With MLB’s regular season coming to a close, it’s time to bet on playoff baseball. With that in mind, continue reading for several compelling reasons why the Houston Astros - mostly overlooked since the all-star break - can emerge from this postseason as champions.
The narrative is working in Houston’s favour
Early in 2017, Houston Astros got off to one of the best starts (42-16, 59-29 in the first half) in MLB history. The team was in cruise control. But when stars Carlos Correa, George Springer and Lance McCullers suffered injuries, the team went on a 40-game run with a .500 record.
Meanwhile, the LA Dodgers went on a historic run eclipsing Houston’s success, the Astros failed to make a significant trade deadline move and, finally, the Cleveland Indians reeled off a 22-game win streak. The Astros became baseball’s forgotten team. They shouldn’t be.
In a year where there are more elite teams than usual, the Astros find themselves staring at one of the easiest potential paths to the World Series.
Houston’s offence is about as potent as any this century. Correa, Springer and potential American League MVP Jose Altuve form an elite core around which a deep and powerful lineup has been built. This adds to a deep bullpen that boasts baseball’s second-best percentage of strikeouts (10.92 K/9) and top-heavy starting pitching that seems primed for the post-season.
This is a powerful roster that’s demonstrated repeatedly the ability to decimate opponents when it counts. With an 18-9 record in the last 30 days, Houston are healing at just the right time.
Thanks to the storyline following the Dodgers’ and Indians’ seasons and the widespread popularity of the playoff-bound Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs, Houston could well be undervalued in the playoff betting markets.
A crucial trade deadline
A large part of the Astros’ malaise was due to the team’s inactivity at the first of two trade deadlines. Members of the team sounded off in the media and, with the Indians surging, Houston’s World Series hopes were discarded for the newer, shinier toy.
That’s when General Manager Jeff Luhnow pulled the trigger on what may have been the most decisive trade of the season, landing former Cy Young-winner Justin Verlander, the ace starter the Astros previously lacked.
Verlander has been a revelation since his arrival. In four starts, he’s thrown 28 innings, given up two runs on eleven hits, walked five and struck out 32. He’s pitching like a man with a chip on his shoulder, which makes sense considering:
- He pitched better than Rick Porcello last season (Porcello won the Cy Young award).
- He’s never won a World Series despite five trips to the postseason.
- Pundits were suggesting his best years were behind him earlier in the season.
- His viability as a Hall of Fame candidate has started being discussed, with his case coming up just short of where it needs to be for serious contention.
Though he held out on approving the trade in the hopes he’d catch on with the Cubs or Dodgers instead, Houston is the perfect landing spot for Verlander. It’s a young, talented team that will compete in the remaining years of his contract, with the potential for him to lead them to their first ever championship.
If Verlander eventually reaches the Hall of Fame, the narrative of the 2017-2019 seasons may be the deciding factor. Verlander now tops a rotation that previously looked like a weakness. Dallas Keuchel has mostly returned to the Cy Young form he enjoyed in 2015 and Brad Peacock has emerged from the bullpen as one of the league’s most reliable starters in the second half.
Thanks to the storyline following the Dodgers’ and Indians’ seasons, Houston could well be undervalued in the playoff betting markets.
Those three will do the majority of the starting for Houston come playoff time, with McCullers, Charlie Morton and Colin McHugh all providing capable fourth options. In short, the weakness is no longer a weakness. The bullpen, meanwhile, started to flounder in the second half only to be reupholstered by additions and returns.
Closer Ken Giles and workhorse Chris Devenski have seen their work buoyed by the return of Will Harris, the addition of Francisco Liriano and the demotion of former-starter Joe Musgrove. Houston’s pen doesn’t match up with that of the Yankees or Indians - but it’s no longer the weakness some were projecting it to be in July.
The importance of health and return to form
While the Correa and Springer injuries caused a ripple of fear among the Houston fan base, they’re both back in the lineup. Neither has returned completely to the phenomenal form they enjoyed prior to their injuries, though there are signs of hope. This is now a team whose major lineup pieces are all back playing at just the right time.
Houston have an astounding six players playing 3.5 WAR or better baseball this season. Altuve is fighting for the best WAR among MLB hitters, virtual utility belt Marwin Gonzalez has enjoyed a career-best year, Alex Bregman has emerged and 2017 signee Josh Reddick has proven one of the best-value players of the year.
Even the team’s spare parts have proven productive, with all of that adding up to a relentless lineup that doesn’t give pitchers the opportunity to ease up or rest at any point in a ball game.
The path to the championship
In a year where there are more elite teams than usual, the Astros find themselves staring at one of the easiest potential paths to the World Series. Barring a last-minute Astros surge or Indians collapse, Houston will pair up with the Boston Red Sox in the first round.
Verlander has been a revelation since his arrival. In four starts, he’s thrown 28 innings, given up two runs on eleven hits, walked five and struck out 32.
Boston are no pushover but may be the most susceptible of the American league playoff teams, especially if Mookie Betts’s recent injury scare ends up being more than a blip. While Chris Sale has been one of baseball’s best starters this season, the injury to David Price and Drew Pomeranz’s recent ineffectiveness leave the Sox’s starting pitching shaky.
If Houston get past Boston, they will face either Cleveland or the Yankees in the Championship series. Both teams are well constructed for postseason play but their strong bullpens suggest potential for a drawn out, tightly contested series that could leave those arms feeling the strain. Ultimately, there are no soft routes through the postseason this year - but Houston’s AL path may be the ideal one.
Can Houston win the World Series?
Houston’s chances are as good as anyone’s this post-season. The markets, however, will reflect the narrative and brand popularity of other teams in a way that won’t represent that reality. Keep an eye on Houston’s outright price; the average team after the Wild Card game has a 12.5% chance of winning. If Houston’s price suggests their odds are average or worse, it could be a value bet.