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Tigers vs. Astros Series Preview: Are the Astros the best team in baseball?

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The Twins have MLB’s best record, but by most measures, Houston is an absolute juggernaut.

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Texas Rangers v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Not all win-loss records are created equal. Take the Detroit Tigers, for instance. Our Tigers have battled injuries, a struggling offense, and... well, more injuries all season long, but have clawed their way to an 18-20 record after 38 games. Though they are missing 80 percent of their projected Opening Day rotation, they find themselves within 2 12 games of the AL Wild Card.

The underlying statistics tell a different story, however. The Tigers have been outscored by 49 runs this year, the third-worst total in baseball. Their pythagorean expected win-loss record — a projected record based on runs scored and allowed — is just 14-24, which would put them just barely ahead of last-place Kansas City in the AL Central standings.

The Houston Astros find themselves at 26-15 after 41 games, meanwhile, and have already opened up a 6 12 game lead on their AL West competition. Their record is the second-best in baseball, behind only the Minnesota Twins. But Houston’s +69 run differential is the best in Major League Baseball, giving them a pythag record of 27-14.

It doesn’t stop there, though. According to Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win percentage — “A team’s projected winning percentage, based on underlying statistics and adjusted for quality of opponents” — the Astros should have nearly 33 wins in their first 41 games. Their .795 third-order win percentage is the best in baseball by far, and suggests that the Astros are even better than their already impressive 26-15 mark.

Are they the best team in baseball? I think so. Here’s hoping we are wrong for the next three games.

Statistical comparison: Tigers vs. Astros

Overview Tigers Astros Advantage
Overview Tigers Astros Advantage
Batting (wRC+) 81 (13th) 133 (1st) Astros
Fielding (DRS) -24 (14th) 38 (1st) Astros
Rotation (ERA-) 94 (6th) 93 (5th) Astros
Bullpen (ERA-) 122 (13th) 72 (2nd) Astros
Total fWAR 4.5 (13th) 17.1 (1st) Astros

If the above paragraphs didn’t illustrate just how good the Astros are — or how big the gap is between the two clubs playing in this series — then this table probably does. The Astros lead every other AL club by nearly three full wins above replacement at this point, and rank at or near the top of the league in nearly every statistical category. Their pitching staff has the second-best strikeout rate and best K-BB percentage in the AL, which makes for a bad matchup against a Tigers offense with the second-highest strikeout rate in the American League.

Though the Tigers are fortunate that they won’t face Gerrit Cole or electric rookie righthander Corbin Martin in this series — not to mention Jose Altuve, who is on the injured list with a hamstring injury — they will still face a stacked rotation, and one of the deepest lineups and bullpens in baseball. Their offense is running circles around the rest of baseball right now, with a 133 wRC+ that is 15 percentage points than the next-best team in the game. Their top eight hitters all have a 111 wRC+ or better, with five of those eight north of 150.

Meanwhile, the Tigers only have four hitters above that 111 wRC+ mark, and only one of them (Nicholas Castellanos) has logged at least 100 plate appearances this season.

Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.

Game 1: Monday, May 13, 7:10 p.m.
Game 2: Tuesday, May 14, 7:10 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, May 15, 7:10 p.m.
Venue: Comerica Park, Detroit, Mich.
SB Nation site: The Crawfish Boxes
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Astros lineup

Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
George Springer CF 185 15 37 182
Alex Bregman 3B 169 12 31 159
Michael Brantley LF 167 10 29 161
Carlos Correa SS 157 9 24 151
Josh Reddick RF 138 3 10 118
Yuli Gurriel 1B 154 3 14 111
Tyler White DH 78 0 3 95
Robinson Chirinos C 112 5 18 155
Aledmys Diaz 2B 74 3 17 82

