Astros: The Best Team in MLB (Midseason Review, Part 1)

“The Astros are the best team in baseball.” Can such a claim be proven? This early midseason review will take a deep dive into each position. We will grade each position as it exists today in comparison to the other top teams and measure projected performance for the rest of the season.

This roster assessment will be the first of three articles in my comprehensive early midseason review:

  • Part 1: “Astros: The Best Team in MLB” — A breakdown position-by-position of why the Astros are the best team in baseball
  • Part 2: “Astros: The Critical Decisions Ahead” — Examining internal roster management decisions the Astros will soon face
  • Part 3: “How to make the Astros Even Better” — A discussion of key trades that could take the Astros to legendary status

Taken together, these three articles outline a possible blueprint for the rest of the Astros season and beyond. Let’s begin by exploring where the Astros are now. Are they, as I claim, the best team in baseball? The data will tell the story. We are in June now, so have plenty to analyze. All of my statistics are pulled from FanGraphs.

The First 72 Games

Let’s first focus on the first 72 games that have already been played and the Astros performance in those games, position by position.

Let’s start with data overload. The following tables show the current top 10 teams in the MLB and their performance on some key statistics. I have shown these in a heat map form. In all cases RED is the top and BLUE is the bottom of the league. The data is shown by position and Houston’s ranking (1-30) is the first line listed. Do not get overwhelmed with the numbers. Just notice how much red there is for the Astros and how little blue there is. Notice that the other teams have more blue.

Batting: wRC+

Overall, the Astros rank second in wRC+. The only position that the Astros rank below average in wRC+ in is first base (ranking 25th). Notice the Astros are in the top three at 2B, 3B, CF, DH, and total wRC+. Many may not be aware that the DH position has done extremely well for the Astros because players like Brantley have raked. These high rankings are very remarkable considering all the injuries the Astros have endured.

First base appears to be a weakness, with both Gurriel and White performing below average. We will address that in later articles.

Batting: OPS

The OPS stat shows a similar trend, and once again the Astros rank second overall in OPS. First base is once again the weakness shown here.

Batting: WAR

In batting WAR, the Astros are third.

What is remarkable is how balanced the Astros are across the board. The Astros are very good in all areas (with the exception of first base), despite having backup players batting roughly 24% of the plate appearances so far in 2019. The Astros have one blue WAR position. The first place WAR Dodgers have two (2B and CF) and the second rated Twins have three (1B, 3B, LF). I would rather have one area to address than multiple areas.

Let’s now look at the pitching statistics.

Pitching: ERA

The Astros have also performed well in pitching, having the fourth-best ERA in 2019. Like the batting, the pitching ranking is well-balanced in that both the starting pitching and the bullpen have been the fourth best. The Astros have nine pitchers with ERAs of 3.67 or lower and more than 24 innings pitched. Four of these are starters (all would be in the top 31 of MLB and the top 17 of AL qualified pitchers), and five are relief pitchers (all would be in the top 62 of MLB and the top 32 of AL qualified relief pitchers). To say it another way, the Astros have two aces and two #2 starters. The Astros have three premium back-of-the-bullpen pitchers and two premium middle relievers. Those nine pitchers will pitch almost every inning of the postseason.

WAR

The WAR statistics also show very strong pitching with the Astros. The WAR for the relief pitchers is down slightly because the Astros relief staff has thrown the twelfth most innings in the AL (or fourth fewest.) Overall WAR for pitchers reflects that the Astros have had the fifth best pitching.

Putting both the hitting and pitching together for these leaders tells us that the Astros have the third highest WAR through the first 72 games.

The Dodgers and Twins have also had excellent starts.

All of these stats are based on the first 72 games this year. How do the Astros project over the next 90 games this season?

Projecting the next 90 Games

For the next 90 games, we will use FanGraphs’ depth chart data for the team comparisons. For the hitters, let’s look at the OPS first. The projections tables do not provide the overall team stats. Reviewing the data position by position shows a fairly positive story for most positions, with the exception of catcher and first base.

Looking at the WAR shows an even more positive rest of the season.

The WAR numbers project the Astros to have the third best offense for the rest of the season, even with extended time out for injuries for Correa and Diaz. First base and possibly catcher are the areas where the Astros project to be average or below average. The projection algorithms predict that Chirinos will fall back heavily from his early-season heroics. Notice also that the Twins are predicted to similarly return to earth. The Yankees are projected to have the best offense the rest of the season as they return their players that have been injured. The Dodgers are projected to keep their offense rolling.

Let’s look at how the pitchers project for the rest of the season.

First by ERA:

Then by WAR:

The pitching projects to remain strong for the Astros. The bullpen is in the top two or three in the MLB. The starting pitchers might use an upgrade at the back end of the rotation to make the starting pitching staff as strong as the bullpen. Notice that the projection here predicts that the Rays will regress some in pitching and that the Yankees will excel.

Let’s put the projections for the last 90 games for pitching and batting together.

The Astros project to have the second-best remaining WAR behind the Yankees. The AL postseason is setting up to be a titanic battle.

Looking at the Entire Season

What does the whole season look like when we put the data for the first 72 games and the remaining 90 games to make a full season? Putting the season together — adding the first 72 games WAR and the projected WAR for the remaining 90 games for the batters — shows the following. The data here is ranked only among these 10 contending teams for comparison.

Of all the contenders, the Astros are predicted to have the third best batting WAR among the likely postseason teams. The table above also makes clear an upgrade at first base is really needed to keep pace with the other contenders. The two teams that rate better offensively both have weak spots as well. If healthy, it is arguable that the balanced Astros offense might perform better in the postseason.

How does a similar addition of the first 72 games’ WAR and the projected remaining WAR for the pitching look for each contender?

Notice that only the Rays and the Astros have top starting and relief pitching. Every other contender has significant work to do in one or the other. If the Astros add a strong starter their pitching could easily be the best in baseball.

So what is the complete total?

Overall the Dodgers have the highest WAR, but their relief pitching is significantly weaker than the Astros’. When all factors are considered, the Astros are the best team in baseball and are likely to face the second strongest contender, the Dodgers, in the World Series.

Now that we indeed did establish the Astros at least as the best team in the American League, let’s focus on Part 2: “Astros: The Critical Decisions Ahead” — A breakdown of the critical internal roster management decisions ahead.

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