THE PALLILOG

How MLB's 60 game sprint and expanded playoffs could impact the Astros

How MLB's 60 game sprint and expanded playoffs could impact the Astros
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

October 30th of last year is when the Astros lost game seven of the World Series. 268 days later they finally play their next game that counts as they begin a 60 game sprint of a Major League Baseball season Friday night against the should stink again Seattle Mariners.

We know the COVID-19 delayed start has cost the Astros their shot at becoming the first team ever to in at least 100 games in four consecutive seasons. With a full schedule they were unlikely to pull it off, given the loss of Gerrit Cole entirely and Justin Verlander for what would have been at least the first two months of the season. But they had earned a shot at it. Starting with more than 140,000 American lives, many much more important things have been lost than the Astros trying for 100+ wins again, but it is a simple truth.

The Astros will have Verlander on the mound for the opener, and as many as a dozen more regular season starts after it. En route to winning his second American League Cy Young Award last season Verlander won 21 of his 34 starts. On a pro rata basis, eight wins in 13 starts equals 21 in 34.

The Astros won't have 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez for who knows how long. Presumably but not officially COVID related, Alvarez's absence punches a hole in the Astro lineup, though their one through six in whatever order of George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel projects as still plenty stout. Losing guys is just going to happen. The Yankees opened their season without D.J. LeMahieu in their starting lineup or closer Aroldis Chapman in their bullpen because of COVID. Not five hours before their opener against the Yanks Thursday night the reigning World Series Champion Washington Nationals announced 21 year old superstar Juan Soto had tested positive. "War of attrition" may be heard too often this season.

MLB to expand postseason field in 2020

Chasing dollars to compensate a little for the loss of nearly two thirds of a season's worth of revenue, it's understandable but still gimmicky of MLB and the players to expand to a 16 team playoff format. The top two finishers in each of the six divisions get in, with wild cards awarded to the next two best records in each league. The first round series will be best two out of three, all at the home of the higher seed. The structure of baseball makes a mediocre or even lousy team beating a superior opponent in a best of three or best of five more likely than the same happening in the NBA. The Astros were awesome last year, but lost two three game series to the Rangers who finished 78-84. In a 16 team format in 2019, the Astros would have opened the postseason in a best of three vs. the Rangers.

60 games can be fun and exciting but it is not a legitimate MLB season. If anyone happens to hit .400, there is no way he should be judged "The first .400 hitter since Ted Williams!" During his MVP 2017 season Jose Altuve had a 60 game stretch over which he hit .420. Altuve finished that season at .346. In 2004 when Ichiro Suzuki set the big league record with 262 hits, he raked at a .441 clip over a 60 game stretch, finishing the season at .372.

Big deal for Mookie Betts

Foremost congratulations to Mookie Betts for inking a 12 year 365 million dollar extension with the Dodgers. George Springer won't command anything close to that when he hits the free agent market this fall, but Betts's haul sure isn't bad news for George. Betts turns 40 in October 2032, the final season of the deal. Bryce Harper turns 39 the final year of his whopper pact with the Phillies. Springer turns 31 in September. Long term contracts paying players megabucks in their late 30s are generally bad business. Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are cinch Hall of Famers, but contractual anvils in their later years. Teams can look at those over the hill to washed up paydays as sunk costs as well as hoping revenues go up, up, up so that today's dollar is worth maybe 50 cents a decade from now. If Springer draws a five year 100 million dollar offer elsewhere but gives the Astros the chance to match, would they? What about 125?

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Caught the NFL Films 2019 Texans team video this week. Title: "Pursuit of Greatness. The Story of the 2019 AFC South Champion Houston Texans." Um, ok. Could have at least called it Unfulfilled Pursuit.

2. That's still not as lame as 54 year old Mike Tyson and 51 year old Roy Jones Jr. apparently agreeing to an eight round exhibition fight September 12.

3. Things I'll now do less with baseball back: Bronze-cook elaborate seven-course meals Silver-watch grass (or artificial turf) grow Gold-spontaneously sob uncontrollably

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Have the Astros turned the corner? Photo by Jack Gorman/Getty Images.

