Who are the Astros?
Through 7 games, the team was 6-1. through 17 games, it was 7-10, and through 35 games, it was 18-17. Since coming back from Colorado, the team is 30-18, despite its last 4 extra inning games resulting in losses (we’ll get to the bullpen later). Although if the season ended today, the Astros would be the 2nd wild card, let’s be real, the Astros are one of the top 3 teams in the AL, and it’s not even close.
Here’s what the 2021 Astros are: a team with an explosive offense and the best starting pitching in the AL. Let’s start with the uncontroversial claim that this team mashes. After some troubling regular season numbers last year, every player who needed to prove himself in 2021 has done so: Altuve, Yuli, Correa, and Bregman. Of the top 7 regulars, the lowest wRC+ belongs to Alex Bregman, who’s 26% above league average. There are no bad peripherals (granted, a few BABIPs are a bit high), no enormous K rates, no extreme fly-ball luck. The lineup rounds out with an improving Straw, who at least can work counts, and a Maldy/Castro combo that can at least punish mistakes. Diaz and McCormick are intriguing bench bats, and there’s a chance Diaz would start in some playoff games. Sorry Yankees and White Sox, this is the best lineup in the AL, and is tailored to the playoffs. It would gladly take George Springer, but it does not miss him, not with Tucker doing Tucker things.
The starting pitching is nasty. And it starts with the team’s true ace, Framber Valdez. His 2021 ERA is nearly two runs lower than 2020, but his xFIP and FIP remain below 3 in both years. Moreover, his non-arm related stint on the DL was a blessing. After 95 innings in 2020 (a league-high workload), Framber probably couldn’t be expected to be a 220 IP workhorse. He lost roughly 9 starts to a non-arm injury, and is showing the stuff and poise to anchor a rotation. We know the next 5: Greinke, McCullers, Garcia, Urquidy, Odorizzi. The rotation legit 7 deep, if one adds the more-than-capable Javier. Even if it gets Sale back, the rotation is the Red Sox weakness. And sorry Rays, Rich Hill will putter out at about 140 IP. After Glasnow, the Rays have no frontline starters. The White Sox have had great starting pitching, with Rodon finally reaching his peak, Cease coming out of nowhere, and Lance Lynn proving his post-Cardinal phase is not a mirage. But it’s a squad with almost no playoff experience save Keuchel, whose 5.15 K/9 makes Greinke look like De Gromke. The A’s also have some legit starting pitching, but I’d take Valdez and probably McCullers over their top guy in a game 7. And Cole Irvin is regressing to the mean. The A’s lineup, meanwhile, has three proven players going up a level (Laureano, Canha, and Olson). It’s not hard to see a stretch when the offense splutters and the pitching cracks just enough to see them lose 8 of 10 or 12 of 15. I’d bet on the Astros never looking back right around the AS break.
The Astros glaring weakness is its bullpen. Too many of its arms have been bad, and too few reliable. Javier has already provided stability, however, and Garcia may soon join him. The bullpen needs to become average in the regular season. The 2017 bullpen was average. If the strength lies in the starters, things will fall in place in the playoffs, with perhaps Lance, Javier, and/or Garcia providing the last 9 outs in key games. Meanwhile, some combination of Baez, Martes, Smith, Abreu, Paredes, Ferrell, Solomon, Scrubb, Taylor, Raley and co. have over half a season to prove themselves worthy of the post-season roster. It sucks how much the bullpen has already hurt the team, but it’s the easiest problem to fix.
The Astros have the best record against teams with winning records. They took 5 of 7 from the Red Sox, and have taken 8 of 10 from the As. When it comes to October, nobody in the AL will want anything to do with Houston. Fret over the bullpen if you must, but this team is a juggernaut, as it has been during every non-totally-weird season since 2017. Enjoy.