from Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
The Houston Astros are running away with the American League West. Again.
This should be the fifth consecutive full season that the Astros have won their division. Each of the previous four, they won it by more than 10 games. They already boast a bigger lead than that, and manager Dusty Baker noted this week in Anaheim that his team isn’t letting up as the All-Star Game approaches.
The Astros feel they need to keep pushing because of what lies ahead next week: arriving after sunrise in Houston on Friday morning, then three games in less than 60 hours to wrap up the first half. Their second half begins with a home opener against the world-beating Yankees, immediately followed by a six-game road trip.
“We’re trying to create as much space as possible and as much distance as possible before the break,” Baker said. “That’s one of the reasons why we want to increase our lead – because it’s going to be a very tough period of games.”
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The Astros have done a great job this season of balancing short-term and long-term interests. They’re keeping 39-year-old Justin Verlander healthy in part by getting him more rest as he returns from Tommy John surgery. In 12 of his 16 starts, he has received at least one extra day and will have at least a week before his final start of the first half.
But within his starts, Baker isn’t afraid to stretch Verlander past the 100-pitch mark, the mark of most peers these days.
It also helps that the rest of the division is a blur. Entering Wednesday’s game, the Angels had won just a quarter of their last 44 games. The Mariners were hot, but got off to a slow enough start to stay out of the divisional hunt. The Rangers aren’t terrible, but they’re irrelevant, and the Athletics are both.
Here are three main reasons why the Astros are once again pulling ahead in the AL West.
1. They have a new core.
The Astros’ three MVPs this season — Jordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker and Jeremy Peña — are 25 or younger. Neither contributed significantly during the team’s back-to-back 100-win seasons in 2017 and ’18 or part of the sign-stealing scandal in 2017. Tucker and Alvarez were part of the 2019 playoffs, but Pena just arrived this spring, as a ready replacement for Carlos Correa.
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Those three are competing with top position players on each team and combined to make just over $2 million this season. Their arrivals allowed the Astros to pull their roster down to 10th in the league, their lowest in five years, and remain competitive.
2. They retained some of their old core.
In addition to this new star trio, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel are still there and mostly still contributing. Altuve has regained his prime form. Bregman is 25% better than average. Gurriel, 38, still starts every day.
In addition to their contributions on the field, these players have kept the tone of the club the same. Reliever Ryne Stanek noted that at least a few of the team’s veterans approached him on his first day with the team in February 2021. He recalled being in the weight room and being told by players like Altuve and Bregman that expect him to contribute to another championship this fall. The directness surprised him.
Stanek compared his circumstances with the Astros to his experience rising through the Tampa Bay Rays organization, where his cohort of young players had won championships at every level of the minor leagues and thus were accustomed to winning.
“It’s hard to teach people how to win if they’ve never won,” he said. “Most of the guys here have won – a lot – and the expectation, regardless of the people we lose or the injuries, is that we’re going to win every day. The feeling of winning matters. I think it’s an unsung cause and effect to win.”
3. Their tilt is dominant and remarkably deep.
Of the 14 pitchers who have thrown double-digit innings in an Astros uniform in 2022, the worst ERA belongs to Jose Urquidi, who at 4.08 is a perfectly competent starter in the backfield. That’s how good the Astros’ bullpen has been, certainly thanks in part to Martin Maldonado’s pitching ability.
As an example of how rare their all-around success is, 19 men have recorded double-figure innings for the cellar-dwelling Cincinnati Reds. Fifteen of them have worse ERAs than Urquidy. Twenty-one men have logged double-digit innings for the Angels, the team that was supposed to challenge the Astros in 2022. Eleven of them have worse ERAs than Urquidi. Even the Dodgers, who have roughly the same ERA overall as Houston, have several struggling players.
Houston has none.
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Verlander and Framber Valdez are the team’s stars, but many others were noteworthy. Stanek has a 0.63 ERA. Christian Javier takes the world by storm. Houston’s entire 13-man lineup carries an above-average WHIP. And they’re on track to get Lance McCullers Jr. back, as long as his recovery from a forearm injury continues at its pace.
It’s an unusual collection of competencies and bodes well for the Astros’ ability to last another three months at the top.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic, and before that, the Angels and Dodgers for five seasons for the Orange County Register and LA Times. He previously covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the suburbs of Southern California. His first book, How to Beat a Broken Game, came out this spring. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.
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