The Astros are one of the true power teams in MLB this season, but they might be better than you think
The standings don't quite reflect how good the AL West leaders have really been
The Houston Astros over the last two full season have racked up 204 wins and a World Series trophy. Given that recent history, their intact core, targeted additions, and collection of ready-now prospects, it's not a surprise that the Astros are presently atop the AL West standings.
At 23-15, Houston is playing at a 98-win pace, and -- tidily enough -- the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) gives them a 98 percent chance of winning the division for a third straight year. Impressive as that is, it really undersells how good the Astros have been thus far in 2019. That's the case for a couple of reasons. To wit ...
They've had a tough schedule
In terms of opponents' average winning percentage, the Astros presently check in at .525, which is toughest in the American League by a significant margin (the Rangers are next at .510). That's almost like playing the 2018 Cardinals every game. As well, Houston to date has played 21 of 38 games on the road. So they've played .605 ball and run up a plus-49 run differential despite that tough docket.
The good news for Houston is that going forward things figure to get easier. In addition to playing the majority of their games at home the rest of the way, that opponents' average winning percentage drops to .472 (subject to change depending on relevant results, of course). That's a bit like playing the 2018 Mets every game.
They've played better than their record
Here's the real story. At an underlying level, the Astros have played better than their already very good 23-15 mark. We know this thanks to the BaseRuns system available at Fangraphs. BaseRuns attempts to model a team's run-scoring and run-prevention capabilities at the granular level -- i.e., on a plate-appearance-by-plate-appearance basis and with the effects of hit "sequencing" removed. Basically, it's a measure of how good a team is at controlling the fundamental outcomes of the batter-pitcher encounter. It yields what a team's record should be based on core skills. It's also generally a better predictor of how a team will fare going forward than the team's actual record is.
As for the Astros, they presently have a BaseRuns record of 27-11, which is four games better than their actual record. It's also the best mark in all of baseball by a substantial three-game margin over the Dodgers. To a large extent, this phenomenon can be explained by how hard the Astros are hitting the baseball:
wRC+ is an advanced metric that measures all phases of production at the plate and adjusts them for ballpark and league environments. The higher the wRC+, the better from the standpoint of the offense. wRC+ is scaled so that a mark of 100 reflects a league-average hitter or offense. The 2019 Astros are thus far walking with the gods, as you see above. As a team, they're batting .276/.350/.491, while the AL as a whole is at .246/.321/.422. Bear in mind, of course, that the Astros' slash line is lifting up that league average.
Despite leading the league in OPS andby a big gap, the Astros rank "just" fourth in the AL in runs per game. That, in turn, is explained by the fact that the Astros have seen their numbers drop this season with runners in scoring position, and that's almost certainly not going to last.
Look, you already thought of the Astros as one of the true power teams in MLB this season, and the fact that they've been a bit unlucky thus far shouldn't change much. Moving ahead through the regular season, though, don't be surprised if Houston finds a higher level -- a level that's been buried under some noise thus far -- and enters October as prohibitive World Series favorites.
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