The Houston Astros have officially become the team that every other GM - especially those on struggling teams - look at with a blend of jealousy and curiosity. They gambled on a rebuild, and after some lean, ugly years it has paid off handsomely. They have a ridiculous 12-game lead in the AL West already, and they are running away with the whole American League. And they have four more wins through 60 games than the Rockies, who have the second-best record in baseball (just writing that sentences feels so very bizarre).
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It has been an incredible start, but no titles are awarded in June. Does this team have what it takes to stay strong all season? And what does it all mean for bettors? Here are five factors to consider when pondering those important questions:
Lessons learned: This team had a very strong 2015 season, ultimately losing to Kansas City in five games in the ALDS. Last year they got off to a lousy start and never recovered fully. It was a setback, though they weren't a total disaster - they still won 84 games. This year, though, this feels very much like a team that has learned from their past. They are still far from an old team, but they are composed and confident in a way that comes only from hard roads traveled in the past. It would, of course, be better if they had some playoff success to draw on, but they have overcome real diversity as a group, and that makes them much easier to trust than they could be. They learned what to do in 2015, and what not to do in 2016, and now they are putting it all together.
The rotation: There are very few areas of concern for this team, but the depth of the rotation qualifies as one. Perhaps the only one. Dallas Keuchel, who has been fantastic again, has hit the DL with a neck injury - always a terrifying thing for a pitcher to be dealing with. The team is first in the league in runs allowed and starter ERA so things are going very well now. Pitching has been a driving force, though, and the lack of depth could be a bigger story if luck turns bad. The bottom 60 percent of the rotation has only been mediocre, but they have been lifted by the stellar starts for Keuchel and Lance McCullers. And now they have to find more depth, when they already don't have enough, for as long as Keuchel isn't at full capacity. No need to panic, but this is a situation to watch.
Offense: We don't need to analyze this too deeply because the numbers speak for themselves. They lead the league in runs per game. And home runs. And team batting average. And on base percentage and slugging percentage, for good measure. This is a ridiculously productive team. Jose Altuve is one of the best players in baseball, and he has played very much up to his reputation again this year. His only problem is that he is being overshadowed on his own team by Carlos Correa, who had his already strong MVP campaign bolstered significantly by the injury to Mike Trout. At this point he and Aaron Judge are the leaders in that race, and Correa has the advantage both of experience and a better team around him. This is a ridiculously productive offense all-around, and the incredible part about it is that what they are doing is totally sustainable. They do not feel like they are playing beyond themselves in any way. They can do this all over again week after week for the rest of the season. And that should terrify the rest of the league. Among other very telling metrics, what stands out most is that their strikeout rate is much lower than it has been. The last couple of years they hit with real power, but they also struck out a lot. Now they are hitting with just as much power but are coupling it with more discipline and are striking out far less as a result. It's that whole maturity thing showing up again.
AL West: What a mess. I had high hopes for the Rangers and especially the Mariners this year. Well, Seattle sits just at .500, and yet they are second-best team in the division. Every other team in the division has been a disappointment to some extent, and it doesn't feel like any are going to reverse it in any hurry. I expect Seattle and Texas to be better in the second half - Seattle is already heating up, having won nine of 10 - but they are still no threat for the Astros. And Houston has done exactly what they need to do, taking advantage of the weakness of their division early on, going 20-6 to date in divisional games. There obviously is little reason to be concerned about winning the division. Of anything, the concern is about staying sharp. The team won't play a whole lot of meaningful games from June until September. It will be a tall task to keep them focused and sharp given that. It would be easy for teams to get lazy and develop bad habits in this kind of situation. The good news for this team, though, is that manager A.J. Hinch does not at all seem like the kind of guy who would tolerate nonchalance, and the team doesn't seem like one that needs a lot of external motivation.
Betting performance: Not surprisingly, when a team gets off to a 42-18 start they are going to be solid against the moneyline. The only way they wouldn't be is if they were not meeting expectations, and it's tough for a team to fall under expectations while winning 70 percent of their games. In fact, the Astros have been the best team to bet on in the entire league up to this point - exceeding even the truly shocking Rockies. They have been particularly lucrative on the road where they sport a gaudy 22-8 record. That have gone "over" the total 30 times and "under" 24, so while they are also profitable there the productivity doesn't come close to matching the moneyline.
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