Over the last six years the Houston Astros have dominated the AL West. They have won the division five of the last six years, with the lone exception being in the shorted 60-game 2020 season.
Now though, the Astros find themselves in third place and five games behind the Texas Rangers for first place. All eyes will be in Arlington this weekend as both teams will square off for the second time this season. Will the Rangers continue to pull ahead or will the Astros rally back and prove they are still the team to beat in Texas?
The Rangers Continue to Rake
The Rangers have shown their hot start wasn’t a fluke. Offensivley they have been one of the best in baseball and lead the league in most statistical categories. They are No. 1 in BA, hits per game, runs per game, and OBP, as well as top five in the league in both SLG% and extra-base hit%. Their lineup is one of the deepest in baseball and they’ve proved their doubters wrong.
The Rangers haven’t had an All-Star starter since Adrián Beltré, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli all started in 2012. This year the Rangers lead all teams in All-Star starters, as yesterday it was announced that catcher Jonah Heim will start the Midsummer Classic, along with almost their entire infield with Marcus Semien, Corey Seager and Josh Jung getting starting nods as well.
Giving massive contracts to both Seager and Semien last offseason has paid off. The duo has combined to bat .314 with 21 home runs and 102 RBI’s. While Seager, leads all AL players (minimum of 200 PA) in batting average (.344) and on-base percentage (.409).
It hasn’t just been the mutli-million dollar guys either. Outfielder Adolis Garcia has solidified himself as a threat at the plate leading the team in both home runs and RBI’s. Don’t forget about Jung (15 HR, .804 OPS) who is now the first Rangers rookie to start an All-Star game since 1972. Nathaniel Lowe has had another productive year, leading the team in OBP.
Catcher Jonah Heim is typically the odd man out when referring to the Rangers stars but the 28-year-old is in the midst of a breakout year, hitting .282 with 11 homers, 55 RBIs and an .809 OPS. Heim deserves credit for his work behind the plate and for the success of the Rangers pitching staff that is without ace Jacob deGrom. Even in his absence the Rangers have had a top of the line rotation headlined by Nathan Eovaldi
Rangers Success on the Mound
While Heim deserves some credit, much of the success from this pitching staff should be credited to pitching coach Mike Maddux. The Rangers have a top-10 pitching staff in the league, they are first in WHIP, sixth in ERA, second in hits per nine, and fifth in walks per nine.
The pitching staff has exceeded expectations especially after deGrom went down, they are under the league average in opponents BA, OBP, and SLG. The one down side is that this group of arms isn’t going to blow it by you, they rank 25th in strikeout per game, yet they are effective.
When it comes to the rotation, nobody expected Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray, Martin Perez, Andrew Heaney, and Dane Dunning to be a top of the line rotation.
The Rangers have gotten solid innings from all five starters and Eovaldi has turned back the clock, being one of the best pitchers in today’s game. He is 9-3 with a 2.82 ERA and his strikeout percentage is up from last year. Opponents are batting under .235 against four out of five of his pitches, as the 33-year-old will be the Rangers ace down the stretch.
The rest of the rotation continues to impress, Jon Gray is 6-3 with a 2.89 ERA, Martin Perez has continued to win with a 7-3 record, Andrew Heaney has been able to provide solid innings, and Dane Dunning is having a career-year with a 2.69 ERA.
The one downside has been the bullpen. They’ve been shaky at times and the Rangers don’t have a dominate closer for the later innings. They’ve relied on lefty Will Smith who has 14 saves but their bullpen has a 4.27 ERA. They have only four relievers who have a positive WAR that have pitched at least 20 innings.
However, one question remains, is this staff built for October?
Houston, We Have a Problem
Houston came into this season as the team to beat after winning the World Series last year. They dumped Yuli Gurriel, who was seen as the weak link in the teams lineup and replaced him with All-Star first baseman Jose Abreu. They also re-signed outfielder Michael Brantley. On paper they looked like they were destined to repeat, but with injuries across the board the Astros have struggled.
Both sides of the ball have lost key players to injury like Yordan Alvarez, Jose Urquidy, Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia, and Michael Brantley. It’s made things difficult for Houston when trying to keep pace in the AL West. Even at this point in the season, the Astros aren’t fully healthy and it remains a mystery if they will get everyone back and ready for a playoff push.
On offense Houston has a slugging rate of .404 with their batting average at .246. The Astros have been known for their ability to hit the long ball but have only slugged 93 home runs this season. As a team, the Houston Astros are only putting up 4.5 runs per game, ranking 13th in the league.
When you look at the numbers, it makes sense why Yordan Alvarez is the only Astro up for All-Star contention. Before getting injured, he was batting .277 with 17 home runs and 55 RBI’s. On the flip side Alex Bregman, Jose Abreu, and Jeremy Pena, are all batting under .250 and have combined for 25 home runs, and 118 RBI’s. Those three were considered to be the heart of the Astros lineup and they have all underperformed this season. That’s truthfully been the tale of the tape with Houston, their best players haven’t stepped up when needed.
Jose Altuve’s return was much-needed and he is beginning to find his groove, batting .275 at the top of the lineup for the Astros. Outfielder Kyle Tucker is having another solid season batting .279 with a .804 OPS. The two surprises in this lineup has been Mauricio Dubon and rookie Yanier Diaz who has impressed as of late.
