Houston Astros: the wrap-up

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Raise your hand if you spent the entire 2015-1016 off-season riding the high of meaningful baseball in October, for the first time in 10 years, in Houston. Yes, it was all of us. The Astros jumped ahead of schedule in 2015, gave an impressive showing in the postseason, and had the city chomping at the bit for a legitimate Pennant run in 2016. The front office made some moves in the off-season that seemed to trend towards tweaking the roster just enough to fix a few roadblock issues from 2015 – among those were Doug Fister for the starting rotation, and Ken Giles as the up-and-coming closer. Chris Carter was traded, and one of two promising rookies would be sent to 1st base for their debut.

Contracts were also extended to a vets, including Colby Rasmus and Tony Sipp. Both Rasmus and Sipp shined in 2015 during some rather rough patches for the rest of the team, and the hope was that they’d hold their numbers through 2016, and possibly improve upon them. Additionally, the decision was made for Gattis to eventually take back-up catching duties, which led to Hank Conger being traded off, and Erik Kratz (remember this guy?) temporarily brought in to cover while Gattis transitioned. The moves, outside of the Giles contract, were somewhat conservative, but they seemed to be the right moves to strengthen the roster overall.

Then 2016 happened. Specifically, April 2016 happened. The Astros went .292, 7-17 to start the season. We were discouraged, but didn’t outright panic because 5 more months of baseball was coming. Surely they could get back on track and still make a showing. If they pulled together and fixed the hemorrhages. Among these nasty leaks were starting rotation, bullpen, defense, and total offense (including stranding runners and bad base-running). In April, the only thing that did not completely stall was the at-bats – but you wouldn’t know because runs and RISP stranded were basically equal, which meant the line up was out of whack and not reflective of the batting.

The 1st half or May showed similar results, but a few changes that helped. The lineup was finally adjusted to reflect hitting patterns, and the Astros started winning. Even though they came back hot at the end of May, throughout June, and headed into the All-Star break, the slow start of the season was simply too much to overcome. Even though the Astros pulled within 2.5 games of the AL West lead, their inability to shake the mental block that has formed against the Rangers kept them from being a real contender for that spot. In fact, the combined April/Rangers losses for the season was 29 – that’s 18% of the total games played and almost 40% of their total losses.

Let that one sit for a minute.

Those were the two fatal blows dealt for the 2016 season. The slow start and the Rangers record. You can argue a number of things – lack of trades at the deadline, injury, poor AB production, poor pitching performances, young roster – it doesn’t matter. It comes down to 29 losses that stalled the Astros run for 2016. The Rangers spent money, both in the offseason and at the trade deadline, to make a legitimate run. The Astros didn’t. That still didn’t make the difference, however. The path to the playoffs went straight through South Oklahoma, and the Astros couldn’t get past that wall. The most inexplicable thing about this is that the Rangers didn’t even have their best games vs the Astros.

The Astros just sucked worse against the Rangers.

Neither one of these fatal blows were because of lack of trades. In fact, I’m happy the Astros didn’t bet the farm for a maybe. That’s what it was this year at the deadline – a maybe. There were already too many holes to be filled to make a meaningful trade, and then the injury bug hit. McCullers went out. Valbuena was lost. Rasmus struggled. Gonzalez spent some time on the bench. Gregerson went out. And then Keuchel. These were some pretty big injuries to deal with, along with a few Correa and Bregman misses. However, this didn’t sink the Astros. It just didn’t help. Overall, the Astros had the fewest number of injuries in the entire league. Check it out.

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The impact of these injuries hit a little hard, but it was nothing that any other playoff team (outside of the Dodgers and Cubs – perhaps) didn’t roll through. It did expose the ultimate lack of depth and experience with the club, but that is what will happen with a young team. It’s part of the process, and either you have a coaching staff that can shore things up and move forward, or you don’t. The Astros don’t. Some of that has been discussed here, but both Luhnow and Hinch deserve some credit for mishandling their roster both throughout the season and especially during these injuries that hit. We’ll discuss that a bit later, though.

