What Is Really Important for the Astros This Postseason?

It is the homestretch of the MLB season, and Astros fans are eager and seemingly worried about how many things can impact the team’s chances in the postseason. What is really important for the Astros for the postseason? Below are the three most important factors Astros fans need to care about. If an issue does not make this list, it is not likely to materially impact the Astros’ chances in the postseason.

The health and effectiveness of Verlander, Cole, and Greinke
Importance rank: 10

There is simply nothing more important to the Astros this October than the health and effectiveness of their top three starting pitchers. The postseason for the Astros, unless they go on repeated offensive barrages every night (possible but not probable), will be dependent on how well Verlander, Cole, and Greinke are able to pitch.

Amid all the worrying about how Wade Miley has done in September, it is lost that he may not pitch much in the postseason. There are viable scenarios where the top three pitchers start 17 of 19 possible postseason games. This even assumes the Astros play the complete series in every round. The reality is that if the Astros pitch Verlander on three days’ rest for Game 4 of the ALDS, then Miley (or someone else) is likely to start only one game in the ALCS and one game in the World Series. How can this be? First, accept that the rules for starter usage are different in the postseason; then follow the table below.

Yes, this scenario shows Verlander starting twice on three days’ rest. Verlander has never started on three days’ rest, though he did come into the 2017 ALDS Game 4 and pitch 2.2 innings (40 pitches). Perhaps this means this won’t happen, but it could if Miley is not right. If the Astros are down 1–2 in the ALDS, trust me, Verlander is starting Game 4.

Similarly, if the Astros are down 2–3 in the World Series heading into Game 6, one of the big three starters is starting that game even if it is on three days’ rest. It will be all hands on deck in a World Series Game 7 as well.

This was meant to illustrate how much the Astros will depend on these three starters in the postseason. One could project that 105–120 innings of a projected total of 171 could be pitched by Verlander, Cole, and Greinke. That is why the health and effectiveness of Verlander, Cole, and Greinke is the most important thing for the Astros’ postseason.

The health of the starters including Correa and Gurriel
Importance rank: 8

One may ask “what about the health of the position players?” This is a fair question, but consider that the Astros are on a pace to win 105 or more games this year and have had multiple injuries to multiple position players, and even to those players’ backups, all at the same time. The Astros’ offense, even with those injuries, still without Correa, and dealing without Gurriel currently, is tracking to be arguably the second greatest offense of all time. The wRC+ of the 2019 Astros is 125, and this is the second greatest of all time behind the 1927 Yankees. This year the baseball is juiced, but the 2019 Astros have the highest OPS (0.848) of any team in the post steroid era (2004+, when testing was fully in place).

Here are the likely postseason Astros and their current AVG/ OBP/ SLG/ OPS/ wRC+:

That is correct. The lineup of 15 possible position players for the postseason currently has a 133 wRC+ and an OPS of 0.883. Those numbers are a level even higher than the full year 2019 Astros (numbers above). This historically great offense is even more mind-blowingly good than Astros fans currently know, and might just be the greatest offensive unit to enter the MLB postseason. The list above has 15 players on it. One of the above will not be on the ALDS roster. Two of the above will not likely be on an ALCS or World Series roster. Who? I honestly think it is too early to tell, but for the example above I have assumed Toro and Tucker are off. The next three weeks may determine if a Straw or Tucker or Toro can force their way into the postseason.

Notice the statistics for the presumed playoff roster (0.287/0.363/0.521/0.884/134), which is just incrementally better than the total 15-player list. Similarly, the lineup of presumed starters (batters 1–9) is slightly better than the full roster (0.293/0.369/0.535/0.905/139). This roster would be an offensive juggernaut like never before.

To illustrate the point, let’s assume the most likely bad scenario for the offense: Correa and Gurriel are out. How does that roster compare with these losses?

This presumed playoff roster (0.285/0.364/0.514/0.879/133) is just incrementally worse than the presumed playoff roster. Similarly, these presumed starters (batters 1–9) are only incrementally worse than the previous (0.290/0.371/0.525/0.897/137). Even if these two currently hurt players don’t return, the batters are still excellent. This offense is deep. If Toro and Tucker are real, there will be interesting decisions ahead.

