Breaking down Astros' impressive 5-0 start to playoffs, and critical challenges ahead

Breaking down Astros' impressive 5-0 start to playoffs, and critical challenges ahead
Ryan Pressly came up big in Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS. Composite image by Jack Brame.
How a deep dive into the Astros bullpen analytics reveals an interesting story

Houston, by their record, is rolling so far in the 2022 playoffs. They are 5-0 so far in their games, with the three-game ALDS sweep of the Mariners and now firing out to a 2-0 ALCS lead over the Yankees. They look like the best team still playing, and the results prove it.

Yet, are they without weakness? For most aspects, the answer so far has seemed like yes, but there may be more to the story:

Pitching continues to be the differentiator

The Astros have won their five playoff games by a combined seven runs. Three of the five have been one-run victories, including, most recently, the ALCS Game 2 win by a score of 3-2. As was the case in the 2022 regular season, it's been a testament to Houston's elite pitching staff that they have been able to edge out the Mariners and Yankees in these close games.

The three starters who have taken the mound thus far have, besides ALDS Game 1, been as advertised. Justin Verlander's lousy six-run outing against the Mariners has been quickly forgotten and forgiven with his vintage six-inning, one-run, eleven-strikeout dominance in ALCS game 1. Framber Valdez has two strong showings, allowing just four runs (two unearned on his own errors) over 5.2 and 7.0 innings, respectively, in his two starts.

Lance McCullers Jr., who is now in line to start ALCS Game 4 in New York (Cristian Javier will start Game 3), kicked off the eighteen-inning marathon of incredible pitching by the Astros in ALDS Game 3, going six innings while giving up just two hits and two walks along the way. While starting pitching has been great, the Astros' relievers are the story of these close games.

So far in the postseason, two runs have been allowed over 25.1 innings; that's what Houston's bullpen has provided their team. The guys from the "arm barn" continue to step in and step up when they're called on, including guys like Bryan Abreu, who has appeared in four of the five games, providing 4.1 innings of shutout baseball while giving up just one hit.

Despite a shaky ninth inning in ALDS Game 2, Ryan Pressly has looked dominant as the closer as well, including notching back-to-back saves in consecutive games to start the ALCS, one of which was a four-out save in Game 1. Of Pressly's thirteen outs in the playoffs, eight have been on strikeouts, showing he's not bothered by the biggest stage and the brightest lights.

What if pitching isn't enough?

While the caliber of pitching the Astros are getting may be the key point to them advancing to and possibly winning another World Series, what if they get into another slugfest like ALDS Game 1? The Astros are certainly capable, as evidenced by the five runs over two innings they put up in the eighth and ninth inning of that game, but since then, they've put up an average of three runs per game.

Baseball is a finicky beast, especially for hitters at times. Going into the postseason, no one could have predicted that after five games, things would look like this:

  • Martin Maldonado: 3-for-11, .273 average, .748 OPS
  • Yuli Gurriel: 9-for-22, .409 average, 1.091 OPS
  • Jose Altuve: 0-for-23, .000 average, .080 OPS

While it's a pleasant surprise that Maldonado and Gurriel, who had struggles in the regular season, are coming through in these games, it's downright perplexing what is going on with Jose Altuve. Similar to the 2020 playoffs, where the yips struck him that zapped the defense away from a Gold Glove winner, the five-time Silver Slugger has looked lost at the plate, or when he has made contact, it's been right at fielders.

A big caveat is that Altuve could explode for a string of games that erases all of this disappointment, he's certainly capable of that, but until he does, Houston's leadoff spot has become a liability they could find themselves not being able to afford. I'm not advocating for moving Altuve down in the lineup, nor pinch-hitting for him late in games, don't get me wrong; it's just something that should work itself out over time, but time is limited.

Regardless of the few flaws, though, the Astros have done what they've needed to do: win. When people look back at the scores and who ends up holding the Commissioner's Trophy, they won't immediately know which players did what along the way. All that matters is the W next to the team name, and that's what Houston continues to provide, even if it takes a different player stepping up in each game.

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Cristian Javier is in better shape this season. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.

Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).

Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.

But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.

In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.

Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.

The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.

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