HOUSTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 05: Hunter Brown #58 of the Houston Astros delivers during the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park on September 05, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
The Houston Astros won their 90th game of the season over the weekend against the Angels and do not even need to win half of their remaining games to win more than 100 for the fifth time in franchise history. With an 11-game lead over the Seattle Mariners in the American League West, the Astros will clinch their sixth division title in the last seven seasons sometime in the next week or so. Houston also holds a 4.5-game advantage over the New York Yankees, an important advantage to maintain to ensure home-field advantage in a potential ALCS showdown.
Needless to say, Houston is in an enviable position heading into October. They have the luxury of resting players as they see fit, making sure they’re healthy and playing well when the ALDS begins. And perhaps most important of all, setting up their starting rotation for the division series. At present, there are five clear American League teams most likely to oppose the Astros in a Postseason series – they’ll have to contend with two of them if they are going to advance to the World Series for the fourth time in six years. Let’s take a closer look at how they each stack up.
Cleveland Guardians (73-65, currently 1st in AL Central)
Cleveland’s lead isn’t insurmountable in the Central, but they certainly look like the most likely team to represent the division in the Postseason. The Guardians weren’t expected to be a contender – most projections saw them winning fewer than 77 games in 2022. They’re a team built on small ball and an elite bullpen, capitalizing on opportunities when games are close. Cleveland is 23-16 in one-run contests and 10-4 in extra innings and boasts a 3.18 bullpen ERA this season (4th in MLB).
Houston is a much more talented team and has much more Postseason experience than the young Guardians. They’re also better at what Cleveland is best at, boasting a 2.79 bullpen ERA that ranks #1 in baseball this season. Houston went 4-3 in their season series against the Guardians and 3-0 in games started by Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez. To be sure, anything can happen in a 5-game ALDS, but it’s difficult to imagine Cleveland knocking off the well-rested Astros after having to battle through the Wild Card round.
New York Yankees (85-56, currently 1st in AL East)
New York’s lead in the AL East has diminished significantly as the season wears on but appears poised to win the division barring collapse down the stretch. The Yankees lean on their power hitting, ranking first in the American League with a +206 run differential and led by MLB’s leading home run hitter, Aaron Judge.
Judge’s success hasn’t translated against the Astros’ elite pitching this season, however, batting only .148 over 27 at bats. It’s certainly a small sample, but not entirely surprising given the elite stable of arms Houston employs. He’s a combined 3-for-19 against Houston’s presumed top two starters in Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, with only one career homer against either one of them. Houston’s season has had more staying power than New York’s because of their depth, specifically on the mound – in a potential ALCS against New York, one would imagine that advantage would work in their favor once again.
Tampa Bay Rays (78-60, currently in 1st AL Wild Card Position)
The Tampa Bay Rays are the only team in the American League the Astros have yet to play this season and the last American League team to defeat Houston in a playoff series. Tampa Bay sets up somewhat similarly to Cleveland, leaning on an elite bullpen (3.26 ERA, 6th in MLB) while doing just enough offensively. Despite not leading their division, the Rays probably present a more formidable challenge than Cleveland because of their October experience and superior talent.
The last time the Astros played a Postseason series against the Rays was the 2020 ALCS at empty Dodger Stadium. The Rays would win that game, but it’s worth noting the directions the two teams have headed since. Tampa has since lost Blake Snell, and Houston is back to the 100+ win juggernaut we saw in the late 2010s. This year, Houston waltzes into the playoffs with home-field advantage and a chip on their shoulder to get revenge.
Seattle Mariners (78-61, currently in 2nd Wild Card position)
The Houston Astros have maintained a comfortable lead over the Seattle Mariners in the AL West for quite a while now, but Seattle has established itself as a contender in its own right. Between the offseason and the trade deadline, the Mariners have invested heavily in starting pitching and boast a lineup of powerful young bats. Luis Castillo has pitched well since arriving there, and Robbie Ray has looked better as the season has progressed.
Despite Seattle’s breakout season, they’ve struggled with the Astros. Houston has won six of their last seven against the Mariners this season and 12 of 17 overall. The Astros are the much more polished of the two franchises and much less subject to massive streaks of poor or excellent results. That steadiness gives them an advantage in a playoff series, especially playing at home.
Toronto Blue Jays (78-61, currently in 3rd AL Wild Card position)
Toronto entered the 2022 season as the favorite to win the American League East. They still have tons of potential in any October series because of their ability to hit for power. They dipped their toes in the free agent market for starting pitching and at the 2021 deadline. Since July of last year, they’ve acquired Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Yusei Kikuchi, and Mitch White to work alongside young ace Alek Manoah and Hyun-jin Ryu. The reality for Toronto, though, is that it hasn’t worked. Their starting rotation’s 4.06 ERA ranks 17th in baseball, and their bullpen ranks outside the top 10 as well.
Houston did lose four of six to the Blue Jays this season, but all of those games were finished by May 1. Despite all of their power and a pitching staff full of big names, Toronto has a roster with clear holes. They’re almost entirely right-handed at the plate, and Houston’s elite right-handed relievers are an excellent fit to take advantage. Toronto is 34-40 this season against teams over .500, and Houston certainly qualifies as the type of elite competition that’s given them fits.
There are no sure things in the Postseason, as five and seven-game series represent incredibly small samples. With an elite rotation and bullpen, though, Houston is built for it – and home field advantage certainly doesn’t hurt. For now, the Astros’ focus should be straightforward: stay healthy, stay in good habits, and stay the course.