The Houston Astros who at one point looked deader than a doornail in this year's pennant race are 12-6 since the All-Star break and are now only 6 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and 5.5 games back in the wild-card standings. On more than one occasion during this season, it seemed that Houston was doing everything in its power to avoid partaking in any semblance of a pennant race.
Witness, on May 11, the Astros lose their second straight game to the Pirates after being swept in a 3-game series by the Phillies; they stand at 14-21 (.400 W-L percent). May 25, the Astros have lost eight of nine including 5 losses to the Cardinals-after a seven-game winning streak brought them to .500-and stand at 22-29 (.431). On June 9, The Astros are 26-35 (.426) after losing six of seven. On June 19, The Astros are at 30-40 (.429) after losing three games to the Breweres. Since then they have only lost more than one game in a row once (a three-game losing streak) and are 23-11 (.676) in total.
So which are the real 'Stros, the pre-June 19th team that was 30-40 or the post-June 19th team is 23-11? Will the real Houston Astro team please stand up? ("I am standing up!") Let's take a look at their record to find out. Using their runs scored and allowed (485 and 456 respectively), we can use the Pythagorean Winning Percentage originally devised by Bill James to see if their winning percentage meets, exceeds, or falls short of expectation. Using this formula, one would expect them to be about 55-49, two games better than their current record. That's somewhat encouraging but not entirely convincing-at least they do not fall short of expectation.
Let's now turn to their record against certain teams to determine their fate. I am using the June 19 turning point in their season as the dividing line. Here is the Astros record against playoff-caliber teams (including interleague opponents) up to June 19, after June 19, and games to be played (Note: I define a playoff team loosely, by their playoff chances AND their actions as far as divesting themselves of or acquiring players. Therefore, the Expos are included; the Marlins are not):
Pre Jun 19 Post Jun 19 Games
Vs. W- L % W- L % To Play
STL 3- 9 .250 7
CIN 2- 1 .667 5- 2 .714 7
AZ 1- 2 .333 2- 1 .667
SF 1- 2 .333 3
ATL 2- 1 .667 3
NYM 2- 1 .667 3
MON 1- 2 .333 3
Oak 0- 3 .000
Sea 1- 2 .333
PO Total 12-21 .364 8- 5 .615 32
Rest 18-19 .486 15- 6 .714 26
Total 30-40 .429 23-11 .676 58
It's a small sample post-June 19 vs. playoff caliber teams, but they have done well. They have done better (.714 winning percent) against non-playoff teams, but that is to be expected to a certain degree. They have over 50% of their games against playoff teams, which is a double-edged sword: If the play well, they can leap over their opponents; however, such a schedule makes playing well all the more difficult. If the Astros continue at their current clip (.615 vs. playoff teams, .714 vs. the rest of the NL), we would expect them to go 20-12 in the 32 games the have remaining against playoff-caliber teams and 19-7 in the 26 in the games remaining against the rest of the league. That would translate into a 39-19 record in their 58 remaining games (.672) and would give them a 92-70 (.568) record at the end of the year. Given that the Dodgers lead the wild-card hunt with a .562 winning percentage and the Cardinals lead the Central with a .569 winning percentage, there is a remote chance that the Astros could get into the playoffs. They would have to a) keep up their torrid pace, and b) hope no one else gets hot, or more preciously that everyone ahead of them gets cold, since they have a few bodies to leap over to get to a playoff spot.
One last thing that crossed my mind is that they play in the NL Central, which means that they play three poor teams, the Cubs, Brewers, and Pirates, fairly regularly. Could the Astros resurgence be based on beating up on the weak sisters in their division? Their record against the Three Stooges pre-June 19 was 10-12 (.455) and against the rest of the teams was 20-28 (.417). Their record since June 19 against Manny, Moe, and Jack is 11-5 (.688); against the rest of teams is 12-6 (.667). It appears that the 'Stros are not just feeding on the little fishes in the NL Central.
Let's say they do finish 92-70. That would be a 62-30 (.674) record in its last 92 games, an amazing turnaround, but it still may fall short if one of the teams in front of them does well down the stretch (of course not well enough to win their division though) or either the Reds or Cardinals get, if not hot, at least tepid the rest of the way.