The Astros are once again alive and well

It wasn’t all that long ago when I was using this space to talk about how the Houston Astros had yet to really lift off this season and were spinning their wheels in the mud. With most of their rotation dropping left-and-right and their hitters underperforming while combined with the strong start from the Seattle Mariners, it was getting to the point where there were already rumors that the Astros could be considering selling once they got to the trade deadline. It was that rough.

Well, here we are a month later and all of a sudden the questions have changed. Instead of wondering whether or not the Astros are going to fall off and start selling, the question now is whether or not the Mariners can hang on to what was once the largest divisional lead in the AL West. Houston has gone 20-10 over their last 30 games and are now three games over .500 and right in the thick of things in the playoff race while Seattle has gone 16-14 in their last 30 and 3-7 in their last 10 to be specific.

As a result of this sudden change in fortune, the Astros are now only two games behind the Mariners in the AL West and FanGraphs’ Playoff Odds reflect this as well — Houston now has a 60 percent chance of making the Postseason with a 45 percent shot at winning the division again. This is after the Astros finished June 5 with a 40 percent chance of returning to the playoffs with only a 24 percent shot at winning the division. The Astros are even being given more of a shot to end up with a first-round bye (10 percent) than the Mariners currently are (8.3 percent). The boogeyman of this division is well and truly alive once again, to the point where the word “destiny” is being bandied about around here.

So what’s behind this sudden shift in form for both teams? Part of this can be attributed to the natural ebb-and-flow of the long marathon that is baseball’s regular season but at the same time, for things to change this quickly for both teams is still a bit whiplash-inducing. Usually it takes a while to see a shift like this and maybe it would warrant more attention had this shift happened in say, September instead of in June and July. With that being said, it’s still very fascinating to see just how quickly the Astros managed to turn things around and conversely it’s a bit concerning to see this getting away from the Mariners like it appears to be.

The fuel that’s been propelling the Astros back towards the top of the AL West has been the fact that their offense has stepped up their game. I mentioned that the offense wasn’t the reason why they were struggling last month but there was still room for improvement for Houston when it came to hitting the ball. Unsurprisingly, Houston’s lineup did eventually revitalize itself and has been hitting .274/.329/.445 as a collective since June 1. Additionally, they’ve put together a .335 wOBA and a team wRC+ of 119 since the start of June, which is tied for the seventh-best number in all of baseball during that period.

The main man pushing Houston’s revitalization has been Yordan Álvarez, who has absolutely unleashed fury upon opposing pitchers since the start of last month. For the season, Yordan has 2.8 fWAR — however, he’s produced 2.0 of that fWAR since June 1 alone. Álvarez has been hitting .366/.466/.796 since that aforementioned date with a wOBA of .513, 10 home runs over 118 plate appearances and a wRC+ of 240. Folks, that’s Gunnar Henderson territory. Shoot, that’s Aaron Judge territory. It also helps that the usual suspects like José Altuve (152 wRC+ since June 1) and Alex Bregman (128 wRC+ in that same span) have stepped up and are hitting like most baseball observers would expect them to do so. The Astros are a tough team to deal with at the plate but that’s always been the case since their rebuild from the mid-2010s started to pay off.

What makes this return to form for Houston’s offense so impressive is that it’s happening without Kyle Tucker. Tucker went on the IL with a shin contusion back in early June and to let you know just how rough things were going for the rest of the Astros, he’s missed every game since June 3 and he’s still Houston’s leader in On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, wOBA, xwOBA and wRC+ and he’s also still the joint leader in home runs and joint-second place in stolen bases.

Tucker has been the best player in the lineup for the Astros this season and losing him could’ve been a death knell for Houston’s lineup if the rest of the Astros continued to limp along at the plate. Instead, players have been stepping their game up left-and-right in Tucker’s absence and now Astros fans are surely dreaming of what this lineup will look like once Tucker returns and gets this offense working at full strength again.

Houston’s pitching during this span has been intriguing to say the least. This should definitely be the position that is weighing down the Astros since they’ve lost two of their starters for the season and have another one who is currently on the shelf and could potentially lose out on their vesting option in 2025. Instead, the Astros have kind of just kept it pushing in that regard and Hunter Brown’s performances since June 1 has somewhat reflected what the Astros have done on the mound during that span.

As a staff since the start of June, the Astros have an incredible ERA- of 85 — tied for the third-best in all of baseball! Weirdly enough, Houston’s FIP- during that same span has been 104, which is clearly middle-of-the-road. Then you look at what Hunter Brown has been doing during that time and suddenly his ERA- of 25 and a FIP- of 73 since June 1 suddenly makes a little more sense. Combine his performance with Framber Valdez and Ronel Blanco doing their best to keep the rotation afloat and Houston’s rotation is definitely coming together to produce something that’s greater than the sum of their parts at the moment. They’re making it happen and their return to the good side of .500 has made that clear.

While it’s not exactly time to say that the Astros are “back,” they’re absolutely alive and definitely kicking again. General Manager Dana Brown’s faith in his squad is being repaid and suddenly his confidence that Houston would be buying at the deadline is looking clairvoyant instead of simply being the right thing to say in GM-speak. While it’s never really wise to call time on any team’s season during the first half, this is also a bit of a reminder that when it comes to teams like the Astros, the time to count them out doesn’t come until they’ve actually been mathematically eliminated.

Speaking of GM’s, the onus is now on Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto to help revive the Mariners. While their pitching staff is doing just fine, it is plainly obvious that Seattle needs hitting. With guys like Julio Rodriguez, Jorge Polanco, J.P. Crawford, Mitch Haniger and even the “Big Dumper” himself Cal Raleigh all currently doing some serious underperforming at the plate, their lineup needs multiple sparks and they need it in the worst way. Seattle’s pitching should still be good enough to help keep them in the playoff conversation but if they keep struggling at the plate like they have, it won’t be long before the boogeyman from Space City catches them for good.

Leave a Reply