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Searching for the Astros’ Few Flaws

Houston has a case as the best team in baseball, but it’s too soon to name the ’Stros one of the best teams of all time. Here’s why.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There’s no shortage of ways to convey that the Houston Astros are an overpowering team. We could point out that they’ve outscored their opponents by 106 runs, 24 more than the next-best team. We could observe that their lineup, to this point, has hit like the best offense ever aside from three teams that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, or that they have 11 hitters with at least 80 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 100 or better, three more than the Yankees. (Nori Aoki must feel really left out.) We could note that their pitching staff leads the majors in strikeout rate, while their offense, which had the AL’s highest or second-highest strikeout rate in each of the past two seasons, now has the majors’ second-lowest (while also leading the AL in isolated power). The Astros’ Baseball-Reference page has turned into the team equivalent of Barry Bonds’s Baseball-Reference page, a statistical feast for the eyes.

The fancy stats are, if anything, overkill. We know the Astros are good because they’ve won 11 games in a row en route to a 42–16 record and a 14-game lead in the AL West. They’re on pace for 117 wins, off to the best start, win-loss-wise, since the 116-win 2001 Mariners, which has given them a 99.7 percent chance of appearing in the ALDS. In Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, they had the AL’s hitter and pitcher of the month for May, which hardly seems fair to the rest of the teams. There are plenty of places to hear and read about the Astros’ long-foreseen success — including the preceding paragraph or a recent podcast published right here at The Ringer — but it’s hard to out-hype the standings page and its simple accounting of the Astros’ results.

Thus, the point of this post is to nitpick. In an attempt to avoid restating the obvious — Houston is good! — I come not to bury the Astros, but to praise them indirectly by finding their few faults. What caveats can we apply to one of baseball’s best-ever starts?

Spring Expectations Still Matter

Even though the Astros have a six-win lead on their closest win-loss record rival, their projected winning percentage over the rest of the season, via FanGraphs, still trails the Dodgers’ and the Cubs’ (and barely tops Cleveland’s and Boston’s). Thanks to Houston’s blistering start, even the projections forecast it to finish with baseball’s best record, but success over one-third of a season sways a team’s outlook only so much.

Prior to the Astros, 33 teams since 1900 — including last year’s Cubs — had won at least 70 percent of their first 58 games. Only two of those teams, the 1927 Yankees and 1954 Indians, matched that early winning percentage over the rest of the season. Collectively, those 33 teams posted a .739 winning percentage in their first 58 games, and a .625 winning percentage thereafter. That’s still excellent. Just a little less so, which is worth keeping in mind as the buzz builds about the Astros being a legendary team.

Last year’s Cubs’ winning percentage fell from .707 through their first 58 games to .602 from 59 on, and that team was projected to be the best team in baseball before the season started. The Astros received only the sixth-best projection this spring. As much as it might seem as if two-plus months of play should take precedence over what we thought before Opening Day, preseason projections that incorporate years of performance are far better predictors of a team’s rest-of-season performance than its early-season record or early-season run differential, even in June.

The Offense Isn’t *This* Good

The only observation that’s almost as obvious as “the Astros offense has been historically great” is the observation that it might be a little less great going forward, but hey, here we are. The Astros have averaged more than nine runs over their past eight games, so we could be catching them at a high point. According to Baseball Prospectus’s measure of opponent quality, Houston has faced the fifth-weakest opposing pitchers so far, although that could continue; BP also assesses the Astros’ remaining schedule as one of the weakest.

As potent as the Astros offense was projected to be, their hitters have still collectively managed to beat their projections by more than all but a few other teams’. The table below displays the teams with the largest and smallest totals of cumulative wRC+ points produced by hitters with at least 80 plate appearances this season, relative to their preseason Steamer projections.

