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The Astros as They Head Past the Quarter Pole

Can they catch the front-runner?

Writers and analysts have long compared the grueling 162-game schedule of the baseball season to a 10-furlong, 1 1/4-mile horse race like the Kentucky Derby. And the final stretch is called the quarter pole. It's when the jockey loosens the reins, snaps the whip, and the horse unleashes all his power in one last mighty sprint to the finish line.

That’s where we are in the baseball schedule now. There’s about one-quarter of the season left to go. So let’s look back and see how the race has gone so far and what strengths, weaknesses, improvements, and inadequacies the Astros bring into this final sprint for another championship.

The Astros now.

The Astros are currently 70-52, a .574 W-L%, 2.5 games behind the Rangers in AL West, and in second place out of the three teams eligible to compete in the Wild Card Series. It is the fourth-best record in the AL. According to Baseball Reference, the Astros have an 85.6% chance of making the postseason and a 6.8% chance of winning another World Series.

Currently, the Astros are hitting wRC+ 106, eighth in MLB, not far from last year’s ranking.

The team pitching ERA is 3.79, fourth in MLB, a little behind last year’s rank.

It’s been a strange year by recent Astros standards. They’ve never been in first place and have been as many as 6.5 games behind. The Astros were even three games behind .500 on April 8. They’ve been a pretty good come-from-behind team, winning 29 that way while losing only 21.

In the first half of the season, the Astros had a .549 W-L%. The second half, only 31 games, sees an improvement to .645

First-Half Astros (First 91 Games): Hitting

The Astros were an exactly average hitting team in the first half with a 100 wRC+, 14th in MLB. Of course, sluggers missed major time, Yordan Alvarez (34 games) and Jose Altuve (59 games). The damage was mitigated by unexpected production from Mauricio Dubon, 92 wRC+, and Corey Julks, 103 wRC+. Kyle Tucker led the team in PAs and wRC+ among qualified batters with a 130 wRC+, but Alvarez had a 166. Current fan favorite Chas McCormick started relatively slowly due to injury and limited playing time at 122.

Second-Half Astros: Hitting

The Astros come into the final turn, blazing and gaining on the pack. Their wRC+ for the last 31 games is 123, reminiscent of the 2017 Astros and tied with arch-nemesis, the Rangers. This ranks 6th in MLB.

The star of 2nd half-Astros hitting is Chas McCormick, 207 wRC+ in 28 games. Altuve tops that at 217, but he’s only played 19 games. Following these are: Kyle Tucker, 190; Yordan Alvarez in 19 games, 150; Alex Bregman, 148; and Dusty’s favorite, Yainer Diaz, 144. Jon Singleton, filling in for injured 0.0 fWAR Jose Abreu, is at 113, despite a BA of .160. But he’s walked 21.9% of PAs and has two homers.

First-Half Astros: Pitching

The Astros were a very close second in ERA in the entire MLB at 3.67. The starting pitching was fourth at 3.74, and the bullpen was sixth at 3.60. Both rankings were slightly below last year’s rankings

Among starters, Framber Valdez was on a Cy Young pace to start the year with a 2.51 ERA. Of course, the losses of Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy were devastating, but the Astros got unexpected support from J.P. France, 3.36 ERA, and Brandon Bielak, 3.74 ERA.

The first-half bullpen standouts were Hector Neris at 1.43 ERA and Phil Maton with a 2.44. On the other end of the spectrum, the major disappointments were Rafael Montero at 6.57 and Ryne Stanek at 4.11

Second Half Astros: Pitching

The Astros’ pitching has declined considerably in the second half, with a team ERA of 4.14, 11th in MLB. Texas goes into the stretch run a half run lower, at 3.80.

The SP has an ERA of 4.37, 12th in MLB, and the bullpen comes in at 3.72, 10th in MLB.

Second-half bullpen standouts have been, brace yourself, Rafael Montero, at 2.13 and Bryan Abreu at 0.69. However, Phil Maton has fallen off the cliff at 6.00 ERA, and Ryan Pressly has struggled at 4.15 ERA.

The recent decline of the Astros’ top-of-rotation starters since late June is of particular concern.

In three games and 18 innings with the Astros, newly-acquired Justin Verlander has a 4.50 ERA and xFIP of 5.13. Verlander’s K% is only 16.5%, WHIP is 1.40, and swinging strike% is only 6.3%. Bottom line: Verlander is very hittable.

Since June 21, Cristian Javier has sported a 7.56 ERA. Before that, it was 2.80. His K% is 18.9%. Before, it was 23.8%. Javier’s WHIP has gone up from 1.04 to 1.55.

Since June 27, Framber Valdez has a 5.33 ERA, up from 2.27, despite the no-hitter sandwiched in there. The K% has gone down to 20.8% from 26.7%, and the WHIP has gone up to 1.24 from and even 1.00. And although the EV and Hard Hit % for Valdez has remained steady (near league highs), the all-important-for-Valdez ground ball rate has dropped from 57.2% to 49%.

Is J.P. France the new ace? J.P. Who? In 16 starts, he has a 9-3 record with a 2.74 ERA. (including one long relief appearance) And we all thought that Hunter Brown, with his 4.16 ERA, was going to be the Astros’ candidate for ROY.

The stretch run

Who will win the race heading into the stretch? The Rangers got an early lead with the help of a slow Astros start out of the gate due in part to injuries. But the Astros have narrowed the gap to 2.5 games. Do the Astros have enough kick and second wind to overcome the front-runner?

Sorry to say, but it feels like the odds favor the Rangers. Both teams are heading into the stretch with equal offensive firepower, but most Astros pitching is trending down, while the Rangers are getting fresh legs from newcomers Max Scherzer ( 1.80 ERA with the Rangers), Jordan Montgomery (2.50 ERA), and Aroldis Chapman. (1.69 ERA) Can the Astros’ improved hitting overcome what looks like a near collapse of starting pitching? Plus, a more manageable schedule favors the Rangers too.

Still, it’s baseball, not horse racing. Anything can happen. Stay tuned.