On April 2nd, I wrote this:
I like the Rangers to make the over on 83.5 wins, but 90 is pushing it. I would love for the club to be in a position where they are within a few games of Houston come September, where they would have ability to play their way — head-to-head — to a division title, and still have one of the two Wild Card slots as a fallback option. The Astros are going to be a problem in 2016, so as long as the Rangers’ veteran roster is within striking distance to give themselves a shot at knocking off the upstarts for a second straight year, I would consider that a win this season.
For the second straight night, the Astros lost to the Rangers by a score of 2-1. In five total matchups against Texas in 2016, Houston is winless, and has been outscored 20-12. On the season they are 17-27 (.386), own a -26 run differential, and are in dead last in the American League West.
I did not see this coming.
Houston opened the season as the betting favorite (+160) to win the AL West according to Vegas, and was tied with the defending World Series champion Royals (7:1) for 3rd-best odds of winning the American League Pennant. They were part of a small collection of contenders who were expected to compete in October.
For context, the Rangers opened the year +210 to win the West and 9:1 to represent the AL in the World Series, a subtle but still meaningful difference. If the money trail meant anything, the Astros and Rangers were supposed to be the only relevant teams in their division this year.
And for all we know, that could still prove be the case. Just not right now. We are almost through the month of May, and Houston trails the first-place Mariners by 9 games in the West. Their AL pennant odds have plummeted to +3300 (also referred to as 33:1), according to Bovada.
Basically, before the year started, a simple $20 bet on the Astros to win the American League would have netted you $140, which is cool I guess. Presently, that same $20 bet would get you $660. That’s how far they’ve fallen from expectations.
The problem for Houston has been its starting rotation. Among all 15 American League teams, it ranks at the very bottom in strikeout rate (17.2%), 13th in ERA (4.50) and 10th in HR/FB rate (13.1%). They’ve also been victim to some bad luck, highlighted by a .327 opponents BABIP (highest in the league) and being 12th in strand rate (70%).
Then there’s the issue of their best starting pitcher, last season’s AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, whose results have been just dreadful. Here are how his brilliant numbers over the past two years compare to his 2016 campaign:
K% 2014-2015: 21.1% 2016: 18.9% BB% 2014-2015: 5.8% 2016: 10% GB% 2014-2015: 62.6% 2016: 55.5% HR/FB% 2014-2015: 11.7% 2016: 15.4%
To simplify, Dallas Keuchel was one of baseball’s best pitchers between 2014-’15, but he’s fallen off a cliff this year. He’s walking more, striking out fewer, and surrendering more fly ball contact — and more home runs on the fly ball contact. Now, his ground ball rate is still fantastic for a starting pitcher, but it’s come less handy since he’s been walking so many more hitters.
Last year he allowed 51 unintentional walks in 223 innings pitched. This year he’s already given up 25 in 56.1 IP; extrapolated over another 223-inning season, it translates to 99 walks, nearly double what it was in 2015.
So these are bad signs for the Astros. At 17-27, they will need to go 64-54 (.542) over the remainder of the season to finish 81-81. To get into serious postseason contention — for argument’s sake let’s call it 87 wins — they will need to finish the year 70-48 (.593). That seems like a tall order right now.
Of course, such a run is nowhere near unprecedented. When the Rangers completed their miracle of an AL West crown in 2015, they were — like Houston is right now — 9.0 games back, and at an even later point in the season. So there is still plenty of time.
But at no point last year was Texas as far below .500 as Houston is now. Their low point was an 8-16 record. Houston has more time than the Rangers did to make up the difference in the division, but I would argue that they have less talent to do so. Especially considering Seattle’s seemingly real improvements, and the fact that Yu Darvish is coming back to Texas’s rotation a week from today.
The Rangers benefitted from a weak West in 2015. That was the only way a division title could have happened. The Astros don’t have that luxury.