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The 2020 Astros Are Only Half an Underdog

A whole staff of young pitchers would normally increase fans’ rooting interest. But not for the Astros, who still have the full scandalous lineup core that won the 2017 World Series.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2020 Astros, still alive after a walk-off Carlos Correa home run in Game 5 of the ALCS, comprise two different teams. One group is the swaggering set of sluggers who cheated and won the 2017 World Series; the other is a staff of unproven, untarnished pitchers who coexist with the playoff veterans.

The gulf in institutional experience between the two units astounds. Of the 12 Astros who pitched in the 2017 postseason, Lance McCullers Jr. is the only one who’s also thrown innings for the club in the 2020 postseason. For comparison, the top six position players in plate appearances in 2017 are still playing for the Astros—though presumably no longer banging trash cans—every day.

Yet despite that gap, the two 2020 groups are contributing equally to this playoff run after a sub-.500 regular season. After mostly lackluster campaigns, the position player core heated up once the games mattered: Correa, George Springer, José Altuve, and Alex Bregman have a combined playoff OPS north of 1.000, via a .302/.398/.604 slash line, as well as 16 home runs. And the mostly neophyte pitchers have kept the team in games with a 3.34 cumulative ERA, nearly a full point better than the team’s regular-season mark; the youngsters have been so reliable that, in an elimination game Thursday, new manager Dusty Baker at one point called on five rookie pitchers in a row.

The scale of the Astros’ pitching attrition is best appreciated when reexamining the list of the team’s 2017 playoff pitchers. Dallas Keuchel is on the White Sox now. Charlie Morton is on the Rays. Ken Giles is a Blue Jay and Joe Musgrove a Pirate after trades. (Gerrit Cole, the target of the Musgrove trade, has since left, too, and signed with the Yankees for a record sum.) The list goes on, with Collin McHugh, Will Harris, Luke Gregerson, and Francisco Liriano all departed, as well.

Others are absent from the 2020 team due to injuries. Justin Verlander is still an Astro, but he might never pitch for the team again: The 2019 Cy Young winner appeared in just one game in 2020, then underwent Tommy John surgery, and probably won’t return to a mound until the 2022 season, before which he’ll become a free agent. In addition to Verlander, Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock are still members of the organization but have had recent surgeries on their elbow and shoulder, respectively; they were key members of the 2017 squad, each finishing a Houston win in the World Series. Closer Roberto Osuna, who joined the club in a 2018 deadline trade while serving a suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy, is also out with an elbow injury.

Overall, only 13 percent of the Astros’ 2017 pitching staff, weighted by innings pitched in the postseason, is still throwing for the team in the 2020 playoffs, and that same figure is less than a third going back just one year, to the 2019 club that reached Game 7 of the World Series.

Astros Postseason Pitching Attrition

Postseason Total IP Returning in 2020 Proportion
Postseason Total IP Returning in 2020 Proportion
2017 159 20 1/3 13%
2018 71 14 2/3 21%
2019 161 47 1/3 29%

Conversely, weighted by plate appearances, 69 percent of the team’s 2017 lineup is still around, and the only regulars missing from last year’s club are catcher Robinson Chirinos (now a Ranger) and designated hitter Yordan Álvarez (now injured). (Note that this chart includes only position players, not pitchers who batted in a road World Series game.)

Astros Postseason Lineup Stability

Postseason Total PA Returning in 2020 Proportion
Postseason Total PA Returning in 2020 Proportion
2017 666 462 69%
2018 321 233 73%
2019 680 558 82%

The lineup is most familiar; players who have accounted for 99 percent of the lineup’s plate appearances this postseason also batted for Houston in the 2019 playoffs. (The only exceptions are reserves Dustin Garneau and Abraham Toro, who have combined for three plate appearances this postseason.) The quintet of George Springer plus the four starting infielders—Yuli Gurriel, José Altuve, Correa, and Alex Bregman—set a record for most playoff games played by one five-man core earlier in the ALCS.

The pitching staff, however, is most unfamiliar. To some extent, it’s not a surprise that the Astros would switch around their fungible depth relievers. Before 2020, Houston relied on veterans like Gregerson, Liriano, Joe Smith, and Héctor Rondón for these roles; now, they’ve gotten younger, and cheaper, with the products of the club’s player development machine in the minor leagues.

Yet the youth takeover of the pitching staff is not restricted to the bullpen. Most notably, it includes Framber Váldez, who pitched Game 1 in the ALCS and will take the mound in Game 6 on Friday, too, hoping to extend the Astros’ season another game. Despite pitching in the majors in both 2018 and 2019, Valdéz didn’t make a playoff appearance until Game 1 of this year’s wild-card round, when he relieved Zack Greinke and earned the win with five scoreless innings against Minnesota. Back in 2017, the future Astros ace was getting roughed up in his first taste of Double-A, to the tune of a 5.88 ERA at the level.

This chart shows where all of Houston’s 2020 playoff pitchers were throwing in 2017. Only three threw any MLB innings that year.

Astros 2020 Postseason Pitchers, Three Years Ago

Player 2020 Playoff IP In 2017
Player 2020 Playoff IP In 2017
Framber Valdéz 18 High-A, Double-A
Zack Greinke 14 2/3 Arizona Diamondbacks
José Urquidy 13 2/3 Recovering from Tommy John surgery
Lance McCullers Jr. 11 Houston Astros
Cristian Javier 8 1/3 Low-A, Single-A, and High-A
Ryan Pressly 6 1/3 Minnesota Twins
Enoli Paredes 6 1/3 Single-A
Brooks Raley 5 1/3 Lotte Giants (in the KBO)
Blake Taylor 4 Single-A
Josh James 4 Double-A
Andre Scrubb 3 1/3 Single-A
Luis García 2 Rookie ball

This analysis isn’t to suggest the Astros are secretly lovable underdogs who deserve anyone’s rooting interest—far from it—but rather to highlight the club’s diverse approach to roster building and the strange bifurcation of the locker room. The pitchers have scant playoff accomplishments on their collective résumé, while the lineup is responsible for four consecutive ALCS trips, and two—maybe three, if they can complete a 3-0 comeback—World Series appearances.

The position player core is infused with a history of various triumphs, but also with a history of concentrated baggage, after the revelation of the sign-stealing scheme that precipitated the 2017 title. Neither the pitchers nor Baker played a part in that scandal, and normally, a unit with so much youth would demand neutral fans and attention. But it’s hard to look at the other end of the Astros’ dugout and feel any inclination of the sort. No core with Correa and Co. can ever engender sympathy.