So if one of the Astros or even two of the Astros are not healthy, and depending on who they are, the Astros are currently constructed to be able to withstand that. I am not saying it is true for every player. If the Astros lost one of the catchers, Bregman, Alvarez, Springer, or Altuve, it would materially impact the likelihood of postseason success. The team is more capable of withstanding even that unlucky event more than most; however, this factor is still important because the team is built for offensive dominance. The 2017 Astros were very much offense-dependent; the 2018 Astros were more pitching-dependent; and the 2019 Astros are balanced where either aspect of the team can dominate and carry the team.

Luck — the randomness of the MLB postseason
Importance rank: 10

As Astros fans we are all aware of this reality. Just on the Astros, players like Bagwell and Biggio have performed far below career norms in the postseason, and players like Rasmus in 2015 (OPS 1.760) or Burke in 2005 are postseason heroes. The absolute best baseball teams win two thirds of their games, which also means they also lose a third, and this is over an entire baseball season. The best teams can have losing streaks. The Astros have lost seven and five in a row just this year. Do that in a postseason series, and you are eliminated.

What can anyone do to reduce the impact of chance? The Astros have done several things.

  • They traded for Zack Greinke to add a third ace to their postseason rotation. Without Greinke, the Astros’ rotation worries might be fatal to postseason success.
  • They also traded for Sanchez and Biagini to attempt to address other team gaps. For 2019, that trade does not appear to have a material positive impact for the postseason.
  • They addressed a weakness at backup catcher by trading for Maldonado. As shown above, Maldonado has been tremendous in Houston.
  • Hinch is clearly minimizing the playing time of his top players to reduce injury risk. In three successive blowouts, some of the core players were pulled midway through the games. Hinch is trying to prevent freak bad events because he realizes the Astros, if healthy, have an excellent opportunity in the postseason.
  • Philosophically, the Astros have been developing or acquiring players who can be used in multiple positions to minimize the risk of injuries:
    • Bregman can play his natural SS, his primary 3B, and even 2B if needed.
    • Gurriel can play his historical 3B, his primary 1B, fill in at 2B, and has gone to LF occasionally.
    • Springer can play in both RF and CF very well.
    • Reddick can play top notch RF, capable LF, and fill in at CF.
    • Marisnick can play anywhere in the OF but is near gold glove in CF.
    • Diaz has played 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, and LF, all this year. He is the new Marwin, albeit not quite as good in the field.
    • Toro seems capable at both 3B and 1B. He also played 2B and even C in the minors.
    • Straw added playing a viable SS to his OF repertoire.
    • Tucker added playing 1B to his capabilities in RF and LF.
    • All this position flexibility means the Astros weathered multiple injuries to their middle infielders and their backups.
    • This depth minimizes the impact of chance in the postseason.
  • The Astros deploy a myriad of analytical systems and techniques to acquire data some other teams do not have yet. Because they were one of the first to work with certain types of data, they also are aware of what data is credible in predicting success, and what data tends to be noise.
  • Things like deploying the shift, which is far more common today, are statistically proven models that the Astros use to reduce chance. If your infielders are consistently located where the ball will be hit, your team has an incremental advantage to reducing runs.
  • Similarly, the Astros deployed a data-gathering system throughout their minor leagues ahead of other teams. This has given them a developmental advantage with their players.
  • The Astros have also deployed an analytical and strategic approach up and down their system. Players are getting consistent coaching and guidance on how to play Astros baseball.

What can be done to address and minimize chance seems to have been done. The very nature of chance in the game of baseball make this factor extremely difficult to control.

Those are the most important factors to the Astros winning a World Series in 2019. Next time, we will address other factors that may matter, including:

  • The health and timing of returns for key members of the bullpen including Pressly, Peacock, and possibly McHugh. Importance rank: 5
  • Can anyone be an effective long relief pitcher or number 4 starter? Importance rank: 4
  • The effectiveness of the young Astros bench members: Tucker, Diaz, Toro, and Straw. importance rank: 3

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