Dubon filled the void of Altuve, batting .286/.309/.407 this year and the case can be made that he’s been Houston’s best hitter. Diaz on the other hand has begun to see everyday playing time at DH in Alvarez’s absence. Both of these players took advantage of their opportunity and will play pivotal roles down the stretch.
Framber Valdez has found his place as the Astros ace and is currently projected to be the favorite in the AL Cy Young race. Valdez hasn’t gotten much run support this year, he is 7-6 with a 2.49 ERA but is averaging 9.4 K/9 and has a 3.1 WAR.
Cristian Javier and rookie Hunter Brown have stepped up as the No. 2 and No. 3 guys in the rotation. Javier broke onto the soon in last year’s postseason, when he helped throw a combined no-hitter in the World Series. He has put together another solid year going 7-1 but has really struggled his last two times out.
Brown has had his ups and downs this season, but has been compared to a young Justin Verlander due to his mechanics and arsenal. Brown features an electric fastball and is filthy on the mound, averaging 10 K/9 with a 3.62 ERA.
The main problem with this pitching staff is the bullpen. The Astros relievers have a save percentage of 63.6% and that’s mostly due to closer Ryan Pressly’s struggles. He blew only four saves last season and already has three this year. The relievers have inherited 69 runners this year with 30.4% of them ending up scoring. This bullpen hasn’t been able to lock down games like years prior.
Houston has been known to have a successful bullpen however Rafael Montero and Ryne Stanek have been the most dissapointing. Stanek has an ERA above four while Montero is on the cusp of getting released with a 7.76 ERA, which is the highest ERA on staff.
Overall though the Astros hold a team earned run average of 3.62 which is second in the MLB and their staff has struck out 747 batters. Astros pitchers have allowed the sixth-fewest runs in baseball and their FIP is 3.98 as a team on the season, with a WHIP of 1.26.
The rotation has carried the Astros for majority of the year, but they will need their bullpen to improve. Houston is still a threat in the division and in the AL, don’t count out the Astros just yet. If their able to get healthy and hit their stride they have the experience for another postseason run.
The Astros are traveling to Arlington on Friday for a four game-series against the Rangers. The pair squared off in early April when the Rangers took two of three in Houston. The Rangers currently hold a five-game lead in the division and this series is going to be critical for both teams.
The Rangers have an opportunity to establish themselves as the lone threat in the division, while the Astros will try to will themselves closer to first place and regain momentum headed into the All-Star break. This is going to be a competitive series and the Rangers have more to prove headed into this one. The Rangers have the opportunity to force the Astros to acquire talent at the deadline to try and compete with a series win.
Ronel Blanco is expected to face off against Jon Gray in the first game of the series. From a pitching advantage the Rangers have the edge, but it’s not as big as you’d think. Blanco is going to be making his fifth start of the season and while his numbers aren’t impressive, he’s faced some of the tougher teams in the league to begin his career. He’s faced four potential playoff teams in the Angels, Blue Jays, Reds, and Dodgers and has gone at least five innings in each of those starts, while averaging a strikeout an inning.
Gray on the other hand returned to form in his last start against the Yankees. He missed one start due to injury two weeks ago but looked strong against New York. He went five innings, only surrendering one run in a 1-0 loss. He has pitched well in his career against Houston with a 1-2 record and a 3.12 ERA in five appearances.
The second game of this series is the most intriguing. Hunter Brown vs. Nathan Eovaldi, rookie vs. veteran. This is an opportunity for Brown to showcase his talent against one of the best teams in the league and how he performs could be telling for his potential success in the postseason.
At this point in the year, this will be Brown’s most important and he needs to show up in a critical game two.
Houston has seen Eolvaldi a lot over the past few years and he’s 2-3 with a 4.43 ERA in eight appearances. The Astros have had his number in the past, the most famous being Jason Castro’s 9th inning go-ahead single back in the 2021 ALCS. On paper Eovaldi has the edge but the key in this one will be if the Astros are able to give Brown run support early on.
This is the must-win game for the Astros. Framber Valdez is on the mound and Houston can’t afford to drop a game with their ace starting. Andrew Heaney will be on the bump for the Rangers and this duo squared off on Sunday Night baseball earlier this year when the Rangers took the series over Houston.
Everyone knows what Valdez brings to the table, but for the Rangers, this game is all about Andrew Heaney. If he is able to battle with Valdez and keep things close, then the Rangers will have every chance to win this game. We mentioned the struggles of Houston’s bullpen earlier and there’s no better team to expose them in the later innings.
In the series finale, Christian Javier will square off against Martin Perez and Perez is no stranger to the Astros. He’s made 20 starts against Houston over his big league career with a 3.24 ERA and has already beaten them once this season. Javier has yet to face the Rangers this season but has dominated in years past. He’s 5-1 with a 2.90 ERA in 13 appearances and four of his wins against them have been on the road.
This is the game that will potentially determine the series. Either team has the capability to be up 2-1 headed into Monday’s finale. For both teams this is the most important series up until this point and questions will be answered on both sides. The Rangers can continue to rise in the rankings or the Astros can prove their still a threat and use the momentum headed into the All-Star break.