One presumes the Chicken Littles have stopped clucking about the Astros’ season being a goner, or if not gone, on life support. It wasn’t when they were 7-19. It wasn’t when they were 12-24. It certainly isn’t now that they’ve won six straight games and eight of their last nine. Another three or four weeks of inept play could have doomed them, but the worm has turned. A 20-25 record is no cause for celebration, but it has the Astros within four games of first place. Yes, getting to play the A’s four times this week helped. And?

I detailed the schedule issue on our Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast this week. The Astros were flat lousy for the season’s first six weeks. But… Starting the week the Astros had played a whopping 32 of their 40 games against teams with a winning record as of Monday. The Seattle Mariners had played 23 such games, the Texas Rangers only 16. The Philadelphia Phillies have been sensational so far and are fully legit. But… The Phillies entered the weekend having played three games vs. teams now sporting a winning record. Three! Out of 45 games. Going into this weekend's series only the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels had played more games against winning teams than had the Astros. It’s not mere coincidence that the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels are the three last place teams in the American League. The Astros were not up to the challenge of their first quarter schedule, but by no means did it render them dead, particularly in the thus far Mild, Mild, American League West.

A good Brewers team visits Minute Maid Park for three games this weekend. The Astros beat their best starter Friday night. Next the Astros get the pathetic Angels here for three before a three-game series at Oakland. Meanwhile the West leading Mariners start a ten-game road trip this weekend: three at the excellent Orioles, four at the excellent Yankees, three at the respectable Nationals. The Astros stand a good chance of overtaking the M’s by the end of this month if they can win the four-game series they open Memorial Day in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers snapped a five game losing streak Wednesday to eke back over .500 at 23-22. The reigning World Series champs hope to get somewhat well vs. the Angels in Arlington this weekend but dropped the series opener to drop back to .500. For their sake they better because the Rangers then hit the road for Philadelphia and Minnesota.

Naturally, many Astros fans are upset with Ronel Blanco serving a 10 game suspension for illegally using whatever substance on his glove and non-pitching hand. The suspension is basically automatic. The suspension is also not a big problem. Blanco has been fantastic since getting a starting rotation spot only because of Justin Verlander’s delayed start to his season. It’s said that all life owes us is opportunity. Man, did Blanco seize his. With just seven big league starts to his name before entering this season as a 30-year old, Blanco has made eight this season with a sparkling 2.09 earned run average. So, what’s that about the suspension is not a big problem?

Blanco will miss one start and have another pushed back a day or two. That’s just not a big deal. In fact it may be helpful in the bigger picture. With last year being the first time in his professional career that Blanco topped 100 innings pitched (125 1/3), the Astros need to be wary of Blanco’s workload which is on pace to blow past last year’s career-high innings total. J.P. France probably pitched over his head for a while last year, but went well past his prior career-high innings total and faded badly. Cristian Javier was tremendous in 2022 while pitching more than in any previous year, but he pitched even more in 2023 and faded badly.

Alex Bregman lives! After being nearly inconceivably inept through the first quarter of the season, the Alex awakening in the Oakland series was not shocking but most welcomed. Over his first 37 games Bregman had a paltry seven extra base hits. Even with a feeble .201 batting average and .534 OPS, that Bregman had scored just eight runs over those 37 games was hard to believe. Then Monday and Tuesday saw five extra base hits and four runs scored.

In a trade not commanding any headlines, Dana Brown Wednesday sent outfielder Corey Julks to the White Sox for 20-year-old low minor league pitcher Luis Rodriguez. There is now no reason to call it a great Astros trade but Brown made a smart deal. Julks had no future here, hence he would have been released if no deal was struck. Taking a flyer on a young arm can’t hurt. Frankly, the White Sox are dumb to trade a young arm of any promise whatsoever for a 28-year-old outfielder with limited value. Julks was a nice story for parts of last season. The Clear Brook High School grad and UH product had a couple windows of production, highlighted by a sizzling nine game 17 for 34 stretch straddling June and July. Alas, not two weeks later Julks began what would become an 0 for 36 nightmare. He was sent to the minors for good in late-August.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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