We can also take a look at a primary recipe for success or failure when it comes to a young roster. Since depth was one of the issues shown after the 2nd half injury, the need for the right investment in veteran players has been shown. This was a weak link for the Astros, who went with players such as Rasmus, Gomez, and Valbuena, as well as pitchers like Fiers, Feldman, Fields, Sipp, and Gregerson to get them through. There’s no star in that line up (although Valbuena did start to heat up before injury, his fielding and ABs left a lot to be desired in the first half). There’s no strong veteran leadership on the team, outside of Altuve – but as great as he is, he can only do so much.

In hindsight, the front office was a little too conservative moving into the 2016 season, fresh off the 1st postseason run since the 2005 season. Perhaps you can count this for a little inexperience all-around, with Crane being a relatively new franchise owner, Luhnow’s first stint as a GM, and, well – Hinch has been around the block. The team’s young age factors into this greatly, which is why strength is needed in veteran contracts – it gives the team a few years of overall experience, as well as depth in core positions. This season certainly doesn’t spell out disaster in the long run. It points to a learning experience for the whole club, and a great opportunity to improve on mistakes.

Houston Astros: Wheels off, again

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The most unduly anticipated event in the MLB, outside of the midseason trade deadline (and often coinciding with the necessity for some trades) is the dreaded injury bug that usually rears its ugly head around the All-Star Break. Over half of the season has been put in, and the daily grind begins to show the wear and tear of our guys on the field. No team is immune, no matter what preparations are made, and a few key holes in a line up is enough to unravel any team.

For the Astros, the injury bug started hitting just after a phenomenal June record of 18-8, and an almost equally impressive July record of 12-7. Baseball was fun again and both the team and the fans enjoyed the games. Perhaps a little too much. To go off course a second, I want to take a look at the schedule in June and July, which led to an amazing catch-up run. From June 1st to July 24th, only 18 of the 45 games played were against playoff contenders, yet the win/loss percentage was steadfast .667 against both playoff contenders and non-playoff contenders.

Many of those games were divisional, and sometimes divisional opponents are tougher to face, given the number of times the respective clubs play throughout the season. For the Astros, the record for non-playoff contender divisional opponents was 15-4. For playoff contender divisional opponents, the record was 6-4, with an overall 21-28 record in the AL West. In essence, the Astros own the AL West except for 1 stupid team. Ironically, that 1 stupid team will keep the Astros out of 1st (and possibly the playoffs) because of whatever voodoo they have used hold the Astros down.

Outside of the division, the Astros have managed to dominate playoff teams 6-2, while losing against non-contenders 3-5. That’s an odd statistic, and it is hard to say whether it points to a definite pattern, given the small sampling size (16 games total), but within the record 30-15 comeback to relevance stand the Astros had, it does show that the Astros tend to play to the opponent outside of the division. The problem with that is, with teams you should be dominating, you’re giving them a chance for a win. In a streak that boasted a 30-15 win loss record, that seems almost inconsequential – except it wasn’t.

Because when the Astros hit the meat of their schedule against a husky group of playoff contenders, the injury bug hit and the wheels came off. The Astros went from being within a couple of games within 1st place in the AL West, to 3rd place in the division – all in a 2 week span. Then 10 grueling days later, the Astros found themselves 10.5 games out of 1st and 3.5 out of 2nd. Tragedy. This stretch of games against high caliber teams mirrored the awful April start the club had (7-16 and 7-17 records, respectively). Two reasons for this: injury and absolutely no plan b.

Injury is unavoidable in the sport. It it indiscriminatory. The 2 injuries that hurt the worst during this time were the hamstring and wrist soreness that knocked Marwin Gonzales out of the lineup several times during this stretch, and Luis Valbuena’s season-ending hamstring strain. Gonzalez started missing time July 24th, and Valbuena left the game July 26th. Subsequently, Gregerson, McCullers and Rasmus suffered injury or setbacks that yanked them from the lineup. And with all those injuries clustering around the meatiest stretch of the schedule, the Astros had zero back-up plan.

There were no big trades (although I’m not completely opposed to that), no rookies were quite ready to be pulled from the farming system, and no help from any veteran signings over the past few years, as far as offense is concerned. In reality, almost 100% of the run production in this stint were home grown players in the 1-4 slot in the lineup. You could pretty much guarantee, aside from the occasional walk, zero bases every second and third inning as it was, but when Valbuena was lost and Gonzalez started disappearing from the lineup, offense fell flat.

