Let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with, here. This is a simple plot of AL West division playoff odds over time, beginning with the start of the season, through, I don’t know, right now? About an hour ago, I guess.
The calendar on my wall tells me it’s still April, and the much smaller calendar on my computer agrees, so this early you don’t expect many big huge shifts in playoff probabilities. Long ways to go, and all that. Looking at the image above, you see teams kind of holding steady. The Rangers are close to where they started. The Angels are down a little bit. The A’s are up a little bit. The Mariners are up even more. All of those teams are bunched together — they’re separated by just 1.5 games. But then you have the Astros. Based on our own math, the Astros opened as overwhelming division favorites. They’ve already coughed that up, and then some. Odds are based on projections, and projections are imperfect. I get that. So here’s a fact: At 6-15, the Astros presently have the worst record in the American League. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad team, but it does mean they’re a team in real trouble.
This table will give you greater context. Who’s had the most meaningful starts, in either direction? These are changes in playoff odds so far, in terms of percentage points, broken up by league. So we’re back to factoring in projections again, but if anything, the projections like the Astros. Anyway:
|AL Team||Change in Odds||NL Team||Change in Odds|
Owen just wrote about the White Sox. The White Sox have had the biggest increase, by far. By record, they’re atop the AL. The Astros are the complete opposite of the White Sox. Look at this — since the start of the year, the Astros’ odds are down 37 points. No one else is down more than 11 points. The Astros’ odds are still decent, all things considered, but the start has been a train wreck, with little to celebrate. Last year was supposed to be when the Astros arrived. Their play makes it seem like they’ve already left.
Just last season, the Astros were a surprise, before late struggles threatened to keep them out of the playoffs. Because they still nearly reached the ALCS, the Astros came in this time as the favorite, but these playoff-threatening struggles have started early. I’ve seen a few people openly wonder if the Astros misread their standing. If they misidentified this as their window, leading to trades for guys like Carlos Gomez and Ken Giles. I don’t think that’s valid; though you can question the details of the moves, the Astros are definitely ready to be good. They just…aren’t…good…right now. It happens, but they didn’t push the Royals to the brink by accident.
There are all kinds of things to be aware of. Here’s one: 6-15 looks bad, but fans could probably tolerate 9-12. That’s still a lousy record, but it’s not worst-in-the-league lousy, and that’s the Astros’ current record by BaseRuns. They’ve under-performed in general, and they’ve under-performed with their timing. Take a look at that page and focus on the Astros’ line. So far, they’ve deserved their runs allowed. But offensively, they’re short about 13 expected runs. This is easy to explain. With the bases empty, the Astros have had the fourth-best offense in baseball. With runners in scoring position, the Astros have had the fourth-worst offense in baseball. You know how this stuff works. Over time, those splits tend to meet in the middle.
So the Astros are going to score more, and they’re going to do that without even really improving. I mean, they might improve, but they don’t have to. The Astros as a team have a .321 wOBA. They’re projected out for a .324 wOBA. Basically equal. They are what they should be, with individual over-achievers balanced out by individual under-achievers. The league is figuring out Tyler White, but Jose Altuve is on another level, and A.J. Reed is on the way. Much of that picture looks acceptable.
The big concern is Gomez. The Astros paid a high price to get him, because up to that point in his career, Gomez had been worth a high price of acquisition. Gomez isn’t a make-or-break player by himself, but his slow start is troubling, because it follows up a slow finish, after arriving from Milwaukee. He’s not hitting the ball as hard as he used to, and, plain and simple, you can’t ignore that a trade to the Mets was scuttled by injury concerns. At the time those were interpreted as an indication of the Mets being cheap, but the Mets got worried, and since then, Gomez hasn’t performed. As an Astro, he’s been worth 0.7 WAR, and that’s okay, but it isn’t good. I don’t know if anything is actually the matter, but I haven’t been reassured early on.
So as position players go, Gomez is on my watch list. Yet on the team level, it’s really been pitching that’s let the Astros down. Pitching and maybe some defense, but the arms need to be a lot better. And here, there are more questions. The Astros might well have a pitching problem. They tried to prepare for that in the offseason by searching for a co-ace, but they never got one, and the staff has had a rough month.
Here’s some consolation! The Astros rank 11th in adjusted xFIP. That beats the hell out of ranking 30th in adjusted ERA. Too many hits and home runs have been there, and that stuff will slow down. Like, I’m not particularly concerned about Giles — maybe something is up, I don’t know, but he reminds me of last year’s Craig Kimbrel, who was weirdly hittable until he wasn’t. Giles still has his weapons. His weapons are good. Giles should be good. He’ll come around.
But, okay. I mentioned the idea of a co-ace. Dallas Keuchel was supposed to be the existing ace, but he hasn’t been quite himself. At a glance, he’s the same pitcher, but compared to last April, his velocity is down more than a tick. Historically, velocity drops like Keuchel’s have led to a double-digit increase in ERA-. I don’t know if it’s that Keuchel is hurt, but he at least isn’t mechanically sound, and to support that you can look at either the velocity or the location. On the left, Keuchel’s pitches from 2015. On the right, 2016.
Keuchel has been up more than he was in the past, and too many sinkers have leaked over the plate. The best version of Dallas Keuchel is extremely precise, which he needs to be, given that he seldom threatens 90 miles per hour. If he stays like this, Keuchel can be effective, but he isn’t a No. 1. Something is off.
And that makes the rest of the picture look worse. Collin McHugh is probably a No. 3, but he’s also down a tick, which changes his hittability. Lance McCullers is outstanding, but he won’t be available for at least a few more weeks, as he tries to get over worrisome shoulder discomfort. Mike Fiers has always thrown strikes, but no one is surprised when one or two of them get blasted over the wall. And Doug Fister hasn’t shown any sort of velocity rebound, after promising spring reports. I was ready to buy into Fister a month ago, but now he has as many walks as strikeouts. According to Brooks Baseball, he’s where he was last April. Which is down a few miles from the season before. Fister hasn’t been quite right either, and though he could still find himself, this gamble might not pay off.
The Astros are in trouble because of their record, and they’re in trouble because of some of their indicators. The offense should turn out fine, but you wonder about Gomez. And there are so many questions about the rotation, questions which might not be easily resolved. It would be wonderful if Keuchel had another strong start, and if McCullers shows up healthy. Then the picture looks plenty more clear. But, last year’s Astros never went 6-15 over a 21-game stretch. And if they want to get back to 86 wins, which just barely got them into last year’s playoffs, they’ll need to play out at a 92-win pace. It’s nothing they can’t do. It’s just not so likely they’ll do it. Better to try to get to 86 wins at an 86-win pace, but that ship has sailed.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.