2015, Featuring the League-Leading Houston Astros by Jeff Sullivan May 5, 2015 This would’ve been better-timed yesterday, before the Astros lost a game to the Rangers, thereby having their winning streak snapped. Good teams don’t want to make a habit of losing games to the Rangers. But the timing doesn’t matter, because the message still stands: even with the loss, the Astros currently have the best record in the American League. More than that, the Astros have put a full seven games between themselves and the next-closest team in their division. The other AL division leads: two games, and half of a game. As a reminder, the team we’re talking about right now is the Houston Astros. You know how this works. All these posts nowadays have to contain this information. On Opening Day, we gave the Astros a 14% chance at the playoffs, with a 5% chance at the division. Now they’re at 51% and 36%, respectively. They’re the favorites to win the AL West, even though we have them projected to play the rest of the way slightly below .500. It’s the whole thing about every game mattering. The Astros’ advantage is in the books, and the season is about a sixth complete. Let’s say, before the year, you figured the Astros would be 10 games worse than their direct competition. Let’s say you still believe that! Over the remainder, with the season shortened, you’d put the difference a hair over eight games. And, as I write this, the Astros’ lead is seven games. It’s very simple math. Because of their start, and because of the starts of their various rivals, the 2015 Houston Astros are for real. Obviously, it feels kind of ahead of schedule. But this is one area where the Astros organization probably doesn’t mind things not quite going according to plan. When the Astros were signing veteran relievers over the winter, we speculated that the front office was thinking about the trade-deadline price tag for a good closer or setup arm. Turns out the team is winning. Winning teams don’t sell. The Astros, of course, didn’t think they’d be this good. But they positioned themselves to be competitive, and what we’re seeing isn’t a complete and utter fluke. Here’s the cold water. Last year, the Brewers started 20-7. Just the other day, they fired their manager. Because of their start, they were leading their division into September, but in the end they finished just barely over .500. Somewhat forgotten, also, last year’s Braves started 17-7. To that point they were four games better than the Nationals. The rest of the way, they were 21 games worse than the Nationals. These streaks are more noticeable at the start, but that doesn’t make them deeply significant. We’re still at the point where it’s smartest to see things more or less how you did on Opening Day. We can even keep things Astros-specific. Last season, the Astros finished 70-92. (That’s bad.) But, there was a stretch where they went 15-6. There was a different stretch where they went 10-4. One interpretation would be that last year’s Astros were just giving glimpses of what was to come. The other interpretation would be that bad teams can play good baseball for weeks at a time. All these Astros have proven to date is that they have the results they have. Respect takes a while to be earned. We know the Astros aren’t this good. Being this good would mean 112 wins. Yet we have a pretty good idea the Astros are, at least, better than they’ve been. It’s been a pretty clear progression, and below, I’ve highlighted some areas where these Astros have really stood out, compared to where they’ve been before. How do we know these Astros aren’t last year’s Astros? I mean, I guess we can’t know, but here are some encouraging signs. Power The Astros’ offense has been strongly above-average, despite the league’s highest strikeout rate. It helps to have an ISO that’s 15 points better than the runner-up. Below, check out the Astros’ team rates of home runs per fly ball, from 2011 through to the present. The less said about 2011, the better. The following three years were all pretty similar. This year, the Astros have vaulted north of 16%. They’re still striking out like they have, but that’s practically by design. It’s at least an accepted side effect. These Astros were put together to hit for power, and that’s what they’ve done. This was the team that added Evan Gattis. It added Colby Rasmus. It already had George Springer and Chris Carter. I doubt they figured Luis Valbuena would get off to the start he has, but we all kind of knew what this lineup would look like. It’s got Jose Altuve, and a whole mess of guys who aren’t Jose Altuve. It’s hard to see things