Justin Verlander should be ready for the playoffs. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Winning 100 games? No surprise there. The Astros have done it often enough—four times in five full seasons—that it now seems routine. (They’re the first American League team to win 100 games four times in a span of five full seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.)
Division champs? Been there, done that. Five times in six seasons if you’re keeping score at home. That’s one less first-place finish than they had in their first 55 seasons.
Efficiency? The Astros have MLB’s second-highest winning percentage with its ninth-highest payroll. No surprise there. In the last five seasons, the Astros have averaged the eighth-highest payroll and the second-best won-loss record. Despite losing a string of key players in free agency, the song has remained the same.
That’s a tribute to a minor league system that continues to churn out talent that allows the club to lose key components and keep winning. This is organizational greatness in its most basic form.
But there were surprises from these 2022 Astros, lots of ‘em actually. As they put the finishing touches on another spectacular regular season, let’s push the pause button to consider things we didn’t see coming:
1. Justin Verlander just keeps amazing us.
Sweet Sassy Molassy! No one could have seen Verlander’s third Cy Young Award campaign coming in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
Pitchers typically need a year to regain confidence in their elbow before their crispness and location return.
Not Verlander. His 17th major league season was one of his best as he leads the American League with a 1.80 ERA and allowed less than a baserunner per inning.
He’ll be just the 11th pitcher in history to win at least three Cy Young Awards, and at 39, is as good as ever. He’s headed for free agency and re-signing him will be priority one for the Astros.
(Disclosure: Sweet Sassy Molassy! is a phrase a former co-worker, Adam McCalvy, entertains scribes with while covering Brewers games for MLB.com.)
2. American League’s best pitching staff.
Not good pitching, great pitching. No matter your expectations for the 2022 Astros, you probably could not have foreseen how good they’d be.
The rotation leads the American League with a 2.99 ERA and is second only to the Dodgers (2.80) among all 30 teams. Their bullpen has been even better, leading the majors with a microscopic of 2.79 mark. The Astros are so deep in pitching that a quality arm or two will be left off the postseason roster.
3. Offensive drop-off.
The Astros will score at least 100 fewer runs than they did in 2021 and drop from first to eighth in MLB rankings. They’ve scored three runs or fewer a whopping 69 times, but because the pitching has been so good, they’ve won 24 of them.
Where they’re good, they’re very good. They’re the only MLB team with four of the top 25 players as measured by Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR): Jose Altuve (9), Yordan Alvarez (10), Alex Bregman (18) and Kyle Tucker (25). The Cardinals, Mets and Dodgers have three players apiece in the top 25, the Braves two.
Two problem areas: center field (28th in OPS) and first base, primarily Yuli Gurriel, 24th. Martin Maldonado is having his worst offensive year, but because of his work behind the plate, he’s a valuable part of the lineup.
4. Yordan Alvarez, superstar.
He was already the Astros most feared offensive player. That was before taking a big jump in 2022. He has a chance to finish with a .300 batting average, .400 on-base average and 1.000 on-base-plus-slugging. Aaron Judge is the only other player to check all those boxes. Alvarez begins the final series with a career-high 37 home runs.
5. Jeremy Peña, comfortable from day one.
He won over his teammates and coaches in spring training with his attitude, work ethic and skills. As Jose Altuve told a reporter: “He’s going to be a superstar.”
Six months later, perhaps the greatest tribute to the rookie shortstop is that he has quietly blended into the fabric of one baseball’s best teams. Like every other player, he struggled at times.
Like the really good ones, he figured it out. He batted .218 during a two-month stretch of July and August, but has rebounded nicely, hitting .275 since.
He has benefitted from Dusty Baker moving him into the No. 2 spot in the batting order, sandwiching him between Altuve and Alvarez most nights. He’s hitting .289 with a very solid .828 OPS in the two hole.