“I like to be against the odds.” —-Barry Bonds
“I don’t welcome any challenge. I’d rather have nine guys named Robinson.” —Earl Weaver (on the challenges of managing)
This article concerns the Astros’ current status on a macro level. First, we’ll talk about the Astros’ current odds of winning the division and making the playoff. Second, let’s talk about the Astros’ pitch performance from the standpoint of physical “stuff.”
The Astros’ odds of winning the division and making the playoffs change on a daily basis. I like keeping up with the playoff odds. There are a lot of moving parts to evaluating where the Astros stand in terms of making the playoffs and winning the AL West. Some examples of the moving parts: the changing odds of other teams; player injuries and changes in players’ expected performance; relative schedules; teams’ depth at both the ML and minor league level; and strength of intra-division competitors, to name a few. Basically it takes a lot of data and computers to evaluate all the connections between these moving parts.
The odds used by the more sophisticated models, like those used by Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA), involve simulations of thousands of seasons to arrive at odds. My personal preference is to rely on the Fangraphs playoff odds. This is partly due to my familiarity with the model, which makes me more comfortable with the results. In addition, the Fangraphs player projection and depth chart inputs are more transparent; the PECOTA inputs are behind a paywall. To make a comparison, Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds (“PECOTA Standings”) are linked here. As a hint, PECOTA currently gives higher odds to the Astros and doesn’t favor the Rangers in the division race—-so, if you want to feel better about the odds, check the PECOTA Odds link. However, I don’t have sufficient information to know why the PECOTA odds are more favorable.
The Fangraphs odds are as of June 13. The current odds for the Astros’ are shown below compared to the Fangraphs pre-season odds.
ASTROS ODDS Division % / Playoffs%
Pre-season 53% 79%
Current 42.5% 72.5%
The June 13 Fangraphs divisional odds are approximately the same for the Rangers: 43% division probability and 71% playoff probability. Basically, the reduction in Astros’ odds is due to strengthened competition within the AL West.
While it’s true that the Astros’ odds declined compared to the pre-season odds, the Astros remain in a favorable position relative to other teams in the American League. Only two teams—the Rangers and the Rays—have a higher probability of making the playoffs (as of June 13). The AL West is the only American League division with tight odds to win the division among multiple teams: Rangers 43%, Astros 42%, Angels 13%.
Over the 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022 playoff runs, at this stage of the season, the Astros were not facing this level of difficulty. Below I show the Fangraphs odds on June 13 of those seasons. (2020 COVID shortened season omitted.)
ASTROS ODDS (6-13) Division % / Playoffs%
2017 98.6% 99.5%
2018 95.7% 99.8%
2019 99.7% 99.9%
2021 52% 78%
2022 95% 98%
The odds in each of those seasons looked much better than the current odds. Perhaps the odds on June 13, 2021 are somewhat closer to the current Astros odds. But the current Astros team faces greater challenges than any of those seasons. On a positive note, the Astros playoff race may turn out to be more entertaining than prior seasons, given that the main division competitors (Astros, Rangers, Angels) are all fairly strong.
Fangraphs’ leaderboards provide the pitching metric, Stuff+, which is based on the physical characteristics of pitches (such as velocity, movement, and location). There is evidence that the overall Stuff+ rating predicts future ERA performance. In theory, Stuff+ should have greater statistical meaning in smaller sample sizes than are required for more traditional pitching stats.
Before the season began, I pointed out that the Astros’ pitching should expect some degree of regression this season. The pitching has suffered from some regression, yet it continues to be the strength of the team. Because the Astros offense has not been as good as last year (currently ranked 18th), the pitching has been put under more pressure to carry the team. Rather than relying on the standard measures like ERA and FIP, I think it is interesting to look for regression in the physical characteristics of the pitching in the form of Stuff+.
Stuff+ at the team level reflects the composite impacts on stuff due to pitcher injuries and replacements, loss of pitchers (like Verlander), and negative or positive impact of regression of current players. The Stuff+ change between 2022 and as of June 13 are shown below.
Astros Pitching Staff Ranking Stuff+
2022 1st 111
Current 2d 106
The Stuff+ value indicates that the overall stuff exhibited by the pitching staff has declined since 2022. The Astros’ MLB ranking for Stuff+ declined a notch but remains very good at No. 2. In 2022, the Astros and Yankees were 1 and 2 in Stuff+, and so far this year, the ranking of the two teams is reversed (Yankees at No. 1).
Current and 2022 Stuff+ for this season’s Astros starting pitchers is shown below.
Stuff+ Current / 2022
Valdez 110 / 111
Brown 106 / 112
Urquidy 98 / 105
Javier 96 / 116
- All of the starters who were in the rotation in 2022 have regressed to varying degrees.
- Surprisingly rookie J.P. France has the second-best stuff among starters (tied with Hunter Brown).
- The decline in Javier’s Stuff+ is notable and perhaps concerning. Last year, he was 2d only to Verlander in Stuff+. So far this season, his stuff plays more like a No. 5 pitcher.
- Not a shock that Bielak has the worst Stuff+ among starters. Based on this comparison, perhaps Bielak, rather than Blanco, should be sent to the bullpen.
The main tier of relief pitchers is shown below. Because control is so important for relief pitchers, I have used Pitching+, which is a combination of Stuff+ and Location+..
Pitching+ Current / 2022
Pressly 119 / 110
Montero 112 / 107
Maton 109 / 102
Abreu 107 / 103
Stanek 104 / 104
Martinez 101 / 102
Neris 98 / 105
- By and large, the relief pitchers are very good. Unlike the starters, the stuff hasn’t regressed for most of the relievers. Pressly, Montero, Maton, and Abreu all have Pitching+ which is even better than they exhibited in 2022.
- The notable decline is Neris, whose Pitching+ declined from 105 to 98.
- Montero is the second-best relief pitcher based on stuff and location. Like Pressly, who is first, he should be locking down the late innings. But Montero’s recent performance has led Astros’ fans to question his high-leverage usage. For whatever reason, Montero’s results don’t match his very good Pitching+. Montero has the most meltdowns on the team (6), which simply isn’t consistent with the underlying physical characteristics and locations of his pitches. My guess is that Montero has run into some tough luck, the kind of bad luck that happens when a few batters put a good swing on good pitches, which normally don’t get hit.
You can see why the Astros’ Pitching Staff has been good enough to carry the team most of the season. But my intuition tells me there is some tenuousness here, partly due to the small margin for error. There are some signs of concern—Javier’s decline in Stuff+, the continued use of Bielak in the rotation, Neris’ decline from 2022, and the disconnect between Montero’s physical metrics and his results (which could affect his confidence).