This past Saturday, the Athletics beat the Astros 7-1, winning their fourth straight against the defending World Series champion. They are only 6-9 versus the Astros this season, but they are taking advantage of the team’s injuries. After that game, both teams were tied on top of the AL West, an amazing occurrence that seemed impossible before the season began.
In March, FanGraphs had the Astros projected as a 100-win team, which is rare and impressive. A team has to be truly outstanding for a projection system to measure its true talent at 100 wins. After their special 2017 season, it is easy to see why this team was projected as the best team in baseball, especially after the addition of Gerrit Cole and a full year of Justin Verlander. They were a virtual lock to win the division with about a 96 percent chance. The Angels were in second at only a 2.5 percent chance.
The A’s were at a measly 0.5 percent chance to win the division, with just a 9.2 percent chance to make the playoffs at all. I thought their 78-win projected total was actually a little high. Now the team is projected to win 94 games! That was unthinkable in March! I doubt that even the most optimistic evaluation of the A’s had them as much more than a .500 team. Now they have a 77 percent chance to make the playoffs!
In May, I wrote about the A’s excellent offensive start to the season. In fact, the offense has been firing on all cylinders since the second half of last year. Naturally the offense has cooled off a bit since I wrote that article in May, but not by as much as I thought it would. The team’s 106 wRC+ is tied with Cleveland for the fourth-best offense in the majors.
Matt Chapman has been leading the way offensively for the team. He is hitting .276/.362/.500, good for a 137 wRC+. He is also leading the way defensively with his elite fielding at third base. His 25 DRS is the highest in the majors of anyone at any position. His 6.6 WAR is tied with Chris Sale for eighth-best in the majors. If he keeps this up, he will find himself in the top five of the AL MVP voting.
Jed Lowrie is having the best season of his career at age 34. You would have a hard time finding anybody who did not believe that Lowrie would regress after hitting .277/.360/.448 last year. Lowrie has actually improved a little bit, hitting .272/.351/.468. He has a chance to crack 6 WAR this year!
Khris Davis continues to hit for a ton of power without getting on base much. It is hard to make that combination work, but it can be done—just ask Javier Báez. The difference between the two, of course, is that Davis is primarily a DH, while Báez is an outstanding defensive second baseman. Davis also walks a lot more than Báez, but so does everyone.
The Astros have been 19-19 since the start of July, while the A’s have been 28-11. The A’s have mostly been the same team all year, so it is difficult to attribute their recent success over their first three months of the season to anything but randomness. As for the Astros, they have been wrecked by injuries.
Carlos Correa has only played in 80 games this year, though he appears healthy for now. José Altuve has been out since July 29th, but he should be back shortly. Brian McCann has been out since July 1st, but he should also be back soon. It will result in a logjam at catcher with Max Stassi playing so well and the recent acquisition of Martín Maldonado. Lance McCullers has been on the DL since August 5th with the troubling diagnosis of elbow discomfort. He is not expected to return before September. World Series MVP George Springer just returned from the DL, and thankfully only spent 12 days there.
Despite how the standings look right now, the Astros are still heavily favored to win the division. FanGraphs currently gives them an 85 percent chance to do so. They are still the better team on paper, and there is no comparing their pitching staffs, especially the starters. Merritt Rohlfing recently wrote about their shortcomings here, and how they succeed and how they might continue to succeed despite that. The Astros, on the other hand, are on track to dethrone the 2017 Cleveland Indians as possibly the best pitching staff ever. Also worth noting is that the Astros have an easier schedule going forward.
While I still strongly expect the Astros to win the division, you can’t deny that is has been really fun to see the A’s shake up the AL playoff picture. It looked like the playoff match-ups were all set before the All-Star break even arrived. Now the Mariners are, sadly, 3.5 games behind the A’s for the last Wild Card slot with less than a 25 percent chance to make the playoffs. The A’s currently have a one in eight chance to win the division. How fun would that be if it happens? How fun would it be if the Yankees unexpectedly end up hosting the Astros for the Wild Card game?
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.