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Next Couple of Weeks May Be Pivotal

The Astros have been slumping, hurting their playoff chances, and games over the next couple of weeks will reveal a lot.

MLB: New York Mets at Houston Astros
Astros Closer Ryan Pressly reacts after getting a save in the 9th inning versus the Mets.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros have been in a June slump, and as a result, the team’s playoff chances declined significantly. The slump won’t last forever, but they need to come out of it quickly if they want to avoid putting themselves in a deeper hole.

Maybe I’m wrong—there may be some recency bias in my thoughts. But my feeling is that the next couple of weeks will be fairly pivotal. If the Astros can put their slump behind them, it will go a long way to positioning themselves for a battle to win a playoff spot, either as a wild card or division winner.

Starting Friday, the Astros have three games at Los Angeles against the Dodgers, which is always a tough assignment. After that series, the next three games are against the Cardinals in St. Louis—a team that is desperately trying to get back into the playoff race. As June ends and July begins, the Astros travel to Globe Life field to face the Rangers, the division leader they are pursuing. That four-game series could say a lot about the Astros’ chances of winning the division.

On June 21, the Fangraphs division odds and playoff odds for the AL West competitors is shown below.

Fangraphs Odds — Win Division / Playoffs

Rangers 55% / 79%

Astros 24% / 52%

Angels 16% / 42%

The Astros’ slump has made the Astros' playoff odds volatile lately. After Monday’s loss to the Mets, the Astros' playoff odds fell below 50% for the first time (49%). But the playoff odds returned to over 50% after Tuesday’s win. The Astros’ playoff odds declined about 20 percentage points during the slump.

Just for comparison, I show the same playoff odds produced by Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA projections). The Astros’ odds fare better in B=Pro’s model.

PECOTA Odds — Win Division / Playoffs

Rangers 18% / 44%

Astros 59% / 78%

Angels 19% / 46%

Apparently, PECOTA believes the Rangers’ players are over-performing and will regress significantly over the rest of the year. Both Fangraphs and B-Pro expect the Rangers to regress over the remainder of the season—-but the PECOTA results indicate a more severe correction for the Rangers—with a rest of season W-L percent below .500. Personally, I’m not sure I buy that projection—but it’s there if you are interested.

Team Wide Slump

Want evidence that the Astros have been slumping?

On June 5, the Astros reached a season peak with a record that was 12 games above .500. In retrospect, June 9 seems to have been a turning point—-but in a negative way. On that day, Yordan Alvarez was put on the Injured List. Also, the Astros played a series opening game versus the Guardians, which turned into a heartbreaking 9-10 extra inning loss.

The Astros offensive slash line for the two-week period after June 7, compared to the season stats:

Offense: BA / OBP / SLG / OPS / OPS+

Last 14 days: .230/ .294/ .385/ .679 / 84

2023 Season: .245/ .314/ .399/ .712/ 96

So, yes, the offense was definitely in a slump. What about the pitching, which normally carries the team through the offensive doldrums?

We can turn the slash line on its head—OPS Against—to look at the pitching during that same 2 week period.

Pitching OPS Against: BA / OBP / SLG / OPS / OPS+

Last 14 days: .253/ .333/ .410/ .742 / 102

2023 Season: .241/ .311/ .392/ .703/ 93

So, yes, the slump was similar to a perfect storm. Both the offense and pitching were performing below their seasonal level. Although the 2023 offense has not been great, the pitching staff normally kept the opposition’s OPS below the Astros’ OPS. During the team-wide slump, the opposition OPS increased to above average and the Astros offense fell to 16% below average.

The causes are not hard to trace. Losing Yordan Alvarez is a blow to the offense. Without Alvarez, the offense has less ability to withstand situations in which multiple players go into individual slumps. The remaining players have to get back on track. Similarly, the pitching staff is starting to feel the impact of losing two pitchers in the starting rotation. Also, the bullpen suffered some regression during the slump. The fact that the Astros were without a day off during much of the two-week slump likely added fuel to the bullpen’s meltdowns. However, if the pitching staff can return to normal, the W/L record over the next two weeks should improve significantly.

A Specific Complaint About the Offense

I should mention one of my pet peeves about the Astros’ offense. It has been a problem all year, but becomes more grating during the offensive slump.

Simply put, the Astros’ hitters are not patient. This goes to their approach at the plate. And over the long term, a batter’s patience usually leads to higher OPS. The pitcher’s objective is to get the batter to swing at the pitches he wants the batter to swing at. The batter should try to get in a batter’s count by avoiding those swings.

Batter patience can be measured by pitches per plate appearance (P/PA). The Astros are 27th in P/PA this year with 3.73. Only the White Sox and Nationals are worse at taking pitches. I understand that in certain situations, or against certain pitchers, swinging early can be a good strategy. But it does not appear that the Astros hitters are employing the tactic strategically. That is evident by the low ranking in P/PA. It would be nice if the Astros could display a grinding patience that forces the pitcher to give the batter better pitches to hit.