Eventually, with some hap-hazard call-ups, rookie Alex Bregman finally getting his footing, and the signing of Cuban superstar Yulieski Gourriel, the Astros offense has steadied and is back into producing runs and wins on a regular basis. So what better time than to hit a snag in the starting rotation pitching? With McCullers already on DL and Musgrove showing he is clearly not ready for prime time, Dallas Keuchel has been taken out of the rotation indefinitely, and there is no clear answer to who his replacement should be, or even if/when Keuchel is coming back into the rotation.

In the meantime, Hinch is again hap-hazardly juggling with call-ups and rookies to mend the starting rotation. Once again, a rookie pitcher will have his MLB debut this Thursday, in another tough stretch of playoff contenders before finishing off the season with less-challenging divisional opponents. It’s not looking great for the post season, but the Astros are not out of it yet. If rookie RHP David Paulino can make a splash in his debut, then the Astros can pull of a series win (or even sweep) against the Tribe. This would balance out the starting rotation and keep the bullpen stocked up.

If not, well…better luck next year.

Houston Astros: Here we go again

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Another Astros vs Rangers series, and another disappointment for Astros fans. Another game that got away against the thorn in their sides for this season (possibly for years to come), and another loss to add to the now 7 game winning streak the Rangers have over the Astros. There are 9 games left against the Rangers this season, and 2 more losses means another forfeit of the Silver Boot. Barring a miracle, that’s gonna happen. Not even half the season is down, and the Rangers have cemented the prize. Maybe next year…but, pride aside, the Silver Boot is only a side story to the season.

I can go on and on about how the Astros should be winning some of the games they’ve played – out of 7 games this season, 4 have been 1-run games. We can excuse a few of those 7 losses, because the Astros were terrible in April. There are, however, a few things that cannot be excused or overlooked, and that’s what we can talk about today. I’m not going to talk about the Astros side of the ball, though. That’s been done, and done, and done. This time, we’re going to look at the Rangers side of the ball, and how they’re managing to walk away with every win so far this season.

The Rangers have their own issues playing the Astros. Fans aside (and what horrible, terrible children the Rangers have for fans, really), the team does not walk into an Astros series betting on a sweep or win. Their own struggles on the field are apparent when playing a series versus the Astros. Most apparent are fielding errors. On average this season, the team is 23% more likely to commit a defensive error against the Astros, thus giving advantage on base, than any other team they play in the MLB. They also tend to strike out more against the Astros vs the rest of the MLB.

Shaky fielding and strikeouts show a team that is a little less than confident when facing their in-state and divisional opponent. The stats can show the wariness of the Rangers when hitting the field against the Astros, but the actual play can tell a lot as well. Throwing hesitations, excessive pick-off attempts on base, and even Jeff Banister’s shuffling around with the starting rotation in the earlier series show that the team understands the talent behind the Astros club. And what about last night’s on-field celebration for the walk-off? Only the Astros are allowed to celebrate like they won the WS during regular season play, guys. Come on.

Fortunately, for the Rangers, their formidable opponent tends to get a lot more shaken up when playing them, on all sides of the ball. Starting rotation ERA jumps from 4.73 to 5.26 against the Rangers. The same number and likelihood of fielding errors exists, and desperate offensive performance is clear (the Rangers starting rotation has an ERA of 3.44, but it dips down to 2.13 vs the Astros). As much as the Rangers have been giving the Astros numerous opportunities to win, the Astros have managed to return the favor tenfold. Pretty soon, the Rangers are going to catch on to this and play more confidently.

Last night’s game showed an Astros presence against the Rangers that hasn’t been seen all season, which was a step in the right direction. Last night’s game, in any other circumstance, would have been exciting and engaging for both Astros and Rangers fans alike, because it was a challenging, competitive game. Unfortunately, the lingering possibility of an 0-7 losing streak made the game unbearable instead of engaging, and then 0-7 happened. In 2 more games, 0-9, and a loss of the Silver Boot before midseason could be the reality. If that happens, it doesn’t matter what the Astros do against the Rangers the rest of the season, because the Rangers will officially own us, once again.

How the Astros can turn around vs the Rangers:

Take a look at some game film. Specifically, take a look at the basic fielding errors the Rangers have committed against the Astros this year. Look at their record against similar opponents this season: swept by the Athletics and the White Sox, and the Angels and Mariners have at least managed a series tie vs the Rangers. Watch the highlight reel from last night’s game, look at how inefficient the Astros were playing on both sides of the ball, and then recognize this game almost went into extra innings. Finally, recognize that the Rangers are using Ken Giles’ own words as motivation for tonight’s game.

