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Five Takeaways at the Half-Way Point

The glass is half full

Los Angeles Angels v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros have had a disappointing first half of this weird 2020 season compared to pre-season expectations. After 31 games the Stros are 17-14, a .548 winning percentage, four games behind the Oakland A’s in second place in the AL West, but five games ahead of third place Seattle.

Disappointing, yes. But remember it’s also good enough. Second place gets a team into the playoffs. There, anything can happen. Maybe by then the Astros’ luck will turn. And they have been very unlucky so far.

Five Key Takeaways

  1. 2020 is not about the decline of the Astros

Astros haters everywhere are applauding today’s story in Bleacher Report entitled: The Astros’ Slow Descent into MLB Mediocrity Well, a .548 W-L percentage isn’t usually considered mediocre, but compared to the last three seasons of .624+ win percentages, this year definitely feels mediocre, especially to Astros fans.

But we all all know the real story.

Injuries, etc.

Justin Verlander, last year’s Cy Young winner has pitched six innings. Let’s take his 7.3 bWAR and divide by five (we are not quite one-fifth of the way through a normal season) and that’s about 1.5 games lost to injury from Verlander thus far this season.

Yordan Alvarez, last year’s ROY, played two games and is out for the season. Divide his 3.7 bWAR last year by five and you lose about .75 games. And since he only played slightly more than half of last season’s games we expected much more from him this season.

Roberto Osuna, last year’s closer has pitched only 4.1 innings and appears out for the season. Divide his 1.8 bWAR by five and you lose about 1⁄3 of a game.

Michael Brantley has missed 18 of 31 games after playing without injury last year. He has missed 42% of his games. Forty-two percent of his 4.8 bWAR is about 2, divided by five, is .4 games.

I’m not going to finish these calculations for every Astros player that has missed a large part, or all of this season. These include: Alex Bregman, George Springer, Aledmys Diaz, Ryan Pressly. Chris Devenski, Jose Urquidy, Brad Peacock, Joe Smith and others. It is probably safe to say the loss in playing time of all these players above has cost the Astros about four games, which would get the Astros tied with the A’s for first. Plus the short sample size slump of Jose Altuve, surely a temporary phenomenon, has crippled the Astros in their first 31 games so far.

The Astros have problems going into 2021 with George Springer and Michael Brantley going into free agency, and especially 2022 when Verlander, Zack Greinke and Carlos Correa are free agents, but the problem with 2020 is not about the demise of the Astros. It’s about bad luck. Or, if you’re a hard-core Astros hater, bad karma.

2. Zack Greinke is fine wine

He’s 36, and despite a fastball that is now averaging 88 mph, Zack Greinke in 35 innings pitched (yes sss) is having his best season since his incredible 2015 showing. Always a pitcher, not just a thrower, still he could flash mid-ninties velo before showing his “junk.” What he is doing now with the art of pitching is unprecedented. Mixing six pitches, all with precise command and control, where he wants, and with variations on speed on each one.

It’s almost like he doesn’t have six pitches, but just infinite variations on a single pitch. And his mental computer knows where, at what speed, and at what angle to throw that pitch to cause maximum confusion in the mind of the batter.

Normally batters guess what’s coming next from a pitcher. If they guess wrong, oh well. If you hit .300 you’re a success, right? With Greinke batters are looking helpless, baffled and confused, not even knowing what to guess at. It could be a 54 mph eephus, or six other pitches at varying speeds and angles up to a 90 mph four-seam which, after looking at all the other offerings, must look like 100 mph.

Greinke is the Einstein of pitchers if you like physics. He’s Picasso if you prefer art metaphors. To the batter he is the master cubist, pitching chaos made into an art form.

3. Kyle Tucker is hope for the future

Patient Astros fans have been waiting for the break-out of Kyle Tucker. We have finally seen what he is capable of in the last week. Since August 19, he has slashed .500/.613/1.250 with three homers and four triples. There’s been some great fielding in that mix too, and he is a base stealing threat.

At this rate he’s not just the next Ted, he’s the next Babe.

OK, not so fast. He’s had a great eight games. It’s only eight games, but now we know he CAN be great. Now we just need to know if he can be consistently good. I say, the stock on Ted is way up and should soften the blow of the anticipated loss of George Springer in 2021.

4. Yuli Gurriel is almost timeless

Gurriel signed with the Astros in 2016 for five years, the first full year 2017 for over $14 million. His salary has decreased $2 million every year since and for 2020 he is making just over $8 million. And although his production decreased from 2017 to 2018, 2019 was his best year as an Astro with 31 homers, 104 RBI, and an OPS+ of 125. Now age 36, Yuli is even just a tad better in these first 31 games, with an OPS+ of 131.

How good will he be at 40?

Seriously, he has two years of arbitration. Keep Yuli for next year at whatever the arbitrator says.

(Editor’s Note: Correction - Yuli will be a free agent after the 2020 season after agreeing this past offseason to a 1 year, $8.3 million contract to avoid arbitration.)

5. Pitching Coach Brent Strom is a genius

We’ve said this a million different ways here at TCB but he just keeps amazing. He might be the reason the Astros haven’t just completely fallen off the table this year with all the pitching losses to free agency and injury.

Strom appears to have developed four or five gems among a bevy of rookie pitchers who now shoulder a huge share of the burden on the Astros staff. Somehow former AA players Andre Scrubb and Blake Taylor are among WAR leader in MLB among relief pitchers. Another AA player, Enoli Paredes has flashed great stuff and a 3.55 ERA, with peripherals not far off. Cristian Javier has emerged as a suitable fourth starter and with only 11 innings of prior experience at AAA before this year.

Brandon Bielak started the season lights out and earned a place in the rotation but unfortunately has had two meltdowns in his last two starts. We can only hope he regains his groove.

Let’s not forget Framber Valdez, who has been a longer term project of the Master. Erratic the last two years, he has found the elusive command he always lacked to go along with his elite stuff, and in 38 innings has a 2.35 ERA, also with peripherals to back it up.

Fangraphs projects the Astros to finish the season at 33 wins and 27 losses, basically a repeat of the first half of the season. This is good enough for second place and a roll of the dice in the expanded playoffs. After that their chances of winning the World Series are at 6.8%, bunched in with a lot of other teams, with only the Dodgers a clear favorite at a 17.7% chance of winning it all.

If the injury situation clears up by then, especially Verlander, and cold players like George Springer and Jose Altuve get hot, the Astros are as good as ever.

Buckle up.

As Davy Crockett once said, “You all can go to Hell. As for me I’m off to Louisiana for some storm chasing.”

Well, something like that. Wish me well.