The Blazing Hot Houston Astros

The Houston Astros are threatening to blow away the AL West before the summer even heats up. The Astros are flying high with a 28-12 record and an eight-game lead over what appears to be mediocre competition. They’ve been no less profitable at the betting window, generating an American League-best (+$832) for the season. They’ve now emerged as the 3-1 betting favorite to capture the AL pennant and a 6-1 shot to win the World Series, second only behind the Chicago Cubs.

With that kind of market respect comes the need for smart baseball handicappers to take a more careful look. Houston leads the American League in both runs scored and staff ERA and it’s fair to ask how long that sort of complete dominance can continue.

Offensively, there are a lot of reasons to feel good about the Astros’ continued ability to churn out runs. Of their three most productive hitters, two are second baseman Jose Altuve (.373 on-base percentage/.459 slugging percentage) and shortstop Carlos Correa (.376/.469). These are two of the most talented young players in the game and those numbers are quite realistic to pan out over the entire season.

The third big contributor is veteran catcher Brian McCann ,putting up a .369/.467 line at age 33. McCann has been up and down in recent years, and while he’s not a sure thing to keep hitting, it’s certainly plausible that he enjoys a big year in the hitter-friendly dimensions of Minute Maid Park.

Houston is getting steady support from players like Josh Reddick, Nori Aoki and Alex Bregman, all with on-base percentages over .335. It’s easy to see one or more of those players slipping. But on the flip side, George Springer—who’s already hitting for power with nine home runs—can be expected to improve on his .329 OBP. And manager A.J. Hinch is getting productive work off the bench from Marwin Gonzalez and Evan Gattis, either of whom could displace the badly fading 40-year-old DH Carlos Betran.

So while it’s fair to debate whether the Astros, Yankees or someone else will end up as the top offense in the American League, it’s very reasonable to simply assume Houston will be in that conversation and that scoring runs is not going to be an issue the rest of the way.

It’s harder to be that confident in the pitching. The best-in-the-league ERA is driven by the top-heavy contributions of Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers in the rotation. Keuchel looks like his Cy Young self from 2015 again, with a 7-0 record and 1.84 ERA. McCullers, already an emerging arm at age 23, has established himself with a 2.98 ERA in eight starts.

Even if Keuchel and McCullers both continue to pitch well—and they probably will, no staff is going to lead the league in ERA when the back end of its rotation and bullpen are a little messy. In the big picture, Houston will need to make a deal for some pitching. In the game-by-game minutiae of handicapping, that will create opportunities to find value bets going the other way.

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