Seriously – Ken Giles is right about the team. The Astros have the better roster, and the better team. His closing statements can be the reality, but the team needs to get out and prove all of this. And soon. For what it’s worth, it is meaningful that the Rangers chose these words as motivation for today’s game. Fan bias aside, the team knows what the Astros can be. So, it’s now time for the Astros to understand that, and start playing the part.

Houston Astros: Silver (re)Boot Series

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With a series win, and a rough northeast road trip behind them, the Astros come home to face their division rivals, the Arlington South Oklahoma Texas Rangers. No, wait; I’m changing that back to Arlington Rangers. This will be the 2nd of 6 series against the in-state rivals, as well as the Silver Boot Series (the Silver Boot Series, again, being the seasonal trophy for the club that has the most wins vs the other). This series is a matter of pride, with the 1st being in Arlington and ending with an unceremonious sweep by the Rangers. it is also a test to see if the Astros are indeed coming back to the game.

After a terrible series in Boston, one of which the Astros should have come out 3-1 but instead came out 1-3, a roster shake-up was implemented. Erik Kratz was no more, being replaced by Evan Gattis, Tony Kemp was called up, Carlos Gomez was placed on 15 day DL (which could be the first step to sealing his fate for the team, or a much-needed break to get back on track), and then Colin Moran was called up from the MiLB in the final step of the shake-up. This caused a much-needed and highly anticipated boost in the line-up, with the Astros clinching a series win vs the slipping Chicago White Sox in game 2.

Both Kemp and Moran got their MLB debuts in the series – Kemp with a pinch running spot in game one, and both being inserted in the line up, at left field and 3rd base, respectively, in game 2. Both showed a certain spark that led to their call-ups. Kemp, in his first game in the line up, went 2/3 at bat, with a double, a single, a run, and a walked base. Moran was slightly less impressive, with a strikeout, a line out (albeit a solid hit), and a walked base. Both showed an aggressive and energetic defense on the field, which shows a lot of promise in the coming weeks.

This was the series of the rookie. Not only did the 2 newcomers put on a worthy performance, but Tyler White made a comeback at bat, putting in his 1st game of the year with multiple home runs in game 1 of the series. Coming in with a noteworthy mention would be Evan Gattis – not a rookie by any means. However, in his first appearance back from the fast-track to catching minors designation, Gattis came out and hit a 2 run home run in extra innings to clinch the 1st win for the Astros. In between the double sock road series, the Astros pulled out a punch.

This was a much-needed road series win for the Astros, the 1st road series won all season, but I would caution those who want to turn that series win into a testament that the Astros are back. The signs are promising, but the conditions were ripe for picking. The Chicago White Sox entered this series on a skid. They were coming in 2-4 in their last 6 games, with 2 consecutive series losses and a 2 game losing streak. Not that the Astros were coming in great, but this recent slide put the Astros in a relatively good position to pull off a few wins on the road.

And boy are we glad they did.

The series win on the road gives the Astros a decent boost coming home to face the Rangers, who are coming out of a series loss and sweep against the Oakland Athletics. That series sweep not only cost the Rangers a possible bump to 1st place in the AL West, but it’s putting their 2nd place seat in danger. Both teams will be hungry for wins. The Rangers will fight to advance to the top spot in the division, while the Astros will fight for another series win at home, and a hopeful jump out of last place in the division. The Astros are also confronting their on-field demons, so to speak.

Since their ascention to the top spot in the division in 2015, and the eventual take-over by the Rangers, the Astros have had some bitter stuggles against the division and in-state rival. They had an embarrassing sweep against the Rangers in Minute Maid Park around this time last year, that kicked off that stigma of facing their rival down the line. The season was marked with 3 series wins for the Astros, and 3 series sweeps by the Rangers, for a final record of 6-13 against the Rangers – their worst record against a division opponent.

