Good Luck Stopping the Astros in October

For the third straight year, the Astros are champions of the AL West—and for the third straight year, arguably the favorite for World Series honors. Ever since Houston’s roster went into overdrive in 2017, when it beat the Dodgers in the Fall Classic for the first title in franchise history, every season has begun with World Series aspirations. This one is no different, particularly given how brilliant this year’s Astros are. But are they baseball’s best bet to win it all? Let’s make the case for Houston emerging from the postseason with trophy in hand.

1. The Astros have Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, and no one else does

Honestly, I don’t think I need to elaborate much on that point. The Astros have Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, and no one else does.

If you want to dive into that a little further: The Astros have the two frontrunners for the AL Cy Young award, plus a guy with a career 3.38 ERA and 125 ERA+. Since joining Houston at the trade deadline, Greinke has posted a 3.02 ERA and 154 ERA+ in 62 2/3 innings, and he’s the third best pitcher on the staff. He also came within two outs of a no-hitter Wednesday night. Verlander has a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly seven and a strikeout rate of 35.0%, which would be far and away the best mark in the AL if it weren’t for the fact that Cole is toting an absolutely stupid 39.8% strikeout rate. That's the highest strikeout rate for a qualified starting pitcher that FanGraphs has on record—better than Pedro Martinez's 1999, than any Randy Johnson season, than anything Chris Sale or Max Scherzer have done.

In fact, let’s open up some space to reflect on the bonkers season Cole is having. Since the beginning of June, he has a 1.72 ERA and 204 strikeouts—yes, 204—in 135 2/3 innings. Those 204 strikeouts are more than Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Jose Berrios and Clayton Kershaw have recorded all season. It’s more than what Ivan Nova and Brett Anderson have done combined. That total would’ve led the league for the entire year in 46 different seasons. And he’s somehow reached new heights in September: five starts, 37 innings, four earned runs, five walks, 64 strikeouts.

This is, with no qualifiers or doubts, the best rotation in baseball and the postseason, and that’s with Literally Wade Miley as the fourth starter, only Literally Wade Miley has actually been good this year (3.91 ERA, 119 ERA+) because the Astros are dark wizards. The only weakness here is that Verlander and Cole in particular have been prone to homers: 34 allowed by the former, 28 by the latter. They barely allow baserunners or contact; your only real hope is to run into a pitch. (Which is pretty much 2019 baseball in a nutshell anyway.)

There’s an added bonus, too, of having multiple dominant starters, which is that manager A.J. Hinch won’t have to resort to complicated pitching arrangements or aggressive bullpen deployment to get through a game. Where other franchises are stuck trying to cobble together 27 outs from 15 different guys and will slam on the panic button once the opposing lineup reaches the third time through, Hinch can go old school and count on six-plus innings from his three aces, then use his relievers in a calm, orderly fashion. That’s not to say Hinch *won’t* get creative; only that he has the luxury of not having to scramble or to melt his bullpen every night.

2. The Astros’ lineup is death incarnate

Luckily for opposing teams this October, if they can solve the baseball Cerberus that is Verlander, Cole and Greinke, all they have to do at that point is tame an offense that ... [checks notes] ... is the fifth best in MLB history. Houston’s team wRC+ is a staggering 125, just a point off the ‘27 Yankees and the best mark any squad has put up since, uh, the 2017 Astros (121), who you may remember demolishing everyone in their path en route to a World Series win.

Fine, you may be saying, by a fancy stat, the Astros are a nuclear warhead. But what do other numbers say? Glad you asked! Houston this season ranks:

Third in runs

• Second in home runs

• First in batting average

• First in on-base percentage

• First in slugging percentage

• Tied for first in walk rate

• First in strikeout rate (that is to say, they have the lowest figure)

• Second in extra-base-hit rate

• First in OPS versus righthanded pitching

• Second in OPS versus lefthanded pitching

• Second in OPS at home

• Third in OPS on the road

That’s a lot of top-three marks! And the Astros have done that despite getting only 75 games out of Carlos Correa and with both Jose Altuve and George Springer each missing sizable chunks of time. It helps that Alex Bregman is having an MVP-caliber campaign (40 homers, a 163 OPS+, 8.2 bWAR), that Michael Brantley was arguably the winter’s best addition (.313/.374/.501 and a 128 OPS+), that Yordan Alvarez emerged from the minors bearing the powers of Peak Hank Aaron (27 homers and a 181 OPS+ in just 83 games), and that, when healthy, Springer and Altuve have been lethal at the plate. Even if Correa’s balky back continues to plague him, this is still a lineup with few if any holes or weaknesses, just like the rotation.

3. They’re (probably) going to have homefield advantage the whole way

This one isn’t entirely sewn up: The Astros enter Thursday with 104 wins to the Yankees’ 102. But crucially, New York has one less game left to play, and Houston holds the head-to-head tiebreaker, so the odds are high that Minute Maid Park will host Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS and World Series (as well as Games 6 and 7 if things go that far). (The Dodgers have 102 wins with four games left, so they’re not completely out of this race, but they’re longshots.) That’s a very bad thing for opposing teams, because the Astros are damn near invincible at home.

At 60–21, Houston finished the year with the best home winning percentage (.741, or a 120-win pace over a full season) since the 1998 Yankees went 62–19 in their friendly confines. Astros hitters put up 489 runs in those 81 contests, or just over six per game, while slashing .284/.362/.516. Bregman, Altuve, Springer and Alvarez all had OPS figures of .900 or better at Minute Maid (with the rookie Alvarez posting an eye-popping .349/.441/.699 line there), and Michael Brantley was just a hair off at .884. Facing the Astros’ lineup is hard enough; doing so at home is like trying to juggle flaming knives while blindfolded.

The good news for Houston’s would-be challengers is that Minute Maid Park is a haven for offense overall: The stadium ranks ninth in runs in ESPN’s MLB Park Factors and sixth in homers. The bad news for any team hankering to take swings in that bandbox is, well, [gestures at the section about Verlander and Cole and Greinke]. And therein lies perhaps the most impressive Astros stat of them all: Houston pitching held opposing offenses to the fourth-lowest OPS at home in the majors, at a paltry .683 (albeit while allowing the fifth-most homers). Even with all those dingers, the Astros excelled at keeping runs off the board in one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the game. There’s nothing they can’t do well.

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