The Astros Have Been Completely Unstoppable

I think every article about this year’s Astros is supposed to begin in the same way, so, who am I to defy convention? Let’s just embed this and move on:

We don’t need to review the feature. We don’t need to review the things it got right and the things it got wrong. It’s unlikely to be remembered for more than the headline, because that’s the way the reading public works, and here we are, three years later, and the Astros have baseball’s best record. The best record by a decent margin, at that, and the Astros also happen to have our second-highest odds of winning the World Series. No team has improved its World Series odds more since the start of the year. I just got an email an hour ago from some gambling business that currently has the Astros as its World Series favorites. This could become a reality. Chances are, it won’t, yet the Astros’ odds have never looked better. The Astros are good. That doesn’t sound as weird as it used to, but the process is complete. Winning is all that’s left.

Winning is what the Astros have already done. They followed a 16-9 April with a 22-7 May, and May ended with a seven-game winning streak that saw the Astros sweep the Orioles and then completely dismantle the Twins. In case you haven’t looked lately, the Astros lead their division by 11 games. Only one other division has a spread of more than two games. The Astros came in as the AL West favorites, and they remain the AL West favorites, but you never expect so much distance so quickly. The Astros own baseball’s highest playoff odds. They have the highest odds of making it to the Division Series. The Astros’ expected season-ending win total has increased by nine, since opening day, to an MLB-best 99. To be precise, it’s 99.4.

At 38-16, the Astros have five more wins than the next-best total. The last team to start so well was…last season’s Cubs, who opened 39-15. The last American League team to start so well was the 2001 Mariners, who opened a laughable 42-12. The Astros are just the 29th team in history to win at least 38 of its first 54 games. This is what an elite baseball team looks like, and although those 2001 Mariners are most remembered for not winning it all, we’ve got the Cubs as the more encouraging data point. A very good start can point to a very good finish.

We should get into a few numbers. Nine other teams in history have opened exactly 38-16. That’s good for a winning percentage of .704. Over the rest of the season, those same teams averaged a winning percentage of .608. Every single one of them won at a reduced clip, but you’re smart enough you didn’t need to be told that the Astros will inevitably slow down. No team could be expected to keep winning quite like this, but even .608 would be a 98-win pace over a full year. If the Astros played at .608 the rest of the way, they’d finish 104-58. The worst rest-of-season winning percentage for a team that won at least 38 of its first 54 games was .520. That pace would have the Astros finish at 94-68. We basically know, after two months, that the Astros are going to finish with an excellent record. If they didn’t, that would be nuts.

Now, how good are the Astros, really? Are they best-team good, or are they simply very good? We can never tiptoe around this section. It’s less fun than straight-up gushing, but I have to share what I see. Once again, the Astros do have baseball’s best record. However, they have baseball’s third-best BaseRuns record, with the actual wins exceeding the BaseRuns wins by a league-leading five. The Astros project for the fourth-best rest-of-season winning percentage. The numbers aren’t yet convinced that the Astros are a juggernaut, but none of this is to suggest they aren’t fantastic. The Astros are fantastic. Look, here’s a plot of more than a century of baseball! Using information from Baseball Reference, this shows team OPS+ for, and OPS+ against. The greater the difference, the better the team.

You want to be toward the lower right. The Astros, in yellow, are toward the lower right. Obviously, this mixes two months of the Astros with five or six months of every other historical team, so that’s an issue, but you can at least see where the Astros stand. The Astros have hit for a 119 OPS+, while they’ve allowed an 88 OPS+, which yields a difference of 31 points. Only 14 teams have ever finished with a difference greater than 31 points. That point way out there, because I know you’re curious, belongs to the 1927 Yankees (51 points). And I’ll note for now that this year’s Yankees also have a difference of 31 points, while the Dodgers are at 30. Those teams have been great, but the Astros have collected the greatest number of wins.

