The Houston Astros are coming off the first World Series title in franchise history last season and have one of the best records in the majors through the first quarter of this season. Many people, though, seem to be discounting the way they’ve played through nearly 50 games of this season, which is due, in large part, to a series against the New York Yankees early this month in which the Astros didn’t play their best ball. But was that series representative of the champs’ 2018 to date? Or are people extrapolating a four-game set out through the season thus far? Let’s examine.
The Astros scored a total of seven runs in the four-game series against the Yankees, including being shut out twice. That average of 1.75 runs/per game over that small sample size is significantly smaller than that 4.6 runs they’re averaging overall this season. That runs-per-game average is in the top half of the majors following Sunday’s games. The Astros offense is worse than it was last season, but that was to be expected given the historic nature of last year’s lineup. Having said that, the Astros still rank in or near the top 10 in a number of offensive categories, including batting average, OBP, OPS+, hits, and runs scored. And, not surprisingly, Jose Altuve is near the top of the majors in hits, as he usually is; his 61 knocks are tied for second after the weekend.
The other area of the game in which the Astros underperformed against the Yankees is in the bullpen. Two of the Yankees’ three wins in the series came via ninth-inning comebacks, with a four-run ninth in what had been a scoreless game in the second game of the series and a three-run ninth in the series finale. Based on those outings, it would appear that the Astros have one of the worst bullpens in baseball. In reality, though, Astros’ relievers have a 2.87 ERA, which is the fourth-lowest in MLB after Sunday.
And closer Ken Giles, who people remember for his poor showing in last year’s postseason, is a perfect 8-for-8 in save opportunities and has allowed runs in just three of his 17 appearances this season. The four runs he gave up in the ninth inning of the May 1 game against the Yankees came in a non-save situation and in a spot in which it can be questioned whether manager AJ Hinch even should have brought him into the game. With Justin Verlander having racked up 14 strikeouts in eight innings, he probably could have gone out for the ninth given that he had thrown just 105 pitches to that point.
The area of the game in which the Astros performed about as expected against the Yankees was in the starting rotation. Charlie Morton allowed a single run in 7.2 innings, Verlander went eight scoreless, Dallas Keuchel recorded a quality start with three runs in seven innings, and Lance McCullers duplicated Keuchel’s stats in the finale. The one starter who didn’t pitch in the Yankees series, Gerrit Cole, leads the majors with 93 strikeouts and is one of three Astros starters — along with Verlander and Morton — with sub-2.00 ERAs. Overall, the rotation leads the majors with a 2.25 ERA, 361 strikeouts, and a .186 BAA.
The bottom line is many baseball fans don’t follow the Astros on a daily basis and only really pay attention to them when they play big-name teams like the Yankees or Boston Red Sox. Because of that, people aren’t giving the Astros the credit they deserve, mainly because of a subpar four-game series with the Yankees. The teams meet again for three games starting on Memorial Day, which is often thought of as the first milestone of the season, so maybe if the Astros win that series casual fans will have a better opinion of how they’re playing. But a small sample size like a series or two shouldn’t matter given the fact that the Astros are playing fine, albeit with an inconsistent offense, and their winning percentage right now is a couple percentage points better than what it was at the end of the 2017 season, thanks in part to winning eight of their last 10 games, including a 3-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians in Sunday night’s finale of the teams’ weekend series.