Last Updated: 2019-03-04
It wasn’t really a Master vs. Apprentice story, as AJ Hinch is only a year and a half older than Alex Cora, but Cora’s former employer, the Houston Astros, failed in its bid to repeat as World Series Champions because of Cora’s current employer. The Astros swept the Cleveland Indians right out of the playoffs in dominating fashion and then lost in five games to the Boston Red Sox.
It was still a very successful season for the ‘Stros. They actually set a franchise record in wins with 103 and have had four consecutive winning seasons for the first time since they had six from 2001-2006. It just wasn’t a season that ended with the World Series trophy.
All sports are structured in a way that cheapens the regular season and that means that the Astros won’t be remembered properly. Even though they failed to win baseball’s ultimate prize, the 2018 Houston team was better than the 2017 team. The Astros had an absurd run differential of +263 and allowed 166 fewer runs than the previous season. They scored 99 fewer runs, but had two more wins and had the second-highest Pythagorean Win-Loss winning percentage in baseball history. Only the 1969 Yankees were better at .6774. The Astros were at .6728. In some respects, a 103-win team was actually unlucky.
The Astros drew first blood in Game 1 against the Red Sox and then lost four straight, as the best pitching staff in baseball allowed 27 runs over the final four games. In the Division Series round, the Indians offense set records for futility with a .144/.196/.222 slash line and six runs scored against the Astros pitching staff.
The offseason hasn’t been kind to the Astros. Lance McCullers will miss the entire 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Sig Mejdal and Mike Elias left for a new challenge with the Baltimore Orioles. Elias’s departure means that the Astros have lost two assistant GMs over the last four years, as David Stearns left in 2015 to become the GM of the Milwaukee Brewers. Other personnel, including Mike Fast and Ryan Hallahan, have also left over the last few months.
While the Astros remain on the cutting edge and have tons of qualified and creative people, the brain drain in Houston could have longer-term impacts. It probably won’t affect the 2019 season too much, but losing smart people can never be viewed as a positive.
In looking at the Astros, there are a lot of interesting things to consider in the short-term and the long-term. The aforementioned exodus of smart minds from the front office is one thing. The Astros lost Dallas Keuchel and Marwin Gonzalez to free agency. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are free agents after this season, unless they sign extensions. Jose Altuve’s salary jumps from $9.5 million to $29 million for the 2020 season and beyond. Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman both had their first taste of arbitration this past winter.
This is an extremely healthy farm system and the Astros are going to be at the forefront of baseball technology, due in large part to how far ahead of every other organization they are, but these next few years will be fascinating to watch.
Anyway, as far as 2019 goes, they’re still going to be a good team. How good? Well, let’s dig into the data and find out.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 103-59
Run Differential: +263
Pythagorean W/L: 109-53
BaseRuns Record: 103-59
BaseRuns Run Differential: +198 (4.66/3.45)
3rd Order Win% Record: 107.9-54.1
Record in One-Run Games: 24-24
Additions: Michael Brantley, Robinson Chirinos, Aledmys Diaz, Wade Miley, Scott Manea, Luis Santana, Ross Adolph
Losses: Martin Maldonado, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Tony Sipp, Trent Thornton, Cody Bohanek, JD Davis
The Astros have some significant financial decisions coming up, as I mentioned in the intro, so they weren’t about to commit big money in free agency. Even Michael Brantley, who got over $30 million, was only given a two-year commitment from the Astros. Robinson Chirinos replaces Martin Maldonado.
The losses may not appear to be that big of a deal, but Marwin Gonzalez was a highly versatile player that really pulled the Astros out of some tough situations in a pinch. Dallas Keuchel was also a really reliable starter and Charlie Morton had some dominant stuff when he was healthy and on. He was one of the guys that really illustrated what the Astros could do with spin rates and why they value them to the degree that they do.
The key thing for people to remember here is that the Astros lost some bigger names, but because of the health of their farm system, they may actually be better for it with guys like Josh James and Forrest Whitley in the rotation.
BA: .255 (7th)
OBP: .329 (7th)
SLG: .425 (8th)
wOBA: .327 (6th)
wRC+: 110 (T-3rd)
BABIP: .289 (23rd)
K%: 19.5% (2nd)
BB%: 9.2% (5th)
This is an offense with four bona fide stars. As far as I’m concerned, Alex Bregman is the best of the bunch and may wind up in the same breath as somebody like Mookie Betts for the second-best player behind Mike Trout when all is said and done this season. Bregman walked more than he struck out, hit 31 home runs, played good defense, and slashed .286/.394/.532 with a 137 wRC+. He could even top that this season, as he only chased outside the strike zone 18.1 percent of the time and only swung and missed 4.2 percent of the time. Those are elite numbers all the way around.
Bregman has a good supporting case. Jose Altuve regressed some, which was to be expected coming off of consecutive MVP-caliber seasons, but he still posted a .363 wOBA and a 135 wRC+. The Astros won 103 games with virtually nothing from Carlos Correa last season, as he battled a back injury and was barely league average offensively. George Springer also regressed, but he’s another well above average hitter. The Astros core is made up of players very likely to all post at least 4.0 fWAR and likely more.
The Astros did lose Marwin Gonzalez, which is a little problematic because of his versatility, but getting Michael Brantley will help the offense. He’s a great complement to this team. Left field at Minute Maid Park is easy enough for him to play and not hurt the team too much defensively and his offensive skill set fits well with a team that doesn’t strike out and can steal bases and hit for power.
