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Houston Astros Sprinting through Stretch of Weaker Competition

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The run is almost over, but the Astros have been taking care of business thus far

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Importance of Beating Lesser Competition

All the way back on June 7, the Houston Astros began a stretch of 36 games against teams that owned records below the .500 mark. At this point in the season, the club found themselves in a very weird spot, as they were actually trailing the Seattle Mariners in the AL West division by one game. The bottom line was back on June 7, the Astros knew that they were going to need to focus in for the long haul and do what they are supposed to do: beat up the bad teams in the American League.

So far through 26 games in that 36-game run, the Astros hold a record of 20-6, good for a 76.92% winning percentage. Yes, I know this article feels a little bit premature with a full 10 games left in this mid-season run. But, with the red hot Oakland Athletics (48-39) coming into town on Monday, the Astros will be officially ending their journey through sub-.500 teams on Sunday afternoon.

This whole headline may seem obvious and something that most good teams should do, but beating competition that is worse than you can make the difference in a season. For example, the Astros played 96 games against teams that finished with a record of 79-83 record or worse in 2017 and went 65-31 (67.71%) against those teams.

However, when the Astros came up short of the playoffs in 2016, they won 45 out of 70 games (64.29%) against teams with that same description (finished season with 79-83 record or worse). Yes, I’ll admit that the contrast between the 2017 and 2016 winning percentages was not as large as I imagined it would be, but there was still a bit of a difference (nearly 3.5%) between the two years that the Astros dominated the AL West and barely missed the playoffs.

I guess recently at least, past Astros seasons are not a good indicator for the importance of beating lesser competition, but this does make a difference in the long haul. Often times, sloppy or lazy teams become careless against teams they should beat and it comes back to bite them in the end. This year, with the heavy imbalance in the league, there are certainly more opportunities to play “rebuilding” teams and boost up the record for the tight division race against the Mariners.

Who has Carried the Astros through this Stretch?

Since this 36-game stretch began on June 7, Alex Bregman has been absolutely on fire. The young third baseman and rightful American League All-Star this season owns a 199 wRC+, along with 10 home runs and a 11.1% BB% in this run that has spanned about one month. Bregman obviously hit his stride in June, as he was named American League Player of the Month and began to garner national attention.

Additionally, with Carlos Correa out of the lineup for many games in this run and George Springer just slumping about as badly as Astros fans have seen, Jose Altuve has stepped up his game and helped carry the Astros offense. Since June 7, Altuve’s slash line is .333/.446/.538 and he has hit half of his total home runs this season (4 out of 8). His wRC+ is 175, and honestly the most impressive part is that during this span, his BB% is 16.7% and his K% is only at 7.0%.

Altuve’s low K% certainly comes as no surprise, as the 2017 AL MVP has never struck out too often in his career. However, the BB% is very good to see, as even without Correa hitting behind him, Altuve has taken more pitches and been more selective in his overall approach.

In the starting rotation, the usual suspects (Cole & Verlander) have actually been struggling during this run and other pitchers have quietly stepped up. For example, Lance McCullers Jr. has been excellent in his last four starts. Since June 7, the young right-hander has struck out 30 opposing hitters in 26.0 innings while allowing only seven earned runs. During this span, McCullers owns a 2.42 ERA and 2.95 FIP.

Charlie Morton has also been dominant during this 20-6 run, striking out 41 and allowing only six earned runs over five starts. Morton also has McCullers beat in both the ERA and FIP categories, posting a 1.84 ERA and 2.76 FIP. The only problem for Morton over this stretch has been the walks, as he has given his opponents 18 free passes in 29.1 innings of work. It is worth noting, however, that Morton has improved in that regard over his last two starts.

Conclusion

With a few minor bumps in the road excluded, the Houston Astros have played a great last 26 games and deserve recognition for their performance, even if their opponents have been weaker. All 10 of their remaining games in this 36-game stretch will be played at Minute Maid Park, so hopefully the Astros can capitalize on the home field advantage and post an unbelievable record that perhaps helps gain even more ground on the Mariners.

After the All Star break, the Astros will really need to lock in as the schedule will get tougher. Unfortunately, the Mariners have shown that they are not going anywhere.