Back in April, when the Major League Baseball season started, the biggest question about the Astros was whether they’d be the worst team in the American League West, or if the Rangers would take that distinction. But a funny thing happened once the season got under way: somehow, the Astros found themselves downright competitive—a month into the season, they were five games over .500, sitting atop the AL West, and in possession of the league’s fifth-best record. At the time, we were cautiously optimistic, which is another way of saying “still kinda skeptical.”
There are plenty of hot April teams who fail to make the playoffs—ask a Brewers fan who lived through the eighties and saw a 13–0 start end with futility—so we won’t read too much into this. After all, Texas Monthly had big predictions for Vince Young, David Carr, Colt McCoy, the 2004 remake of The Alamo, and the Texas Democrats’ electoral hopes in 2014 too. But there’s no denying that a team that’s five games over .500 after dropping ninety-plus games the last four seasons is exceeding expectations, and any sign of life for Houston baseball deserves some attention.
We’re now more than two months into the season, with a larger sample size from which to judge the Astros. And it appears that, so far, the Texas Monthly jinx hasn’t borne out. The Astros are now a whopping thirteen games over .500, and a full five games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels for first place in the division. At the moment, they’ve won six of their last ten—which is practically a slump for the 2015 ’Stros—and they possess, behind the St. Louis Cardinals, the second-best record in all of baseball.
In other words, the question of “Are the Astros for real” that we were asking a month ago is a fairly outdated one. Now, the question is: How good can the Astros really be?
There are a few different schools of thought, when it comes to assessing baseball performance. Anybody who’s seen Moneyball knows that there are statisticians looking at Pythagorean formulas to determine if a team is lucky or good, as well as emotional analysts judging things by their guts. But in the case of the Astros, both camps tend to agree: it sure looks like this is legit.
Here’s what the stats nerds at Sports Illustrated had to say about the Astros’ odds of sustaining this streak:
The Astros’ Pythagorean mark of 27–20 only falls three wins shy of their actual 30–17. Look a little closer and you can find the source of that difference: Houston’s record in one-run games. The Astros are 11–5 in one-run contests, a record which trends toward .500 even for good teams. Houston has thus out-played expectations by three wins, an exact match for the degree to which the team’s actual record exceeds its Pythagorean.
Don’t write off that three-win difference as a fluke just yet, however. There is some actual performance behind the Astros’ success in one-run games. Buoyed by the additions of veteran free agents Luke Gregerson, who is now Houston’s closer, and Pat Neshek, Houston has the second-best bullpen ERA in baseball with a 2.10 mark, behind only the Royals’ 1.86. Good relief pitching is essential to success in close games, and while both the quality of a bullpen and a team’s success in one-run games can be difficult to sustain from year to year, it’s not uncommon for that combination to result in a surprise single-season performance. For proof, look at the Orioles in both 2012 and ’14.
Things look even better for Houston if we go beyond simple Pythagorean record to third-order record, which calculates expected runs scored and allowed from the elements of run scoring (hits, walks, etc.) then extrapolates a team’s expected record. There we find that the underlying performances of the Astros and Cardinals have indeed been of comparable quality this season: Third-order record sees St. Louis as a 27–19 team and the Astros as a 28–19 team, a half-win better.
If little of that made sense to you, worry not. Here’s a from-the-gut explanation of why the Astros are pulling things off courtesy of USA Today, which offers a touching anecdote that illuminates what’s happening at the clubhouse that has thus far paid off for the team.
Dallas Keuchel, the ace of the pitching staff, strolled into the Astros’ clubhouse in Baltimore around 10:35 on Monday morning. “Sup, guys?” he said casually, a smile sneaking through his bushy beard. He was scheduled to start the 1:35 game.
First baseman Chris Carter accidentally bumped Gonzalez, and Gonzalez playfully feigned injury. Backup catcher Hank Conger suddenly broke into his batting stance in the middle of the room.
Relief pitcher Joe Thatcher walked by and narrowly avoided Conger’s moving bat. When he realized what almost happened, he burst out in laughter along with Conger and two others.
The scene is typical of a winning team perhaps a bit slap-happy after arriving the night before for a day game. The group, however, is emblematic of the Astros’ methodical, then urgent rebuild – a combination of homegrown players, buy-low trade acquisitions and free agents.
“We ultimately play a kid’s game for a living,” Keuchel said Tuesday. “We never take that for granted. But there is a business side to it, and when you don’t win, there’s a lot of changes.”
Whether it’s Pythagorean win formulas and third-order records or the fact that they’re all just a bunch of happy dudes having fun out there like a group of kids, the fact is that the Astros are playing strong.
That’s something that even the oddsmakers have started to accept. Back at the end of April, the Astros were still a 6:1 underdog to even win the AL West. These days, you won’t find a bookie in Vegas or anywhere else who will give you odds longer than 1½:1, and their odds to win the World Series has risen from a pathetic 40:1—where the dregs of the league tend to huddle—to a respectable 18:1, good for the eighth-most-likely champ in baseball right now. Which suggests that, at the moment, Vegas may not fully believe in the Astros—but they know a contender when they see one.
Of course, to stay there, the Astros will need to stay ahead of their most surprising competition: namely, an ascending Rangers team that’s won eight of its last ten games, and turned a 7-15 start into a 27-25 record at this point in the year. There’s still a while to go before it’s time to ask “Are the Rangers for real,” but one thing is for sure—those who thought that 2015 was going to be a sleepy year for Texas baseball have plenty to pay attention to.
(Photograph by AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)