THE PALLILOG

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

The Astros continue to win without their two best players producing. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

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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