This season, the Astros are 0-3 against the Rangers with that 1st series sweep. That series showed 2 teams struggling against each other, with neither playing their best on the field. That series, for the Astros, also marked the beginning of the decline for ace pitcher Dallas Keuchel. Yes, guys, the Rangers are responsible for breaking out star pitcher; get mad. Keuchel, who had a terrible outing in the final game of the earlier series, had 13 hits, 6 earned runs, and the 1st home run in 2016 against him. Keuchel will get his chance to come back from that loss in game 3 of this upcoming series, on Sunday.

This series will, in my opinion, tell the tale of how the Astros will fare the rest of the season. They are facing their mentally toughest opponent, at home, and in the middle of a turnaround month where they currently have a winning record. This series gives the Astros the chance to finally confront their in-state and division demons, and finally get the notion of playing the Rangers out of their heads. With a new injection of energy on the roster and a victorious battle for a series win against a 1st place team in the AL, the Astros could not be more ready. The question is, will they step up?

Noteworthy for this particular series is that it looks like Rougned Odor, who is appealing an 8 game suspension after punching Bautista in the face earlier in the week, will be on the roster for a few, if not all 3 games in this series. The hope that Odor would start serving his suspension prior to this series was pretty good news for the Astros, as Odor has been a force on the Rangers squad, with 28 runs, 7 home runs, 21 RBIs and a .275 BA this season so far. Granted, the Astros own superstar at 2nd base, Jose Altuve, smokes him in every way possible (except throwing punches), but losing him would hurt the Rangers.

It doesn’t look like it will play out that way, however, and the Astros will be facing the full force of the Rangers.

The key to this game for the Astros will be productivity at bat (and subsequently, pitching). Both teams have very similar runs per game and runs allowed per game stats, with the Rangers having the slight edge over the Astros with 4.54/4.24 runs per game, and 4.56/4.81 runs allowed per game, respectively. The Astros have started swinging more consistently over the past week, but stranding runners is still a big problem with the team. There are some tweaks that can happen in the line-up to produce a few more runs, which we’ll probably see in the coming days.

Starting rotation needs to remain steady. McCullers will have his 2nd game of the year starting tonight (under much better weather conditions) and needs to take more command on the strike zone. Fiers, starting in game 2, needs to continue his trend of improvement, now that he’s got the starting job over rookie Chris Devenski (who was dropped to the bullpen yesterday). Keuchel needs to just come back. He looked good in his start against the White Sox in the first win, but couldn’t make it through 7 innings after losing command over the lower outside strike zone.

Bullpen needs to keep the consistency solid. Gregerson needs to start splitting time as closer with Harris, even if it’s just an inning split, if there are any 1 run games. The bullpen needs to be managed more efficiently in this series, especially with Devenksi coming back in the fold. There should be no excuse to lose any tight games moving forward. If Gregerson isn’t having a good outing, then Gregerson needs to be pulled. No excuses, no chances. If the bullpen is managed a little smarter and a little more competitively, there should be no reason for a series loss at home.

Finally, the Astros need to remove the stigma of playing the Rangers from their head. The team needs to get out and enjoy the game, which makes it more enjoyable for all of us. Forget the past, forget the bad April start, and forget the last series sweep against the Rangers in South Oklahoma. Yep, it’s South Oklahoma again. Get out in front of a packed Minute Maid Park and put on a performance worthy of the Friday night fireworks. Let the Rangers know they have a worthy opponent. Most of all, let’s work on a series win and even a 1st series sweep of the seaon in the Astros favor. Let’s play ball.

Houston Astros: The Silver Boot

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There is nothing worse than a manufactured rivalry in a professional sport. I say that as an Astros fan that still may hold a little bitterness toward the great shift that landed the team in the American League West, who still holds the old-school rivalries against the Braves, Cardinals, and even the Cubs near and dear to my heart, and has never put too much clout into the so-called Lone Star series that pitted the Texas Rangers against the Houston Astros anytime there was a spring training or interleague match-up.

This was a rivalry that existed more on paper than in the hearts of any fan of either team, and the weakest link by far of any Lone Star state rivarly in pro sports. However, the teams (largely since 2001) traded a shiny sparkly boot trophy back and forth based on head-to-head wins and losses, and has become a tradition between the two clubs. Not until the Astros switch to the American League in 2013 did this so-called rivarly begin to gain some traction, albeit rather forced. It seemed that the MLB proper and sports authorities around the country were more excited about the rivalry than any fan would be.

