The Houston Astros topped at least one power-rankings list last week. The fact that it was my personal Power Rankings List that I keep in my journal is not germane; the once-lowly Disastros have gone 8-7 since the beginning of September. That’s better than .500 — a winning record within these arbitrary endpoints! — and the eight wins is as many games as Houston won in July and August combined (h/t @cantpredictball).
They also took three of four from the Phillies over this past weekend and all but ended that team’s Wild Card hopes. As this goes to press on Tuesday night, they open a three-game set against the Cardinals, and the Astros can play spoiler again against a St. Louis team that has lost seven of its last 10. If I were Mike Matheny, I’d be preparing for these games (and next week’s series in Houston) like each one was a one-game playoff. There’s nothing scarier than playing a team with nothing to lose, and the Astros are the nothing-to-losiest.
One of the crazier things in this “hot streak” has been the teams the Astros have beaten. Since our arbitrary September 1st start date, Houston has won series against the Phillies and the Reds, while losing series to the Cubs and Pirates. (They also lost an August/September series to the Reds, but that first game falls outside of my self-selected timeframe, so I get to ignore it.)
But the Astros are objectively terrible! I mean, they’ve lost 99 games, which is almost 100, and 100 is a round number that, when seen in the loss column, tells us that a team is really, really bad. So how can they be good? It’s probably just luck, but let’s look at the data anyway, because, frankly, what else do you have to do?
Mostly the answer is Wilton Lopez. I know I probably should’ve teased you a little, dropped some hints and strung you along some, but dangit, I just get so excited when I talk about Wilton Lopez!
At 29 years old, Lopez is among the oldest players on the team and probably never has to carry his own bags. (I assume he just rests them on Jose Altuve’s head while they walk to their hotel rooms.) Lopez has put up decent numbers this year, including a 3.88 FRA and 0.6 WARP, and became the closer after Brett Myers was shipped to the White Sox in late July.
But Lopez has been a good luck charm in September. He’s appeared in eight games, of which the Astros have won six, and he’s accrued four saves and a win. He’s given up one earned run over that span, and allowed one inherited runner to score. He’s also given up 10 hits in eight innings, but has a .435 BABIP against, so you’ve got to figure some of that is just bad luck.
Free advice to interim manager Tony DeFrancesco: have Wilton Lopez pitch in every game the rest of the way, go 11-4 (conservatively). That’s how this works, right?
At the other end of the age spectrum is Jordan Lyles. At 21 years, 11 months old, Jordan Lyles is one of the youngest starters in the major leagues. He’s got a 4-11 record and doesn’t have overpowering stuff; his fastball tops out at 92 and sits around 90, and the rest of his repertoire is a work in progress. But on the other hand, he’s not quite 22, still learning how to pitch, and is showing signs of putting it all together.
Instead of wearing down at the end of a long season, Lyles seems to be getting stronger. On September 11th, Lyles stymied the Cubs for five innings, holding them to just two hits, and working around three Astros’ errors. In his three September starts, Houston has gone 2-1, but Lyles has only thrown 14 2/3 innings — maybe a sign that Houston is monitoring his innings count — but he has the frame and the makeup to become a legit innings-eater over time. Remember: he’s not yet 22, and is still figuring out this whole “baseball” thing.
The one way-under-the-radar bright spot (Is it a bright spot if nobody sees it?) goes by the name of Mickey Storey. I know it sounds like I just picked some random 1940s baseball player off of Baseball-Reference, but this person actually exists, and plays for the Astros in 2012.
Like Lopez, Storey has made eight relief appearances in September; like Lopez, Houston has a 6-2 record in games in which Storey has pitched. In 7 2/3 innings over that span, Storey has struck out nine and walked two, and has impressed scouts and opponents alike. With the exception of the Ks, his September numbers are actually a little worse than his overall numbers, so there’s every reason to believe he’s for real.
The Astros offense is … how can I put this delicately … not good. Its output of 3.6 runs per game is 30th in baseball. There are 30 major-league baseball teams. That means they are last. Last is bad.
Houston has had a couple of nice surprises this year in the persons of Jose Altuve (their lone All-Star representative) and Jed Lowrie, but everyone knows about those guys. All the cool kids are into Justin Maxwell now.
The Astros claimed Maxwell in April after he was designated for assignment by the New York Yankees. He’d amassed .8 WARP in one full season plus parts of two others with the Nationals. After a miserable 2010, in which he hit .144/.305/.288 in 131 plate appearances, he spent all of 2011 in Triple-A, where he damaged his labrum severely enough that he required surgery.
He’s an old 28 now — he turns 29 in early November — and the Astros have been lucky to get 1.5 WARP from him so far this year, especially given how often he’s been used as a pinch-hitter. But we’re talking about Mr. Maxwell now because in 13 games so far in September, he’s hit at a .273/.327/.614 clip, while sporting a relatively low .286 BABIP. The eye-popper here, of course, is the .614 SLG, which is .136 higher than his season mark of .476 and his big-league average of .433. In fact, six of his 12 September hits have gone for extra bases, and four of those have left the park. Pretty good production from a waiver-claim pinch-hitter/outfielder, but probably not sustainable. (That was sarcasm.)
There’s not a lot of good news after Maxwell. The one notable exception is Scott Moore. In September, the soon-to-be 29-year-old utilityman has had 14 plate appearances — six as a pinch hitter — and has hit .455/.571/.727.
Moore isn’t good. He’s put up -0.9 WARP over parts of six big-league seasons, and he’s never finished a season in positive WARP territory. (This year will likely be no exception.) But over the last two weeks, Moore has hit like Ted Williams circa 1941. This is stupid and it won’t last. Reality and regression set in, and performance levels return to normal. Hot streaks don’t last.
But the Astros were due for a hot streak. The universe owed them one. Even after their “hot’ September, they’re still a few games under their Pythagorean W/L record. But that’s the kind of thing that happens to really bad teams, or the kind of thing that takes teams from just plain bad to historically bad. It would be great if the Astros went 10-5 the rest of the way, or even 8-7 (unless you are the Cardinals, I guess). It would be a huge boost for a young team going into the offseason and a far tougher 2013 schedule. So I’ll be pulling for them, and I recommend you do the same.