Houston, you have a problem. Less than two weeks ago, I suggested that the battle between the A’s and Mariners for the second AL Wild Card spot was “practically the last race standing in the Junior Circuit.” At the time, the A’s — who had won 33 out of their last 44 games — were still 5.5 games behind the Astros, who themselves had rebounded from a five-game losing streak (July 25-30) to win six out of seven against the Mariners, Dodgers, and Giants. A change in the pecking order atop the AL West appeared unlikely; at the time, our playoff odds gave Oakland just a 1.0% chance of winning the division.
Since then, the Astros have lost seven out of nine to the Mariners, Rockies, and A’s, with Saturday’s 7-1 loss to Oakland knocking the two teams into a tie and marking the first time June 13 that the Astros didn’t have sole possession of first. Though they regained it with Sunday’s 9-4 win (Justin Verlander’s 200th, a topic I’ll address in an upcoming post), Houston now owns a 7-8 record in August, an 11-14 since the All-Star break, and 20-19 since July 1. Over all of those stretches, they’ve outscored their opponents (177-148 for the longest one), and they still own the AL’s second-best run differential (+200), but the defending world champions have nonetheless frittered away their advantage. They’re still the overwhelming favorites in the division, but even after Sunday’s loss, the A’s odds are up to 9.6%; in the season-to-date version, based upon this year’s stats instead of our depth-chart projections, they’re up to 25.6%.
Perhaps most disconcertingly, the Astros are 10-15 against teams .500 or better since the start of July. They’ve fattened up by going a combined 8-1 against the White Sox, Tigers, and Giants, but lost three of five to the Rangers. Of their eight other series in that span, they’ve won just three (over the Angels, Dodgers and Mariners), lost three (two to the A’s, one to the Mariners), and split two (both against the Rockies). Overall, they’re just 37-36 against teams with records .500 or better, which is better than the A’s (31-39) but worse than the Mariners (38-35), and miles behind the Red Sox (37-22) and Yankees (36-24). Against those four teams, they’re a combined 19-20 this year; throw in the Indians (4-3) and they’ve played just .500 ball against the collection of teams they’ll have to beat in order to return to the World Series.
While the tightening of the division race owes plenty to an A’s team that has gone 39-14 since June 16, the Astros’ slump, now nearly a quarter of a season long, owes something to both the offense and the bullpen. Granted, the team lost Carlos Correa for 36 games (June 26-August 9) due to a lower back injury, and George Springer for eight games (August 6-16) due to a sprained left thumb. Both are back now, but still absent are Brian McCann (surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, out since July 1) and Jose Altuve (right knee soreness, out since July 26). That’s a lot of talent on the sidelines.
At the risk of reading too much into small sample sizes and somewhat arbitrary endpoints, here’s a quick look at the offense’s performance through June 30 and since (not including Sunday):
|Name||PA Thru June||wRC+ Thru June||PA Since||wRC+Since|
Setting aside White, who wasn’t recalled from Triple-A until June 16 (and made a brief return in a roster crunch), the Astros had nine players supplying average or better offense (100 wRC+ or greater) through the end of June. Just three of them have been above average in the seven weeks since. Bregman, who spent some time at shortstop in Correa’s absence, and Kemp, an outfielder who had managed just a 64 wRC+ in 175 PA in 2016-17, have scarcely missed a beat. Springer has fallen off a bit but remained above average despite his injury. Gonzalez has gotten hot after a very slow start, and White, who has taken over the bulk of the first-base duties while the slumping Gurriel has either sat or played second base, has added one more potent bat to the lineup.
Correa is just 3-for-28 with four walks since returning from the DL. Wave that shaking-the-rust-off sample if you will, but that still leaves significant dips by Altuve (pre-injury), Gattis, Gurriel, Reddick, and Stassi. All have fallen off by 19 points of wRC+ or more between those two stretches, and all but Altuve have sub-.300 on-base percentages since July 1. And for as bad as McCann was before the injury, the since-departed Tim Federowicz (49 wRC+ in 28 PA) and his replacement, ex-Angel Martin Maldonado (36 wRC+ in 32 PA) have been worse. The team as a whole hit .263/.334/.435 and scored 5.07 runs per game through the end of June; since then (again, not including Sunday), they’re at .231/.311/.403 while scoring 4.42 runs per game, a hair below league average.
