In the pre-season Starting Nine article, we noted that Astros fans are spoiled. After five straight seasons of reaching the ALCS, three trips to the World Series, and one trophy, here in Houston we just expect excellence from the Astros. No rebuilding. Not even re-loading. The Astros are supposed to be among the best every year in perpetuity.
The success of the Astros since 2015 is a testimony, in part, to the success of the Jeff Luhnow re-build. But expecting forever success is ridiculous. Many analysts believed the Astros’ window was closing last year with the departure of the cornerstone of the re-build, George Springer. Not to mention the loss of Gerrit Cole and 2017 mainstays like Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Marwin Gonzalez, injured Justin Verlander, and others
Still, the Astros found replacement parts despite a depleted farm system and confounded the critics with another trip to the World Series.
But surely the motor would start sputtering in 2022 with the loss of the other cog in the Great Rebuild, Carlos Correa. The team that won over 100 games three years in a row and 95 last year was not expected to win even 90 games this year according to some respected analysts.
Well, granted it’s only two months into the season, almost one-third of the way, but the Astros’ current .647 winning percentage would put them well over 100 wins if it holds. Everyone expected a tight race in the AL West, but the Astros currently hold a 5.5 lead over their best competitor, the LA Angels, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, et.al.
Yes, the Astros are exceeding pre-season expectations, (sort of, since we always expect them to do that). Let’s look at who and what are responsible for the over-achievement of the Astros so far this year.
The “best case” scenario at shortstop this year with the departure of Correa was that Jeremy Pena would come close to Correa’s brilliance in the field and not suck too bad as a batter. “If he could just hit .250” was the mantra.
Pena leads the Astros in fWAR by a fairly wide margin. At 2.2 he is half a game ahead of #2, Yordan Alvarez. He has the tenth highest fWAR rating in ALL MLB and tops among shortstops. At this rate, his WAR rating by the end of the season should be about 6.6, greater than you-know-who’s was at the end of last season, his best ever.
Here is Pena’s slash line: .285/.331/.494. 7 home runs, wRC+ 141 for the season. At this point last season Carlos Correa slashed .280/.367/ .466, 8 home runs, 130 wRC+.
“But Pena is just a rookie,” you say. “The league will figure him out.” Well, so far, Pena is figuring out the league faster than the league is figuring out Pena. In May his wRC+ was 155, compared to 123 in April.
Plus, Pena has the 3rd highest Fangraphs DEF rating in baseball and the highest among shortstops. And he’s no slouch at baserunning either, rated 48th in the league out of 384, even with Juan Soto and ahead of Mookie Betts, just to give some perspective.
OK, Altuve is the face of the Astros, the leader, the longest-tenured Stro and former MVP. He’s supposed to be good. Well, in the last two seasons Jose has not been entirely himself, and some worried he may be aging, or maybe his confidence was shaken by the cheating scandal. In the short season of 2020, Altuve was a below-average 75 wRC+ hitter. Last year he rebounded to 130, but that was still his lowest total since 2016, and second-lowest since 2014.
Altuve is back! His 159 wRC+ is the second-best of his career, just one point behind the MVP year 2017. (When his BABIP was .370, compared to .271 this year). Ten homers puts him in line to get to 30 yet again.
I hesitate to include him because he’s supposed to slug. But so far he is having a kind of rebound year. After hitting “only” 136 wRC+ in 2021, and with a career mark of 156, so far Yordan is hitting 172 with 14 home runs, 3rd in baseball. His wRC+ ranks 19th in MLB.
Besides catcher, this is the supposed Achilles heel of the Astros. But surprise, the center field fWAR, combining the play of Jose Siri and Chas McCormick, is 1.5, eighth in MLB. Just for perspective, that’s ahead of Toronto (where the cherished George Springer sometimes plays), and Cleveland (where the traded Myles Straw roams) Straw’s fWAR of 1.1 is just 0.2 ahead of Jose Siri in almost twice as many PA’s. Believe it or not, Byron Buxton is only at 1.2, with 46 more PA’s than Siri. Siri’s DEF rating is third among center fielders
Sorry, no one predicted the Astros would lead MLB in team ERA at this point at 2.84, ahead of even the vaunted Dodgers. Peripheral stats predict some regression, but we’ve been saying that all season.
Among the overachievers:
Justin Verlander. Coming back from Tommy John at age 39 expectations for Verlander were somewhat reduced. Look at the struggles of the younger Noah Syndergaard. But so far Justin’s back in Cy Young form. He’s 11th in MLB in ERA among starters at 2.23, his xERA is 18th at 3.02. His K% is also 18th at 25.3%, his K-BB% is 14th at 20.3%, and his overall strikeouts rank 15th with 61 in 64.2 innings. Verlander is 3rd in BAA at .177, fifth in BB% at 5, and leads in WHIP at 0.80.
Framber Valdez. Valdez has been about as good as the two-time Cy Young winner Verlander. His 2.57 ERA is 18th in MLB with better peripherals than Verlander. Thus, his 1.4 fWAR is tied for 14th in MLB among starting pitchers.
Despite a high, but improved BB% of 8.6% what keeps Valdez in games is his ridiculously high GB%, league-leading by far at 65.7%. The league's BA against Valdez is 17th best at .217. Valdez has been excellent at avoiding hard contact, ranked 16th in the league in that category per Fangraphs.
Cristian Javier. In a hybrid starter/relief role, Javier doesn't have enough innings to qualify among league leaders, but if he did he would be sitting pretty with a 2.41 ERA and an xERA and FIP under three. He has 52 K’s in 41 innings, and a K% at 31.5%, just behind Bryan Abreu for the team lead.
Rafael Montero. Reliever stats at this point are particularly unreliable due to small sample size, but Rafael Montero, a seeming throw-in in the trade that sent Abraham Toro to Seattle for Kendall Graveman, has been a wonderful surprise so far. No, he probably won’t end the season with a 0.44 ERA, but his peripherals still look outstanding, FIP 2.27, SIERA, 2.51. His BB% is only 6.4%, important for a reliever, and his K-BB% is 23.1%, higher than even Verlander, with a similar WHIP of 0.82.
Hector Neris. Hector Neris came to Houston with a good track record in Philadelphia so most of us expected decent performance from him. But so far, Neris is having his best season in many categories. His 2.01 ERA is well below his 3.35 career average, as is his FIP at 2.25. Although Neris’ K% of 29.3%, while very good, is not the best of his career, his BB% of 3.7% is by far his best in that category, as is his .156 BAA and WHIP of 0.67. Due to a high hard hit%, Neris’ xERA is 3.78 and his BABIP is .212, so we have reason to anticipate some regression.
So far, Montero, Neris, and Ryne Stanek have been the anchors of a bullpen that leads MLB in ERA at 2.43. Yes, despite 10 saves I leave off Ryan Pressly, whose peripherals run in the mid 3’s, (not closer quality) his K% is almost half his career average with the Astros at 18.9% and his WHIP is 1.31.
After returning from IL for a sore knee, Pressly has seen a return of the career average velocity that he lacked earlier in the season. But it seems he makes every save an adventure. Hopefully, he returns to his old form soon.
But this is not an article about underachievers. Let’s celebrate the Astros whose unexpected success has made this early season a somewhat unexpected success for the whole team.
Who do you think is the biggest surprise for the Astros this year? And feel free to add other overachievers you can think of in the comments.