Here's a realistic path for Houston Astros to snatch No. 1 seed from Yankees
10 days ago I noted that the Astros had finished an amazingly lengthy schedule stretch that would have needed to harden up to become powderpuff soft.
I Tweeted this:
While playing 34 games in a row against an opponent with a losing record the Astros went 20-14.
Not bad but not impressive.
Whipping up on Mets and Yanks over next 10 days...
— Charlie Pallilo (@Pallilo) June 21, 2022
Well, seven wins against just two losses later, whip up is what they did. Sweeping four games from the Mets in which the Mets never led at any point? Not exactly payback for older Astros' fans who remember 1986, but sweet nevertheless. Taking three of five from the Yankees in all compelling games looked like a fabulous precursor to a highly possible third Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series matchup in six years.
Despite their present 48-27 mark the Astros are still seven games behind the Yankees and their crazy 56-21 ledger. The Yanks are absolutely catchable though. Not because the Astros are the flat out better team, nothing indicates that. It's the schedule. There are four losing teams behind the Astros in the AL West. Behind the Yankees in the AL East, three winning teams (Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays). Even the woebegone for years Orioles are much improved, with the best last place record in Major League Baseball (as a reference point, the Orioles' record is 10 games better than AL West laughingstock Oakland). Over the coming dog days of summer the Yanks have the substantially higher intradivisional hurdles. The plot reeeeally thickens if the Astros sweep the doubleheader with the Yankees at Minute Maid Park slotted July 21 right out of the All-Star break. That's it for regular season matchups between them.
The Astros enter the weekend exactly as far ahead (seven games) of the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins as they are behind the Yanks. That's a very strong position for the Astros to secure a bye past the best-of-three Wild Card Series. Remember, with the newly expanded postseason format byes go to the top two division winners in each league.
Now for the Astros it's back to a marshmallow opponents parade. They have 16 games remaining before the All-Star break, all vs. losers: six with the Angels, six with the A's, four with the Royals. Let's reasonably posit that the Astros successfully take out the trash more regularly than they did in the 34 game stretch. 12-4 is certainly plausible. That would get the Astros to 60 wins at the break with a record of 60-31, which would be on pace for a season total of 106.8 wins. Let's round up. 107 wins is the franchise record they set in 2019.
This team is outstanding, but still can use an offensive upgrade. The lineup just had its best month of the season but that didn't take a whole lot. Alex Bregman has finally perked up some. Yuli Gurriel, not so much. Martin Maldonado, pretty much unperkable. Heed this James Click: more potent lineups than the 2022 Astros came up short in the World Series in both 2019 and 2021.
Barring a huge second half of the season, Gurriel should not be in the Astros' 2023 plans. I'd say the same for Maldonado but he is on course to have a five million dollar option next year become guaranteed. He's played in 54 games this season, the option vests at 90. Ideally he's a backup. At the risk of some charging heresy, Maldonado's defensive imperativity (is that a word?) is overblown. Pitch-framing metrics do not rate him highly. He does not eliminate opposition running games. One, very few teams run much at all. Two, Maldonado has thrown out 26 percent of would be basestealers this season. Jason Castro has thrown out 25 percent. The big one last. With Maldonado behind the plate this season, Astros' pitchers' earned run average is 3.23. With Castro, 2.37. Would that hold up for Castro if he was the primary catcher? No chance. But sample size issues accepted, that Maldonado's defensive savant-ness renders his offensive ineptitude inconsequential? Nah. Certainly not in a lineup not up to recent past Astro teams.
Two weeks ago, this column covered Yordan Alvarez's chance at the greatest individual offensive month in Astros' history. Yordan's June ended with his scary collision with Jeremy Peña that knocked both out of Wednesday's matinée at the Mets and kept both out of Thursday's win over the Yankees. That was a harrowing smash as opposed to the delightful smashes that Alvarez busted out all over June. He finished batting .418 with an OPS of 1.346. Real and spectacular, but not quite ultimately as awesome as Jeff Bagwell's June or July 1994, or Richard Hidalgo's closing month of the 2000 season.