the postseason 28 times. In three of the last four knockouts, the Astros have dealt the blow.
This pocket of baseball history — the second half of the 2010s — belongs to the Astros, who have seized the moment better than the Yankees, on the field and off. The teams ascended at the same time, meeting in a wild-card game in the Bronx in 2015. We know how things have gone from there.
The Astros beat the Yankees in that wild-card game. Both teams missed the playoffs in 2016, but the Astros won a seven-game A.L.C.S. with the Yankees in 2017 on their way to a World Series title. The Boston Red Sox stomped both teams in the playoffs last year, but now Houston has restored order: They are the A.L. champions, and richly deserve the title.
“I feel like we are on equal footing with them,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone insisted after Game 6, despite a series of contrary evidence. “Unfortunately, sports can be a little bit cruel for the team that goes home.”
The Yankees were better this year than last year, Boone said, and he vowed to work diligently with the front office to make smart decisions this winter. Adversity will make them stronger, he said.
“We’ll continue to try and, I guess, close that gap or put ourselves in a position to get over the hump,” Boone said. “I know everyone in our room believes we will, and we’ll have a lot of battle scars when we do finally get to the top of that mountain.”
The Yankees used to live on that mountain — other teams just rented — but the last two decades have muted their historical superiority. The Yankees won the World Series in 2009, but the 2010s will end without a pennant, the first time that has happened since the 1910s.
The dynasty of the early Joe Torre years — four titles in five seasons from 1996 through 2000 — sparkles even brighter now for the way the Yankees reliably navigated a three-tiered playoff format designed to give more teams a chance. But the standard still applies.
“You’ve got to win in October,” said outfielder Brett Gardner, a free agent who is the last position player left from the 2009 champions. “Obviously, we’ve got a long time to think about that before another October rolls around. The last three years, including this year — good team. Just, this time of year, you’ve got to beat great teams to move on.”
So why have the Yankees stalled out at good, without quite reaching greatness? First, context: They did win 921 games in the 2010s, topping 100 in each of the last two seasons. By rational accounting, that is great. But the Astros are clearly better, largely because the owner Jim Crane and General Manager Jeff Luhnow have aggressively exploited this window of opportunity.
“We’re pulling in the same direction,” Altuve said during the A.L.C.S., explaining that the front office honors the players’ efforts by trying just as hard. “They really feel responsible for backing us up and finding pieces to make this team better, even when people think this team can’t be better. In ’17 we got Justin, then last year we got Gerrit Cole, and now we’ve got Zack. It’s really impressive what they’re doing.”
Impressive is an understatement. The Astros have traded for a new ace each season — Justin Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke — and each cost four players and a lot of money. But each has been worth it.
It would be foolish to question the effort of Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman and his staff, or the commitment of the Steinbrenners, who have spent more than $1 billion on salaries in the last five seasons, roughly $400 million more than the Astros. But wealthy teams have the luxury of options, and it is fair to wonder if the Yankees have chosen the right ones.
They entertained Patrick Corbin in free agency last winter but would not offer a six-year contract. The Washington Nationals did, and now they are in the World Series. The free agent the Yankees did sign, J.A. Happ, was not deemed worthy of a postseason start, after a mediocre follow-up to his impressive cameo last summer.
Even with Luis Severino missing almost all of this season with injuries, the Yankees sat out the trading deadline and left their rotation intact. The Astros dealt not just for Greinke but for another starter, Aaron Sanchez, who looked good until injuring his shoulder in August.
The Yankees’ best recent acquisition is infielder D.J. LeMahieu, who signed a two-year free-agent contract last winter. LeMahieu’s last at-bat of the season was fitting: a 10-pitch triumph that ended with a game-tying homer to right in the ninth inning of Game 6.
As a contact hitter who slugs, LeMahieu is exactly the kind of player teams need against elite pitching in tight October games. The Astros have a bunch of them. The Yankees — who just set a franchise record for strikeouts by their hitters — need more.
Mostly, though, they need starters they will allow to pitch deep into games — specifically Cole, who will be a free agent and should easily top the record contract for a pitcher: David Price’s seven-year, $217 million deal with Boston.
Here are the seven pitchers who have ever signed contracts worth at least $175 million: Price, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Greinke, Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg. Four — Verlander, Greinke, Scherzer and Strasburg — will be pitching in the World Series this week. Kershaw helped the Los Angeles Dodgers win pennants in 2017 and 2018. Price has been injured at times, but he also won the clinchers in the A.L.C.S. and the World Series last fall, both on short rest.
The Yankees have not spent nine figures on a starter since 2014, when they wisely signed Masahiro Tanaka for seven years and $155 million. They have outspent the field for relievers Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino, while asking for less of their starters than almost any other team. It is time to rethink the model.
“You watch the Nationals that are in the World Series, and these guys, obviously, with their rotation — starters is still the way to go,” Britton said after Game 6, acknowledging that the Yankees’ relievers were exhausted by the end. “If you have a great bullpen, that only helps you. But having four to five guys in the rotation that give you innings is still the formula to win. We came really close with our formula.”
Really close. That is the legacy forming around these Yankees, out of step with their tradition but the new normal in the age of the Astros.
James Wagner contributed reporting.
An earlier version of this article misstated the length of David Price's contract. It is for seven years, not 10.
Tyler Kepner has been national baseball writer since 2010. He joined The Times in 2000 and covered the Mets for two seasons, then covered the Yankees from 2002 to 2009. @TylerKepner