2023 Houston Astros MLB season predictions, odds and preview

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Houston Astros 2023 Season Preview

Normally the reigning World Series champions don’t have an awkward offseason, but that was the case with the Houston Astros. Jeff Bagwell’s official job title is Community Outreach Executive, but he sure had a lot to say about the Astros and their incorporation of analytics into the decision-making process. Among Bagwell’s comments were things like, “This game is played by humans, man. It’s not played by computers.” He lamented how far into the numbers and metrics the Astros have gone.

 

Those comments came shortly after owner Jim Crane fired GM James Click and assistant GM Scott Powers. Ultimately, the Astros hired Dana Brown, who was the vice president of scouting for the Atlanta Braves, a team that – you guessed it – incorporates a lot of analytics into the decision-making process. The Braves have been tremendously successful in identifying and developing homegrown talent, but so have the Astros.

How anybody could find fault with what the Astros have achieved is mind-blowing. They’ve played in FOUR OF THE LAST SIX WORLD SERIES! They’ve won two of them and haven’t fallen short of the ALCS since 2016. Not much has changed with the roster or the expectations for 2023. The window certainly isn’t closed. I’m just curious how much longer it will be open, especially if more head-scratching decisions are coming down the pike.

Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.

2023 Houston Astros Odds

(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 10, click for updates)

World Series: +600
AL Pennant: +310
AL West: -180
Win Total: 95.5 (-115/-105)
Make Playoffs: Yes -750 / No +550

Houston Astros Offense

The Astros offense will once again rank near the top of the league. The obvious weak link last season was Yuli Gurriel, who was fourth on the team in plate appearances and the only guy ranked in the top seven in PA to post a wRC+ under 102. Keep in mind that 100 is league average and the other guys posted wRC+ marks of 136, 129, 164, 185, 102 and 114. Gurriel had an 85 wRC+, meaning he was 15% below league average offensively.

To replace him, the Astros turned to 2020 MVP Jose Abreu, whose power numbers dropped last season because of an awful offensive philosophy in Chicago. Abreu is 36, so maybe it was a little more than that, but he fits perfectly into this lineup. He makes a lot of contact, while still drawing walks, and has 30-homer upside.

At this point, the only clear below average hitter in the Astros lineup is catcher Martin Maldonado, whose defensive skills balance out his weak stick. Noticeably absent from the top seven guys in plate appearances is Michael Brantley, who only had 277 of them, but slashed .288/.370/.416 with a 127 wRC+ of his own.

Yordan Alvarez is an MVP candidate after crushing 37 homers with a 185 wRC+. He just needs to stay healthy, which may be a taller task because he’s going to be expected to play more outfield this season with Brantley’s limitations. He could play some first base with Abreu as the DH, but the Astros seemed to make it clear that they expect Alvarez in the field more. He served as the DH for 77 games last season and played left field in 56.

The Astros had six players with at least 558 plate appearances, which is rare in today’s day and age. Injuries pop up a lot, but a lot of teams also utilize platoons. Because of their talent, the Astros don’t have to do that. Guys like Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Jose Altuve play every day and produce at a high level. Altuve will turn 33 in May and many have speculated how he’ll age given his body type, but he’s showing no signs of it yet.

Along with the Gurriel/Abreu upgrade, Jeremy Pena is in his second full season as the starting shortstop and it makes sense that he would be more comfortable offensively this time around. Pena played some excellent defense, but the bat was hit or miss with a .253/.289/.426 slash over his 136 games. He struck out over 24% of the time and walked under 4% of the time, but he only played 30 games at Triple-A in 2021 after losing out on most of that season and all of the 2020 season.

The Houston offense also gets a boost because this is one of the best teams in baseball about putting the ball in play. Only the Dodgers, Braves and Rangers pulled the ball more often as well, so the Astros may fare better in the batting average department. Home runs don’t count towards BABIP and the Astros hit 214 of those, but they did only have a .278 BABIP, which ranked 25th.

It stands to reason that the Astros also benefit from the new rules. They don’t strike out much and I just mentioned how often they pulled the ball. Utilizing a shift was some measure of defense against this elite lineup, but that opportunity is now gone. Some shaky decision-making is taking place in the front office, but that has little bearing on the talent that is currently on the roster. I think there are some questions long-term in terms of internal player development, scouting and financial flexibility, but those are down the road.

Houston Astros Pitching

You would think it would be really difficult to replace Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in the span of three years, but Houston’s developmental wins on the pitching side have left them with an all-homegrown rotation of guys under the age of 30. Verlander had a 1.75 ERA with a 2.49 FIP and won the AL Cy Young Award for his 175 innings of brilliance, so there could be some measure of a drop-off, but the collective group of guys in Houston’s top five will be just fine.

