The Astros established an offensive record for the midpoint of a season, but their general manager says, “This team has not played up to its potential.”
HOUSTON — It is extremely difficult to score 173 more runs than your opponents in half a season of play. Yet that is what the Houston Astros did through their first 81 games this year. It was the best run differential at the midway point in the history of the 162-game schedule, which began in the American League in 1961.
Teams that finish the first half with such overwhelming victory margins usually win big in October. The 1969 Baltimore Orioles (+165) lost the World Series, but the 1976 Cincinnati Reds (+160), the 1998 Yankees (+157) and the 2016 Chicago Cubs (+149) won it. Yet as the Astros are trying to become the first team to repeat as champions in nearly two decades, they are not quite satisfied with their record.
“To be honest, this team has not played up to its potential,” General Manager Jeff Luhnow said at Minute Maid Park a few days before the All-Star break. “We’ve hit into a lot of double plays; we’ve had some guys go through extended slumps; we’ve punched out more than we did last year; our bullpen has had periods where it’s blown a couple of leads.
“This team is driven by the fact that we have put out another top offense, but this year we’ve combined it with one of the best rotations in a long time, and that combination keeps the opposition from scoring runs and allows us to do our thing. It’s fun.”
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The Astros reached the All-Star break with a 64-35 record, good for a five-game lead in the A.L. West. But based on their run differential, according to Baseball Reference, they should have been 70-29. Their actual winning percentage (.646) trailed the Boston Red Sox’ and the Yankees’, but that should not obscure the fact that the reigning champions are probably better than they were last fall.
“I think we are,” said George Springer, the All-Star right fielder. “But in today’s age, everybody bases that on a result. If we accomplish our goal, then yes. But I think on paper, yeah, we’re a very, very similar team, but we’re more experienced, which makes us a lot better.”
Springer was one of six Astros at the All-Star Game, which also featured four players Luhnow has traded as general manager: Atlanta starter Mike Foltynewicz, Milwaukee reliever Josh Hader, Toronto starter J.A. Happ and Oakland infielder Jed Lowrie. Those players helped bring in Evan Gattis and Brad Peacock, plus the now-departed Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove, who was part of the package Luhnow sent to Pittsburgh last winter for Gerrit Cole.
“The reality is you make trades, you try and get what you need, you try and help the other team get what they need — and the more our players have success in other environments, the more likely those other teams are going to want to do deals with us,” Luhnow said. “Other teams are going to say, ‘Hey, you can get a good return with a Double-A guy from the Astros who could end up being a big part of your team when you need him.’ That’s a benefit to us.”
At this trade deadline, the Astros are considering bullpen upgrades and have kept close watch on Baltimore’s Zach Britton, whom they nearly acquired last July and who could be dealt soon, now that the Orioles have traded their centerpiece, Manny Machado, to the Dodgers. But the Astros must weigh their need for a closer with the fact that they will gain a reliever in October anyway — from their rotation.
Manager A.J. Hinch improvised in the postseason last fall, letting Peacock, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. close out victories with dominant multiple-inning performances. All of them made at least 20 starts last season, when the Astros spread around their rotation innings and entered the playoffs with only one pitcher on their active roster — Justin Verlander — who had worked more than 150 innings.
Things are different now. The Astros are the only team that reached the break having used just five starters: Verlander, Cole, McCullers, Morton and Dallas Keuchel. They led the majors in starters’ earned run average (3.02) and opponents’ batting average (.209), but also in innings pitched (613).
The danger is that the starters are so good now, they will not be rested for October. Hinch understood that fear and pointed to a schedule poster on his office wall. There were lots of dates shaded in gray, indicating no game.
“We only have two starts, between the beginning of the second half and the end of August, on regular rest,” Hinch said. “And we have a good enough rotation where I don’t even have the flirtation of skipping guys or trying to bring guys back early. That’s essentially like a six-man rotation, with the sixth man being an off-day, so I feel good about that.”
Luhnow said the team would be most cautious with McCullers, who is the team’s youngest starter, at 24. Morton, 34, has never reached 175 innings in an 11-year career. Cole has never pitched past the first round of the playoffs.
Ideally, the Astros could get to September and manage everyone’s rest however they want, plugging a few games with call-ups or long relievers. To do that, though, they must shake the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics from a division race that is closer than expected.
Hinch said he was encouraged by his team’s skill at “maintaining our attention span,” and wondered if the division race had helped the players stay sharp. Morton was not so sure.
“We see the scores and we can see where the other teams are in our division, but I don’t think it’s good to think about that all the time,” he said. “We didn’t have that last year and I thought we had an edge, and we had momentum. I think it’s just better to know that we’re really good.”
They are really good — and the numbers say they could be even better.