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Starting Nine: Chasing the Crown

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Houston remains the favorite in the AL West by the numbers, but a fan's mind may have a different perspective.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Sixty-three point eight percent. The Astros have a 63.8 percent chance to win the American League West Division, according to Fangraphs. Who would've thought?

Not many would've thought this would be the case back in April, but Houston's road to a 47-34 at the halfway point of this season has made plenty of success. Those who were expected to succeed have succeed while Houston's lesser-known players haven't been close to as bad as they've been in years past.

Still, some Houston fans are still treading cautiously for a multitude of reasons. One, the Astros weren't expected to be this good. Two, the AL West wasn't expected to be this bad. And three - the simplest answer - half the season remains to be played.

Putting the numbers aside, which we rarely do here at TCB, what does our gut tell us? Can Houston capture its first division title since 2001? Today's Starting Nine (Note: Some responses were made for Houston's sweep of Kansas City was completed):

What is your personal confidence percentage of Houston winning the AL West, and why?

Brian Stevenson

It's hard to put a percentage on it, but I'd say higher than that. Seattle is a mess because the franchise is run by buffoons, Texas' run was fueled by unsustainable performances and they don't have nearly enough pitching. Oakland and the Angels are the threats. I don't like the Angels' lineup much, or their rotation much for that matter. They're good and Trout is the type of guy that can carry a whole team, of course, but I don't buy them as better than us for a stretch of three whole months.

Oakland is scary because of that ridiculous Pythagorean W/L discrepancy, but I don't buy their rotation going forward; basically all of them are out-performing their xFIPs by notable margins, with Jesse Hahn being 0.37 worse, Kendall Graveman 0.40 worse, Jesse Chavez 0.61 worse, Scott Kazmir 0.87 worse, and Sonny Gray 1.21 worse than their respective ERAs. So 60% of their rotation is out-performing their xFIPs by half a run or more, and the two that aren't are #4 or #5 starter types. Their bullpen has been a disastrous joke outside of Clippard and Scribner, too. Reddick looks fairly real (he's not this good, but he's not going to just fall apart, either), but Billy Burns is due to come back to earth soon. How real is Vogt? I'm not sure. It does seem clear, though, that their rotation is due to regress a lot, some of their hitters as well, and that will explain away a lot of that Pythagorean W/L. I think they're better than they've been during the first half, but if we just played .500 from here on out, we'd finish 86-76. To beat that, Oakland would have to go 53-31 (.631) from here on out. I just don't think they're that good.

And then there's the trade deadline. The Astros will be active, and Oakland won't. Beane isn't going to give up what little he has left on the farm to try to bolster a team that's in last place. The Angels have a pretty weak farm as well, and it's hard to imagine them being able to out-bid people for top talent. Throw Johnny Cueto into our rotation and, well, that's the second-best rotation in baseball after that monster in Washington, right? Keuchel, Cueto, McHugh and McCullers...you have two established aces at the top, a guy who pitched like an ace last year and seems to have regained his form, and a rookie with lightning in his arm who looks like he'll be at least a rock-solid #3 once his good luck wears out (I.E. once he starts giving up homers). And we have a lineup with eight guys who can legitimately hit 20+ homers, several of them being 30+ potential guys. It's hard to imagine us not winning at least 90 games, and the Angels would need to go 52-34 the rest of the way to beat that.

Long story short, I think our lead is big and we're legitimately that good, and the rest of the division has too many warts to realistically hope to overtake us.

Matthew Hall

I'll put it at 63.8, which is to say I'd like to take a stab at why the Fangraphs cyborg robot is spitting out that number. Mind you, not 'how' it's spitting it out -- whatever numbers are getting crunched in whatever fashion are beyond my knowledge or interest. I want to get at the logic of why that number might be on target, despite perhaps looking a little low on the surface. It seems to me there are two basic reasons:

1) This team began the season 27-14 and has gone 20-20 since then. There's a non-trivial chance that what we see is what we get -- in other words, for whatever reason our current performance is more indicative of this team's ability than that of the first quarter of the season. If we were to play under .500 from here on out we'd almost certainly not win the division. I'm not predicting that. I'm saying it's a real possibility.

2) 63.8 is actually pretty high when you think about it another way -- every other team put together only have a 36.2 percent chance of winning the division. The Angels get the bulk of that remainder at about 22 percent so, despite a meager five-game lead, their system says we're almost *three times* as likely of winning the division. I'll take that.

Clack

Oh, my gut feeling is around 60%. If that seems like just rounding up the fangraphs' probability, I guess it means my unscientific hunch thinks that fangraphs is about right.

I recoil a little bit at Brian calling the Astros' lead "big." It's a nice lead. But it can be gone in a week if an Astros' losing streak coincides with a winning streak by the Angels or Rangers. And Beane is correct when he points out that the A's have a history of catching fire and eating up other teams' W-L leads (like in 2012). But even if a team catches the Astros in the standings, it's hard to maintain that position, just because winning and losing streaks don't last forever. The odds just aren't as good for the pursuer.

