The Houston Astros quest to repeat as World Series champions got off to a rocky start thanks to a string of injuries.
Second baseman Jose Altuve, the heart and soul of a franchise that won the championship in 2017 and 2022, broke his thumb at the World Baseball Classic, and the injury needed surgery. That delayed his season debut until May 19.
Then the injury bug bit three members of the Astros’ pitching rotation. Luis Garcia, who was 15-8 in 2022, was lost for the season on May 5 and needed Tommy John surgery. José Urquidy, who was 13-8 last year, went on the injured list a few days later with a shoulder problem and won’t be back until around the All-Star Break. Lance McCullers Jr., who was 4-2 once he returned from injury late in 2022 and made three playoff starts, has yet to pitch this year while dealing with a forearm strain.
Throw in the fact the team lost Justin Verlander, 18-4 and the AL Cy Young winner in 2022, as a free agent signing with the New York Mets, and you’d think Houston would be struggling mightily in 2023.
However, after 61 games, the Astros are 36-25, 4.5 games behind the surprising Texas Rangers in the AL West and with the fourth-best record in the AL behind Tampa Bay, Texas and Baltimore.
Unfortunately for those wanting to wager on Major League Baseball, there is no legal Texas sports betting. Bills in support of betting died during the most recent session of the Texas Legislature, which won’t meet again to take up the topic until 2025.
Pitching Is Still a Strength
Manager Dusty Baker’s Astros are sitting where they are because the pitching staff leads all of baseball with a 3.23 ERA after 60 games. Only three have started at least 11 games and all are pitching well.
Houston started the year with the second-best odds at +700 to win the World Series according to BetMGM SportsBook (expect a BetMGM Sportsbook Texas once wagering is legal in the state). That only trailed the L.A. Dodgers (+500). Now, the Astros are still at +700 and only trailing the Dodgers (+500), Atlanta (+500) and Tampa Bay (+600).
Ace Framber Valdez is 6-4 with a 2.16 ERA that ranks No. 5 in MLB, while Cristian Javier is 7-1 with a 2.84 ERA and rookie Hunter Brown is 5-2 with a 3.61 ERA. Javier is now 27-13 with a 3.01 ERA in 90 career games, 52 starts, since 2020.
Although there are no Texas betting apps, national operators give Valdez the fourth-best American League Cy Young Award odds.
With the injuries to Urquidy and Garcia, Brandon Bielak (3-2, 3.35 ERA) and rookie J.P. France (1-1, 3.44 ERA) have done well in their first six starts of the season.
Then there’s the bullpen, which ranks sixth in the majors with a 2.3 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs.com. The Astros’ relievers lead the majors with 10.79 strikeouts per nine innings. Closer Ryan Pressly has 11 saves in 12 chances and three primary middle relievers have ERAs under 2.00 in Hector Neris (1.13), Phil Maton (1.26) and Bryan Abreu (1.91).
Lineup Still Finding Its Groove
Altuve’s late arrival is one reason why its wOBA ranking sits at No. 18 in baseball. Weighted on-base average is designed to measure a player’s offensive contributions per plate appearance. The Astros are currently at .318, while Tampa Bay and Texas lead the way at .353 and .348.
Altuve is batting .286 with two homers and six RBIs in his first 11 games back, and as he finds his groove, it stands to reason Houston’s offense will only get better as the summer moves along.
While Altuve was away, third baseman Alex Bregman got off to a slow start, so outfielders Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker carried the offense. Alvarez has 16 homers and 53 RBIs, while Tucker has contributed eight homers and 36 RBIs.
Bregman has picked up his game since May 12, when he was batting .201 through 38 games. Since then, he’s hit .345 (29 for 84) with an OPS of .934 with four homers and 20 RBIs. More importantly, the Astros are 16-6 in that span.
Mauricio Dubón, a career .244 hitter coming into the season, did a great job filling in for Altuve at second. He’s currently hitting .290 and has already scored a career-high 32 runs, so Baker will continue finding a spot for him in the lineup.
Baker, who recently passed Joe McCarthy for eighth on the all-time victories list for managers, said the team is in a good spot to keep pace with the Rangers in the AL West as the season progresses.
“If you’re behind, you want to stay in their rearview mirror, and if you have the lead, you don’t want to look back. You just want to look forward to the finish line," Baker told the Houston Chronicle while his team was in Toronto this week. “So right now we’re just trying to stay in their rearview mirror.”