There is no clear-cut way to win the World Series. Predicting which team will win the championship based solely on regular season results is a futile exercise. The last champions won 103 regular season games. Before them the Royals won 95 games, the Giants won 88, and the Red Sox won 97. This anecdotal evidence of randomness is backed up by a Harvard study that found baseball to have the “most random” champion of the major American sports leagues. That raises a difficult question for teams looking to contend — how do they put themselves in the best position to win despite the randomness?
Ideas about how to do this vary greatly, with no definitive answer. If the playoffs truly are a one in ten chance, logic would say that a team’s best shot at a championship is by reaching the playoffs for many years in a row. Logic also tells us that better teams should win, even if there is a disturbing number of anomalies pushing against this logic. Therefore, the ideal scenario is a long window in which the team is among the very best each of those seasons. That’s much easier said than done and requires careful maneuvering and challenging decisions.
Each team faces these decisions every year, but one team has garnered a lot of attention for it this season. That team is the Astros, who hold a comfortable lead in their division despite having major flaws that may hinder their run at a first World Series Championship in the organization’s history. Debate raged around the baseball world about whether the Astros should buy at the deadline. Those debates still rage on as the Astros should seemingly be linked to one of the few trade targets remaining, Justin Verlander.
Many believed that the Astros were foolish to stay silent at the deadline, whether it be by choice, passiveness, or sheer bad luck. The most damning statements, however, came from within the Houston clubhouse. The ace of their staff, Dallas Keuchel, was the first to speak out. When asked about the inactivity he commented, “I’m not going to lie. Disappointment is a little bit of an understatement.” Keuchel was having a spectacular season in the early going before he headed to the disabled list, posting a 1.67 ERA and 0.87 WHIP. In three starts since, he’s allowed 15 total runs in just 18 2⁄3 innings of work.
Soon after Keuchel expressed his disappointment in the front office, another Astro spoke up. Josh Reddick’s comments on the situation were more in-depth and even more concerning than Kuechel’s. The team is in disarray, struggling with seemingly a lack of confidence in the group they have going into the postseason. They have lost seven of their last ten games despite playing against teams well below their talent level.
The front office is unlikely to bend to the will of the players alone, but are the players right? If they are, the team should certainly be targeting whichever assets remain on the market. There have been steps in that direction; on Sunday night, word broke that Houston had acquired Tyler Clippard from the White Sox. But Clippard is in the midst of a down year (4.27 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 4.12 DRA) and is unlikely to either help the Astros all that much, or to satisfy the demands of the clubhouse.
The one spot that most agree the Astros could use the most help is in their starting rotation. When the team was on fire early in the season, the rotation was rolling. Keuchel had returned to what he showed during his 2015 Cy Young season, Lance McCullers Jr. was having a breakout season, and even those in the latter part of the rotation were finding good results. Now Keuchel looks shaky, and McCullers is on the disabled list.
The Astros’ playoff rotation is in a state of instability, but even at its best includes both Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton. Fiers is the only Astros starter that is “qualified,” but his 4.36 ERA and 5.49 DRA don’t inspire much confidence for high-pressure situations. Morton has actually been quite good, posting a 3.83 ERA with a 25.4 percent strikeout rate, but he’s just one pitcher. Even in the best scenario the Astros have an ace that has shown a frightening ability to lose it at the drop of a hat, a strong McCullers and Morton, and a huge weakness in Fiers. Losing Keuchel or McCullers to injury isn’t horribly unlikely, pushing someone like Brad Peacock into their playoff rotation. Things could get dicey really quickly for an already questionable Astros rotation.
Despite letting the non-waiver deadline pass them by, there are assets remaining in the market. The most obvious is Justin Verlander, who has seen a resurgence in fastball velocity and looked sharp in his recent starts. On the season Verlander has a 3.97 ERA and 22.7 percent strikeout rate. Since the All-Star break, Verlander has a 2.01 ERA and 27.5 percent strikeout rate. With a healthy and sharp McCullers and Keuchel, Verlander could give the Astros one of the best third starters in the postseason. If one of McCullers or Keuchel goes down, Houston would have some insurance that their rotation wouldn’t be doomed.
One of the biggest advantages of such a trade would be the cascading effect it would cause throughout the pitching staff. Moving each pitcher at the back end of the rotation into a more comfortable spot. Even more appealing to the Astros is that Verlander could likely be had without forfeiting too much talent if Houston is willing to take on a good portion of the pitcher’s contract. According to Baseball Prospectus’ 2016 ranking, the Astros have the eighth-best farm system in baseball. They could easily make the move without sacrificing the bright future that remains in the lower levels of their organization.
The Astros have a core of young players unlike almost any other team in baseball. They have run away with their division, almost guaranteeing a spot in the postseason. Their farm system is robust with talent that they may not ever even use. There are concerns about Verlander. There are doubts about the randomness of the playoffs. But there is seemingly no better time for the Astros to make a push to reach the World Series than now. One player doesn’t turn a team from first-round exit to World Champion, but a player like Verlander can certainly give them a better chance to play deep into October.