continuing to be this good. From 2002 – 2014, exactly one team finished with a HR/FB over 15%. There were 10 teams that finished at 14% or better, and six of them were Yankees teams. The dinger-happy Astros are going to slow down, and so the run production will slow down, but this can still be an average offense or better. It’ll just look very different on different days. Defense Let’s stay ultra-simple. Forget, for a moment, all about DRS and UZR. Here are five years of Astros BABIPs allowed: 2011: .301 2012: .306 2013: .303 2014: .299 2015: .256 As rough a tool as BABIP can be, there’s no denying that difference. Here is a look at 2014 vs. 2015 performance against different batted-ball types: Better against line drives. Maybe some luck, maybe some positioning. Better against fly balls. Maybe some luck, maybe some positioning. And, way better against groundballs. Maybe some luck, maybe some positioning, but this is where we’d expect to see the biggest differences due to the shift. We know the Astros love to shift. Granted, we know the Astros also loved to shift, before. So, who knows? But the results, at least, are clear. At StatCorner, Matthew Carruth calculates some estimates, on the team level. A year ago, the Astros ranked 10th in baseball defending grounders, and 28th in baseball defending fly balls. In this year’s early going, they rank 1st in baseball defending grounders, and 18th in baseball defending fly balls. It’s a little curious for a team that’s regularly fielded Carter and Jed Lowrie, but a system might yield a unit that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and it doesn’t hurt to have Jake Marisnick replacing Dexter Fowler. As a team, the Astros haven’t even thrown 250 innings. Lots of room here for noise. Last April, the Brewers allowed a .269 BABIP. Their BABIP allowed in May was .298. On the other hand, the three lowest BABIPs in April were by the Reds, Angels, and A’s. In May, they were all in the top five. For the year, they were all in the top six. The Astros have turned a lot of balls into outs. It hints at something that could continue. Relief Pitching Did you know that Astros bullpens have sucked? It’s true! It doesn’t suck anymore. For the graph below, I went back and forth between plotting ERA- and FIP-, but I settled on the latter because I like it more and also because, really, they’d both show the same thing. No need to be pedantic. No matter the stat, it’ll show you that 2015 isn’t 2014, or 2013, or 2012, or… Last year, Astros relievers were second-worst in FIP-, and first-worst in ERA-. This year, they’re third-best in FIP-, and fifth-best in ERA-. Monday’s game was the first the Astros have played this year where they lost despite at one point having a lead. Their lead was 1-0. I think it was Logan Morrison who recently said the biggest difference with the Astros now is their bullpen. It’s no longer something a hitter wants to face. Tony Sipp is still in there. Chad Qualls is still in there. Josh Fields is still in there. But now there’s also Luke Gregerson. Now there’s also Pat Neshek. Now there’s also waiver-claim Will Harris. Now there’s also Joe Thatcher. It’s a deep bullpen the Astros have built, and though bullpen performance bounces around, this one shouldn’t be the wreck it’s been in the past. The best thing to be said about old Astros bullpens is that the games they blew didn’t matter. These games matter, and the unit is equipped to preserve most of them. Obviously, the performance has been a bit too good. Since 2002, the best single-season bullpen performance is a 68 FIP-, from the 2003 Dodgers. Six bullpens have finished below 80. There will be more runs. There should not be too many more runs. Any time a team is 18-8, it’s going to have unsustainable statistics. It doesn’t mean you can’t still identify improvements. The Astros appear better at hitting for power. They appear better at turning balls in play into outs. And they appear better at hanging onto leads, or giving the lineup a chance late. I never even mentioned Collin McHugh, who singlehandedly cancels out the J.D. Martinez mistake, or Dallas Keuchel, who’s allowed the lowest rate of hard contact since the start of last season among qualified starters. This is an Astros team with a few strengths, but maybe more importantly, it’s an Astros team with far fewer weaknesses. They’re going to run into slumps, and if they should fall out of first place, I don’t think people will be particularly surprised. But this is a real, legitimate team. As I write this, the Astros’ chances of making the playoffs are a coin flip. Even they didn’t think it would happen this fast.