The Astros Just Did Something Pretty Special

The Astros allowed eight runs to the Angels and lost on Tuesday night, thus falling out of first place in the AL West. At this time of year, none of that is a big deal, but what’s noteworthy is that the eight runs surrendered were as many as the defending world champions had given up in their previous seven games combined. The barrage, which included two homers by Andrelton Simmons and one by Mike Trout, broke an eight-game streak in which the Astros had allowed two runs or fewer, the longest in the majors in nearly three years, and put a dent in what has been one of the most stifling early-season run-prevention acts in recent history. You may have heard: these guys are still very, very good.

The Astros’ two-or-fewer streak actually began with a loss, in this case a 2-1 defeat to the Mariners on April 16, but they rebounded with a vengeance, outscoring Seattle 20-4 over the final three games of that series, all of them victories, then allowed just two runs during a three-game sweep of the White Sox. Monday night’s 2-0 loss to the Angels ended their winning streak but kept the prevention streak alive, albeit for just one more day.

According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, the Astros’ eight-game streak of preventing two or fewer runs tied four other clubs for the second-longest of the post-1992 expansion era:

Longest Streak, Two or Fewer Runs Allowed, Since 1993
Team Start End Games W-L
Astros 8/18/15 8/26/15 9 7-2
Astros 4/16/18 4/23/18 8 6-2
Nationals 6/19/15 6/28/15 8 8-0
Pirates 9/16/14 9/23/14 8 7-1
Diamondbacks 8/9/02 8/17/02 8 8-0
Braves 9/4/93 9/11/93 8 7-1

The 2015 edition of the Astros — the one that marked their return to contention — posted the longest such streak since 1992 (Pirates, July 30-August 8), holding the Rays, Dodgers and Yankees to two runs or fewer in nine straight games. The 1982 Cardinals also had a nine-game streak; you’d have to go back to the 1974 Orioles (August 29 to September 7) to find a 10-gamer. Even at eight games, what the Astros just did was pretty special.

With five scheduled games remaining in April, the Astros have a chance of claiming another little slice of recent history. Here are the teams with the lowest runs allowed per nine innings for April (and fragments of March) relative to their league for the same post-1992 timeframe:

Lowest Rate of Runs Allowed in March/April, 1993-2018
Rk Team Season RA9 Lg Apr RA9 Dif
1 Nationals 2016 2.53 4.53 -2.00
2 Cubs 2016 2.62 4.53 -1.91
3 Astros 2018 2.68 4.55 -1.87
4 Marlins 2005 2.64 4.50 -1.86
5 Red Sox 2001 2.98 4.82 -1.84
6 Giants 2010 2.93 4.64 -1.72
7 Red Sox 2018 2.85 4.55 -1.70
8 Braves 1996 3.25 4.93 -1.68
9 Cardinals 2015 2.62 4.24 -1.61
10 Cardinals 2010 3.07 4.64 -1.57

I swear this table looked more impressive a day ago, before the Astros and Indians (who allowed 10 runs to the Cubs and thus slipped to 11th on the list) took their lumps on Tuesday night. The Astros had allowed just 2.46 runs per nine, 2.05 runs below the AL rate, good enough to top the list on both counts, but they couldn’t even wait until I was finished typing this to regress. That’s the danger of early-season baseball, kids. Houston will have to get hot again to reclaim the top spot.

Of course, in the grand scheme, it matters little where exactly the Astros wind up in those rankings. The larger point is that they’re clearly among the best teams on both sides of the ball, with a chance to repeat as champions. Their rotation boasts two former Cy Young winners in Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, two guys who have flashed the potential to win one in Gerrit Cole and Lance McCullers Jr., and a fifth starter who’s pretty fascinating himself, even if he is no longer the AL ERA leader after Tuesday night’s abbreviated start. (It’s now Verlander at 1.10.) The unit as a whole still leads the league in ERA (2.30), innings (152.2), strikeout rate (30.1%), and K-BB% (21.8 points) while ranking second in FIP (3.25) and WAR (3.6).

Meanwhile, their bullpen ranks second in the AL in ERA (2.75), FIP (3.02), and K% (26.7%), but as was the case last October, manager A.J. Hinch has no clear closer. Chris Devenski has two saves, Ken Giles and Brad Peacock one apiece. Giles has dealt with back tightness, and the team hasn’t had that many save opportunities, having won eight games by at least five runs; Devenski, Peacock, and righty Will Harris are the only relievers with an average leverage index above 0.8. It’s far too early to pass judgment on how this is playing out, but with folks like Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon, and Joe Smith as supporting cast members, it’s an interesting crew; Devenski, McHugh, Peacock, and Rondon currently own K-BB% of 23.7% or better, which is to say that they’re pounding the strike zone mercilessly.

Thus far, the Astros’ offense has merely been pretty good, averaging 4.88 runs per game (sixth in the league) with a wRC+ of 111 (fourth). Regulars Evan Gattis and Marwin Gonzalez, and semiregulars Derek Fisher and Jake Marisnick aren’t hitting. Marisnick is 7-for-56 with two homers, zero walks and 30 strikeouts so far, which is some kind of remarkable unto itself. Led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Josh Reddick, the rest of the lineup has more than picked up the slack, but after last year’s trend-busting juggernaut, which led the league in scoring (5.53 runs per game) and slugging percentage (.478) while posting the league’s lowest strikeout rate (17.3%), this year’s model is whiffing a middle-of-the-pack 23.3% of the time, albeit with a much higher walk rate (10.6% versus 8/1%).

Thanks to Tuesday’s win, the Angels (168) are a half-game ahead of the Astros (16-9) in the AL West, but our Playoff Odds for taking the division flag overwhelmingly favor Houston (92.7% to 5.5%). If they keep preventing runs as they have thus far (Tuesday notwithstanding), they’ll be in good shape.

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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.

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This team is scary: even if the pitching cools off, the hitting should heat up.