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Comparing Aprils: How the Astros’ Start to the 2019 Season Compares to 2018

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Looking back at April 2018 inspires a lot of optimism in the 2019 Astros’ season

MLB: Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This week saw the end of the first full month of the 2019 season, which seems like a good place to take stock of where things stand with the Astros. And for added reference, I thought it might be interesting to compare things to where they stood a year ago, at the end of April 2018; I believe just about anyone would consider last year a success, between the 103 wins and the ALCS appearance, and with most of the key players returning, it makes it an even better point of comparison. So let’s see what all has changed from one May 1 to the next.

Overall

Exiting April last season, the Astros had a 20-10 record, the second-best mark in the AL and third-best in the majors (behind only the Red Sox at 21-7 and the Diamondbacks at 20-8). In all, that was enough for a 2.5 game lead over the Seattle Mariners.

For as bleak as things have seemed at times this year relative to that, through March and April, Houston actually wound up in a pretty similar place this year. Through April 30, 2019, Houston was only two games worse, at 18-12, but still the AL West division leader and second-best team in the overall American League. The Dodgers (20-12), Rays (19-9), and Cardinals (19-10) were the three teams with better records, while the Mariners were 1 game back this time rather than 2.5.

Of course, the biggest difference in these two records are the schedules taken to these points. There’s a lot of overlap, but through less than a fifth of the season, even small changes can have a big effect.

Astros April Opponents, 2018 vs 2019

2018 Opponents Games Played 2019 Opponents Games Played
2018 Opponents Games Played 2019 Opponents Games Played
Angels 3 Athletics 5
Athletics 3 Indians 4
Mariners 4 Mariners 3
Orioles 3 Rangers 6
Padres 3 Rays 4
Rangers 7 Twins 5
Twins 3 Yankees 3
White Sox 3
Yankees 1

This actually strikes me as a bright spot. Although the team is a tick behind where they were last year, this year’s March and April schedule looks notably harder than last year’s. Even if you’re skeptical about the strong starts of the Rays and Twins, the 2018 Padres, Orioles, and White Sox were an incredibly weak bunch. In all, those three plus Texas meant that the 2018 Astros had already played 16 games, or over half of its schedule, against teams that would go on to lose 95 games or more. Of this year’s opponents, only the Rangers look like they might be that bad in 2019, but even then, they still had more games played against them at this point in 2018.

Offense

This has been an area that some fans have maligned so far in 2019, but believe it or not, the 2019 lineup actually compares fairly well to the 2018 one. Through 30 games, the 2019 team has scored 143 runs, just six fewer than the 2018 edition (which works out to just over one less run per week, not the sort of thing the average person is going to notice).

What makes things even weirder is that, in just about every aspect other than runs, the 2019 version of the team is much better; the 2018 team makes up the difference on timely hitting/luck (depending on your view of which it is, although most evidence leans toward the latter). After April 2018, the Astros were tied with the Mariners and Rays in fourth place in team wRC+ at 109. This year at the same point, they narrowly led the Mariners 124 to 123, both of them well ahead of the next closest team in the Dodgers at 118.

For every player you can think of as struggling now, there was someone struggling as bad or worse last year. Think Tony Kemp’s .179/.273/.333 (70 wRC+) is rough? Jake Marisnick had twenty more plate appearances in 2018 while batting even worse (.143/.156/.302, 19 wRC+). Tyler White has a better line (.261/.382/.304, 102 wRC+) than 2018 Yuli Gurriel (.224/.273/.379, 76 wRC+) in a similar number of PA, while 2019 Yuli (.240/.292/.375, 82 wRC+) is doing better than Evan Gattis (.200/.281/.300) did last year in another similar sample size.

Meanwhile, the top of the lineup is even unquestionably stronger at the top than last year’s:

Top Batters by wRC+, April 2018 vs 2019

2018 Player wRC+ 2019 Player wRC+
2018 Player wRC+ 2019 Player wRC+
Correa 154 Springer 150
Altuve 140 Correa 148
McCann 132 Bregman 147
Stassi 130 Reddick 145
Springer 128 Brantley 144
Reddick 120 Chirinos 136
Bregman 116 Altuve 127
Gonzalez 91 Marisnick 117

Altuve is struggling this year, but Springer was last year, relatively speaking, which helps offset it. Meanwhile, I had kind of forgotten both how hot Carlos Correa was at the start of the year before his injuries and how long it took Alex Bregman to start his offensive breakout. And overall, just look at how many more players above 140 there are this year; it’s a stark change from last year’s two (especially since third- and fourth-best hitters, Brian McCann and Max Stassi, were splitting time with each other, meaning the slumping Springer was frequently the fourth-best batter in the lineup on a given night).

Pitching

This has actually been the steeper fall-off this year, rather than the lineup. Not because this year’s pitching staff is bad; after all, with 105 runs allowed in March and April, only the Reds (99) and Rays (88) ranked ahead of them, with the Indians tied. It’s just that last year’s team was so historic that it was going to be almost impossible to replicate it even if there hadn’t been substantial losses in the rotation.

Through one month of 2018, the Astros had allowed opposing teams to score just 82 times, 8 fewer than the second-best D-backs and 14 fewer than the third-place Red Sox. There was some luck behind that, between opponent BABIP sitting at .265 and the staff stranding nearly 82% of runners who reached, explaining why their (still awesome) 3.06 FIP was over half a run higher than their 2.54 ERA. In the end, both the average on balls in play and the strand rate would regress, and they finished the year with a staff-wide 3.11 ERA and 3.23 FIP (both still league-leading marks).

This year’s 3.37 ERA and 3.58 FIP are both fine (they’re third and fourth in the league, respectively), but they aren’t last year’s numbers. This is especially true in the rotation, where Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander have both taken a step back and Wade Miley and Collin McHugh have both been solid-but-not-equal replacements for Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton. Remember, last year at this time, there were three starters on the team who had ERAs below 1.75. That all has added up; if you go by Fangraphs’ version of pitching WAR, each of the top four rotation spots has been about half of a win less in 2019 than 2018.

If you want a “glass half full” take on this, I would say that it was obvious that the rotation wasn’t going to keep up the pace they were on. There was some luck involved, and half of the games were against really bad teams. This year, the pitching staff has already squared off against the second-through-sixth best lineups in the American League, by wRC+ (in order: the Mariners, Twins, Rays, Yankees, and Rangers). If this is how things shook out against a gauntlet like that, the softer May and June schedule should offer some respite.

Conclusion

In a game like baseball, where even the best teams will lose nearly two-fifths of their games, it can be easy to lose sight in the day-to-day just how good things are going. No team is going to have everything go perfectly all at once, and those inevitable missteps can seem overwhelming in the moment, but will frequently get washed out by year’s end if things go well. That’s why I like to do things like this; despite being a 103-win team, the 2018 Astros had a lot that clearly wasn’t working one month in, even before injuries started to take their toll. If things can work out well for that bunch, seeing this year’s team hold their own in a comparison is wildly encouraging.