Houston’s depth within the organization will be on display as well, as guys like Kyle Tucker, Derek Fisher, and Yordan Alvarez could all make an impact. The bench has good depth with whichever catcher is on the pine between Robinson Chirinos and Max Stassi, Aledmys Diaz, and outfielders Jake Marisnick and Tony Kemp.
One potential shortcoming for the Astros is that they have injury concerns. Altuve was hobbled by a knee injury most of last season that cost him some days on the DL and cut his stolen base total to 17. Correa missed time with a wrist injury in 2017 and the back in 2018. Bregman had offseason elbow surgery and didn’t start swinging a bat until just before Spring Training. Springer has had his fair share of nicks and Brantley has a surgically-repaired ankle and shoulder. Last year’s workload of 143 games was a major accomplishment. Not having a plug-and-play guy like Gonzalez may loom larger as a result.
ERA: 3.11 (1st)
FIP: 3.23 (1st)
xFIP: 3.36 (1st)
K%: 28.5% (1st)
BB%: 7.4% (4th)
LOB%: 77.9% (1st)
The Astros pitching staff likely won’t be on par with last season’s. Both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole had career years at the same time. Maybe this is the new normal for the 29-year-old Cole, but it’s hard to see 36-year-old Verlander doing that again. Both guys did decline a bit in the second half, as Verlander went from a .245 wOBA against to a .284 wOBA against. Cole went from a .257 wOBA to a .280 wOBA. Verlander set a new K% best in his mid-30s. That just doesn’t happen. It is a testament to how far ahead of everybody else the Astros are analytically, but expecting regression is pretty easy to do.
While those are still elite-level numbers for starters, the rest of the rotation spots are not occupied by Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel, and Lance McCullers anymore. Morton and Keuchel left via free agency and were replaced by starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter Collin McHugh and free agent Wade Miley. Maybe Miley, who became a contact management wizard with the Brewers, is a “lite” version of Keuchel, but it’s fair to worry about the depth of this rotation. Miley doesn’t miss bats and his 2.57 ERA with a 4.30 xFIP does suggest regression.
Josh James looked to have an inside track to the final rotation spot, but the youngster only worked 23 MLB innings last year and then hurt a quad early in Spring Training. Forrest Whitley was a non-roster invite to camp, but he only worked 26.1 innings at Double-A last season and has not worked more than 92.2 innings in a season as a pro. Depth is a concern for the Astros in the rotation with McCullers out following Tommy John surgery and Francis Martes out for the same thing.
Houston’s bullpen has one of the best relievers in the business in Ryan Pressly and a solid closer in Roberto Osuna, but this is a very right-handed-heavy pen. Fortunately many Houston relievers can hold their own against lefties, but Cionel Perez is the only southpaw of the bunch. Osuna’s K% dropped to 21.3 percent last season, so it would be nice to see that bounce back. Chris Devenski falling apart was one of last season’s stunners and there is always the chance that he returns to form.
Positives & Negatives
While I don’t envision an AL Central scenario for the Astros, the West doesn’t look particularly difficult to win. The Mariners, who were Houston’s closest competition most of last season, are in full-on rebuild mode. The Rangers still aren’t any good. The Angels are trying, but they’re a faux contender more than anything. The A’s look like the biggest hurdle, but Oakland has its fair share of question marks and concerns after surprising everybody last season.
The injury risk is a lot to overlook. As it stands, the Astros have to hope for the best with the back end of their rotation and really hope for the best with the health of Verlander and Cole. Starting pitching depth is the thinnest it has been for the Astros in several years. Houston is better equipped to withstand position player injuries, but obviously those are a consideration with any full-season bet because Altuve, Springer, Correa, Bregman, and Brantley have all gone under the knife or have been on the disabled list over the last couple of seasons.
This isn’t totally relative to the win total, but the Astros offense did underachieve a bit last season. Bregman had his breakout campaign, but Altuve, Springer, and Correa all fell short of expectations. I would expect the offense to be better. I do have questions about the pitching staff. The Astros are likely to be an over team more often than not on a game-by-game basis.
Pick: Over 96.5
This is a square, Joe Public sort of play, but I don’t think much of the AL West this season. I’m not sure anybody is within six or eight games of the Astros. The A’s have tons of starting pitching questions. The Angels have the same questions they have every year. The Mariners and Rangers are punching bags. The Astros should roll through this division, even with some of their concerns.
There are so many teams in the AL that aren’t even really trying to win right now as they are in various states of a rebuild. The Astros are also the smartest team in baseball, so even with their rotation shortcomings or some other question marks, they have the best chance of coming up with a plan that limits the damage.
I do think it’s very possible that this is the last season that the Astros are like this and that may create a greater sense of urgency. I wrote about it in the intro, but the Astros are looking at Verlander, Cole, McHugh, and Miley on the free agent market next year. With big raises coming to Correa and Bregman and a big salary bump to Altuve, the dollars only go so far. Springer is a free agent after this year as well. I think the Astros tap into their organizational depth and get what they need at the Trade Deadline to make another run. I think they are hyper-aggressive.
This team isn’t as good as last year’s team, but the division isn’t as good either and that’s enough for me to lean to the over. It is not one of my stronger plays.
<< Previous PostNext Post >>