The Astros Are Rapidly Digging Their Hole Deeper and Deeper

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If the Houston Astros were to sing a jovial song consisting of a list of their favorite things, April 2024 would definitely not make the cut. At 7-16, the Astros are looking up at everyone in the AL West, even the Oakland Athletics, a franchise that barely exists as a going concern in 2024. Cristian Javier’s injury adds another name to the injured list, and though he isn’t expected to miss a lot of time, his absence further depletes a struggling team that needs all the help it can get to climb its way out of a hole that keeps getting deeper.

How bad is a 7-16 start? Well, only two teams have ever overcome such a rough season-opening stretch to later make the postseason.

Worst Starts for Eventual Playoff Teams
Year Team W L Final Record
1914 Braves 4 18 94-59
1981 Royals 7 16 50-53
2015 Rangers 8 15 88-74
2006 Padres 8 15 88-74
2001 Athletics 8 15 102-60
1974 Pirates 8 15 88-74
2014 Pirates 9 14 88-74
2010 Braves 9 14 91-71
2009 Rockies 9 14 92-70
2007 Rockies 9 14 90-73
2007 Yankees 9 14 94-68
2006 Twins 9 14 96-66
2005 Yankees 9 14 95-67
2002 Angels 9 14 99-63
1989 Blue Jays 9 14 89-73
1987 Tigers 9 14 98-64
1984 Royals 9 14 84-78
1979 Pirates 9 14 98-64
1969 Mets 9 14 100-62
1951 Giants 9 14 98-59
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Only the 1914 Boston Braves had a worse start, going 4-18-1 over their first 23 games. It may be tempting to use that tale as inspiration, but the fact that their turnaround was enough to earn them the appellation of “Miracle” Braves reflects the improbability of the feat. Excluding the Astros, 103 teams have started a season with precisely seven wins in 23 games; the average finish for these teams was, pro-rated to 162 games, a 67-95 record.

But all is not doom and gloom. Almost 20% of these teams played at least .500 ball the rest of the way (18 of 103), and this looks a bit worse because of the simple fact that a lot more lousy teams start off 7-16 than good ones do. It doesn’t necessarily follow, then, that a team we believed to be a quality one will have a fate as bleak as what happened with the clubs we thought would be much worse. How often do teams that we expect to be good start off this slow? I’ve never gone back and re-projected whole leagues before I started running team projections in 2005 – though it is on my voluminous to-do list – but I do have nearly two decades of projections to look at. So, I took every team that stood at single-digit wins after 23 games and looked at how they were projected entering the season.

After chopping off the teams from 2020, since 23 games was a massive chunk of that season, we end up with 117 teams, including the Astros on seven occasions (though only one of those Houston clubs finished above .500). Seven of those 117 teams did go on to win 90 games, and not surprisingly, it was largely made up of teams projected to be good; those seven teams had an average preseason projection of 86.3 wins.

Let’s pivot back to the 103 teams that began the season with exactly seven wins in their first 23 games so we can figure out how they did after their wretched starts and compare their actual finishes to their projected ones. Collectively, these 103 teams had a .458 winning percentage after their 23-game starts, compared to their overall .469 winning percentage projected before the season. I also did a quick-and-dirty method to get every team’s in-season projection after game no. 23, and the projected winning percentage for the rest of the year was .460, barely above the .458 actual mark. I tested only ZiPS, but I expect other similarly calculated projection systems to have similar results.

So, what do the projections say about the Astros right now? I ran a full simulation after Sunday’s games were complete.