I don’t know if it’s possible for a team in Houston’s position to truly be “reeling,” but the Astros’ lineup is in flux after second baseman Jose Altuve was placed on the 10-day injured list over the weekend. The ‘Stros have used a couple of different lineups since then, but with little variation in place. The left-handed Josh Reddick batted second against Rangers opener Jesse Chavez on Saturday, but moved down to fifth against a traditional right-handed starter on Sunday. George Springer is still at the top of the order, and Alex Bregman will almost certainly bat at some point in the top of the first inning. Aledmys Diaz is filling in for Altuve defensively, but will hit near the bottom of the order. Lefty masher Jake Marisnick will likely get a start or two in this series so he can run down fly balls in Comerica Park’s spacious outfield.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: RHP Brad Peacock (3-2, 4.30 ERA) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (4-2, 2.86 ERA)

Brad Peacock was something of a revelation in 2017 when his strikeout rate skyrocketed to nearly 30 percent. He upped the ante in 2018, striking out 96 hitters in 65 innings in a relief role. The Astros have continued to shuttle the 31-year-old righthander between the rotation and the ‘pen, but his numbers have largely remained the same. Peacock’s ERA is a bit elevated early on in 2019 thanks to a couple of rough outings, and his strikeout rate has taken a bit of a hit, but his 3.34 FIP is nearly identical to what he produced out of the bullpen last year. He fanned 12 Royals while allowing just three hits last time out.

Game 2: LHP Wade Miley (3-2, 3.18 ERA) vs. LHP Ryan Carpenter (0-1, 10.80 ERA)

Like Peacock, Wade Miley has also enjoyed an unexpected late-career breakout. Unlike Peacock, however, Miley’s wasn’t the result of a huge jump in strikeouts. In fact, Miley’s strikeout rate dropped by nearly five percentage points from 2017 to 2018, yet he was able to cut his ERA in half.

What changed? Miley started throwing his cutter far more often, jumping from 11.8 percent usage in 2017 to 42.6 percent in 2018. There was little else to pick out from his numbers, save for a slight jump in ground ball rate. What looked to be a bit of BABIP luck has sustained itself in 2019, though, so it remains to be seen if this is just a long stretch of good fortune or something concrete Miley has done that we can’t quite pick out from staring at FanGraphs just yet.

Game 3: RHP Justin Verlander (6-1, 2.51 ERA) vs. TBD

Justin Verlander’s numbers are fascinating. Ten of the 33 hits he has allowed in 2019 have left the ballpark — only three pitchers have given up more homers so far — and he has allowed a home run in all but one of his outings. However, because Verlander has the American League’s lowest WHIP, eight of the 10 homers have been solo shots. The 12 runs allowed on those 10 home runs represent 75 percent of the runs he has allowed all season, resulting in a 2.51 ERA nearly identical to what he produced last year.

I pity the poor soul that has to start for Detroit opposite him on Wednesday. Speaking of that...

What we’re rooting for: Joe Jimenez, opener

With a pair of overmatched lefthanders likely handling the lion’s share of innings on both Tuesday and Wednesday, it might be time for the Tigers to start using an opener. Houston’s lineup is not quite as right-handed heavy at the top without Jose Altuve, but the Astros still have their fair of righties up and down the lineup. Springer and Bregman are certainly two of the most dangerous, and using a right-handed reliever like Joe Jimenez or Buck Farmer to open the game could help push Carpenter or Wednesday’s de facto starter deeper into their respective outing.

Jimenez, in particular, could be an interesting selection. The young righthander has had an up-and-down 2019 season so far, and looked shaky in multiple outings against the Minnesota Twins over the weekend. While giving him the top of Houston’s lineup doesn’t exactly make things easier on Jimenez, he won’t have the added stress of protecting a late lead to worry about. Jimenez’s platoon splits also warrant giving him as many right-handed hitters to face as possible, which is much easier to do at the start of the game, especially if Houston’s lineup is geared up to face a left-handed starter.

The Tigers could also opt for Buck Farmer, who has been better against right-handed hitters this year, or a middle relief option like Victor Alcantara or Eduardo Jimenez (who is currently in the minors).