Getting the Astros to 90 Wins

When MLB added a second Wild Card in each league for the 2012 season, making a version of the postseason got easier. More teams were invited into the season’s final month, even if you want to make conditioned arguments about how adding the extra teams changed the nature of in-season roster decisions. Over three seasons, we’ve had six second Wild Cards who averaged just under 90 wins per team per season. It’s a small sample as far as trends go, but the values have been lower in the National League and have generally decreased each year.

As a result, we can essentially say that the average second Wild Card will win about 90 games this year. It might be more or less, but it’s a fairly safe starting assumption. It’s an assumption you take into account when thinking about your team’s chances of making the playoffs. We’ve seen teams make the postseason with fewer wins, and in an age of increasing parity, 88 might do the trick as well. In general, a 90 win team has performed well enough that they will very likely make the playoffs under the current regime.

Which brings us to the 14-7 Houston Astros who currently lead the AL West by four games on April 30. The Astros, if you haven’t noticed, have been bad for quite a few years, and there was an expectation entering the 2015 season that they would remain relatively unimportant to the AL playoff picture. They averaged 58 wins over the previous four seasons, and while they built a team that our Playoff Odds machine projected for 78 wins in 2015, that’s a far cry from the amount needed to make the postseason, as we just learned.

In fact, their postseason odds (wild card + division title) sat around 15% when the season opened at the beginning of the month. Factoring in everything our models knows, such as record to date, injuries, roster moves, and player performance, the Astros are now pegged for 83 wins and a 35% chance of making the playoffs. If you look at our forecast for their rest of season win percentage, it sits at .489, which is up exactly three thousandth of a point from .486 when the season started. In other words, our projections think this team is still a 78 win team, but they’ve won some extra games so far and those don’t go away.

We’re talking about five wins of value already built into their 2015 season after a month of baseball. There were only 37 players in the baseball last year who were worth 5.0 WAR or higher, so the Astros have essentially added an All-Star caliber player to their team without actually adding someone to their team. And just to be safe, we see that they’ve played the Indians, Rangers, Athletics (twice), Angels, Mariners, and Padres. That’s not the hardest schedule in the game so far, but it’s a fair mix of teams. It isn’t like they’re 14-7 because they’ve only seen the Twins and Phillies.

In that vein, the Astros find themselves within seven wins of a playoff berth if everything in the projections holds. Now of course, everything in the projections won’t hold because if they did, the creators of projections would be spending their days ruling the Earth instead of playing around with baseball data, but the nature of a projection is such that the odds of over- or under-performing should be equally likely.

The Astros are on track to win 83 games. We have to start with an assumption, so let’s start with that one. They need to get to 90 wins to make the playoffs. That’s a second assumption. The final assumption is that the ZiPS/Steamer has properly forecasted everyone’s rate stats. We know that they haven’t, but instead of saying they’re too high here and too low there, let’s assume it comes out in the wash. It probably won’t, exactly, but there’s nothing we can really do to fix that for now.

So let’s take this Astros team and find a way to turn them into a playoff team much earlier than everyone expected. Look at our Depth Charts can give us a sense of the team’s current weaknesses. At first base, shortstop, left field, and designated hitter, they are expecting fewer than 2 WAR for the rest of the year. Let’s call those their weak positions. Their starting pitching is at 8.0 WAR, which is in the bottom half, and their relief core is at 1.8, also below average.

We need to find a way for them to achieve a net increase of roughly 7 WAR to become a playoff caliber roster. Is that within reach?

Let’s start with Carlos Correa. By the rules I’ve imposed, I can’t give him a super optimistic projection, but ZiPS thought he was a .300 wOBA hitter before his sizzling start. That might not sound like much, but with Jed Lowrie out, the Astros are planning to give plate appearances to Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar who are projected for a combined 0.5 WAR in 331 PA at SS. Let’s give 300 of those PA to Correa. According to preseason ZiPS, that’s 1.1 WAR for Correa, or a net increase of 0.6 WAR.

Now let’s move to the outfield and grab Gerardo Parra from the Brewers because the Brewers are bad and Parra seems like an obvious trade candidate. Realistically, we’re probably two months from a trade, but the Brewers are bad enough that they could trade a non-core piece in May. Let’s get him 300 PA in the outfield, taking reps from Robbie Grossman, Evan Gattis, Villar, etc. That should net the team around 0.5 WAR based on the projections.

