Patt Sullivan - AP

Houston Astros Within Reach of AL West Lead

Even though the Rangers have a big head start, here is why the race is closer than it might appear.

On May 23rd, the Astros lost to the Rangers 9-2. It was the fourth straight loss in a four game home series against the Astros' hated division rival. This was the ultimate low for a team that entered the season with unprecedentedly high expectations after shocking the world by winning 86 games and making the playoffs the year before. The Astros were now 17-28, and 8.5 games behind the Rangers.


A lot has changed since then.


Since then, the Astros have gone 32-13, vaulting themselves above .500 and back into the playoff picture. The Astros are currently sitting at 49-41, 4.5 games back from the 54-36 Rangers. There is still a lot of ground to make up, but this division is still winnable. Here’s why:


1. The Rangers are not as good as their record indicates.


This one seems a bit unfair to the Rangers, who have gotten off to their best start in franchise history despite some key injuries and poor performances from established starters. It is not as if they do not deserve the wins they've gotten  – it’s more that their first half performance does not seem likely to repeated in the second half. FanGraphs projects the Rangers to play sub-.500 ball the rest of the way (35-37, finishing with 89 wins, 1 more than the Astros projected 88 wins). I’m not quite that bearish on the Rangers, but the numbers clearly paint a picture that their record and their performance don’t quite add up.

To look at why the Ranger’s aren’t quite as good as it originally appears, first we turn to Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem of baseball. The formula takes a team's actual scored and allowed runs, and predicts what their record should be. Run differential is a more accurate predictor of success than record alone, and according to this theory the Rangers should be 46-45, while the Astros should theoretically have a better record of 49-41.


The Rangers have more wins over expected than any other team in the league, as the numbers show that Texas has won 7 more games than they would reasonably be expected to win. This is further evidenced by the Ranger’s league best 18-7 record in one run games, a feat that doesn’t on the surface appear to be sustainable. But the evidence of the Ranger’s luck doesn’t quite stop there.


Now we turn to former successful Wall-Street trader and current betting author and analysis Joe Peta’s "Cluster Luck" metric. The basic theory behind this stat is that team’s do not have much control over how their hits are sequenced, and as a result "Cluster Luck" tries to predict how many runs a team should have scored given their offensive production. For example, a team can't control whether they have 9 hits over 9 innings or 9 hits in one inning, but the latter would score a lot more runs than the former. According to the PowerRank, the Rangers have benefited from 47.2 runs due to sequencing luck, which is significantly higher than the next 'luckiest' team.


If you plug in the Ranger's run's scored and allowed, stripped for cluster luck, into the Pythagorean theorem their record comes out to a staggering 42-49. That's SEVEN games below .500. Perhaps FanGraph’s sub-500 performance prediction was not so far-fetched after all.  The crazy thing is the Rangers luck narrative doesn’t even stop there.


According to InsideEdge, the Rangers also lead the league in a metric they keep called “the little things”. This stat measures how many cheap hits, hard hit outs, bad walk calls, bad strikeout calls, or any other little luck factors benefit or harm a team. This also has the Rangers as the #1 luckiest team in baseball, with 233 lucky plays and 189 unlucky plays for a net luck rating of +44. The Astros were ranked the unluckiest team, with a net luck rating of -68.


I could go on, but by now you get the picture. No disrespect to the Rangers, but they probably should not be a 54 win ball-club at this point, and this is reflected in model-based predictive standings from websites like FiveThirtyEight and FanGraphs as well as in vegas lines. The Ranger’s are consistently being priced well below what we would expect from a .600 club.


2.  The Rangers pitching is not good.


Injuries have played a role in this, but even here the numbers show the Rangers pitching performance has not been as good as it may seem. The Rangers' team ERA is significantly lower than their FiP, xFIP, or SIERA, metrics which have been proven to be more accurate and better predictors of future production. That means their may be seem serious regression on the horizon for the Ranger's pitching staff.

The Rangers starting pitching rotation was not great pre-season, and is even worse now that Derek Holland and Colby Lewis have been sidelined by injuries. Nick Martin and Martin Perez are not good pitchers. Chi Chi Gonzales may be the worst starting pitcher in the league. Even ace Cole Hamels' stellar season may be something of a mirage, as his 2.93 ERA doesn’t quite match up with his 4.40 SIERA and 4.40 FiP. However, credit the Rangers for taking a shot on AJ Griffin, who despite missing two seasons in a row to Tommy John surgery has been solid for the Ranger’s and has stricken out a lot of batters.


