Cream of the crop: some common threads tying Astros to Yankees, Mets in 2022

Yordan Alvarez has been a difference-maker for Houston. Composite image by Jack Brame.

After starting the year 11-11 and finding themselves 3.5 games behind the Angels in the AL West division race, the Astros have since distanced themselves from the rest of their division rivals by rattling off a 24-8 record in their last 32 games. That has them ahead of Los Angeles by 8.5 and sporting MLB's third-best record at 35-19.

The two teams with better records currently? That would be the Yankees (39-15) and the Mets (37-19), whom the Astros will face nine times in a ten-game stretch later this month. While we'll have to wait and see if they remain three of the top teams in terms of record when those games come around, there's no denying that those will be some playoff-caliber matchups.

Yordan keeps mashing after payday

The Astros, Yankees, and Mets also share something else in common, they each have a slugger in the top four in home runs in the MLB. Aaron Judge leads the way with 21, while Yordan Alvarez and Pete Alonso are in a three-way tie for second with 16, along with Mookie Betts of the Dodgers.

Alvarez leads the Astros in many offensive categories at the moment, not just homers. With his three-hit game in Sunday's finale win over the Royals in Kansas City, he improved his average to a team-best .295 to go along with the club-best 34 RBI, .391 on-base percentage, and .624 slugging percentage, giving him a top-5 OPS in the league at 1.015.

The performance he's having may land him his first All-Star game appearance and gave the Astros the confidence to lock him up with the recent six-year, $115 million contract extension. If he can continue to provide offense at this level, it will be money well spent for Houston as they try to keep their lineup capable of overpowering any team in the league, even in the playoffs.

Not everything is going well at the plate

Speaking of that lineup, during the offseason, you probably could have predicted that Alvarez would be thriving, but I doubt many would have foreseen some of the struggles Houston is having at the plate. After winning the batting title last year, Yuli Gurriel is struggling to regain his dominance at the plate, hitting just .225 with three homers and 15 RBI on the year.

Despite their saving grace, which has been timely homers, a low strikeout rate, and working walks, they find themselves in the league's bottom half in almost every other key offensive category. One of those includes their average with runners in scoring position, where they currently hover around 20th, something that will need to improve to give them their best shot at another World Series appearance.

Even with a few rough games, Verlander and Houston's pitching continues to deal

This year though, while the lineup has undoubtedly had big games and produced enough to win games, it has continued to be Houston's rotation and pitching staff that have been a pleasant surprise. While a few starters have been roughed up here or there, they still sit second in the league in quality starts at 25, trailing just the Padres with 31.

Until his last two starts, where he allowed six and three earned runs respectively to balloon his ERA up to a still excellent 2.23, Justin Verlander's comeback season was off to a tremendous start. Despite the road bumps, he's still in the top ten in the league in that category, while sitting on top of the chart in WHIP with a terrific 0.80. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he could make his return from Tommy John surgery with a Cy Young campaign in 2022.

Although watching his return has been an obvious highlight, Houston has benefited from having two ace-caliber starters as Framber Valdez has also been doing great on the mound this season. The most evident example of that was in his first complete game in a two-hit, one-run win over the A's in Oakland. Which he followed up with his ninth quality start on Sunday en route to his fifth-straight win, improving him to 6-2, matching Verlander. While Jake Odorizzi and Lance McCullers Jr. navigate their injuries for their returns to the mound, and while Jose Urquidy, Cristian Javier, and Luis Garcia try to fill up the back half, the top of the Astros' rotation is in great hands.

So, when the Astros hit that stretch starting on June 21st, where they go back-and-forth between the Mets and Yankees, it will be a great test of what this team can accomplish when their pitchers meet tough offenses and their lineup digs in the box against stingy pitching.

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