That is, until we all got used to what the MLB was trying to force upon us and begrudgingly accepted our fates as the newest, hottest interstate rivalry.

It is surprising, though, that it took this long to achieve legit rivarly status. One should naturally exist, given the already present and accounted for bitter Houston/Dallas rivalry. Afteralll, the team branded themselves as THE MLB team in Texas, stealing the state’s name, even though they did arrive almost a decade after the birth of the MLB in the state of Texas (a touch of arrogance that isn’t unexpected from any Dallas area team). And let’s not forget they stole our pride and joy, Nolan Ryan, from our clubhouse and our hearts. Nolan Ryan, after 8 years in the Astros stripes, retired as a Ranger, which set his status in stone in the MLB Hall of Fame.

However, the rivalry that should have been simply never materialized. Fans, largely, doled out taunts and humblebrags to the likes of the Braves and Cardinals, and made that passive-aggressive love-hand bond with Cubs fans, because- well, we know the feeling, but we’re still division rivals. Were division rivals. Were. When the move came for the Astros to be unceremoniously plucked out of the NL and placed into the AL West, the Rangers/Astros rivarly still felt relatively weak and unconnected. Personally, I carried my Cardinals hate over to the Los Angels, with Pujols on the roster.

All of that changed last year. The rivalry, now 3 years in the urging, finally took flight with the Astros emergence as legitimate contenders – not only for the Division winner, but the National title some day not too far in the future. The wins and losses never counted more than they did last year. The Astros and Rangers battled, for the better part of the 2015 MLB season, for the top seed in the American League West, as well as a playoff spot for the shot at a MLB championship. Last year, in the final stretch, the Rangers took the division title, and the trophy. And then they took our pride.

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And thus, the rivalry began. Happy now, Selig? We’re finally on board.

This year, with that collective burn, Astros and fans alike have a score to settle. The Lone Star series and Silver Boot trophy now has significance (more so than hubris between ball club owners and managers, at least) that is almost as the division title, primarily because it likely signifies the Division title between the two clubs. And that bold, arrogant show of Astros ownership, pictured above, places the ball club within the confines of the attitude of the city that we all love to hate. Welcome aboard, Arlington Rangers. Houston now hates you too.

Tonight, game 1 of the 1st of 6 series against the Rangers begins. The Astros are kind of limping into this first series, after a shaky, unbalanced start in last place in the AL West(albeit not far behind the 2015 start), while the Rangers come striding in, sitting atop the AL West with 2 more wins. Tonight, the Astros start their divisional series play, while the Rangers begin their 4th series against division rivals. Tonight, the Astros have a chance to turn their season around with an impressive start to divisional series play, or continue their descent into mediocrity.

I have no real predictions, just hopes. The first divisional series is always hard to gauge, but this start may be a fair gauge as to how the season will progress. I have no doubts that the team will come together and play to the caliber of talent they possess on the roster, and there’s no better time than the present to do so. So, my hope is for a second series win, starting out with a big win tonight. The team needs this win, so the Rangers won’t get in their heads like they did in 2015, and so the Astros can start a formidable streak that lets them climb their way back up to the top.

And we want that Silver Boot this year. So let’s take it back.

Houston Astros: Control your own destiny

Charted percentages for the probability of each team in the AL West to get postseason play, throughout the year

Charted percentages for the probability of each team in the AL West to get postseason play, throughout the year

As I write this, I have the Rangers/Angels game humming in the background, because this game is as important to the Astros as the next 3 games in the final series of the season. I am gingerly cheering for a Rangers win, even though they are the newfound rivals.  When it comes down to it, Texas first.  Sorry, California.

After last night’s surprising and ugly win, I found myself eating my own words.  When the Astros lost their wildcard spot the day prior, I didn’t believe they’d gain it back.  The audacity of believing they could pull off back-to-back series wins on the road in the final stretch was just more than I could fathom.  Add to that the red-hot streak that the Angels have been on, and a comeback did not appear plausible.

But then, September baseball happened.

September baseball is when all our knowledge of the game and the teams is thrown out the window.  Pecking order for the postseason begins to take shape, and some teams drop out of the race.  For the teams in playoff contention, September baseball is when they show they’re clutch, or slowly fade off the radar.  There really is no in-between.  This is when non-contention teams also relax, and play the game for the sake of the game.  When this happens, upsets happen.