The Rangers bullpen certainly doesn’t help their rotation woes. The Ranger's bullpen is ranked #29 in ERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, ahead of only the Reds.  Credit Sam Dyson, who has helped Texas have the third highest save rate in the MLB and provided some stability to an otherwise volatile bullpen.


Obviously, Yu Darvish coming back will be a big boost to the Rangers, as a Darvish-Hamels would be a solid 1-2 punch, especially in the playoffs. But until then, expect the Rangers to win games behind their bats rather than their pitching more often than not.


3 – The Astros are red hot


It’s hard to believe the Astros actually went into the All-Star break this season with a better record than last year, after the Stros had such a torrid start to the 2015 season while having such a disastrous start this year. But that was the case, as the Astros went into the All-Star break 48-41 after starting 17-28.


The Astros have had one of the best records in baseball since June , and have been top 10 in terms of offensive production (wOBA) in those two months as well. If the bats come alive, and the starting pitching staff improves, the Astros could be a dangerous team down the stretch. 


4 – Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers


Keuchel has not looked so good this year. Some regression was expected this year, but not to the tune of a 5.02 ERA and a 6-9 record. Luckily, there is a silver lining here.


While it doesn’t quiet look it, the advanced stats suggest Keuchel is playing better than his ERA and record indicate. Keuchel has a respectable 3.58 xFIP (which is believe it or not 5th best in the AL among starting pitchers) and a 3.82 SIERA (8th in AL).


A reason Keuchel’s numbers could be so bad is his high .322 opponent BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play. It is thought pitcher’s have little control over what happens to the ball after the opponent hits in play, and usually a pitcher's BABIP will regress back to a league average .300.


On top of that, Keuchel has a very high HR/FB ratio of 19.2%. This stat is also not much of an indicator of skill, and should regress back to league average. So, the numbers suggest Keuchel can still be a great pitcher, even if he isn’t necessarily still the ace many originally believed he was.


That’s where Lance McCullers comes in. He has elite stuff,  which is evident by his insanely high 11.21 K/9. He has a powerfull fastball (93.4 MPH) and a devastating curveball, a curveball which he throws harder than any other starting pitcher in baseball at 85 MPH. What he struggles with is control and stamina, as he walks a very high number of batters (5.09 per 9) and averages less than 6 inning per start. But these problems are common among young players, and if he can correct that, he has the potential to be an ace for the Astros for many years.


McCullers missed a large chunk of the season, while Keuchel has struggled for a large part of the season. If both those two can play healthy and solid baseball down the stretch, it would do wonders for the Astros second half run.

5 - The current roster is not a finished product

With the trade deadline around the corner, there is always the possibility of Lunhow making moves to improve the Astros for a playoff run. While the Rangers have the same opportunity to improve, I'd argue the Astros' league lowest payroll and deeper farm system make them more flexible to make moves, and more likely to be able to pull-off a cost efficient move.

Positions of need for the Astros would be starting pitching, and possibly catching, as Jason Castro's contract expiring at the end of the season. 

On top of the possibility of a trade, the Astros could improve the roster through bringing up prospects. AJ Reed, Tony Kemp, and Colin Moran have all had opportunities to show their big league chops, while the notable AJ Bregman has patiently been waiting for his turn. Bregman is considered by many to be the Astros best prospect, and on of the best prospects in the baseball, and could help shore up either of the corner infield positions. 

The Astros also recently added Yulieski Gourriel, a Cuban slugging 3rd baseman. His addition makes the infield a bit murkier for Bregman, Valbueba, and Reed, yet he is thought to have elite upside and too much talent is never a bad problem to have. The Astros will figure out a way to make the positions work.

Bottom Line

The Rangers are playing well above their expected level of play and should regress, while the Astros are red hot which hopefully will continue. It’s also worth noting that the Astros are 1-9 against the Rangers this season, which hopefully will not continue. There’s no reason the Rangers should own the Astros like they have this season, and if the Astros bats continue to produce, if Keuchel and McCullers can settle into their ace roles, and the Rangers do in fact start regressing, I think the division race will be much tighter than most people expect. Every series against the Rangers will be huge.

Vegas currently has the Astros odds to win the division at +500, which implies a 16.67% chance to win the division. I expect our chances are a bit higher than that.

No matter what happens, the AL West will be a fun race as the year dwindles down, and will only add fire to the already heated Astros-Rangers rivalry. 

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