The Astros Surge
The Houston Astros are on the move. After a terrible start to the season, 7-17 in April, the Astros were able to stop the bleeding in May and have sizzled in June, closing out an 18-8 month. They're in a virtual dead heat in a packed wild-card race. The question that baseball bettors have to ask themselves is this - did Houston fire all its bullets just to overcome a bad start, or can they sustain this into the second half of the season?
Let's look at the reasons for the turnaround and that's all about pitching. We understand that second baseman Jose Altuve is fantastic and deserving of being in the MVP conversation. We further understand that rightfielder George Springer and Carlos Correa are solid hitters themselves having good years. But all three of those players were hitting in April and May and the team still lost. It's pitching that has keyed this hot streak.
In the woeful month of April, Houston had the worst staff ERA in the American League. They jumped to fourth in May when the play got better and the arms have really gotten it done in June, ranking second in the AL for ERA over the past month. If you want even better news for Houston it's this - there's reason to believe it can still get better.
Three starting pitchers have keyed the revival. Here's there June performance...
Doug Fister - 5 starts, 2.85 ERA
Mike Fiers - 5 starts, 2.86 ERA
Lance McCullers - 4 starts, 3.80 ERA
You will note that none of those pitchers are named Dallas Keuchel, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. Keuchel had a horrible time of it in April and was marginally better in May. He pitched respectable baseball in June, starting six games and posting a 4.30 ERA.
With three other starters on a roll, Kuechel filled the role of a competent back-end-of-the-rotation over the last month. But we're talking about someone who was an ace as recently as last year and is on an upward trajectory. It's very reasonable to assume that he keeps getting better. That gives the Astros room to improve, or if nothing else, provide some cushion of Fiers or McCullers falls off (Fister has a good career track record and we think he'll be steady the rest of the way).
Collin McHugh doesn't have Kuechel's ceiling, but McHugh won 18 games last year. He also started to turn it around in June, making five starts and finishing with a 4.08 ERA. At minimum, he can keep pitching like that. At best, he could start putting up ERAs in the 3s in the months ahead.
Houston manager A.J. Hinch made a key change to his bullpen, putting Will Harris in the closer's role and the move has paid off. Harris saved seven games in June with a sub-2.00 ERA. The Astros have reliable veteran Pat Neshek ahead of him.
But what about the displaced closer Luke Gregorson? He's got a solid career track record of setup work in San Diego and Oakland and always seemed a little miscast as the closer in Houston when he arrived last year. It's possible that he might respond well to his demotion and give Hinch another option in the seventh and eighth inning. The same goes for Tony Sipp, a longtime reliable middle man, but who struggled badly in June.
So we believe Houston can continue to play good baseball and stay in the playoff race. How do we turn that into money? The red-hot Texas Rangers make that a problem, as Houston is staring at an 8½ game deficit in the AL West. The odds are good that will tighten, but the safest presumption now is that the Astros will have to go the wild-card route to reach the World Series. They're currently a 10-1 bet to win the AL pennant and 25-1 to win the World Series.
Those aren't bad numbers and we understand bettors who jump on them. They'll certainly come down if Houston closes in on Texas in the division race. But those are lower values than the Royals who are 12-1 to win the American League. Or the St. Louis Cardinals, also in a strong position to win the wild-card, but are a 35-1 longshot to win the World Series. Houston is a decent futures bet, but there are other teams that are better.
What the Astros are is a team on an upward trajectory that can make us money on a nightly basis in the right spots, targeted for the best value. Don't miss the chance to start rolling up some bankroll in July.