What gets me about Houston is the balance. Now, even before the season began, I think we had a shared understanding that the Astros profiled as a balanced ballclub. But, as I write this, they rank fifth in baseball in position-player WAR. They’re 11th in baseball in rotation WAR, and fourth in baseball in bullpen WAR. None of those ranks are particularly outstanding, but when you put them together, you have a team almost without flaw. It’s the offense that’s led the way. It’s been the best-hitting offense, especially lately, and, again, balance is key. This shows every team’s hitters with at least 50 trips to the plate, broken down by how many of them have been at least average, or below average:

There are 12 Astros hitters with at least 50 plate appearances. Nine of them have been good for an OPS+ of at least 100. I know that we ordinarily use wRC+ instead, since that’s the FanGraphs stat, but the numbers are closely linked so nothing ought to be meaningfully different. No offense has been more balanced in this way. Only the Dodgers are all that close. What the Astros lack in, say, hitters like Joey Votto, they make up for with relentlessness.

Sure, one would expect Jake Marisnick to cool off. He won’t keep slugging .557. And one would also expect Marwin Gonzalez to cool off. He won’t keep slugging .638. But then, one of the below-average hitters to this point has been Carlos Beltran, who’s better than his stats. Yuli Gurriel is probably also better than his stats. There’s not much in the way of an offensive let-up, and now Carlos Correa is beginning to look more and more like a future MVP. Any team-level regression here is likely to be more mild than dramatic.

If there’s any concern about the Astros, it’s focused on the same area where it’s been for months. All offseason long, rumor people were waiting for the Astros to trade for a top-of-the-rotation starter. That didn’t happen. What they’ve actually gained is a rejuvenated Dallas Keuchel, and a healthier Lance McCullers. Both of those pitchers are possible aces. Yet, behind them, Collin McHugh is still on the DL. Charlie Morton is on the DL, and Joe Musgrove is on the DL. Mike Fiers can’t stop allowing home runs. There’s still a potential shortage of depth, especially if the Astros grow in any way worried about McCullers’ durability. There could be a midseason trade to be made.

But any such trade would be made with the playoffs in mind, because the regular season is effectively settled. The Astros don’t need help for the next four months. They could need help for the fifth month, either addressing the rotation, or maybe addressing first base. I’m not sure what they might do, or how aggressively they might act, but this isn’t a team in need of much, at least as long as Keuchel and McCullers can both take the mound. Those two match up well with anyone. The lineup matches up well with everyone.

The bullpen is every bit as deep as it looked. The lineup is every bit as deep as it looked. The rotation might be a little less deep, but it’s terrific at the top, which is what makes the biggest difference in October. I can’t tell you whether the 2017 Houston Astros will actually end up as the World Series champions. Too much can happen between now and then, and so much of the playoffs comes down to chance. What I can tell you is that few teams profile as well as the Astros do. This might very well be baseball’s best ballclub. I’m not sure there’s anything the Astros can’t do.





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.

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Nelson S.
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Nelson S.

Imagine their record if the Indians didnt just SWEEP them in their own house. GTFOH Astros!

Raidas77
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Raidas77

The same Cleveland team that lost their previous 3 series before and 2 series after the Astros series? Baseball happens sometimes…

EonADS
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EonADS

How about you guys look at the actual factors behind how and why Cleveland won those series instead of… this? Isn’t that we do here on Fangraphs?

Pie
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Pie

Considering the Astros just swept the Twins, helping Cleveland get back into their rightful spot as the division leader, shouldn’t there be slightly less animosity coming from Ohio?

Sleepy
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Sleepy

You’ve clearly never been to Ohio. The. Worst.

Azizal
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Azizal

I imagine it would be between 1-3 wins higher.

Nelson S.
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Nelson S.

Bingo!

Max Power
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Max Power

I want to respond as an Indians fan that it was nice for them to go 5-1 against the Astros, but I expect the Astros to play better than a true-talent 1-5 team for the reasons Jeff articulated, as they seem like a pretty swell team.