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Fallacious Fable - A Houston Astros preview

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A look ahead at the best team in the American League

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

What most people remember about The Tortoise and the Hare is the fact that the Hare got overconfident and took a nap, allowing the Tortoise to win the race. This fable is supposed to teach children a lesson about the dangers of overconfidence and the value of perseverance. Those are good values to instill in kids, but lost in all of this is that the Hare is actually really fast, a lot faster than the Tortoise. That’s valuable, right? I mean, the Hare just did something unrealistically stupid and decided to pass out in the middle of an actual athletic competition. Real-life bravado can lead to momentary lapses in focus or statements that look stupid later, but it won’t simply dissolve a massive gulf in talent.

Tonight’s opponent makes for a pretty good illustration of that point. Already potential division favorites coming into the offseason, the Houston Astros acquired mid-rotation groundballer Charlie Morton, power-hitting catcher Brian McCann, contact-hitting right fielder Josh Reddick, and 2016 All-Star Carlos Beltran. Prospects for the season were looking very strong, but they mostly cut off their additions there. Many felt that the Astros should’ve done more to slam the door on their AL West competition, especially with the potential to slot the available Edwin Encarnacion in at first base. Furthermore, the team’s projected starting rotation consisted of players that were either young, injury-prone or both. It was widely believed that it was in the Astros’ best interest to acquire a good and durable starter like Jose Quintana. Houston passed on both opportunities, feeling that the extra investment of money and/or top prospects wasn’t worth it.

Once it came time to play ball, the faith in the team on-hand paid off. The Houston Astros laid waste to the AL West in Hare-like fashion, sprinting out to a double-digit lead by May 28 and holding a 99.5 percent chance to take the division by the time the calendar flipped to June. It was pure dominance; the team’s run differential was over 100 runs on June 5, the last day of an 11-game winning streak. None of the AL West Tortoises below them could even claim a .500 record while the Astros sat at 42-16.

Since the end of that streak, Houston has become somewhat stagnant and while their lead hasn’t shrunk, they haven’t put any more distance between themselves and their rivals. Still, a 15-game lead at the trade deadline is nigh-insurmountable when no one chasing you is all that good. The Astros trucked on toward the end of July with a banged up starting rotation and a weak defense. Many wondered whether they’d use the opportunity to solidify their starting staff. Yet, the Astros remained content with what they had, only bringing in Francisco Liriano to attack lefties out of the bullpen.

That caused some scratched heads and even public criticism from starter Dallas Keuchel, but it really shouldn’t. The Astros have virtually no chance of losing the division and their bullpen is already very good. Taking into account the randomness of postseason series, there wasn’t going to be a trade acquisition on the market that would dramatically move the needle for them, especially given that non-ace starting pitchers have their role minimized in the playoffs. Put simply, upgrading the team would have required a premium that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow should not have been willing to pay. So he didn’t.

The primary reason that Houston can have this level of confidence despite some flaws is that their offense is easily the best in the major leagues. There aren’t enough ways to say it. They lead the world in home runs. Prized third baseman Alex Bregman is performing well at .273/.354/.474, and that’s actually worse than the team-wide average. They’ve scored about 80 more runs than any other team in the American League. Perhaps the best illustration is this nugget from Baseball Prospectus South Side’s Nick Schaefer:

The Astros’ position players have actually been banged up, but it hasn’t mattered because they have great depth. We won’t get to see slugging shortstop Carlos Correa in this series, but Houston has been fine without him because super-sub Marwin Gonzalez has been able to step in. Gonzalez has been an Astros utility man since they played in the National League and he’s had a Jose Ramirez-like breakout this year by hitting over .300 and swatting almost 40 extra-base hits in about 350 plate appearances. Gonzalez had been spending a lot of time in left field, but rookie Derek Fisher has been able to fill that void by providing about an .800 OPS.

The story is similar for George Springer, who’s been out with quad discomfort but figures to return this week. Springer leads the Astros with 27 homers and has been the primary center fielder, but fill-in Jake Marisnick has discovered his power stroke and has nearly matched Springer’s isolated power (ISO). Even the in-house alternative to signing Encarnacion, Yuli Gurriel, has shown off a good power stroke, albeit one that isn’t all that impressive when adjusted for position.

The leader of this amazing offense that has four guys with a wOBA over .400 is none other than Jose Altuve, who’s gunning for an MVP award. Baseball’s favorite 5’6’’ superstar has been running neck-and-neck with 6’7’’ goliath Aaron Judge for the league lead in fWAR. Altuve is an elite contact hitter that doesn’t just slap it around — he puts a hurt on the baseball. That he stands out as the clear best player on a team this loaded with talent says volumes about how impressive the 27-year-old has been.

I’ve mentioned that the rotation is injury prone, but the Astros have some pretty nice arms when everyone is healthy. Dallas Keuchel has only made 13 starts this year, but he’s proven that last year was an aberration and he’s still among the very best pitchers in the game. The extreme groundball pitcher gets hitters to beat his sinker into the dirt a whopping 75 percent of the time it’s put in play. That’s why metrics like FIP and fWAR are going to undersell him — they don’t take that into account.

The Astros shockingly put the exciting Lance McCullers on the disabled list recently, but that’s roughly coincided with the return of Collin McHugh to the rotation. McHugh has had a good run in Houston as a roughly league-average pitcher that throws a steady diet of breaking balls — particularly a diving curveball. Effectively wild Brad Peacock has transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation and maintained gaudy strikeout numbers after doing so. His out pitch is a slider that he throws over one-third of the time. In addition to the aforementioned Morton, Mike Fiers rounds out the Astros rotation. This year, Fiers is finally getting punished for all the 90 mph fastballs he leaves up in the zone.

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This all explains why Houston has been the best team in the American League this season and it’s why they decided not to pony up for reinforcements at the trade deadline. They’re dominating the regular season and once they reach the postseason, they’re more than equipped to throw down with anyone once they get there. With about a 15-game lead on their closest divisional competition, it’s hard to blame Luhnow for getting a little complacent with the roster. The Astros are going to be perfectly fine, provided they don’t actually fall asleep during the rest of their baseball games.

Probable Starting Pitchers

Tuesday, August 8: Dallas Keuchel vs. Derek Holland

Wednesday, August 9: Collin McHugh vs. Miguel Gonzalez

Thursday, August 10: Brad Peacock vs. Carlos Rodon

Key Personnel

Probable Lineup Pitching
Probable Lineup Pitching
1. George Springer - CF SP1. Dallas Keuchel - LHP
2. Jose Altuve - 2B SP2. Collin McHugh - RHP
3. Josh Reddick - RF SP3. Brad Peacock - RHP
4. Yuli Gurriel - 1B SP4. Charlie Morton - RHP
5. Marwin Gonzalez - SS SP5. Mike Fiers - RHP
6. Carlos Beltran - DH CL. Ken Giles - RHP
7. Brian McCann - C RP1. Chris Devenski - RHP
8. Alex Bregman - 3B RP2. Luke Gregerson - RHP
9. Derek Fisher - LF RP3. Francisco Liriano - LHP