Welcome to the Dog Days — Baseball Time! Why the Astros Aren’t Among the Best

Posted: 07/17/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

Right around baseball’s All-Star break every year, it dawns on me that the dog days of the summer have really begun. The NBA draft is over, and free agency’s biggest moves were made nearly two weeks ago. Sure, Dion Waiters is still available, but he’s about the only one, and, let’s be honest, he’s not all that good. Even Summer League, with quality of play worse than most high school leagues, is winding to an end, which means we soon won’t be able to talk about the excitement generated on the court by Ben Simmons or D’Angelo Russell or Kris Dunn for a while. So we’re about to reach the dead zone in the basketball season, and there are still a couple of weeks before football really starts ramping back up. Hockey, which saw a few shockingly big moves made a couple of weeks ago (see: Subban, P.K. and Weber, Shea), has also been rather quiet since the start of July. And for those who like soccer, Euro 2016 and Copa America Centenario are over and domestic campaigns don’t start for a few weeks, which means that fans must spend their time scouring the internet for transfer news, realistic or (usually) otherwise. So yeah, I’d argue that sports-wise these last two weeks of July are as boring as it gets. Unless, of course, you’re a diehard baseball fan, because there’s always baseball. And since I consider myself to be a diehard baseball fan, I’m actually excited to spend the next few weeks devoted to writing about baseball, because this is the time of year that baseball really begins to ramp up.

I’m going to start by trying to figure out who the best team in baseball is. A month ago, this wouldn’t have been a debate; the Cubs were miles above everyone else with an insane run differential and a chance to cruise to their first World Series in forever. But the cursed Cubbies have lost 16 of their last 24 games, and they no longer own the best record in baseball (the Giants are a game up). Alas, things are never easy for Chicago’s North Side club. And Chicago’s struggles have opened up ample room for a debate over who is the best team in baseball on July 17 and over who has the best chance at being the best team in baseball at the end of October. From my vantage point, there are six teams who could either be the best team right now or the best team going forward. I’m taking record and run differential into account, but I’m also using the eye test and the way I see these teams, which is why neither the 55-38 Rangers nor the +90 run differential (third in baseball) Cardinals makes my list. The six teams are the Cubs, Giants, and Nationals from the NL and the Indians, Red Sox, and Blue Jays from the AL. I’m not including the aforementioned Rangers or Cardinals, nor do I have the AL East leading Orioles or either of last year’s World Series participants (KC and the Mets) on my list. Heck, I’m not even mentioning the Astros, who are 33-14 in their last 47 games and who I expect to overtake the Rangers in the AL West. There are a lot of good teams in MLB this year, but I think one of the bolded six is the best. That doesn’t mean one of the six will win the World Series, because the playoffs are a crapshoot, but I’m pretty confident that these are the six best teams in baseball.

I don’t want to start talking about any of these teams tonight, so I will say that, of the teams that missed, the Houston Astros were the toughest to omit. They’re playing .702 baseball since May 22, which is more indicative of their talent level than the .378 baseball they were playing before May 22. After all, this is the team that was pegged to win the AL by a bunch of experts, including by a plurality of ESPN’s 31 preseason predictors. And they’re certainly a very talented team. They certainly have the best second baseman in baseball in Jose Altuve, and it’s very possible that the best shortstop in baseball (Carlos Correa) is playing right next to him. Altuve, who’s generously listed at 5’6″, is awesome and ridiculously good. Last year, I worried that he was being overrated a little bit as a classic high average (.313), low power (15 homers, which was more than twice his previous career high) and on-base percentage (.353) sparkplug. I was wrong. This year, Altuve has evolved into a bonafide MVP candidate. He’s fourth in baseball in Fangraphs WAR, with above-average defense at second base and 24 steals against three times caught stealing. But the real shocker is his offensive production. He’s hitting .346, but he already has 15 homers and 42 walks, nine more than he had last season. His triple slash line is .346/.417/.551, and I think he’s probably a co-MVP frontrunner, as he’s been a bit worse than Mike Trout but has the narrative factor (career year, good team vs. ho-hum year, bad team for Trout) strongly in his favor.

So yeah, the Astros have THAT ^^ in addition to Correa, who’s clearly one of the best shortstops in the league and is only 21 years old. When you have two guys that good in the middle of your lineup, you’re going to have a decent offense. The Astros also have what I consider to be the third best bullpen in baseball behind the Yankees and Orioles. They rank first in bullpen WAR by a mile. Will Harris has a 1.62 ERA and a .95 WHIP. Chris Devenski has given up five runs in 41.2 innings from the pen (1.08 ERA). Luke Gregerson has a 3.35 ERA and a .89 WHIP. Ken Giles, who was supposed to be the closer before struggling early on, has a 1.62 ERA and a .96 WHIP since the start of June with three walks and 24 strikeouts. This is a filthy good bullpen, and good luck coming from behind against this team.

With all of that said, I still don’t think Houston can even argue that they are a top team, at least not at the moment. They need to make a move for a starting pitcher, because their rotation just isn’t good enough. Dallas Keuchel was the AL Cy Young last season and now has a 4.80 ERA. That really, really hurts, although it means that there’s room for improvement moving forward. Just look at the WHIPs of the five starters. Keuchel’s is 1.37. Doug Fister’s is 1.25, Mike Fiers’s is 1.35, Collin McHugh’s is 1.45, and Lance McCullers’s is a scary 1.64. These guys allow a lot of hitters to get on base, which generally will come back to bite pitchers. The Astros rank 10th in WAR among starting pitchers so far, but I don’t believe that will remain true going forward. They need some help in the rotation, and if they can get it, I think they can be in the conversation. For now, though, I’m sticking with the other six over Houston, St. Louis, Texas, etc. just because I think they are a tier ahead talent-wise.

Tomorrow, I’ll start looking at the top six.

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