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Astros fans should not fret over the Rangers

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The Rangers are not as good as the Astros, even after their flurry of deadline trades.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Monday was MLB’s non-waiver trade deadline. The Astros did not make a splash. Rival Texas Rangers did.

The Astros’ lineup, rotation, and bullpen stays largely intact, with only the extradition of Scott Feldman to Canada making the headlines. His spot will be taken by Futures Game wunderkind Joe Musgrove, for now.

The Rangers, on the other hand, traded significant assets in return for one of the top offensive catchers in the game, Jonathan Lucroy, plus a shiny new (old) DH in former postseason superhero Carlos Beltran.

On the pitching side, the Rangers acquired starting pitcher (snicker) Lucas Harrell as well as bullpenites Dario Alvarez and Jeremy Jeffress.

Predictably, Astros Twitter was split between:

  • “WHY DIDN’T THE ASTROS TRADE FOR A STARTER (OR BELTRAN OR LUCROY OR TROUT OR SOMETHING)???” and,
  • “GOOD FOR THE ASTROS FOR NOT OVERPAYING IN THIS CRAZY MARKET.”

I land squarely with the second opinion. But wouldn’t it be great and fun if the Astros had traded for an established major leaguer at the deadline to help a playoff push?

Meh. Not really.

WAR! (huh. yeah?) What is it good for? (Not everything, but some stuff.)

The Astros are six games back in the standings in the AL West, and a couple back of a second wild card spot. It’s not insurmountable. But their biggest obstacle, as usual, is the Rangers.

Much has been written about the Rangers’ improbable season. These trades don’t make it any less improbable. They only make their eventual demise more gleefully tragic.

You see, the Astros still have a better team, from top to bottom. (Cue outrage from Lone Star Ball). Why is that, you ask? Because....SCIENCE!

WAR (Wins Above a Replacement player) isn’t perfect. But it is a good apples-to-apples comparative tool. Likewise, projection systems aren’t perfect. But they’re pretty good.

So, we have an objective way to compare the Astros’ and Rangers’ rosters: Rest-of-season WAR, provided by the Steamer projection system.

Batting Lineup

Both clubs will change lineups frequently, and in particular the Astros are notorious for rarely using the same lineups. One has to make reasonable guesses at a typical lineup for this type of exercise though.

Here we go.

Advantage: ASTROS

Even with the addition of Lucroy and Beltran, their lineup still projects to be worse by more than one whole Win over Replacement compared to the Astros’ lineup.

Assumptions:

  • 1.2 WAR estimate for Yulieski Gurriel is based on a 100 wRC+ and a decent defensive reputation. Fair to say this estimate might be low, as the Astros likely expect a better-than-average hitter.
  • Tyler White’s 0.2 WAR estimate is based on no defense (as if they’re using him at DH mostly), and he provides about half the production as Carlos Beltran. This is probably fair, but may also be a little low.

Rotation

Oh Rangers, you’re so cute, with your pretend starting rotation.

Advantage: ASTROS (but it’s closer than it looks)

These are the lineups listed on the team’s website. It has to be noted though that Colby Lewis (0.2 WAR) and Derek Holland (0.4) will be back later this season. Holland will probably replace Harrell, and then it will be a battle to see who wins out over Perez, Griffin, or Lewis. Even so, it’s possible to squint and see how the Astros can improve their own rotation with internal candidates over Doug Fister. This possibility is not accounted for at all in the calculise.

Bullpen

It’s closer than you might think.

Advantage: PUSH

Actually, this could go either way, but if one were a betting man, one should bet on the Astros. Musgrove’s WAR estimate is conservatively low for several reasons. We don’t know at this point how he’ll perform in the majors, we don’t know how often he’ll be starting instead of relieving, and we don’t even know how long he’ll be in the majors. It’s quite likely that he either finishes up his season as a starter in Fresno, or is moved to the major league rotation permanently. In this case, dynamic Fresno closer James Hoyt moves to the bullpen. A betting man would take the “over” on the Astros, but the Rangers’ bullpen, with the new guys and the return of a healthy Keone Kela, is now quite stout as well.

The Other Guys

The final list consists of players on the bench, but also guys who figure to have at least some impact later in the season.

Verdict: PUSH

Yeah, the Rangers have 0.2 WAR more on this chart. But swapping Holland for Harrell in the rotation puts this list slightly in the Astros’ favor. Also, the Astros’ 25-man roster is a bit more settled for the rest of the season than the Rangers’ is. Profar, Chirinos, and Gallo were tricky to estimate because they no longer have starting gigs, and so their WAR needed to be adjusted downward slightly because Steamer has not been updated to reflect Monday’s trades. In all cases, they were lowered by only 0.1 WAR, though this could be argued to be not enough.

Likewise with the Astros, much depends on how they decide to use their last rotation and bullpen spots. Smart money has Hoyt contributing a decent amount in the bullpen, with Musgrove making several starts, and Rodgers coming in to do the same later in the season.

Depending on configuration, this number could go 0.5 WAR in either direction.

But Wait, there’s MORE!

The one thing that WAR doesn’t account for at all is catcher framing runs—the number of runs saved by catchers through their receiving skills. We have a way to quantify this in StatCorner’s Catcher Report. If you can, try to sing about this to the tune of Octonaut’s “Creature Report”. Sorry for the earworm.

One stat is the net number of ball or strike calls that went the way of the catcher’s team that wouldn’t have if MLB had robot umpires.

+Calls Per Game:

Jason Castro: 1.12
Evan Gattis: 0.28

Jonathan Lucroy: 0.52
Robinson Chirinos: -1.39 (nice...)
Bobby Wilson: 0.27 (reference)

If we assume that the primary catcher is going to catch 75% of the remaining games, this is what we end up with (Wilson is excluded, by the way):

Astros: +0.91 calls go the Astros’ way per game
Rangers: +.04 calls go the Rangers’ way per game

This is significant. and equates to (more or less) an additional 7 or so runs saved by the Astros for the remainder of the season compared to the Rangers, or approximately 1 win.

Advantage: ASTROS

Look, no knock on Lucroy, who is pretty good. But Jason Castro is one of the best defensive catchers alive today. And Chirinos pretty much undoes whatever good Lucroy adds with his glove. The Rangers are better at catcher with Lucroy as the starter. But not that much better.

Conclusion

In summary, for the remainder of the season, based on an objective projection system:

Lineups: Large advantage Astros

Rotation: Small advantage Astros

Bullpen: Push

Bench: Push

Catcher Defense: Large advantage Astros

There is no facet of team construction in which the Rangers could be strongly argued to be better than the Astros moving forward.

Sure, the Astros have a hill to climb in the standings. But the luck thing linked to above is real. The Rangers will almost certainly come back to Earth, just through the magic of statistical regression. (In case anybody is wondering, the Rangers were 11-15 in July and the Astros were 16-10. The regression has already begun.)

Outside of mathematical shenanigans though, the Houston Astros just plain have a better major league ball club than the Texas Rangers.