The Houston Astros are right back in the postseason mix as the end of the 2022 MLB regular season nears. They currently hold the top record in the American League with a mark of 88-49. They also hold a comfortable 11 game lead over the Seattle Mariners for first place in the AL West.
With an offense led by a familiar cast of characters that helped contribute to the franchise’s first championship team in 2017, the lineup poses a formidable threat to opposing pitching staffs. Following the recent departures of Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, George Springer and Carlos Correa within the last few seasons, it has taken a number of breakout seasons to help keep the Astros among the elite teams across the league.
Raking in Houston
Barring a catastrophic collapse, this Houston Astros lineup is more than capable of carrying the team through the playoffs. Despite the aforementioned exits of shortstop Carlos Correa, who signed a free agent deal with Minnesota this offseason, and outfielder George Springer who signed with Toronto two years ago, the lineup is still among the best in baseball and has gotten healthy contributions from other position players who have stepped up in a major way.
Comparing the numbers of the former Houston stars and their replacements shows two different stories. According to FanGraphs, Correa has posted a 3.1 WAR for Minnesota this season while rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena has netted a WAR slightly lower at 2.4. Looking at center field, however, George Springer has produced a 3.2 WAR which is far superior than what Astros center fielders have combined to produce this year.
Aside from the downgrades at these positions, other players have stepped up offensively to help ignite the lineup. The quartet of second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, designated hitter Yordan Alvarez and outfielder Kyle Tucker have all had stellar seasons in which each player has hit at least 20 home runs and has an OPS+ of 131 or higher, according to Baseball Reference.
Alvarez has been the best of the four offensively, as he continues to show an advanced approach at the plate by getting on base and hitting for power at an elite rate. The 24-year-old has had a monster year with 31 home runs, 82 RBIs, a slash line of .289/.393/.581 and a 176 OPS+ which would be a career high.
After nearly winning the AL MVP in 2019, Alex Bregman had back to back pedestrian seasons in 2020 and 2021. He has bounced back in a resurgent season in which he has more walks than strikeouts with a slugging percentage over .500 and an OPS+ of 141.
Altuve is having yet another impressive season in which he boasts a .290/.379/.523 slash line. His 24 home runs are tied for the second most in a season for his career and his 15 stolen bases are his most since 2018.
Lastly, Kyle Tucker has has another productive season, though he has taken a slight step back from his breakout campaign last year. With 24 home runs and 22 stolen bases to go along with an OPS+ of 131, the 25-year-old is still coming into his own as a potent hitter in the league. His 13 defensive runs saved, ranking third among American League outfielders this season, significantly increases his overall value as a player.
Can the starting pitching hold?
The return of future hall-of-famer Justin Verlander to the starting rotation has been essential for the success of the pitching staff for the Houston Astros. After starting just one game in 2020 and missing the entire 2021 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, his 2022 season has been an emphatic success. His ERA of 1.84 and ERA+ of 207 lead all of major league baseball, and his walk rate sits at a career low 1.5 per nine innings. While currently on the IL with a calf injury, he should return in the coming days.
Since his debut in 2018, Framber Valdez has gotten better and better as a starting pitcher. This year has been a career year for the southpaw as he has stymied opposing hitters to a meager .214 batting average. His strikeout and walk rates would each rank second behind those he posted in 2020, though he only pitched 70 innings in 10 starts that year.
The trio of Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Cristian Javier have been solid this season, posting a combined 3.52 ERA in over 400 innings of work. The only other pitcher with more than one start among current Astros is Lance McCullers, who has only given up five runs in 21 2/3 innings, but has walked 14 batters in just 4 starts.
If an emergency spot start with an inexperienced starting pitcher is needed during a playoff series due to poor performance or injury in the rotation, it may get a little bit dicey for Houston. They only have six pitchers on the active 40-man roster who have made more than one start this season. Teams traditionally do not implement a five-man rotation on their playoff rosters, so this should not be a serious issue if injuries or underperformance were to play a factor, as at least one of these starting pitchers can enter the fold in the rotation if needed.
Stability in the bullpen
Contrary to what is normally the case for a lot of teams across baseball, the Astros have actually had very little turmoil in their bullpen this season. With nine pitchers combining for the bulk of the relief work with 372 appearances and just six pitchers accounting for the other 30 appearances, it has been a similar group of pitchers that has carried the bullpen to a league-best 2.81 ERA. The relief staff has also given up just 27 home runs, the lowest among all bullpens in 2022.
Ryan Stanek, Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu and Hector Neris have all dazzled for Houston posting ERAs at 3.24 or lower. Stanek leads the group with a ridiculous 1.17 ERA.
Win it for Dusty
One of the more respected and beloved people in all of baseball, Dusty Baker has still yet to win the Fall Classic as a manager. He won a title with the Dodgers as a player in 1981, but has come up short time and time again as the skipper of several teams.
The three-time National League Manager of the Year spent 10 seasons in San Francisco where he won an NL pennant; four seasons in Chicago with the Cubs; six seasons in Cincinnati; two years in Washington D.C. and is in his third year with the Houston Astros, a year removed from the second World Series loss in his managerial career. Across his 25 years as a manager, he will be taking his team to the playoffs for the 12th time.
If the Houston Astros are going to bring home the franchise’s second championship, they need to rely on exactly what has gotten them to this point. Their stars need to be stars and their bullpen needs to continue to be among the best in baseball. With the Yankees faltering down the stretch and the AL Central reeking of mediocrity, it could be the perfect storm for the Astros to make their fourth World Series in the last six seasons. A possible rematch with the Dodgers could be in store, as both teams look to be the best in their respective leagues.