The Houston Astros finished the first half of the season in style, crushing the Toronto Blue Jays, 19-1, to earn win No. 60 of the season. According to Elias, the Astros’ 18-run margin of victory is the largest by a team in its final game before the All-Star Game, breaking the previous record set in 1938, when the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers, 16-1.
Houston now enjoys a 16.5 game lead in American League West, the largest since the Seattle Mariners led by 19 games during the 2001 season, making the Astros a virtual lock to qualify for the playoffs. Their outlook beyond that, however, is less certain.
Since 1996, the first full season with at least one wild-card team, 77 of 126 division champions (61 percent) held at least a share of that division lead at the all-star break, including all eight that had double-digit leads at the end of the first half of the season.
Yet those division winners haven’t had much playoff success. Five lost in the first round, two lost in the second round and just one, the 1998 New York Yankees, went on to win the World Series. That’s less optimistic than the 18.7 percent probability FanGraphs gives the Astros to win the 2017 World Series, the second most-likely champion behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Hitting isn’t likely to hold the Astros back. As a team, they are batting .289 with a .855 OPS. Three of their hitters — second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer — will start in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. Houston also has a league-leading run differential of 162, creating runs at a rate that is 28 percent higher than average after adjusting for league and park effects (128 wRC+). If that holds, it would be the highest rate since 1942, the end of the Lively Ball Era.
The bullpen got recognition when reliever Chris Devenski was added to the American League all-star roster. The 26-year-old is second among MLB relievers in strikeouts (74) with 51.2 innings pitched, while ranking ninth in context-neutral wins (1.29 WPA/LI), measures how many wins a player contributes to his team without weighing how pressure-filled the situation was. By nature, pitchers put in clutch situations will have more impact on a team’s record, so this is a way to counter that and look solely at how well a pitcher performed, rather the circumstances surrounding him. According to wins above replacement, Devenski (1.7 fWAR) is the fourth most valuable reliever in baseball this season.
Houston’s starting pitching, however, could be a problem.
The Astros have an ace in Dallas Keuchel — 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA, striking out 24.4 percent of batters faced before a pinched nerve in his neck put him on the 10-day disabled list in June — and a strong No. 2 in all-star Lance McCullers Jr., but after that, the rotation becomes shaky.
Brad Peacock’s 5-1 record is remarkable but starts to lose its luster when you look at the 8.93 runs in support he gets per nine innings, nearly three runs more than the average starter gets in the majors this season. Plus, Peacock struggles with his command, walking batters in 13.8 percent of their plate appearances this season, the third-highest among starters with at least 40 innings pitched in 2017, resulting in just three quality starts (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs) in nine outings. Mike Fiers, Charlie Morton and Joe Musgrove also struggle to go long into games, combining for 14 quality starts in 42 games pitched (33.3 percent). Overall, Houston has 36 quality starts at the all-star break, the seventh-fewest in the league, with just 10 coming since Keuchel’s last start on June 2. That’s the same number as the Miami Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, two teams with no chance at making the playoffs this season.