The flagging offense (and, as we’ll see, the defense) has squandered some particularly strong work by the rotation:
|Through June 30||529.2||28.2%||7.7%||1.0||.266||2.96||3.36|
|Since July 1||223.1||28.9%||6.5%||0.8||.316||3.39||2.95|
Houston’s starters — and remarkably, they’ve used the same five all season, namely Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers Jr., with nary an outsider taking a turn — have collectively improved their strikeout, walk, and home-run rates since July 1, but due to a 50-point rise in BABIP, the unit’s ERA has risen by 0.43 even while its FIP has fallen by a nearly identical margin. At the risk of squinting at even smaller sample sizes, the defensive metrics suggest that the shortstop situation is probably the largest culprit; Correa (0.0 UZR, 3 DRS) has been solid while Bregman and Gonzalez (a combined -6.7 UZR and -7 DRS in fewer than half the innings of Correa) have not.
Individually, there are things to knock with regards to the starters’ recent performance, such as Verlander’s .506 slugging percentage allowed over his last eight starts — even before serving up three homers on Sunday — or McCullers, who has been skipped a couple times in the span, 11.2% walk rate and 5.47 ERA over that span. Those issues are largely lost in the sauce, but what does stand out is that, where the starters were averaging 6.22 innings per turn through the end of June, they’re at 5.87 since — an extra out per game. And an extra out per game matters when your bullpen is doing this:
|Through June 30||236.1||30.5%||6.3%||0.7||.291||3.39||2.66|
|Since July 1||118.0||29.4%||6.8%||1.4||.280||4.19||3.71|
The relievers’ collective strikeout- and walk-rate changes pale in comparison to a home-run rate that’s doubled since the start of July. With the exceptions of Will Harris and Joe Smith, who have both generally worked in lower-leverage situations, all of the principals in the Astros’ bullpen have become more gopher-prone in recent weeks. Here’s a comparison of the individual relievers’ before and after ERA and FIPs, admittedly in small sample sizes:
|Name||IP Thru June||ERA Thru June||FIP Thru June||IP Since||ERA Since||FIP Since|
There’s a lot going on here, but the key matters are the struggles of Devenski and Rondon, the controversial trade of Giles for Osuna, and the acquisition of Pressly. Devenski, their highest-leverage reliever overall even though he has only two saves, was pummeled with increasing severity throughout July. He was scored upon in five out of eight outings, including his final two where he failed to retire any of the nine batters he faced, was charged with eight runs, and allowed all four inherited runners to score. Twice he surrendered late-inning leads in that awful span. He landed on the disabled list with left hamstring tightness on August 3, retroactive to July 31, and is now out on a rehab assignment but has yet to pitch back-to-back days, which the Astros will likely want him to do before returning. Rondon, their closer in the wake of Giles’ struggles and subsequent demotion and trade, has blown three out of 11 save chances within this period, including two against the Mariners and A’s last week, both of which turned into 10th-inning, one-run losses.
Beyond the soulless arbitrage and performative nonsense about “zero tolerance” that accompanied his arrival into the fold, Osuna has yet to return to closing since serving a 75-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. While he snagged a win in his August 6 debut after the previously scoreless Astros erupted for three ninth-inning runs against the Giants, his four subsequent appearances have been in losses. He took the L himself on August 12 against Seattle, after Rondon served up a game-tying homer to Ryon Healy. Pressly, a smart, under-the-radar acquisition from the Twins, has yet to graduate to consistent high-leverage work, but he has whiffed 12 in 8.1 post-trade innings (including one on Sunday not reflected above).
While the projections still overwhelmingly favor the Astros when it comes to winning the division (89.0% as of Monday morning), they clearly need to shake this funk, lest they wind up int he AL Wild Card game against the Yankees or (if Seattle rebounds) miss the playoffs altogether. They may get Altuve back as early as Tuesday, and their bullpen could get stronger not only upon Devenski’s return but as Osuna (ugh) and Pressly work their way into higher-leverage roles. Still, if you’re a fan of playoff races, it’s a welcome sight — and, to this scribe, a cautionary tale — to see one of the AL’s divisions in doubt after it all seemed so buttoned up just two weeks ago. As Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.