This week, CBS Sports' website published an article by Mike Axisa in which he calculated and ranked the 30 Major League Baseball teams in order of how drastically their percentage chance of making the postseason had decreased or increased during the first half of the season.
Much to my surprise, the Houston Astros' playoff percentage change was ranked 25th out of the 30 teams. In other words, their drop from a 62 percent chance of making the postseason before the season started to 33.5 percent as of the All Star break meant they were ahead of only five other teams in terms of their postseason prospects diminishing.
I will admit — this mildly surprised me. Not so much that the Astros' playoff chances had been reduced, but that they had been reduced so drastically. Sure, they were favorites to win the division before the season and finally crept over .500 a couple of weeks, so it's logical that their chances have gone down, but to tumble almost 50 percent?
I suppose when you consider that their deficit is 5.5 games in the division (not an easy putt) and that they're one of eight teams within a half dozen games of the two wild card spots, then yeah, a one in three shot sounds right. But let's keep in mind that a) the Astros are 31-13 in their last 44 games and b) the Rangers trailed the Astros by that same 5.5 game margin at the All-Star break last season, and won the division. In short, we can do this!
Let's hand out a few kudos to our heroes in orange and blue before they get going again this Friday:
1st HALF MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Jose Altuve
At the age of 25, Jose Altuve is listed on his baseball-reference.com page as being most similar to Billy Herman, Pete Rose and Rod Carew — two Hall of Famers and the all-time hits leader. After a fourth All-Star berth, we can all see where this is going — Altuve is one of the five best players in all of baseball. He is on pace to hit .341 with 26 home runs and 92 RBI, which would all be career highs for Craig Biggio, since we're in the comparison mode. One storyline over the next several months will be Altuve's contract, which pays him $17 million COMBINED from 2017 through 2019. Oh, and he just hired Scott Boras, did I mention that? I smell a re-do coming at some point.
1st HALF MOST VALUABLE PITCHER: Will Harris
The Astros essentially traded five players to Philadelphia for Ken Giles this past offseason so that Giles could be the closer. However, out of spring training, Giles lost the job to last year's closer, Luke Gregerson, who eventually lost the job to whoever-Hinch-felt-could-do-it-that-day. Eventually, fate gave way to Harris, who was so good setting up, Hinch moved him into the closer's role, and Harris responded with a 1.62 ERA and nine saves, good enough to make the AL All-Star team. Harris is the linchpin of a bullpen that's been among baseball's best, especially during this 31-13 string.
1st HALF UNSUNG HERO - EVERYDAY PLAYER: Luis Valbuena
Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to the 30-year-old Valbuena is that his performance actually makes you think about how you can keep his bat in the lineup while still bringing up minor league phenom Alex Bregman. It would appear the permutation will be (someday, hopefully) Bregman at third base and Valbuena at first base. By the way, if the Astros end up sneaking into the playoffs by one game again, as they did last season, Valbuena's swing of the bat in the bottom of the ninth, a three-run home run, last Friday against the A's might end up being the biggest of the season.
1st HALF UNSUNG HERO — PITCHER: Doug Fister
While the rotation has suffered through stretches of ineffectiveness from Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, and injuries to start the season to Lance McCullers, Fister has been the one constant. When the Astros were climbing back into the race with 17-12 and 16-8 records in May and June, respectively, the teams went 10-1 in Fister's 11 starts, and of those ten wins, nine were quality starts by Fister and he was one out away from sweeping the board in getting quality starts in those ten starts. It's tough to expect Fister to replicate his first half in the second half, but he may need to if they don't get a full reversion to form from...
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2nd HALF KEY PLAYER: Dallas Keuchel
After Keuchel's final start of the first half of the season, a seven-inning, one-run no decision against the A's, A.J. Hitch said that if that's the Keuchel they get in the second half of the season, it'll be like the team made a trade. That's an interesting and accurate way to look at it, when you consider they managed to go 48-41 with Keuchel putting up a bloated 4.80 ERA. The Astros will not play in the postseason without a near version of the 2015 Keuchel in the second half of the season.
MOST IMPORTANT STRETCH OF SCHEDULE REMAINING: Monday, July 25 through Sunday, Aug 14
This is a 20-game stretch that includes 13 games against other wild card contenders (New York, Toronto, Detroit) and three against the Rangers. We will have a really good idea of where this season is headed by mid-August.
PREDICTION: 89-73, wild card home game
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.