Here's how the Astros stack up to the Chicago White Sox

Astros Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley
The teams are pretty evenly matched. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Hello October. And almost hello to a fifth consecutive season of Houston Astros' postseason baseball. They struggled most of the last week with the offense lapsing into limp noodle mode, but it's the full season picture that matters and it's a pretty picture as this Golden Age of Astros' baseball now has banked four division titles in five years. The 2021 Astros are clearly not as good as their 2017, 2018, and 2019 predecessors, but that doesn't mean they can't win the World Series that the 2018 and 2019 squads did not. The Astros remain a very good, balanced, and deep squad, which means getting to a third Fall Classic is a definite maybe.

When my column posts next Friday, the Astros will be either up or down a game in their best of five vs. the Chicago White Sox. Over their last 55 games the Astros are just 29-26. Over their last 46 games the White Sox have gone a mere 24-22. Doesn't matter, carrying momentum into the postseason is generally mythology. The Astros won the season series over the White Sox five games to two. That doesn't matter either. A bad team can beat a good one three out of five, so a good team against another good team? No one knows how it will go. Securing homefield advantage should help the Astros' cause. At home this season the Sox are 51-27. On the road, 40-41. All that's needed to get games one, two and (if necessary) five at Minute Maid Park is one Astros win over the A's this weekend, or one White Sox loss to the Tigers.

The teams are pretty evenly matched. The White Sox have given up the fewest runs in the American League this season. The Astros are second. The Astros have the better lineup though the White Sox are plenty potent. In fact the Sox have the top two OPS guys in the series in catcher Yasmani Grandal and center fielder Luis Robert. Both missed big chunks of the season to injury but are healthy now. Since his return August 9 Robert has hit .365 with 11 home runs in 40 games. The 24 year old Cuban has outperformed 24 year old Cuban Yordan Alvarez, no mean feat.

It's a managerial matchup to delight the elderly, with 72 year old Dusty Baker pushing the buttons for the Astros while Chisox skipper Tony La Russa turns 77 on Monday.

The defending champion Tampa Bay Rays are the team to beat in the American League. They really are amazing winning as much as they do, spending nickels and dimes against the dollars of many others. The Rays' full roster payroll is within a million or two of what the Astros are paying this season to just Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Michael Brantley. The Rays await the Wild Card game winner, the two participants for which remain up in the air. With three games left, the Yankees lead the Red Sox and Mariners (!) by two games, with the Blue Jays one game back of Boston and Seattle. A four way tie would be fabulous.

Texans head to Buffalo

The Texans play at Buffalo Sunday. That is all.

Just kidding! But around here this matchup doesn't exactly generate breathless anticipation. Or much anticipation whatsoever, with the Houston Lambs likely being led to the slaughter. It's almost hard to believe that just the season before last the Texans beat the Bills in a Wild Card round playoff game. Remember the Houdini-esque play Deshaun Watson made in overtime to set up the winning field goal? Hey, at least the Texans are unlikely to blow a 35-3 lead in Buffalo. Still too soon? I note from time to time that the only way to pull off a gigantic upset is to be a gigantic underdog. The Texans have that going for them Sunday with the Bills favored by 17 or 17 and a half points, a whoppingly large number for an NFL game.

Buffalo is a bonafide Super Bowl contender. The AFC runner-up last season after a 13-3 regular season, the Bills should win in the 13 neighborhood again. Quarterback Josh Allen made a massive leap in 2020, hiking his completion percentage a full 10 points from 59 to 69. An expansion team that could poach any QB in the league certainly would take Patrick Mahomes first. Allen might be the second choice.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Five unbeatens left in the NFL. The 3-0 Cardinals are at the 3-0 Rams Sunday. If wondering (or not), J.J. Watt in three games with the Cards: 0 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, in on six tackles.

2. Quite the story surfacing this week claiming that Bill O'Brien at one point was trying to get himself fired by the Texans so he could position himself as Bill Belichick's successor with the Patriots.

3. Among these three specific Carlos Correa options: Bronze-he retires from baseball to try quarterbacking the Texans Silver-Astros lose the ALCS but Correa resigns for seven years Gold-Astros win the World Series and Correa moves on.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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