Although I have fairly high confidence that the Astros will make the playoffs, I'm not totally without fear. I sometimes think back to the 1979 Astros as a similar team which came out of nowhere to take a big lead in the division, only to lose that lead in the second half. That team would go on to win the division the next year. Or remember that miserable series in Milwaukee in 2002 when the Astros frittered away their playoff chances. OK, time to think positive!

Chris Perry

ONE MILLION PERCENT.

Here's the thing. I have a reputation to maintain of doom, gloom, and devil's advocate. But to heck with that. I'm mister optimism this year. Sure, the Astros' team batting average is .130. But dem home runs and stolen bases! I'm having a blast watching this team, because every at bat is a potential 3-run blast, even from the positions that traditionally are power-poor. That in addition to the beat-the-odds pitching rotation and worst-to-first bullpen have me really keyed up for Houston this year. So will they win the division this year? YES FREAKING WAY. It's in the bag. And if they don't, I'm blaming David Coleman.

Tyler Rosser

My confidence level is 0. As a Houston sports fan and an Aggie, I have no choice but to be extremely negative about every team I support. I've accepted that no team I like will ever be good again. That being said if by some miracle the Astros do win their division/make the playoffs I will just be crazy excited because I expected nothing out of this season.

If your expectations are set as low as possible you can't ever be disappointed only surprised and excited!

Ernie Breakfast

I can go along with Tyler on this as a lifelong Houston sports fan...but this year will be different. This year the Astros will defy the preseason odds. This year the great combination of power and speed and defense will confound all those East Coast/ESPN/MLB Network goons as they wonder "Where did this team come from and why were we not on the ground floor of this masterpiece?" These young guys that have got the callamup this season and look so good are just what we needed to push us over the hump and into a division championship, as they continue to have breakout performance after breakout performance. I say yes...we WILL win the division, and then ON TO THE WORLD SERIES! And when it happens, we as fans can put on our collective "I told you so" faces and tsk-tsk all the doubters who said a team with a terrible batting average couldn't win.

And if it doesn't happen, we will raise a toast to the fun we had and say "Hey! It's not even 2017 yet!

Timmy Kennedy

I'm feeling rather optimistic about our chances.

Yes, there are some holes in the team (which will hopefully be filled through the trade market or even minor leagues), but the rotation is still strong. The bullpen is strong. The lineup, with all of its power, is strong.

But, that said, my optimism stems from the competition; I just can't see anyone else in the West catching up. Not the Angels, nor the Rangers, nor the Mariners nor the A's, through my eyes, pose realistic opposition. They, this season, are all just not strong enough. And, the Astros have the potential to get even better.

Josh Cookson

My preseason prediction, which I thought was wildly optimistic at the time, was they would finish the season 4 games over .500 and contend for the wild card.

It's amazing to be almost halfway through the season and be at a point where that finish (4 games over .500) would be almost a disappointment. It's been a great season so far.

Anthony Boyer

If you take away all the woe-is-me hand-wringing (and the Aggie part,) (Tyler's answer) sums up my feelings. I don't expect the playoffs to happen. I expect a gigantic second-half collapse with the bottom-dwelling Oakland A's overtaking the Astros.

Anything more than that is just magic.

David Coleman

One of my favorite things to do in retirement is just walk the mall, get some Werther's Originals and sip Arnold Palmers on the front porch.

Then, I fire up the ole' demon box and sign into Fangraphs to check the playoff odds, projected standings and BaseRuns totals. It's a quick check at the big picture on how the team is doing.

By all measures, things look very rosy for a few reasons. The biggest is the rest of the AL West, which is horrible. The team that scares me the most is the A's, because they're like this sleeping giant. I've likened them before to the 04-05 Astros and I wouldn't rule out a massive second-half run if they don't sell.

But, odds remain very good that the Astros win the division because of how weak the rest of the division has been. It's still basically a coin flip. Lots can happen in those 81 next games and leads have been lost in much less time. I don't think A.J. Hinch is Gene Mauch, but I also can't be sure.

As Matthew pointed out, Houston hasn't been great after that sterling start. Yet, there are also shades to those numbers. Sure, overall, the record is sub-.500, but the record with Carlos Correa is 13-9. Combine that winning percentage with the rest of those 81 games and Houston wins 90.

It's not just a smaller sample size that has me optimistic. I love, love, love the BaseRuns from FanGraphs. I think it's a better predictor of team performance than run differential. Last year, it showed the Astros to be a decent team after that bad first month, and you can point to the turnaround from this year as starting back then.

This year, BaseRuns has Houston as the second-best team in baseball. They're predicted record, based on the BaseRuns total, is two games better than where they currently stand.

The real thing I like about BaseRuns that I don't accept in the projected standings is the thought that Houston's pitching will regress by a half-run per game. They've been pretty consistently around 3.8 runs per game for the entire season. Expecting that number to jump up to 4.3 rpg is why that playoff odds number isn't higher.

BaseRuns sees the Astros as maintaining that pitching success. Given Dallas Keuchel's recent run, LMJ's emergence, VV's encouraging signs and Colin McHugh's rebound, I think that's a safe bet.

All that's to say I feel pretty damn good about the Astros chances to win the division right now.

Perry Mattern

The Curse of Coleman has been lifted. The Astros are free to win everything.

(via SB Nation)