THE PALLILOG

3 undeniable reasons Astros are barreling towards top seed despite prolonged slumps, injuries

Astros Yordan Alvarez, Justin Verlaner
The Astros continue to win without their two best players producing. Composite image by Brandon Strange.
astros injuries

Who is the Astros’ Most Valuable Player this season? Under six weeks ago it was pretty clearly Yordan Alvarez given at the end of July he was arguably the MVP of the entire American League. You could still go with Yordan given his overall offensive numbers remain by a significant margin the best on the club and by the end of July the Astros had functionally wrapped up the American League West. But Alvarez has collapsed. The Astros pulled away from the Yankees for the best record in the AL in spite of Yordan not because of him. When he was mashing balls just about every night it would have seemed preposterous to think that Alvarez could go 29 games with just one home run and a .282 slugging percentage. That’s where he is right now. Slumps happen, but it’s an extended funk which has enveloped him. Hand injuries notwithstanding, production or lack thereof is what counts.

The team MVP alternative to Alvarez at the end of July was Justin Verlander. JV tacked on a banner August before straining the calf muscle August 28 that has him sidelined until at least late next week. At 16-3 with a 1.84 earned run average Verlander could still win his third Cy Young Award if he didn’t pitch again in the regular season.

With Alvarez’s slippage and Verlander’s injured list stint, the race has opened up because all of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker have gone off. Now 32 years old, Altuve is having his best season since his MVP campaign of 2017. His April was miserable: a six for 36 start at the plate (.167) plus a trip to the injured list with a hamstring strain. Since returning he’s been rock solid, and since August 1 he’s been sensational with a .333 batting average and OPS right about 1.000.

Bregman was a disappointment through July. Not bad but not remotely close to elite. Then he put together an American League Player of the Month winning August. Bregman has cooled a bit over the last week and a half and for the season is still not close to his stellar 2018 and monstrous 2019. But Bregman re-established star level play from him at a very good time.

Then there’s Tucker, who is simultaneously having an excellent year and taken a quarter step backwards. His OPS is down 105 points from 2021, but .812 is still good. It’s the rest of his game that makes Tucker if not quite royalty, waaaaay above average. He has 22 stolen bases in 24 attempts and plays a stellar right field.

Chasing 3,000

Some more Altuve. He last hit .300 in 2018. At .290 entering the weekend he’s within striking distance, though it requires a major finishing kick. He should get roughly 90 more at bats. If 90 is the number, Altuve needs to hit .356 the rest of the way to climb to .300 for the season. That would mean 32 hits. Let’s give them to him. That would give him 162 for the season raising Altuve’s career hit total to 1939. He last reached 170 hits in 2017. At 170 per season going forward (an ambitious number) Altuve would finish the 2028 season with 2959 hits. He’ll be 38 years old.

On the outside looking in?

For a fifth starter, Luis Garcia is really good. In a number of starting rotations elsewhere he’d be higher than number five. But at this point unless injury issues shuffle the deck, it will be difficult for Garcia to even make the roster for at least the best-of-five Division Series. The premise is 13 pitchers (more than necessary). Provided Verlander is fine, he and Framber Valdez are clearly the games one and two starters. Then it’s presumably between Lance McCullers and Jose Urquidy for games three and (if necessary) four. If there is a decisive game five, that would be Verlander on five days rest. The Astros have the best bullpen in the big leagues this season, and Cristian Javier will fortify it with his ample relief experience. There is no good reason to carry Garcia over any of Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Ryne Stanek, Bryan Abreu, Hector Neris, or Seth Martinez. Will Smith is likely on as the lone lefty. Phil Maton’s spot is vulnerable, but maybe more so to Hunter Brown than Garcia.

History is in his sights

Framber Valdez bids for history his next time out. Valdez has met the definition of a “quality start” (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed) in his last 23 starts. Jacob DeGrom holds the MLB record for consecutive quality starts within a season at 24. Valdez will start at Detroit Monday or Tuesday. The Tigers have by a good margin the worst offense in baseball. Almost seems too obvious that Valdez notches number 24 in a row.

What happened to the outfield?

One would expect the Astros to re-sod the outfield at Minute Maid Park before the playoffs start. Last week’s two Bad Bunny concerts left it in bad condition. With Lady Gaga playing MMP next week then Billy Joel the week following, the Astros don’t figure to do anything until after those two. It’s not a good look.

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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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