Houston still owns their division
The AL West still goes through Houston
Despite the uncharacteristic struggles in the late stages of June for the Astros, they did finish the month by accomplishing a feat that is very much typical for this team: winning a series against a division opponent. Although the concern surrounding Houston's dwindling division lead was warranted, I think it's also fair to mention that June was anything but a typical month on the schedule.
Houston had just nine games against their division in June, sandwiching a month filled with opponents they are mostly unfamiliar facing. Within that, they had three inter-league matchups including the series with the Reds in Cincinnati where they lost their DH spot in the lineup. Additionally, June was a month where injuries plagued the team, with three of their core players in Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa all sidelined for at least part of the month.
While the slump in the middle of the month hurt the Astros, they have plenty of games left to regain their position as the best team in the league, and I would say their chances to do so are favorable.
Ending the month with a sweep
There are still five games to go before the All-Star break, but the Astros are looking strong having finished the month of June with a clean sweep of division-rival Seattle. The weekend series was a return to form for the team, other than the rough start for Justin Verlander on Saturday. Both Wade Miley and Gerrit Cole had great starts, and although Houston's bats struggled at the beginning of the first of the three games, they had two walk-off hits from Yuli Gurriel then were able to get plenty of offense on Sunday to win the lopsided finale.
So although they'll make a trip to Colorado for two more games against the NL in another inter-league matchup, they will wrap up the first half with a three-game series with the Angels at home, where they are 10-0 against AL West opponents.
Better offense against familiar pitching
One interesting statistic that stood out to me is putting numbers to the struggles the Astros have had against non-division opponents this year. Against the AL West, the Astros, as a team, are batting .281 with a 16% strikeout rate and .353 on-base percentage. If you exclude the division and look at every other opponent, those numbers drop to a .258 average, 19% strikeout rate, and .335 on-base percentage.
When you look at some of the core players, this is true of them as well with Alex Bregman slashing .374 / .453 / .673 against the AL West and .205 / .345 / .457 against everyone else, Jose Altuve at .270 / .345 / .432 vs. .230 / .302 / .469 and George Springer at .356 / .429 / .733 against the division compared to .278 / .361 / .548 when batting against the rest of the league.
While this isn't a great sign when it comes to the playoffs when they would have to venture out of their division, it does bode well for the second half of the season which is chocked full of series against the AL West.
It's also an asset that they now have Michael Brantley, who, coming from the AL Central, is already having to adjust to a new division so when it comes to the playoffs should find himself well-adjusted to studying a new opponent quickly. Brantley is well-deserving of his starting position in the All-Star game, slashing .333 / .387 / .502 outside the division and .275 / .344 / .468 against his new foes in the AL West.
Better pitching against familiar batters
Similar to the offensive statistics, the same is true of Houston's pitching. Against the AL West, the team has a combined 3.74 ERA with an opponent batting average of .202. They also average 9.3 strikeouts, 3.3 walks, and 1.5 home runs per nine innings against the division. Inverse that, and the Astros have a combined 3.93 ERA, an opponent average of .226 and average 10.3 strikeouts, 2.5 walks, and 1.6 home runs per nine innings.
These are more promising numbers than the offensive numbers, showing that on average the reliable pitching of the Astros can match up well with any opponent. However, when you look at the recent matchups against the Reds, Yankees, and Pirates, those numbers balloon up to a 6.17 ERA, .278 average, along with 9.6 strikeouts, 3.2 walks, and 2.3 home runs per nine innings.
A few horrible games inflated that small sample size, but with it being a recent string of games, it's essential that Houston's pitching has things under control and solidified start to finish as they get closer to October.
Cream of the crop
So while these numbers and trends could just as easily make the case that the AL West is just not that strong of a division, and I think there is some truth to that statement, it also proves that this 2019 Astros team is still finding their rhythm. They continue to know what it takes to get the job done when they face familiar faces but have not yet been able to put it together at the same rate against some of the stronger teams they are less comfortable seeing in the opposite dugout.
Again, while that could be an issue if they don't grow before the playoffs, the good news is there's no better time to learn and experiment with your team and the makeup of your roster than in games you are confident you can win. Those games in recent years have been the ones against the AL West, and the second half of the season is full of those.
Another factor that Houston has added to their arsenal is Yordan Alvarez, who has been nothing short of phenomenal in his early career. He alone could provide a lift that Houston needs to power past any opponent in the regular season or playoffs.
So, while the recent slump should not merely be shrugged off as an absolute fluke, there is still no indication, in my opinion, that the Astros should start obsessively looking in the rear-view mirror worrying about what's happening behind them in the division. If they keep playing and improving their game, they should not only regain a considerable lead in their division but get back in the power rankings and standings as the best team in the league.
Statistics accessed from FanGraphs.