On Thursday, June 14, the Astros completed a three-game sweep of the Athletics while the then-first-place Mariners lost to Boston, allowing the defending champions to leap into the top spot in the AL West. There Houston remained, running its lead to as many as six games and its lead over the A’s to as many as 12, for more than two months—until this past weekend in Oakland, when the Astros hit the nadir of a month-long slide and the pesky Athletics knotted the division in a tie.
After Wednesday’s games, which brought a rare Athletics loss, Houston once again leads Oakland, albeit just by one game, in the division, with Seattle 5.5 games back. Despite the Astros’ narrow advantage, they haven’t looked so vulnerable since they trailed 3-2 in last season’s ALCS, and they’re just one more bad week away from sitting outside the playoff picture entirely. As it is, they’re already poised for a true September chase, which is a new prospect for these Astros, after they won 101 games last season and no other AL West team won even half its games. All of which begs the question: Is there real reason for concern at Minute Maid Park, or is all this fretting unfounded for a World Series favorite?
Reasons for Concern
Houston’s 2017 lineup was a juggernaut. The Astros posted a teamwide wRC+ of 121, meaning they hit 21 percent better than average; that was the fourth-best mark for any team in MLB history, behind only three Ruth-and-Gehrig Yankees squads. This season, only three Astros regulars have posted individual marks of 121 or better, which helps explain why Houston’s scoring output has fallen from a league-best 5.53 runs per game last season to just 4.92 this year.
Regression from the likes of Marwin González was expected, given the utility man’s career-long hitting malaise before 2017, but George Springer (140 wRC+ in 2017, 113 in 2018) and Carlos Correa (152 to 113) have suffered surprising stumbles, and the Astros have received little production from the diamond’s classic power spots. Yuli Gurriel (98 wRC+) at first base, Josh Reddick (98) in right field, and a collection of left fielders—most notably über-prospect Kyle Tucker, who’s slashed .154/.254/.212 in the majors—have all hit at a below-average rate. The Astros’ situation grew so dire that in their loss to Oakland on Saturday, which tied the two teams atop the AL West, they started González at cleanup; it’s no wonder they mustered only two hits and a single run in defeat.
Despite warning signs last month, Houston didn’t make any meaningful upgrade to its lineup before the July 31 trade deadline; the only hitter it added was catcher Martín Maldonado, who is more of a temporary replacement while Brian McCann rehabs after knee surgery than a real lineup salve. Maybe Houston has another August shocker in store, after acquiring Justin Verlander minutes before the waiver-wire deadline last season, but for the moment, it seems as if all the team’s options are internal.
Elsewhere, Lance McCullers’s injury has forced Houston’s rotation out of its comfort zone, as the team needed to call on a starter outside its preseason five for the first time this week. And even the remaining starting pitchers have looked vulnerable: Justin Verlander appears to be enacting a reverse version of his 2017 season, as he started 2018 on a scorching pace but has struggled of late, with a 4.74 ERA and four losses in his past seven starts.
The Astros’ slump isn’t a sudden turn, either, as the team has trod water for more than a month now. Since July 9—when they began a four-game series against Oakland with a shutout loss—their record sits at 16-19, ninth-best in the American League in that span. In the same period, the A’s are 26-11, so the two teams’ trajectories point to a clear advantage for Oakland the rest of the way.
Reasons for Optimism
The Astros still have the most talented roster in the majors, across all phases of the game. For all the worries the lineup generates, especially at home, Houston still has a 110 team wRC+, which ranks third to the Red Sox and Yankees among all 2018 teams, and it still ranks fourth in the majors in runs per game. The offense isn’t as electrifying as it was a year ago, but it’s far from weak.
Alex Bregman deserves much of the credit for compensating for his underperforming teammates, as the third-year third baseman has taken strides toward stardom. He’s walking more than he’s striking out, he’s reaching career-best power numbers, and he’s leading all of his better-known teammates in a host of statistics. He ranks eighth in wRC+ and sixth in WAR in MLB; if he were in the National League, he might be the MVP favorite.
Reinforcements are also arriving, after the team’s midsummer swoon coincided with DL trips from many of the non-Bregman offensive leaders. Correa came back on August 10, José Altuve on Tuesday, and McCann is slated for a return in the coming days; that would leave only Springer, who has suffered a series of minor injuries this year—the latest a tight left quad—on the shelf. If Houston continues to struggle with its entire complement of first-choice hitters in the lineup, then there will be a reason for concern—but for the moment, confidence is returning along with health, as the Astros are 2-0 with Altuve back and scored 10 runs against Seattle on Wednesday.
In the rotation, Verlander’s struggles have been overblown because of a spate of unfortunate and untimely luck. Despite allowing runs at an unseemly clip over his past seven starts, Verlander has amassed 63 strikeouts and just five walks in that span. Among all pitchers with at least 20 innings since July 15, he ranks first in strikeout rate and seventh in walk rate, but he’s last—out of 146 such pitchers—in home-run-per-fly-ball rate, which suggests he’s due for a correction in how often the fly balls he induces leave the yard. Beyond Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have remained steady, giving Houston an unmatched advantage against every team it might face the rest of the way: Morton ranks 13th in the majors in ERA (3.05), yet he’s just third on the Astros.
More broadly, every statistical indicator beyond pure win-loss record points to lighter skies ahead for Houston. The Astros’ Pythagorean record, which estimates a team’s expected winning percentage based on runs scored and allowed, is extraordinary, even better than Boston’s. That matters because Pythagorean record is a better predictor of future success than actual record, since it more closely reflects a team’s underlying quality. The Astros’ expected winning percentage by this measure is historically great: If the season ended today, they would rank third in the divisional era (since 1969) in Pythagorean record, sandwiched between the 116-win 2001 Mariners and 114-win 1998 Yankees.
If the Astros had experienced more luck in close games or more evenly distributed their runs across the schedule, we might be speculating on their chase for the wins record, rather than Boston’s. Every other team in the top 20 in Pythagorean record since 1969 won at least 100 games, and every team in the top 40 (not counting Houston, Boston, or New York this season) reached the playoffs. Either the Astros will become an extreme—and extremely implausible—historical outlier, or they will recover from their swoon and coast into October. This isn’t an example of a narrative hypothetical, like with this year’s Nationals, who were theoretically good enough to make a run but couldn’t make that theory tangible; this is a group that has played like one of the best clubs of the past 50 years by all available information beyond record.
Even over the past month-plus, the Astros have looked fine by all those other numbers; since July 9, they have outscored their opponents by 13 runs, despite their losing record in that span. Because of this underlying ability and because the team is back near full strength, the projection systems at both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus think Houston features the majors’ strongest roster. Their projections suggest that it would take—again—a historic collapse for the Astros to miss the playoffs. At FanGraphs, they have better than a 99 percent chance of reaching the postseason, with 85 percent odds of taking the division; at BP, those odds are a slightly lower but still robust 98 percent and 71 percent, respectively. Perhaps those numbers are unsatisfying compared with two months ago, when the notion of Oakland having even a conceivable chance of unseating Houston would have seemed foolish, but they should reassure Astros fans concerned over their team’s recent play and encroaching divisional foes.
And forget just making the playoffs—both FanGraphs and BP give Houston the best championship odds, even with Oakland as the majors’ hottest squad, the Astros offense relatively scuffling, and Verlander looking hittable for the first time since joining the team. All the Astros’ current on-field concerns either aren’t real worries or require relatively clear fixes. They won last year’s World Series and have even more talent on this year’s roster. They’ll be just fine.