There’s been a lot to get excited about in the American League, and a lot of new.
The Baltimore Orioles have arrived, even against their owner’s wishes. The Seattle Mariners were the hottest team in baseball for a month to six weeks. The Texas Rangers at least put together a brilliant two-thirds of the season, blending big spending with internal development. The Blue Jays have kind of been a frustrating, lumbering outfit most of the season, but are seemingly coming good at the right time. Most of all, the Yankees suck ass! If it feels like a newly built playground in the Junior Circuit, that’s because it’s kind of been.
So anyone’s frustration that it very well might all end the same, with orange-and-blue confetti dropping from the Minute Maid Park rafters as the Astros head to another World Series, we get you.
After the uproar of the Mariners going nuclear and running down the Astros and Rangers to take first place for a good seven minutes, and the disappointment/comedy of watching the Rangers suddenly unable to hit the ball out of the infield, here are the Astros with three weeks left in the season, sitting 2.5 games up in 1st place, most likely getting to set everything just how they want them for the opening of the Division Series. Cue David Byrne.
While the Astros departed from their customary ways to claim a second World Series last year, with a hit-and-miss offense but a pitching staff that threw up more than enough zeroes to carry it through, this latest run is back to the skull-bashing we were used to with Houston. Since July 1st, the ‘Stros have eight regulars with a 100 wRC+ or more, and they just added Michael Brantley back into the mix. In eight games since returning from injury, Brantley is slugging .615, which is all they need.
Leading it all is down-ballot MVP candidate Kyle Tucker, who has turned the magic trick of hitting for a ton of power while walking more than he strikes out. If Tucker hadn’t been a pair of clown shoes in the field (-5 OAA according to StatCast) he’d be among the leaders in WAR in the AL.
What will really piss people off, or set off the “cheating” alarms again (check his shirt!) is that Jose Altuve has been punching a hole in the sky as well. Altuve has had an injury nightmare of a season, breaking his thumb in the WBC and then having oblique problems in July. And oblique problems can be hell for a baseball player, given the twisting involved in a swing. Hasn’t been much of an issue for Altuve, who since coming back has slashed .335/.409/.591. Altuve is never going to outrun being the face of the cheating scandal, mostly because he’s one of the few who’s still there (it’s basically him and Alex Bregman). And yet he continues to hit, year after year, whether you or I like it or not.
Yordan Alvaraz is still doing Yordan things (185 wRC+ since July 1, though having only played 39 games). There’s been the usual metronomic production from Bregman, and Chas McCormack has been able to ride some kind of BABIP treachery to a hot stretch. Even Jose Abreu has not been clinically dead, as was for most of the season.
Those looking to try and crack the Astros come October will focus on the rotation. That’s natural, as it hasn’t been very good. Only Justin Verlander has been able to take the ball regularly in the past two months and keep his ERA under 4.00. Their FIPs aren’t much better, which suggests they aren’t getting all that unlucky (though Hunter Brown might object, with a .400 BABIP against and a 65 percent left-on-base percentage meaning it’s all raining down around his ears). But Houston didn’t really require a dominating staff to win the World Series last year, just a dominant bullpen. Which is what they have again, even if it still takes one a lot of wheel poses and inversions to come to terms with the idea that Dusty Baker can wield a pen in the playoffs expertly.
In October 2022, the Astros boasted four relievers who posted an ERA under 2.00. Since July 1st of this season, it’s only three, and one of them isn’t Ryan Pressly, but we’ve seen this act in the fall before. Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, and Rafael Montero have all been a little walk-happy, but have been far more K-happy, and all have been lights out. Which is all the Astros require
Everyone knows the formula. They’ll get five innings out of Verlander or Valdez or Javier or Brown, and probably better than that once or twice from Valdez or Verlander during their run, and then Neris, Abreu, Montero, and Pressly take it from there and cobble together 9-12 outs. Baker doesn’t even have to get all that creative with multi-inning outings. He didn’t last year.
And the path seems to be opening up for them. The O’s barely have any pitching. The Astros will likely open with either the Twins or the last wildcard team, probably the Jays, who only have one starter worth worrying about. Who knows what the Mariners are going to be. They’ll pitch, but do they have enough hitters? Julio Rodriguez can’t do it all himself, no matter how close he comes to doing so.
You can change the scenery around the path as much as you’d like, try some different lighting or a different cast. And yet it’s starting to feel like the script will end where it always has, and that’s another Astros pennant.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social