Why the Darlings of the AL are Not Ready for a Playoff Push

The 2015 MLB season has been filled with plenty of surprises thus far. The Twins have maintained their hot start, and currently hold the first wildcard spot in the AL. The NL Central has been highly competitive, with three teams in position to make the playoffs should the season end today. The Padres have been a huge disappointment (although I never fully bought into them), and may be sellers at the deadline just seven months after making the biggest splashes of the winter. Sleeper picks Cleveland and Seattle might as well have been asleep the first half of the year, both putting together extremely underwhelming performances and effectively ending their postseason hopes.

But no over- or under-achieving organization quite took the league by storm like the Houston Astros. They began the year hotter than any team in baseball besides St. Louis, finishing May with a record of 32-20 and a four-game lead over the second-place Angels. In their last 43 games, however, it has been a much different story. They have gone 20-23, enduring one seven-game losing streak in June, and they began the second half on a six-game losing streak (also losers of 8 of their last 9). Back in mid May, amidst all the frenzy over the already anointed playoff bound Astros, I began to wonder what was propelling this team to victory. It was clear that although their starting pitching doesn’t blow anyone away with immense velocity or stuff, they had a set of guys who were displaying that they knew how to pitch and could hold their own in a MLB rotation. Here are the splits on the Astros’ starting pitching, using May 31st as the divider.

Months ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 BABIP LOB%
March/April-May 4.08 3.75 6.45 2.46 0.298 70
June-All Star Break 4.03 3.54 8.04 3.13 0.299 70

 

I made sure that only active players on the Astros’ roster were included due to the fact that there are many insignificant players whose numbers would have been included in the splits because of spring training. The ERA and FIP numbers are very similar, as are the BABIP and LOB% stats. The two interesting changes are the increase in strikeouts and the simultaneous increase in walks. Walks lead to runs, and since the Astros have not been great offensively, the more free passes given out the more likely they will be playing from behind in games. While Dallas Keuchel has been extraordinary, and Lance McCullers has been solid as a rookie, their rotation doesn’t seem to have enough to strike fear into opposing team’s hearts (see 1990’s Atlanta Braves).

They do however appear to have a solid bullpen, possessing the 4th best ERA at 2.67 and the 4th best LOB% at 80%. Their recent scuffles have them at an overall record of 49-42, currently a half game back of the Angels. According to the computers, they have a 55.3% chance of making the playoffs in some capacity this year, and are expected to finish with a record of 84-78 — good enough to win a wild card spot. The computer’s calculations aren’t always perfect, so it is safe to say that there is definitely a margin of error here, although I cannot say for certain what that number might be (probably ±3-4 wins). Regardless of what the analysts are saying, I believe they WILL NOT make the postseason. Why? Because history is not on their side.

After a lot of hard work entering in all of the numbers by hand, I finally have created a table that houses several statistics from all playoff teams starting in 1995 when the wild card was introduced. Take a look at these numbers:

 

Name BA ISO K% BB% OBP
2015 Astros 0.240 0.178 24.8 8.2 0.307
1995-2014 Postseason Avg. 0.269 0.163 17.2 9.1 0.340
1995-2014 Postseason Min. 0.238 0.113 12.7 6.3 0.310
1995-2014 Postseason Max. 0.293 0.204 22.6 12.0 0.373

 

If the season were to end today, and the Astros made the playoffs, they would have some heavy outliers among the last 20 years worth of playoff teams. They would have the second lowest batting average, the highest K%, and the lowest OBP. Their ISO is well above average, but the fact that they run such a low OBP means that those extra base hits won’t increase their expected run totals very much; you need guys on base to score runs. Their average walk rate is to be expected based on the lineup they have assembled. They have a lot of what I would call “hackers,” guys who go up and take massive cuts trying to crush the ball — Chris Carter, Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, and Colby Rasmus to name a few. The only way this lineup gets worse in the ‘K’ department is if you bring Adam Dunn back from the dead and trade for Mark Reynolds. My point is simple: there has never been such a boom or bust type of team to make the playoffs, at least not one this extreme. Even if they were to acquire a frontline starting pitcher like Johnny Cueto or Cole Hamels, I do not believe that their lineup would be able to support the pitching staff enough to catapult them into the postseason.

Only time will tell what happens with the darlings of the MLB this season. They have a strong core, and a bright future, with many top prospects making their debut this season and even more right on the doorstep. Jeff Luhnow has done an incredible job building this team, and there is no doubt that they will be contenders in the AL West for many years to come. Yet, while they are not the same Astros of recent memory, they are not quite ready to make the postseason. This may not be a bad thing, though. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”



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MJD
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MJD

“Their ISO is well above average, but the fact that they run such a low OBP means that those extra base hits won’t increase their expected run totals very much; you need guys on base to score runs.”

The Astros are 4th in the league in runs per game.

PatrickBrewer93
Member
PatrickBrewer93

I like the idea for the article but I agree with Spencer that it may be difficult to compare this team to some offensive teams in the past. I think if they make a trade for a bat and a more dependable starter they will be in a good spot to make the playoffs.