For the majority of this season, the Houston Astros seemed destined for a World Series showdown with their equally-dominant counterparts in the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Things have changed. While the Dodgers are maintaining their possibly record-setting wins pace, the Astros are faltering. Houston was just swept by the lowly Chicago White Sox, losers of 22 of their previous 26 games before they outscored the ‘Stros 18-8 over three games, in what has been a continuation of a disturbing trend for the American League leaders. Including Friday night’s loss to Texas, the Astros are just 3-9 in their last twelve games, and 10-15 since the All-Star break.
This skid isn’t simply a fluke: Houston has three serious problems.
1) Their starting pitching is overrated
The Astros have neither an elite ace nor a deep starting staff. Sorry, Dallas Keuchel isn’t in the same category as Chris Sale or Corey Kluber. He’s good, no doubt. But he’s a ground-ball guy who relies heavily on his defense (more on the Astros’ fielding shortly). And since returning from a neck injury that sidelined him nearly two months, he has yet to win a game. His strikeout/walk ratio during this time is also only 7/8. Clearly there’s cause for concern.
The real problem with their starting pitching, though, is their depth. Lance McCullers, their number two, is now on the disabled list after an awful six-outing stretch in which he failed to last until the sixth inning. Charlie Morton, Colin McCugh, and Mike Fiers, their other starters, have been mediocre no matter what pitching metric you use to assess performance. As for their only reliable back-end starter right now, Brad Peacock, there’s little reason to expect that he’ll continue to have the second lowest Home Run/Fly Ball rate in baseball (especially since his ground ball rate is rather low). He’ll regress over the following few weeks.
In short: Houston’s starting staff might have been good for the season’s first two months, but they have concerns heading into October.
2) Their bullpen is just as questionable
Houston’s relief staff is certainly not bad: in fact, the advanced stats say they have been one of MLB’s better units in 2017. The problem is that the AL’s other contenders clearly have better bullpens. Boston, Cleveland, and New York rank 1st, 2nd, and 4th respectively in bullpen ERA. The Astros are 19th. Moreover, closer Ken Giles, who ranks just 34th in WAR among relievers, pales in comparison to the other top closers, namely Boston’s Craig Kimbrel (1st in FIP), Cleveland’s Andrew Miller (5th in WAR), and New York’s Aroldis Chapman (5th in FIP). In other words, they lack an elite late-inning guy. And Houston’s bullpen is extremely erratic: over the last 30 days, their relievers rank 26th in ERA. Again, concerns abound.
3) Their poor defense can’t bail out their shaky pitching
Most surprisingly, the Astros rank 29th in fielding according to Fangraphs. That’s right: they’re one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, despite having the second best record in MLB. Why is this noteworthy? Well, the average defensive ranking for pennant-winning clubs since 2007 is 9th. The last two World Series champions, Chicago and Kansas City, finished first. There have been anomalies (the ’13 Cardinals and ’12 Tigers each ranked 26th in fielding), but in general, teams with great defenses go deep in October. The Astros are severely lacking in this regard.
Houston’s saving grace is their offense. It ranks first in WAR, home runs, and slugging percentage. But will the likes of Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa hit as well in the playoffs, against starters like Sale and Kluber, and relievers who consistently throw in the high-90’s? I’m skeptical.
The Astros’ overall body of work may still look outstanding, but as evidenced by their recent slide, there are serious chinks in their armor. Now that the trade deadline has passed, I have serious doubts that they can make the necessary adjustments.
Divisional round upset, anyone?