ZiPS Median Projected AL West Standings Entering 4/22
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% 80th 20th
Texas Rangers 86 76 .531 41.0% 18.3% 59.3% 5.1% 94.1 79.2
Seattle Mariners 85 77 1 .525 30.7% 19.2% 50.0% 3.8% 92.1 77.4
Houston Astros 83 79 3 .512 23.1% 17.9% 41.0% 3.5% 90.3 75.2
Los Angeles Angels 75 87 11 .463 5.1% 7.1% 12.2% 0.4% 82.3 67.3
Oakland A’s 61 101 25 .377 0.1% 0.1% 0.2% 0.0% 68.6 53.6
SOURCE: Me

ZiPS Projected Wins, 2024 Astros Entering 4/22
Percentile Wins
1% 63.0
5% 68.4
10% 71.4
15% 73.4
20% 75.2
25% 76.7
30% 78.0
35% 79.3
40% 80.6
45% 81.7
50% 82.9
55% 84.0
60% 85.2
65% 86.3
70% 87.5
75% 88.9
80% 90.3
85% 92.0
90% 93.9
95% 96.9
99% 101.6
SOURCE: Also me

The Astros are hardly dead in the water and are helped out by the fact that the best teams in the AL West so far are still hanging right around .500. But it’s been enough to slash five projected wins from Houston’s preseason total and drop its playoff probability by about a third. In other words, after this awful start, the Astros are more likely than not to miss the postseason, according to ZiPS. The situations in which they make the playoffs are now largely upside scenarios rather than average ones. And that means the calendar is now an enemy.

How long can they afford to keep winning three out of every 10 games before their playoff hopes evaporate? To estimate this, I’ve continued giving the Astros a roster strength of .300 (projected winning percentage vs. a league-average team in a neutral park) and re-checking every five games.

ZiPS Projected Wins, Playing .300 Ball
Games Played Division % Playoff %
23 23.1% 41.0%
28 19.3% 35.5%
33 15.8% 30.5%
38 12.6% 25.3%
43 9.9% 20.5%
48 7.5% 15.8%
53 5.4% 11.8%
58 3.8% 8.3%
SOURCE: A magical talking hat (still me)

At the rate the Astros are playing, they’re basically toast in five more weeks. Even playing .500 ball over this span carves off another meaty slice of their playoff probabilities (15.6% division, 31.6% postseason). Any shot they have at turning things around has to involve getting better pitching. The Astros are second in the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and of the nine players with at least 50 plate appearances, seven of them have a wRC+ above 100, with three of them above 150. Alex Bregman (76 wRC+) will almost certainly get better, but I’m less confident about José Abreu, whose horrifying start (-32 wRC+) is even more abysmal than last year’s putrid April (45 wRC+).

Meanwhile, Astros starting pitchers have the fourth-worst strikeout rate (18.8%) and the second-worst walk rate (11.3%) in baseball. To get better pitching quickly is going to be a challenge due to injuries. As noted briefly above, Javier is going to miss at least a couple of starts. And while Framber Valdez is nearing a return, José Urquidy isn’t fully throwing from a mound yet, and Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. are months away. Justin Verlander’s return isn’t enough to flip the script instantly. That leaves Houston in an awkward situation in which it needs pitching before the deadline, but perhaps not as much afterwards. I usually counsel teams not to panic, but given the urgency of this situation, I think the Astros need to be aggressive at identifying and acquiring pitchers. The Marlins may not be keen on giving up Edward Cabrera given his low salary, but the Astros should at least have the conversation about a trade for him.

Houston remains an excellent team, but starting 7-16 means that the clock is ticking very loudly. And if the Astros just stand pat, by the All-Star break they might find themselves turning their attention toward 2025.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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boomstick
1 month ago

Who knew Maldonado was such an effective pitcher manager?

JCCfromDCmember
1 month ago
Reply to  boomstick

Dusty, is that you?

MRDXolmember
1 month ago
Reply to  boomstick

To be fair, Maldonado’s OPS is under the Mendoza Line. -53 wRC+.

astrofan2017champs
1 month ago
Reply to  boomstick

All pitchers were actively worse pitching to him last year

Joe Joemember
1 month ago
Reply to  boomstick

CWS pitchers are pitching worse to Maldy this year than the Astros pitchers are to the Astros catchers.