The Angels lost their final game against the Athletics, and the Astros got a dirty, sloppy win against the Mariners. That respective loss and win, an upset against the Angels and a comeback from a frustrating game for the Astros, flip-flopped the standings for the wildcard position.  The Angels, who started 1/2 a game ahead and in the wildcard spot for the first time, dropped down past the Astros, who came back into their wildcard spot just lost the day before. Now the race is on.

We’ve all been mathed into oblivion with stats, probabilities, and predictions this past week.  The notions of 2-, 3-, and 4-way tiebreaker games have been toyed with.  So have all our emotions.  Legitimately speaking, either the Astros, or Rangers could sweep their last series, and the Astros would be strolling into the playoffs.  It doesn’t matter who, either.  An even split would send the Astros to the playoffs.  Math, math, and more math would either send them or knock them out.

We’re not going to do math right now, because math doesn’t matter anymore.  The Astros just need to win out. In order to get in, the Astros need to put on their blinders, stop looking around, and just look ahead at the next game.  Win that one, and then worry about the next one.  Win that one, and then worry about the last one.  And when they’ve won out their last series with a sweep, they can look around and see where all the dust has settled.

This will be the challenge for the team.  This is new territory for the Astros – new enough, at least.  This team was patchworked together to eventually become what they’ve grown into this season.  They’re getting their experience as a contender, and getting a taste of what it means to be playing meaningful baseball, now in October. That means staying loose, and enjoying the game.  That means putting it all out on the field, and leaving it there until the last ball’s thrown.

The last game against the Mariners, the Astros were not playing in that game.  They were playing a couple of games ahead, and watching the other teams win or lose.  It’s a mistake that any young team can get caught up in.  It’s a mistake the Astros have fallen into in September, a few times.  A good inning doesn’t put you off guard.  A good inning prepares you for the next one.  A team shouldn’t win with 4 errors and one single hit more than the opposing team.

A playoff team shouldn’t get away with airmailing a throw into the stands.  There shouldn’t be 2-3 player collisions within the stretch of a week.  Easy drops shouldn’t be happening in the outfield.  An out shouldn’t occur because you took your foot off the base. Nobody needs to be taking golf swings at the plate.  The games that have passed are over now, and the wins and losses have been tallied.

It’s time to move forward, and finish this season like a team in playoff contention should.  No more rookie mistakes (even for rookies).  No more phoning it in.  Have fun with the game, but keep your head in.  The Astros have the ability to play this game, and the choice is theirs to make.  Either play like a playoff contender, or go home.  In these next 3 games, we’ll see if they’re ready to.

Houston Astros: How important is the Rangers series?

It’s crunch time, and it’s still anyone’s game and division. As it stands right now, the MLB ranks both the Astros and the Rangers as having a 91% probability of playing in the postseason.  That probability (combined with the 5% probability that the next-up contender of the 2nd wildcard spot, the Minnesota Twins) tells us that, if the teams keep playing how they’ve been playing in the last couple of months, we’ll see both Texas teams in the postseason.

The big question is which team will take the American League West?

There are a lot of variables to look at when predicting how the season will end for both of these teams.  Among those variables are post-All-Star performance, home versus away games, divisional opponents versus non-divisional opponents, as well as league versus inter-league play.  Most importantly, team versus team.  All of these factors are at play in the next 2 weeks, and in the next 11 games for the Astros and 13 games for the Rangers.

That leads to a lot of uncertainty, which will likely lead us to knowing the division winner, as well as who makes the playoffs, no later than early October.

As it also stands right now, the American League West title will likely go to the Rangers, while the Astros will likely end up in the 2nd wildcard spot, leading to a single-game playoff against the Yankees on the road.  The Astros recent history suggest that this would be a nightmare scenario for the Astros (considering road game wins have dwindled down to just 20% in this past month alone), but it isn’t the nightmare that it seems, given the last road game series won by the Astros was vs the Yankees.

That being said, the Astros would have a higher probability of getting valuable playoff experience sitting atop the American League West running into the playoffs, instead of facing a 1-game elimination round on the road.  This is a daunting task for the Astros to pull off, and it relies on more than just the Astros winning; it also relies on the Rangers losing.  However, there are advantages and disadvantages for each club, respectively, in their final 2 weeks of baseball, that could give either team the title of the American League West Divisional Champs.

