Around the same time, I was trawling through the Baseball Prospectus website when I saw this hit list. The BP hit list is my favourite of all the power-ranking / in-season-team-listing list, partly because of the presence of a greater sabermatic presence and formula used to rank the teams, and partly because of the humorous lines posted right below.
Regardless, the thing that caught my eye was the presence of three AL West teams in the top three slots - the A's, the Angels and the Mariners. Some significant down-scrolling is required to find the Astros (#26) and the Rangers (who would be #31 if the list went that low), so the whole AL West isn't great, but three quarters of the Astros' intra-division opposition is considered to be pretty darn good, and fighting for playoff slots.
I also recalled writing around a month ago - hidden inside another article - about the incredibly odd distribution of the runs-for and run-against equation of all the teams inside the AL West. As of end-of-play on 18 August the AL West looks like this in terms of run differential per team:
- Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: +89
- Oakland A's: +161
- Seattle Mariners: +96
- Houston Astros: -91
- Texas Rangers: -135
Now this places the AL West at a total, division-wide run differential of +120. The current run differentials of all the divisions in 2014 (in order, as at 18 August) look like this:
- AL West: +120
- NL Central: +8
- AL East: -3
- NL East: -8
- AL Central: -26
- NL West: -91
But what I thought was interesting a direct comparison to the run differential from last year inside the AL West. As at August 18 2013, the AL West standings looked like:
- Texas Rangers: +58
- Oakland A's: +69
- Seattle Mariners: -86
- Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: -36
- Houston Astros: -174
... for a total division wide run differential of -172. The baseball-wide division standings looked like (at 18 August 2013):
- NL Central: +179
- AL East: +159
- AL Central: +68
- NL West: -107
- NL East: -127
- AL West: -172
Last year, the Astros lagged all of baseball with -174 runs scored - the worst mark by exactly 70 runs. This was also inside the worst division in baseball by runs scored versus runs against. This year, they are 83 runs better, in the hardest division, which has arguably the top three teams in baseball.
Now the 2014 season schedule is somewhat unbalanced, and the Astros have a total of 24 games against AL West opponents out of their remaining 37 games (in 2013, they had 21 intra-division games to play on August 18). Seventeen of these 24 games are against what some may argue as the top three teams in baseball, with the most difficult stretch in the 18 games between 25 August and 14 September - all of which are against AL West opponents, and only four of those being against the Rangers.
This stretch will go a long way to determining what kind of season the Astros are recorded as having. Go .500 through that 24 game period, and a legitimate shot at 70+ wins is the result. Win two or three of those games, and another weak finish will consign the season to another lost one.
I guess the other point to make is that the Astros have not been a healthy team this year. We don't quite get to grab all the sympathy from the Texas Rangers (who have ten players on the 60-day DL), but I read somewhere recently that the Astros have lost the second-most number of days to the DL of all the teams in the American League. Some of these are important bullpen cogs (Jesse Crain, Matt Albers), some of these are/were key offensive performers (Dexter Fowler, George Springer) and some of these are/were spare parts (Jose Cisnero, Alex Presley). Regardless, this has not been a great year for injuries in a young team, and potentially this could have cost the Astros a couple of games in the wins column as well.
In summary, I would make the argument that the 2014 Houston Astros are much better than the 2013 addition, and I don't think I will get much disagreement. If anything, the win-loss column has the capacity to minimise the extent of the improvement given the improved competition inside the tougher division. Injuries may have acted to obscure the extent of the improvement as well.
However, before any Astros fans get all excited, please check out the five right-most columns of the BP Hit List table. They are the columns that outline the calculated playoff odds. Until the Astros manage to have some non-zero numbers in those columns, they really haven't done anything, despite the extent of any improvement.