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Can the Astros Catch the A’s?

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It would seem like a miracle. But miracles happen

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Sunday’s game was the worst. It’s easy to feel that the season is over after such a debacle. It was like a nightmare. Let me count the ways.

  1. Falling 5.5 games behind first.
  2. Falling a half game behind the Rangers into third
  3. Getting swept.
  4. Getting swept and blown out.
  5. Having your supposed rookie savior get bombed by three homers in three innings.
  6. Getting the manager thrown out for questioning balls and strikes
  7. Hitting the opposing team’s best hitter twice. I mean, as if the rest of the league doesn’t already feel justified throwing at the Astros.
  8. Seeming to instigate the ensuing fight.

What a meltdown. Body, mind and soul.

The Astros have become Team Chaos. Why?

  1. It’s often hard to recover from a World Series loss.
  2. They are the most hated team in all sports since the “Black Sox” because... you know why. This has to be demoralizing, it’s hard to be proud of being an Astro right now. And perhaps it’s causing some of the hitters to overcompensate to prove they weren’t good just because they were cheating.
  3. On top of the Covid uncertainty affecting all the teams, the Astros have experienced unprecedented injury problems, with only three, true, veteran pitchers (Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers, and Ryan Pressly). Has a team ever had ten rookie pitchers on the roster at the same time? Especially a team just back from the World Series?

The season is now one quarter over. The A’s are 12-4. the Astros 6-9. To catch the A’s, assuming the A’s only play .500 for the rest of the season, the Astros will have to amass a 28 and 17 record from here on out, a .622 winning percentage. That’s 34 wins to tie the A’s.

Given what we’ve seen so far of both teams, and what we know about the Astros’ predicament, neither of those outcomes seem likely.

Let’s take a look. How much can the Astros improve going forward? And should we expect the A’s to go from a .733 team at the quarter mark to a .500 team hereafter?

Hitting

When healthy, the Astros and A’s both have substantially the same lineups that they had last year. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that by the end of the season both teams will achieve similar averages as they did last year. If so, which team will improve the most over current performances?

Astros:

Last season the Astros scored 920 runs, had a 125 wRC+, and had 40.8 offensive WAR. Adjusted for a 60 game season the Astros would have scored 340 runs and gotten about 16 WAR. (60 is 37% of 162, the normal season length)

They currently have a 108 wRC+, 76 runs, and 1.6 offensive WAR. Obviously we should expect the hitting to improve above 108 wRC+ assuming no more injuries to offensive players than there were last year, and there were many. Hitting is down generally across the league but the wRC+ is a relative measure. A 125 wRC+ would be very hard to replicate two seasons in a row, but the Astros should improve on 108.

If we multiply the current run production by four, because we are at the one quarter mark of the season, the Astros at current production should score 304 runs. That is below the 340 runs predicted using last year’s pace.

If we multiply the 1.6 offensive WAR by 4, we get 6.4, way below the 16 we expected from last year’s pace. So instead of the 1.6 offensive wins so far, they should get 4.8 wins for each of the remaining three quarters of the season, 3 wins per quarter better than this quarter. (4.8 X 3 + 1.6 = 16) If they had hit 4.8 WAR this quarter, that would have been a 3 game improvement in their record, something like 9-6 instead of 6-9, still behind the A’s.

So if we assume the Astros hitting improves to last year’s level (key players such as George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman are hitting well below career averages right now), then, using WAR calculations, we can expect the Astros to improve their current winning percentage from .400 to about .600, all else equal, including pitching. That’s 36 wins. Just enough. Assuming the A’s drop to .500 here on out.

(This is, of course, the rosiest scenario. I don’t think the Astros are going to repeat last year’s almost record breaking hitting performance, especially given the small amount of time to make up for the slow start. But it’s possible)

A’s:

After yesterday’s bombfest against the Astros the A’s are hitting close to last year’s averages. Last year they scored 845 runs, had a 107 wRC+, and 28.5 offensive WAR.

The A’s currently have a 106 wRC+, 2.9 offensive WAR, and 71 runs in 16 games.

