The Houston Astros: The New Underdog

One month ago, no one thought the Houston Astros would be where they are. ESPN had them missing the playoffs all together, Sporting News predicted they’d finish last. Grantland didn’t have them in the conversation, and CBS Sports experts had them finishing either fourth or fifth in the American League West.

The only sensible words came from SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee, who said, “When you have a roster like this, where everyone makes some sense, you have the potential for a surprise title run. Astros fans, especially the ones who have stuck around, deserve it.”

That might be the best accidental prediction of the season,because, for the next month, the Astros did something crazy. They started doing the exact opposite of everyone, except Brisbee, said they’d do; win. They’re 11-2 on the road, somehow posting a better record away from Minute Maid Park (8-8). They gained the best record in the American League, and ripped off a 10-game winning streak to end the month of April.

They became the jewel of baseball. They said, “Screw the predictions. Watch this.”

And now with the eyes of baseball on them, they’re succeeding.

We could easily point to all the reasons the Astros hot start won’t be successful. How they are in the top fifteen of just two major hitting categories in baseball (runs – eighth with 133, home runs – second with 42). How their ground ball to fly ball ratio of 0.74 is the worst in Major League Baseball (The league average is .92), meaning they hit one fly ball for every .74 ground balls, or how they lead the league in strikeouts with 205, and have the 21st worst batting average (.237). The nine teams worse than them have an average record of 12.7-15.6, while just two of them are over .500.

AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

But I’m not here trying to burst their bubble. Let’s look at why this thing keeps rolling. The Astros have the league’s fifth most quality starts with 17. They lead the league with a walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) of 1.09, and are in the top five in opponents batting average (.229) and on-base percentage (.281). In a league dominated by pitching, the Astros are leading the way.

Houston is the new feel good story. The Oakland Athletics have overstayed their welcome. All the A’s have done is prove that Moneyball can get you into the playoffs. But when you don’t hit money balls, Moneyball just doesn’t work in crunch time.

The Astros been counted out, considered an afterthought, but yet, here they are. They have the league’s lowest payroll at $70.9 million, one million dollars less than the Miami Marlins at 29th, and six million dollars less than the next closest team.

For years, the Cardinals have been considered the epitome of how to run an MLB franchise: don’t over spend on big names, find cost effective ways to be effective. Yet they still field a team using $121.9 million.

The reigning MLB champion San Francisco Giants, who sit one game below .500 and 4.5 games out of first place in the National League West, have the games third highest payroll at $173.8 million, $100 million more than the Astros.

The Astros are doing it with the less. They’re outspent at nearly every position by every team in baseball, but when they do spend, they do effectively. They’re one of just two teams in baseball that have less than $1 million of dead money, tied with the Minnesota Twins.

It’s a credit to the organization that the team is above .500, let alone owners of the best record in the AL. Fans love the underdog, and if there ever was one, the Astros would be it. They’ve taken a group of players who nearly every team looked over, and now they’re paying the league back.

Aside from Jose Altuve, the All-Star second baseman and Jason Castro, a one-time All-Star, the Astros don’t boast a roster full of stars.

But yet, here we are. The Astros lead the American League.

“When you have a roster like this, where everyone makes some sense, you have the potential for a surprise title run.”

Yeah, I guess you do.

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