Next, let’s get the obviously move taken care of; Andre Ethier. If the Astros give him 550 PA at DH, that could wind up around 2.1 WAR depending on how much shifting him to DH affects his value in your mind, which adds 1.3 WAR to the team’s total. On top of that, let’s run George Springer into the ground in RF, and squeeze another half a win out of him by increasing his playing time.

With those easily attainable position player adjustments, we’ve worked our way up to 2.9 WAR without doing anything terribly creative. Maybe it’s a little less depending on your views on the DH penalty.

On the pitching side, the Astros have some big holes in the back of the rotation, so upgrades should be pretty easily to locate. They’re currently projected for 1.5 WAR for the bottom 400 innings of their rotation after Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and Scott Feldman. Both Cole Hamels and Johnny Cueto are due for about 3.3 WAR over 180 innings, so let’s say the Astros probably need one of them. Let’s say Cole Hamels is the guy, just because they have the payroll space to eat some contract to limit the prospect cost.

Would the decimated Rangers like to get something for Yovani Gallardo? That’s 1.7 WAR or so over 170 innings. If you don’t think he’s the right fit, Matt Garza and Mat Latos project pretty similarly. Include one of those players with Hamels and you’re adding 5.0 WAR for a net gain of 3.5 WAR in the rotation. Right there, you’re at 6.4 WAR before we get to the bullpen. That means you need a win of relief help. Jonathan Papelbon and Addison Reed would do the trick together. Or obviously Aroldis Chapman if they could squeeze a trade out of the Reds. Glen Perkins gets them most of the way there, too.

The Astros need to locate seven wins, and if they promote Correa and trade for Parra and Ethier, while pushing Springer into more games the offense can end up about +3 WAR. If they trade for one of the aces like Hamels or Cueto and a second tier starter, they can get another +3 or so WAR from the rotation. The last win or so requires adding a big name reliever or two, but given their thin pen and plenty of room to add payroll, adding there is feasible.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that the Astros chart this course. It would require that they deplete their farm system to some degree, but they have a payroll south of $80 million, so they should be able to hang on to some of their prospects by offering to take on contracts that other teams don’t want. The key here is that while this is an aggressive option, it’s not an implausible one thanks to their great April. The only real stretch is the Hamels/Cueto move, and the Astros do have the prospects and long term payroll flexibility to make the move happen, even if everything seems to think he’ll be a member of the Red Sox come August.

In addition, these needs are based on the idea that the Astros are a .489 team from this day forward. If the projections are even a little low on someone like Springer, Correa, or Marisnick, that could have big implications on what the team has to acquire to make a real run at October baseball. And this is to say nothing of the potential for things to “break right,” and wind up as one of the teams that over-perform the projections by a win or two just based on sequencing and other such things.

So while I would agree with the projections that the Astros aren’t a better than .500 true talent team at the moment despite their great record, they’re seven games over .500 at the end of April and that puts them in position to go for it in 2015 if they’re ready to take advantage of a stumbling AL West. Even if the Astros are no better than we thought four weeks ago, they’ve played themselves into a position where trading for an ace, a quality reliever, and a couple of average players could make them a playoff team without needing any sort of Orioles-style BaseRuns beating wizardry.

It might not be the best strategy for the club in the long run, but if they continue to outrun their projections for another six weeks, it might start to look like an interesting option. After so lean years, the Astros are no longer that far away.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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7 years ago

There might be a much easier path which you’ve Ignored.

If we can use steamer/zips as baseline assumptions for win %, lets do the same from here on out for the rest of the division. What does it say for the A’s, Angels, and Mariners?

My hunch is that it will be something closer to 87 wins than 90 wins. And given the fact that the ‘Stros have made those teams our Bia (that’s a technical term), I’d be more excited about shooting for this number.

Nice writeup, but it has the obvious flaw noted above (unless I’m wrong on the win projections for the rest of the division).

Joe Joe
7 years ago

Can’t look too closely at projections as the projections don’t know who will perform better than expected. 86 expected wins at this point in season would likely make the Astros the favorite for either the Division Winner or the Wild Card. 86 actual wins at end of season won’t do it as some team will outperform its expectations.

That said, the Astros are projected for 83 wins at the moment and should be trying to coax out another 3 expected wins on roster and pray that the odds are in their favor. Heck, a sweep of the Mariners (highly unlikely) would make the Astros the Division Favorite (though less than 50% to win division) by Sunday.

7 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Right: even if the other teams in the division are all projected to win 87 games, one of them is likely to end up with 90 and one of them is likely to end up with 84. It’s similar to how no players are projected to hit more than 30 home runs at the beginning of the season, but the projected highest home run total is something like 40 or 45. (those are made up numbers, but the point stands)