As much as I hate the Rangers - and trust me, I hate the Rangers - I'm starting to gain a grudging respect about how these dudes seemingly do not lose. On May 1 the Rangers had a 6.0 game lead on the Astros. Since then the Astros have gone 33-20 - third-best record in the AL - and have seen their deficit to the Rangers extend to 10.0 games. How the hell?
1. Beating the piss out of the Astros
You already know that the Rangers are 9-1 against Houston this season. This sucks. For us, I mean, as Astros fans. For them it's freaking great. Since May 1 the Rangers are 6-1 against Houston, so there's your four-game lead extension from May 1 to present day. Of these seven games, the Rangers won four of them by one run and a 5th by two runs. The Rangers have just outplayed the Astros.
Overall the Rangers are hitting .267/.325/.430. Against the Astros this season (again, ten games) they're hitting .285/.326/.469 - highest against any other divisional opponent. They shellacked the Red Sox and Tigers in separate three-game series, so the team OPS is higher against them (.935 and .921, respectively). But they tend to hit better against the Astros.
But it's the Rangers pitching which has shut down the Astros. Overall the Rangers pitching staff has allowed a .257/.324/.412 line, with a team 3.99 ERA/1.33 WHIP. But the Astros have hit .201/.282/.346 off of Rangers pitching, who has a 2.60 ERA/1.09 WHIP against Houston. Seven of their starting pitchers' top 30 Game Scores have come against Houston, including two of their top five Game Scores.
Essentially, the Rangers pitchers have been able to shut down the Astros' offense for their 9-1 record. A ten game lead on the Astros when the Rangers are eight games better in head-to-head matchups pretty much explains it. The Astros have been shutout or held to one run twelve times this season - three times by the Rangers. God I hate that team.
So which Astros are struggling against the Rangers?
It's not Jose Altuve (.289/.386/.526) or Luis Valbuena (.350/.381/.450). It's not Colby Rasmus (.286/.412/.536). Marwin is even hitting a respectable .267/.267/.467 against Midlothian. But they're the only ones off the hook here. Consider:
George Springer: .179/.289/.385
Carlos Correa: .139/.225/.167
Carlos Gomez: .130/.286/.304
Jason Castro: .174/.296/.174
Evan Gattis: .182/.222/.303
That's a significant portion of the lineup who has not produced against a team that the Astros really need to beat in order to continue the hope of playing in October. Those five players have totaled four home runs, nine RBI, 50K:20BB in ten games against the Rangers.
If you haven't pulled enough hair out just yet, consider that (via FanGraphs) the Rangers' team pitching fWAR is 5.5 - 20th in the Majors. The Astros' team pitching fWAR is 11.0 - 5th in the Majors. Even breaking it down to Starters vs. Relievers, the Astros have a better rotation fWAR than the Rangers - 6.4 to 5.1 - and the Bullpen disparity is even greater with the Astros posting the best fWAR in baseball at 4.6 and the Rangers coming in 24th at 0.4 fWAR. In isolation these numbers are misleading - the Astros just haven't been able to get it done against Tarrant County.
2. Playing on the road
The Rangers are 23-15 on the road in 2016, the Astros are 19-22. Starting with the May 20 series at Houston the Rangers are 15-3 on the road with a +35 run differential. That's unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is that they're 6-1 in 1-run games over that span, including a three-game sweep at St. Louis that they won by a grand total of three runs.
Beginning with the road series that started at Anaheim on May 27, the Astros are 12-7 in road games, but starting out the season 7-15 on the road goes back to the whole "April was a deep dark hole" narrative that is looking more and more valid by the day.
3. ...Which piggybacks in to close wins
The Rangers are 17-5 in one-run games and 24-13 in games decided by 1-2 runs. The Rangers' 17 1-run wins are the most in the AL by five full wins. Only the Yankees, at 11-6, are remotely close the Rangers' 1-run record.