We will not multiply the A’s production by four, because they have played 16 games. The mulitplier is 3.75. 3.75 times 71 runs is 266 runs. At last year’s pace for a 60 game season they should score 313 runs. Like the Astros they are not scoring as well as last year.

In a sixty game season the A’s should achieve 10.5 offensive WAR if they hit this year as well as last. At their current 2020 rate their WAR should be 10.8 offensive WAR for the year, approximately the same as expected using last year as a model.

Comparing offensive WAR, the Astros should get 16 WAR in this 60 game season but have only gotten 1.6 one quarter of the way through. If they can miraculously achieve the rosy scenario of achieving 16 WAR by the end of the season, they will have picked up approximately 14 games.

Going by last season as an expectation for this season, the A’s should get 10.5 offensive WAR by the end of the short season. They currently have 2.9. They should pick up approximately 8 wins.

So, if hitting levels regress to last years levels, the Astros can expect to pick up six games on the A’s (14 oWAR - 8 oWAR) Again, such improvement from the Astros at this point is a big assumption.

Now let’s look at pitching and what to expect for the remainder of the season from each team.

Pitching

Both staffs are very different from last year, so we can’t even consider extrapolating from last year’s performances. However, advanced pitching metrics allow us to make predictions based on this year’s performances other than making the inaccurate assumption that team ERA will remain constant.

Earned run average is a result oriented statistic that is influenced by luck and many non-performance variables. More advanced metrics try to take these variables out of the equation and are more accurate measures of future, long term results. I intend to use two of these advanced metrics, xFIP and SIERA. These measures are calculated to approximately predict future ERA. I will compare the present ERA with the xFIP and SIERA to determine to what extent we can expect improvement or decline for the rest of the season from each pitching staff.

Astros:

The Astros are 16th in MLB in ERA at 4.20 and their staff only accounts for 0.8 Wins Above Replacement.

Negative regression is strongly indicated, as one would expect from a staff that includes 10 unheralded rookies who have achieved surprisingly good results so far. The xFIP is 4.64, almost a half run a game more than ERA. The SIERA is similar at 4.52. This is 29th in the league.

A’s:

The A’s are in first place on the strength of pitching. Their pitching WAR is 3.7, highest in the league. Frankie Montas and Jesus Luzardo pitched very little last year but are among league leaders this year along with Chris Bassitt. Sean Manaea, the former ace, has not looked good so far this year after making a brief appearance last year following rotator cuff surgery. He is a question mark. Mike Fiers rounds out the starting five.

The bullpen has been superb.

The Athletics are third in the MLB in ERA at 2.66. However, the A’s are expected to regress in pitching even more than the Astros, the xFIP predicting a 3.69 ERA, and SIERA 3.62. In other words the pitching should allow about a run per game more than present.

To my surprise, advanced stats predict more regression from the A’s staff than from the Astros’ group of rookies. The Astros can be expected to give up slightly less than one-half a run a game more than they have been, but the A’s almost a full run a game more.

Somebody more advanced in sabermetrics and mathematics than me needs to figure out how these expected run allowed differentials translate into wins and losses. But it’s silly to think that we can predict with certainty the futures of baseball teams using these simplistic models along with their unknowable assumptions. And of course, the statistics themselves have limited usefulness due to the small sample size. And most importantly, we must recognize that no statistical model can infallibly predict human behavior, with all the quirkiness of human psychology involved.

After last night’s debacle and all they have been through, the Astros may feel defeated and decide they’re ready to cash in the season.

Or, yesterday’s game could be remembered as the day the season hit rock bottom and the Astros determined to turn it around. You never know how humans will react to things.

Here’s the bottom line in broad terms. The Astros should hit better than they are hitting, and if they get hot and end up hitting as well as they did last year, they could catch the A’s. Both teams should pitch worse, but the advanced metrics say that it is the A’s, even more than the Astros, who have been getting pitching results out of this world and should come down to Earth soon.

Plus, the Astros have been hurt much worse by injuries, and could get help if important players like Justin Verlander and Yordan Alvarez return and add value.

So expect the race to tighten. For the Astros to make up a 5.5 game deficit seems unlikely, but after doing this research, not as unlikely as I thought going into it.

And remember, all you need to do this year is get second place and then get hot in the playoffs

Go Stros.