Most of the Astros’ regular hitters have been better than the projections foresaw, and none more than Marwin González, 28, and Jake Marisnick, 26, who entered the season as career below-average hitters and have posted the largest and 17th-largest offensive overperformances so far, respectively. Of the 41 hitters with at least 12 home runs, González (.314/.409/.636) has the lowest average homer distance by a full 15 feet, which suggests that he’ll have a hard time hanging with that group. Marisnick (.250/.337/.513, in 86 PA) seems to have adopted a high-strikeout, air-oriented approach, which makes his power appear more real, but he’s fooled us with small-sample starts in the past. In 2015, he hit .342/.386/.566 through his first 84 plate appearances and slumped to .205/.251/.331 the rest of the way.

Forget preseason projections: Even if we go by the kind of contact the Astros have made, we wouldn’t expect them to have done this much damage. Only four teams have beaten their expected wOBA — as estimated from Statcast-derived launch angles and exit speeds — by wider margins than the Astros. Houston has a few hitters (including Aoki and Alex Bregman) who could be better than they’ve been, but the better-than-expecteds have outnumbered the could-be-betters so far. The Astros have the majors’ most formidable lineup, but it’s likely to come back toward the pack at least a little bit.

Any regression at the plate might make it more noticeable that the Astros have been one of the worst baserunning teams, ranking last per BP and second-worst per FanGraphs. Houston has made the majors’ most outs on the bases, and while that’s partly a product of its high OBP, the metrics make adjustments for opportunities, too. Nor have the Astros been aggressive in trying to steal or take extra bases. Of course, it’s hard to blame a team that’s been scoring runners at the rate the Astros have for being wary of wiping them out. And according to BP, the ’Stros have excelled at restricting opposing teams’ running games, holding their opponents to the fourth-worst total of baserunning runs against.

Their Timing on the Mound Has Been Too Good to Continue

In light of their lineup’s talent, it’s not so surprising that the Astros have scored the majors’ most runs, but it is unexpected that they’ve allowed the second fewest. Although the Astros have missed the most bats in the big leagues, led by their slider-reliant bullpen, their shift-heavy defense doesn’t rate highly, and their pitchers haven’t been elite at limiting walks or homers. They have, however, looked like a different staff with men on and runners in scoring position than they have with the bases empty.

With the bases empty, Astros pitchers have allowed a roughly league-average OPS. With men on and runners in scoring position, they’ve been the stingiest team in baseball. That divide probably won’t persist: In time, the “runners in scoring position” performance will come closer to the Astros’ stats in the larger, “bases empty” sample. Call it luck, clutchness, or both, but the Astros’ fortuitous timing has given them 3–5 wins that they wouldn’t have earned otherwise. Both BaseRuns and Third-Order Record, two methods of estimating a team’s win-loss record from its underlying stats, peg the Astros as MLB’s biggest overperformers (while also anointing them as the second-strongest performers so far).

To keep preventing runs at this pace, the Astros would also have to have health on their side. Although the preseason fear that Houston wouldn’t have an ace has turned out to be baseless — McCullers and Dallas Keuchel rank sixth and seventh, respectively, among qualified starters in park-adjusted FIP — the team’s lineup and bullpen depth doesn’t extend to the rotation.

Keuchel and McCullers are coming off injury-shortened years, and McCullers has never reached 160 innings in a single season. Behind them, the uncertainties add up: Presumptive third starter Collin McHugh has been sidelined with elbow issues all year, oft-injured spin-rate standout Charlie Morton has been disabled by back problems, and Mike Fiers has allowed 18 homers in 11 starts. The Astros have other options — Joe Musgrove is about to be back from his own injury absence, and the low-profile Brad Peacock, of all pitchers, has racked up strikeouts so far — but losing either of their top two starters would be a big blow. Fortunately for Houston, its bullpen runs several effective arms deep, and its prospect-rich system has plenty of prospects to spare in swaps for any starters who hit the market next month.

If, after reading this, you’re thinking that none of these nitpicks sound so bad, you’re right! The Astros remain really good. Right now, they’re riding higher than Yuli Gurriel’s hair, so their stats seem otherworldly. A correction is coming, but it won’t be big enough to dislodge them from their perch atop the AL’s win-loss leaderboard. Like the rebuilt Cubs before them, the Astros have a case as the best team in baseball. It’s just a little too soon to place them among the best teams of all time.