A stat I marveled about in the playoffs is that the Astros had 16 pitchers that made at least eight appearances and not a single one of them had an ERA over 3.94. In fact, eight of them had an ERA under 3.00. Included in that mix were all five of this season’s projected starters. One of them was the oft-injured Lance McCullers Jr., who was delayed in Spring Training by some soreness right after pitchers and catchers reported for duty.

If McCullers does miss time (and he inevitably will), that simply opens the door for top prospect Hunter Brown, so the Astros will be just fine. Framber Valdez led the team with 201.1 innings last season and had a 2.82 ERA with a 3.06 FIP. He’s one of the most extreme ground ball guys in the game, so we’ll see how the shift rules impact him, but he keeps the ball in the park and showed a lot of durability by performing about as well in the second half as he did in the first half while setting new record highs in innings pitched and starts.

Cristian Javier is the guy I’m most interested in. Apparently the Astros are as well, since they signed him to a new five-year deal right before Spring Training. He’s the strikeout guy of the bunch and had a 2.54 ERA with a 3.16 FIP in 148.2 innings of work. He’s also the opposite of Valdez as a super extreme fly ball guy, but he cut his HR/FB% down by over 5% from 2021 to 2022, which dramatically altered his ceiling. Assuming those improvements stick, I think he’s honestly a Cy Young Award candidate. He almost had 200 strikeouts and only pitched 148.2 innings last season.

The biggest difference for Luis Garcia this season will be that his windup is now illegal under MLB’s new rules. The 26-year-old had fine numbers for the Astros once again, with almost an identical stat line to his 2021 season. His ERA and FIP were up slightly, but he still graded above average. That was not fully the case for Jose Urquidy, whose 4.60 FIP was very much on the high side, but the Astros are typically good at fixing pitcher weaknesses, much like they did with Valdez’s high BB% early in his career.

Houston’s bullpen ranked first in ERA and first in FIP for the full season. Only the Guardians, Dodgers and Braves had lower ERAs for the second half and only the Guardians had a lower FIP. Every guy from that unit is back this season, so that should once again be a strength for the Astros.

There is only so much you can say about a team that seems to have no noteworthy weaknesses. You could argue that the improved rosters for the Mariners, Angels and Rangers are going to be the biggest threats to the numbers that the Astros put up both offensively and on the pitching side, but the depth here is tremendous all around.

Miscellaneous Notes

The Astros did play 93 of their games against teams with losing records last season and went 64-29, but they also trailed only the Dodgers in win percentage against teams .500 or better. They certainly padded their 106-56 record against the bad teams, but more than held their own against the good teams. They were also a ridiculous 42-12 against left-handed starters.

As I said, I’m not sure if the improvements made by some teams around the league will cut that much into Houston’s productivity, but it is worth noting that they won 35 games by 5+ runs last season. They were also 28-16 in one-run games, so they found lots of ways to win, but one pronounced way was in blowing out the opposition. That may happen less this season.

Player to Watch

SP Cristian Javier: Some sportsbooks have better player futures odds than others, but I do think shopping around for the best price on Javier to win the AL Cy Young makes sense. Javier struck out 39.5% of right-handed batters faced last season. He is a fly ball guy and a home run risk comes attached with that, but he also had 25 pop ups last season, which are effectively strikeouts, including a boost with those in the second half. He cut his Hard Hit% from 42.7% to 33.3% and shaved 2.6% off of his Barrel%. His average exit velocity against on fastballs dropped from 93 mph to 89.1 mph, so he clearly located it better and he even seemed to mix in a few more curveballs, which has the chance to be an elite pitch with a 92nd percentile spin rate. He turns 26 just before the season and I think he’s learned how to pitch now to go along with the stellar raw talent. He’s a special player.

Houston Astros Season Win Total Pick

This will be one of the league’s best teams once again. The talent level is just entirely too high. That being said, the Astros do some to be a little more depth-shy than past versions. This year’s projected bench is full of below average hitters and the starting pitcher options behind Brown are lacking. The Astros have played a ton of baseball during this dynasty with lots of extra innings and plate appearances on the legs and arms of their core guys.

For the most part, the Astros have stayed healthy. When injuries have popped up, they’ve simply had tremendous depth to withstand the storm. This was a team that won 106 games last season and won the division by 16 games, even though I really think Seattle is on the rise. It’s hard to do anything other than expect the Astros to be great, as all of their odds imply.

It should be another status quo season for Houston. They’ve won 101 or more games in four of the last five full seasons, with 95 in the other one and their Pythagorean Win-Loss that season of .622 implied that they should have won 101 games. I don’t have an official wager here, but the over is the pick for the article.

Stronger Lean: Over 95.5