The Astros have clawed their way back to 13-13 in one-run games and 23-20 in games decided by 1-2 runs. But the Rangers' head-to-head record against Houston exacerbates the issue in this.
4. The Rangers have the best record in the division because they have beaten the dogmess out of (almost) everyone in the division.
AL West teams vs. AL West teams:
Euless vs. Houston: 9-1
Euless vs. Seattle: 8-4
Euless vs. Anaheim: 6-4
Euless vs. Oakland: 3-4
This makes no sense.
I know that what I'm about to do is questionable, but let's remove the Astros and Rangers' head-to-head matchup from the top of the division standings:
North Duncanville: 17-12
The Rangers are 17-5 against Houston and Seattle combined and 9-8 combined against the two worst teams in the division. So that's how you stretch a lead - beat the crap out of your immediate competition and count on the rest of the league to beat the crap out of the crap teams.
5. It doesn't matter how they're doing this.
Cole Hamels has a 2.60 ERA but a 4.40 FIP. Colby Lewis had a 3.21 ERA but a 4.28 FIP. Martin Perez has a 3.44 ERA but a 4.73 FIP. There's only one Rangers pitcher who has thrown more than 30IP this season who has outperformed his FIP, and that's DL mainstay Derek Holland and the Rangers will probably call up some Sandy Koufax lookin' ass boy to replace him and get even better.
The AL-average BABIP is right at .300. Despite their team BABIP sitting at .302, the Rangers have gotten 1395 plate appearances from hitters currently with a .300 BABIP or higher. Got dang Ian Desmond (332 PAs) and Jurickson Profar (100 PAs) have a .394 and .395 BABIP, respectively. Both would be a franchise record should they manage to keep that up.
The Astros' team BABIP? You're probably thinking it's in the neighborhood of the current heat index in Houston, hovering somewhere around .100. It's actually .302, the exact same BABIP as the Rangers. Furthermore, the Astros have gotten 2265 plate appearances from hitters currently with a .300 BABIP or higher.
Wins are wins. The wins already banked are not a mirage, even if the statistics behind them are. It's not as though the Rangers are going to have any of their already-recorded 51 wins taken away from them in September because their 1-run devil magic runs out in August, or because maybe the Astros start to actually, you know, win a few games against the Rangers. They have a ten-game lead and there's no statistical gymnastics you can do to change that. It's great for their fans. It sucks for us.
Let's leave the Wild Card out of this for the time being. If the Astros are to win the division, here's what needs to happen:
Let's assume that life is as terrible for Houston fans as we all believe it is and the Rangers really are a 106-win team (which is the pace at which they have won over their first 78 games). Let's say this is who the Rangers are and they keep this up and win 106 games. The Astros would need to go 66-18 from this point forward to make up those ten games and take the division. That's a .786 clip and would amount to a 162-game record of 127-35.
Let's assume that the Rangers have used all of their lives or the devil shows up to get his due and the Rangers play .500 from this point forward. There's no reason to think they're a .500 team, but we're playing around here, yeah? So going .500 from this point forward means they end the season with a 93-69 record. If the Astros are to get to 94 wins, they will need to 53-31 over their last 84 games - a .630 clip. Now over their last 30 games the Astros are 21-9 - a .700 clip - but it's a lot harder to win at that pace over 84 games than it is over 30.*
*Hits self in head with hammer.
Since May 1 the Astros are 34-20 - a .630 win rate. If the Astros are to win at a .630 pace for the next 84 games, they would end 2016 with a 94-68 record, an unbelievable thought as of April 30. It may still be unbelievable, anyway.
Here's the problem with that: Let's say the Astros do exactly that and win out at a ridiculous .630 pace, ending the season with a 94-68 record. The Rangers would "only" need to go 44-40, a .524 win percentage that is far below the .654 they've put up so far. Such is the lead the Rangers have built, assisted by the Astros. And assisted, of course, by the devil and Jeff Banister's ritualistic sacrifices and Jon Daniels' binding commitment to the Dark Lord.