Let’s take a look at some of these factors, starting with how each team broke out of the All-Star break.

The Astros had a better first half of the season than the Rangers; there’s no doubt about that.  Heading into the All-Star Break, the Astros were 49 wins and 43 losses, with a win percentage of .532.  The Rangers came in with 42 wins and 47 losses, with a win percentage of .471.  Post All-Star Break, the Rangers came out with guns blazing.  Their second half record of wins and losses, respectively, stands 39 – 22, with a win percentage of .639.  The Astros have remained fairly consistent with their first half, garnering a win-loss ratio of 31-29, and a win percentage of .517.

If we determine the seating arrangement based solely on this performance, we’ve got the Rangers taking the top spot, naturally.  They’re a game ahead, and have a better winning percentage.  Based on these results, alone, the Rangers would finish out with a record of 88-74, and the Astros would wind up with a record of 86-76.  That would mean the Minnesota Twins would have to win 10 of their 12 remaining games to knock the Astros out, so the Astros would likely take the wildcard spot, and the Rangers would take the Division.

Why the division series is important: if we are basing it on the statistics of wins and losses in the 2nd half of the season,there would be a 2 game difference between the clubs.  Statistically speaking, the series would go 1-2, in favor of the Rangers.  If the Astros pull off a sweep, then we have a tie, and a tie-breaker game to determine the overall winner.  And boy, wouldn’t that be exciting?

Likewise, if we looked at the home versus away win probabilities of each team in the second half of the season, we’d have similar results.  The Astros and Rangers a one game difference at home record in the 2nd half, with 23 wins and 10 losses, and 23 wins and 9 losses, with a winning percentages of .697 and .719, respectively.  However, the Astros seem to sink on the road, winning only 8 out of 28 away games, at a winning percentage of .286.  The Rangers dominate, with 16 wins out of 29 away games, at a percentage of .551.

Following this trend, this leads the Astros and Rangers to a 3-game difference at the end of the season:the Rangers would have 88-74, and Astros would have 85-77.  The 3 game series wouldn’t hold as much strength in determining the Division winner for the Astros, as they’d be slated to likely win 2 of 3 in this scenario.  However, A sweep or winning series for the Rangers would certainly clinch the Division Title for the Rangers.

For the final 2 weeks, both the Astros and Rangers have a 3-game, non-divisional series, and remaining games are divisional.  Both teams have the same winning record against non-divisional opponents in the second half of the season, but the Rangers, who struggled early in the season with divisional opponents, now have a .606 winning percentage against divisional opponents, versus a .387 winning percentage for the Astros.

Given these percentages, if the teams follow this trend, the Astros would fall to 83-79, and the Rangers would stay at 88-74.  A 5 game difference would also put the Astros in jeopardy of possibly losing the wildcard spot or playing a tie-breaker game with Minnesota for the final playoff seat. Our record against Minnesota in the 2nd half is even, so it could be anyone’s game (although slight favor would be Minnesota, as tie-breaker procedures would likely put the game at home for them).

There are a lot of different, independent variables that affect each team, and we can scrutinize more stats to give or take a game or 2 from each, but the most important factor here is the anomaly that does not follow any of the general stats that each ball club has.  This factor is the head-to-head competition.  The Astros have won 4 games out of 16 against the Rangers this year, and haven’t won a single game v the Rangers since July 19th. The last 2 series have ended with Rangers sweeps, and we have 1 final series in the last 2 weeks of the season.

This is immeasurable, as far as stats go.  This is the 90% mental aspect of baseball that Yogi Bera was speaking of (rest in peace, great legend).  It’s the mental block that keeps the Astros shaky when entering this series.  The stigma surrounding the Astros weary record against his haphazardly forced in-state rivalry IS the reason why this series is so important.  It’s the Tal’s Hill of the schedule – and the Astros usually fall when scrambling up it.

For the Astros, going into this series is the test of sink or swim.  We’re down to the final count in the season, and this is a major series.    Of course, every game from here on out is important.  When we’ve got a season dwindling down to nothing, and the final count is going to knock teams out by less than a series-worth of games, they’re all meaningful.  However, this last home series v the Rangers is what will define this Astros season – whether we can persevere, or fold under pressure and try again next year.

This final series is about pride.  If the Astros take it, they can take the West.