ASTROS OUTLOOK

Breaking down what the top seed in the AL will mean for the Astros

The playoffs are just around the corner.Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

With 31 games remaining in the regular season for the Houston Astros, it appears that they are marching towards finishing as the top team in the AL, which will secure them home-field advantage in the American League side of the postseason. They sit five games ahead of the Yankees, who have inexplicably boarded a struggle train over the last month, which paired with Houston's light schedule may have put them too far back to come back from to grab the top seed.

This year, the playoffs have been expanded, and the top two teams from each league will sit out a Wild Card round before entering the fray for a traditional ALDS against whoever is left standing. A bye is monumentally advantageous, but how has home-field advantage helped the Astros in recent years?

Getting comfortable at home

Of the remaining 31 games, the Astros will play 18 at home. This season so far, they are better at home by the numbers, though they have been successful on the road as well:

Home: 43-20 record, .253 average, .765 OPS, 2.78 ERA

Away: 41-27 record, .240 average, .721 OPS, 3.27 ERA

If the Astros hold on to that best record in the AL come October 5th, when the regular season ends, the American League will run through Minute Maid Park. It's what teams strive for all year long and why the 162-game grind unfolds to make each game meaningful.

It would be and should be a good development for any team, but interestingly, the Astros have not been as dominant at home in the postseason in recent years as you'd expect. Here are their splits for the last three "regular" postseasons (2020 excluded):

2018: 2-3 home, 2-1 away

2019: 5-5 home, 5-3 away

2021: 5-3 home, 4-4 away

That's one losing record, one winning record, one even record at home across the last three years, and a total record of 12-11 over that span. Digging even deeper into this trend, they are 7-0 at home in ALDS rounds, 4-5 in ALCS rounds, and they went a combined 1-6 at home in the 2019 and 2021 World Series. Each year is certainly different, but this shows that while they typically dominate the first round at home, the home-field advantage appears to dissipate when the competition stiffens, and the playoffs lengthen.

Dissecting this even further, here are the home vs. away splits for these same postseasons:

2021

Home: .272 average, .744 OPS, 4.00 ERA

Away: .249 average, .703 OPS, 4.90 ERA

2019

Home: .229 average, .691 OPS, 4.30 ERA

Away: .239 average, .722 OPS, 3.13 ERA

2018

Home: .274 average, .821 OPS, 4.60 ERA

Away: .238 average, .870 OPS, 3.46 ERA

These numbers, for the most part, align with the resulting records of each year, with Houston doing better all-around at home in 2021 but in the other two seeing better performance on the road. Specifically, it's interesting to look at the ERA disparity in 2018 (1.14 runs worse at home) and 2019 (1.17 runs worse at home) and how it transitioned in 2021 (0.90 runs better at home).

Will pitching be the difference in 2022?

The Astros have built and maintained a very potent offensive core for their team during this dynastic stretch of success in recent years. While injuries and cold periods have caused some concern this season, there should be little doubt that Houston can go toe-to-toe with any team when they are at full strength and playing their best, which they tend to do in the playoffs.

So then, what about the pitching staff? Well, the biggest ace up the sleeve for the Astros this year is they actually have two bona fide aces: Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez. Verlander's current injury aside, he is in line to take down another Cy Young Award unless the situation worsens or he completely falls off when he returns.

While it would take a few different scenarios to play out a certain way, even if Verlander didn't win it, the Astros could still see the award come home to Houston with Valdez, who has put together a tremendous stretch of 22 quality starts, the most by a lefty in MLB history. He has blossomed into one of the league's best arms, and having him at that level in the postseason behind Verlander should be as good of a 1-2 punch you could hope for when going to a four-man rotation in the playoffs.

Valdez has, though, done slightly worse at home this season than on the road (3.27 ERA vs. 2.24). However, he currently lines up to have most of his remaining starts at Minute Maid Park to help improve those numbers and get him even more comfortable with the confines of the home ballpark, where he will likely take the ball for Game 2 of the ALDS and hopefully for Houston, in the ALCS and World Series as well.

All told, despite aggregating data that is comprised of an extended cast of players over recent years, it's about this team and this time. With their current performance helping cruise them to another 100-win season, having to overcome some historical struggles at home in big games should be easily attainable and is why the Astros are currently one of the highest favored teams to win it all.

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The Texans are moving in the wrong direction. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

1. This team started incredibly slow and outside of a couple of drives in the second half disappointed. The defense got worked by the Chargers' star players, and the offense sputtered too often. It was really a summary of the season up to this point which is to say inconsistency.

2. Davis Mills was shaky early. The first drive interception was tough to stomach. The pocket got messy as he tried to drive the ball and he floated one up there. It gave the Chargers an easy drive for seven points.

3. One of the early offensive mistakes erased a scoring opportunity. Kenyon Green got nailed for a holding call that erased one of the best passes and catches between Brandin Cooks and Davis Mills all season. The rookie’s mistake was compounded the very next play when the offense allowed Mills to be sacked. It was a 40-yard swing that led to a punt.

4. Another third down penalty led to a mishap for the Texans. Laremy Tunsil gets a false start on third down to make it third and 10. The shovel pass to Rex Burkhead goes for six yards and then the Texans botch the field goal. Back-to-back drives and third-down penalties affected the offense and ended with no points. That was all just in the first quarter!

5. The Texans were abysmal with short yardage in key spots yet again. In the second quarter, Pep Hamilton opted for a pass on fourth and one. Davis Mills never got the play off and was sacked. After the game, Mills said the team wanted to catch the Chargers off guard running when most expected a pass, but Rex Burkhead was the running back. It was again a situation, a key and critical moment, that the team trusted Burkhead over the more dynamic Dameon Pierce.

6. The Chargers were very chunky on offense against the Texans. There were 16 plays that went for at least ten yards for the Chargers of their 67 plays. Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler were fantastic for Los Angeles.

7. The pass rush was non-existent for the Texans. This was one of the more disappointing aspects of the day to consider the Chargers were playing a rookie right guard, their center is injured but playing, and the left tackle was a backup left tackle. Nothing seemed to get home on an injured Justin Herbert. The Texans recorded just two quarterback hits in the game.

8. The linebackers got worked again. This is the absolute weakest unit on the team right now. They look like they’re easily exploited by most opposing offenses.

9. It was a rough day for the rookie class of the Texans. Derek Stingley was handled by Mike Williams on multiple occasions in key spots. Kenyon Green allowed a big sack and had a holding penalty erase a huge play. Jalen Pitre was the target of some offensive success in the Chargers' passing game.

10. Not all the rookies had a bad day. Dameon Pierce is so much fun to watch. He has the chance to be a truly impactful player for this team. His 75-yard touchdown scamper gave the team some juice, and he constantly fights and gets extra yards when the ball is headed his way. He finished with 14 carries and six catches for 20 total touches.

11. The Texans need teams to help them stay in games, and even then, it is a challenge. The tough part about where the Texans are through four games is there are some positives to look at and point to, but not enough to say the team is surely headed in the right direction. There surely has to be some adjustment by the team when the season is where it is after nearly a quarter of the year. The current direction isn’t going to lead anywhere positive soon.

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