The Astros must not believe in air conditioning. Because if they did, why does their window stay open so long?
Ba-da ba-da... Clank.
No really. How many teams not named the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers win a World Series and for every year thereafter even five years later are still considered one of the leading contenders to win it again?
Somebody shut the window, the cold air is getting out.
Nobody here at TCB or anywhere else I know of expected the Astros to be on track to win 106 games here at midpoint, especially when you consider that the only significant producers left from the 2017 champs are Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and old-man Justin Verlander.
Let’s take a quick look.
After 81 games the Astros record is 53-28. This represents a slight degree of over-achievement as their Pythagorean record is calculated at 51-30. The Astros are 13 games ahead of second-place Seattle in the AL West, second overall in the AL, nine games behind the Yankees but eight games ahead of third-place Minnesota, and 8.5 games ahead of Boston and Tampa Bay. So it looks like the Astros are cruising towards a first-round bye in the playoffs.
So let’s break down the Astros first-half statistics, and especially, whose contributions have been most instrumental in helping the Astros exceed expectations so far in 2022.
According to Fangraphs, the Astros pitching staff has the 6th highest WAR rating in MLB at 10.6, behind the league-leading Yankees at 12.9. But the Astros are third in ERA at 3.02. Peripheral stats say the Astros staff is over-achieving - xFIP is 10th at 3.81. But that discrepancy could be explained in part by excellent Astros defense, rated second in MLB per Fangraphs DEF rating.
So let’s look at who’s pulling the unexpected extra weight on the staff in 2022.
The Astros rotation ranks third in MLB in ERA even though the “ace” is a 39 year-old just off Tommy John, the #2 on IL, and the rest are mostly un-pedigreed and little-known outside Houston.
- Justin Verlander Re-signing Verlander who at 39 was coming off Tommy John surgery was a risk. I don’t think it was a safe assumption to think that Verlander would just naturally resume something approaching his Cy Young form of 2019. But he has, at least in terms of results. Although strikeout numbers are down this year, his 2019 ERA was 2.58 with an ERA+ of 179. This year the same stats are 2.03 and 188 respectively. (ERA #2 in AL among qualified starters) His 2022 FIP and WHIP numbers are also very close to 2019 numbers. And in almost every important category, future Hall of Famer Verlander’s 2022 numbers exceed career averages.
- Framber Valdez Valdez is known for “Frambering, “ which means he’s inconsistent but finds a way more often than not to overcome control problems by inducing an inordinate number of ground balls. But after a breakout year in 2020, Valdez has just kept getting better and is definitely in the All-Star conversation, rated 10th in the AL in fWAR and 9th in ERA at 2.67.
- Cristian Javier The 25-year-old Javier started the season in the bullpen but replaced Jake Odorizzi when he went on extended IL. For the season Javier has a 3.01 ERA in 74.1 IP, and as a starter is 6-4 with a 3.51 ERA and third on the staff in fWAR behind Verlander and Valdez at 1.7. Of course, he no-hit the Yankees for seven innings and allowed just one hit and one run in his next stint, accumulating 27 Ks in the amazing two-game stretch.
Perhaps the biggest and best surprise of the first-half 2022 Astros is the bullpen. With the complete failure of Pedro Baez, and the early injury to the only left-hander, Blake Taylor, the only addition to the staff from 2021 was Hector Neris, who has performed about as expected.
Yet the Astros bullpen is rated first in ERA at 2.66 although peripherals stats are not as strong. More tellingly, with the second-most wins in baseball, the Astros bullpen has only 6 blown saves, the second-fewest in baseball. In large part due to the bullpen, the Astros are 15-5 in one-run games.
The Astros pen is sixth in holds despite pitching relatively few innings, 6th in WPA (Wins Probability Added) again despite pitching fewer innings than average and third in RE 24 (run expectancy based on 24 base-out states).
So who’s been exceeding expectations so far in the bullpen.
- Rafael Montero Montero leads the bullpen in fWAR, xERA, (over 25 IP), and is second in ERA and xFIP. He has three wins, no losses, six saves, no blown saves, and 12 holds.
- Ryne Stanek Stanek is having a career year. In 28.2 IP, he has allowed only two runs for an ERA of 0.63. He has eight holds, a BA against of only .163, a WHIP of 1.08, and an otherworldly LOB% of 98%. (Unfortunately, that is a stat that screams regression)
- Bryan Abreu Coming in with low expectations, Abreu still exhibits his problems with command and control, but in mostly low-leverage situations Abreu still has a 2.08 ERA, a 3.30 xERA, and 0.5 fWAR, fourth among relievers. Before this year his BB% was 13.1 but is down to 10.9%. And his K% has increased from 24.4% to 32.8%.
- Seth Marinez Admittedly used almost entirely in low-leverage situations, Martinez has come from nowhere to provide 21.2 IP allowing only 3 runs for a 0.83 ERA. Unfortunately, those came in the bottom of the ninth in New York on an Aaron Judge walk-off homer. Still, his xERA looks good at 2.14, and his 0.3 fWAR is actually equal to closer Ryan Pressly.
Astros hitting started relatively slowly by Astro expectations but now ranks second in MLB just behind the Yankees at wRC+ 116. That may still be a little below what many would have expected pre-season. Especially considering the Astros are only 14th in the league in runs scored despite being third in home runs at 119.
Two players stand out as exceeding expectations.
Jeremy Pena The consensus before the season started was that if Pena played good defense he didn’t have to hit as well as his predecessor Carlos Correa to be considered a success; average hitting would do.
Among shortstops, Pena is 7th in wRC+ at 127, just seven points below Correa. He is sixth in fWAR despite playing only 63 games at 2.5, 0.7 more than Correa. His DEF rating of 7.7 is 7th. And Pena’s 12 home runs rank him 6th among shortstops. The rookie is among the best all-around shortstops in baseball, arguably out-performing Correa at the mid-point of the season, and a real contender for rookie of the year.
Yordan Alvarez Alvarez entered the season with very high expectations. And yet Yordan has smashed through even those. Quite simply, Alvarez is the best hitter in baseball right now and a serious contender for MVP.
His wRC+ is 201, 26 points higher than AL #2 Aaron Judge. While behind Judge in homers with 25 at the 81-game mark, he is seventh in BA at .313, third in OBP at .411, and 1st in SLG at .660, all higher than Judge. Among AL batters with 17 or more homers, Alvarez has the lowest K% at 16.9%.
Of course, Jose Altuve and Kyle Tucker are having All-Star-caliber seasons, but I wouldn’t say they are exceeding expectations. If current performers continue at their current rate, and we get better second-half performances from Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and the center field position (thanks to Jake Meyers’ return), plus another arm in the person of Lance McCullers, then second-half 2022 may even exceed the win total of the first 81.