21-9 record over past 30 games is second-best in baseball
By August Fagerstrom
Special to MLB.com |
No matter where you get your information, the Houston Astros entered the season as consensus favorites to win the American League West. They were big favorites in MLB.com's preseason predictions. Forty-six of 55 FanGraphs staff members chose them to win the division, and FanGraphs' preseason projections gave them better than a 50 percent chance to take the division.
You know what's a great way to dump a big bucket of cold water on some hot preseason expectations? Start your season 6-15. Do that, and you'll drop your preseason playoff odds by 37 percent before the end of April and get FanGraphs to write an article saying you're already in trouble. Another way: Start your season 17-28. Do that, and you'll drop your playoff odds to a season-worst 18 percent. By that point, it was totally reasonable to have written the Astros off, May and all.
Except, you know what's a great way to fire those preseason expectations right back up? Win 23 of your next 31, including seven in a row near the end of June. Do that, and you'll get your record back over .500, leapfrog the Mariners in the standings, get your playoff odds back to being a coinflip and get this very article written about you. The Astros have gotten themselves back in it.
As things stand right now, the Astros possess a 46 percent chance to make the postseason, based on FanGraphs' projections. That's better than twice the odds currently being given to the Mariners, and better than three times the Royals' odds. They're currently just outside the top 6 in the AL, and essentially indiscernible from the Blue Jays, who currently project to be the final playoff team.
The roster still looks like a great one: Their projected rest-of-season winning percentage of .540 is topped in the AL only by the Red Sox (.549) and Indians (.545). The roster always looked good, it was just the hole got dug so deep, it began to look insurmountable. The Astros have pulled themselves out of that hole.
So how have they done it? Of course, some players that underperformed early have overperformed as of late. A couple guys either returned for the first time this season, or as a better version of their previous self. There's been some help around them. And a couple of the bright spots continued to shine. Let's expand on all that.
When Jeff Sullivan posited the Astros might be in trouble near the end of April, the one hitter he singled out was Gomez, who was whiffing, no longer walking, and hitting the ball without any authority. Frankly, he looked like he was playing hurt after ending the 2015 season hurt, and lo and behold, he hit the disabled list with an injury to his side just a couple weeks after that post. He returned May 31, and has posted mostly vintage Gomez numbers since:
He's cut down on his swings and more than doubled his walk rate. The power's come back nearly threefold. More of his batted balls are coming off the bat with authority, and he's back to pulling the ball, which has always been where he's done his damage. Granted, the whiffs are still higher than his previously established levels, and you'd still like to see the overall exit velocity come up, but the production's been there, and at the very least, Gomez no longer looks broken.
Much was made of the back end of Houston's bullpen to start the year. Since that May 23 low point, though, Giles has returned to form with a 2.11 FIP and 2.61 xFIP almost exactly in line with his career numbers. Over the last month, Gregerson has a top-five strikeout rate, K-BB percent and xFIP among all relievers. The Astros' bullpen has been arguably the best in baseball despite Giles' and Gregerson's early-season struggles, thanks to less-heralded performers like Will Harris, Michael Feliz, and Chris Devenski, and their two biggest names now appear to be back.
The Mariners collapsed and the Rangers hit the DL
Coinciding with the Astros' rise was the fall of the Mariners, who have lost 22 of their past 33 in the same time the Astros won 23 of 31, dropping their playoff odds from 71 percent to just 19 percent. And while the Rangers are still heavy favorites to win the division, injuries to Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland have significantly weakened their rotation, lightening the workload for the Astros the rest of the way.
The Astros still have work to do. Parity continues to run deep in the AL, with all but the Rays, Twins, Angels and A's still fighting for playoff contention. Dallas Keuchel continues to struggle, and while Doug Fister and Lance McCullers have been spectacular lately, the Astros lack an ace with Keuchel still AWOL. They've received replacement-level production from first base all year, and the pressure is now on rookie A.J. Reed to perform. Those issues aside, things couldn't have gone much better for Houston over the last month. For a team that was being written off as dead by the middle of May, the preseason favorites in the AL West suddenly look alive and well.
A version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.