Hello, Astros fans. Welcome to a stressful September, something this franchise hasn’t seen in six seasons. After Tuesday’s win against the Red Sox, FanGraphs gave the Astros a 44.8 percent chance to win the American League West, a division they’ve dominated in the recent past, but to claim it this year they’ll need to hold off Seattle and Texas. A three-game series against each team next month could dictate the outcome.
Here are some of your most pressing questions.
Rumor is that (Michael) Brantley is due up on 8/28. Do you see that happening? — (No name submitted)
After a 14-month absence, Michael Brantley is indeed back. The Astros activated him prior to Tuesday’s game against the Red Sox, hit him sixth in the batting order and started him in left field. That illustrates how much faith Houston has in the 36-year-old outfielder.
Before finishing Tuesday’s win 0-for-4, Brantley had not taken a major-league at-bat since June 26, 2022. He went 8-for-23 in seven minor-league rehab games with Triple-A Sugar Land and, according to all involved, recovered without any issue. That Brantley hit Triple-A pitching is an encouraging sign, but he’s also a 14-year major-league veteran with a .298 lifetime batting average facing minor-league arms.
It’s difficult to set rational expectations for the final five weeks of the season. Houston only has 28 games remaining, so time is elapsing for Brantley to demonstrate he’s capable of occupying a spot on a possible playoff roster. In the last two weeks, both Baker and general manager Dana Brown have maintained that Brantley will initially not be an everyday player. Baker told reporters on Monday that Brantley could rotate with Yordan Alvarez between designated hitter and left field.
During his first minor-league rehab assignment, Brantley struggled to recover after games or at-bats, so Houston must prioritize rest accordingly. Putting him on a schedule of playing every other day or staying away from him during day games after night games seems wise. Doing so won’t impact Yainer Diaz’s playing time as much, either.
Baker did tell reporters on Tuesday he planned to start Brantley at designated hitter on Wednesday, play Jon Singleton at first base and give José Abreu a day off, therefore squeezing Diaz out of the lineup. Presuming Singleton continues to get playing time and the Astros maintain their commitment to Martín Maldonado at catcher (and you’ll see down below, they will), no player is more impacted by Brantley’s return than Diaz.
Production may be difficult to predict, but Brantley’s plate discipline and elite contact rate should remain even while he’s working his way back. Houston entered Monday with a 25.1 percent strikeout rate from the seventh, eighth and ninth places in its batting order. Only 10 teams had a higher one. Entering Tuesday, the Astros’ .730 team OPS against right-handed pitching ranked 17th out of 30 lineups in the sport.
Brantley has a career .841 OPS against right-handed pitching. He’s never hit for much power and it’s anyone’s guess how well he’ll hold up after such a lengthy absence. But, at the very least, will put the ball in play and bring balance to a right-handed-heavy team in need of it.
Will Yainer get to catch (Justin) Verlander and Framber (Valdez) at least once prior to the postseason? It seems unbelievable to think that this would not happen IN CASE Yainer has to catch them for whatever reason (If they make it)? — Ro S.
It’s difficult to envision it happening, Ro. That it hasn’t already is perhaps evidence enough. The time to experiment with batteries, batting orders or anything of the sort passed long ago.
The Astros’ next 28 games will define their season. To secure a playoff spot or an American League West title, the Astros need Verlander and Valdez pitching at or near an ace level. The team believes Maldonado affords both of them the best chance to do that, his nonexistent offense and declining defensive numbers be damned.
Houston isn’t going to abandon a season-long plan during its most meaningful games. If anything, the team may view Maldonado’s 435 innings of postseason experience as even more reason to stay the course.
Yes, Maldonado leads the sport with 19 passed balls. According to Baseball Savant, no catcher has worse pitch-framing numbers, either. Maldonado has only caught 13 of 79 base stealers, though blaming a catcher solely for a stolen base is buffoonish. Still, it’s a far cry from Maldonado’s 33 percent career caught-stealing rate.
Yainer Diaz. (Bob Levey / Getty Images)
However, the notion that Diaz has never caught either pitcher is untrue. He had an entire spring training with Valdez, during which he caught bullpen sessions and Grapefruit League appearances. Diaz doesn’t have that same connection with Verlander, but he was with the major league team last September and through its World Series run. It stands to reason that, at some point, Diaz caught at least one of Verlander’s side sessions.
Does either situation equate to a major league game? Absolutely not. It may have behooved the team to get Diaz a start or two with Valdez earlier this season, but it already struggled enough to get Diaz at-bats on a roster constructed to do just that. So, perhaps that shouldn’t arrive as a surprise.
If the Astros reach the postseason, situations may arise when Baker has no choice but to deploy Diaz with either Valdez or Verlander. Take 2019, for example, when another personalized battery got broken up on a big stage. That year, Verlander finished with a 0.803 WHIP across 223 regular-season innings. Robinson Chirinos caught all of them. The partnership helped to shift former manager A.J. Hinch’s strict stance against personal catchers while producing Verlander’s second career Cy Young Award. Chirinos received as much credit from pitchers then as Maldonado does now.
Yet, during Game 2 of the World Series against the Nationals, Hinch pinch-hit Kyle Tucker for Chirinos in the sixth inning. Maldonado entered to catch Verlander in the seventh — the first inning all season he threw to anyone but Chirinos. Verlander surrendered a solo home run to the first batter he faced, walked the second and then left the game.
After the game, Verlander said changing catchers made no difference. Houston may soon test whether that theory is accurate.
If you had to bet, do the Astros take the division or don’t they? — Sam M.
The only bets I place are on blackjack tables. Occasionally, a poker game piques my interest.
For those who prefer baseball betting, it’s probably best to study some odds. According to FanGraphs, the Astros entered Monday’s game against the Red Sox with 41.4 percent odds of winning the American League West. Seattle had 40.2 percent odds and Texas an 18.4 percent chance.
Nine of the Astros’ next 28 games are against the two worst teams in baseball: Kansas City and Oakland. Entering Monday, the combined winning percentage of Houston’s final nine opponents was .466.
Both Seattle and Texas will finish their seasons against teams that, entering Monday, had .500 winning percentages or better. The Mariners and Rangers play seven times in the season’s final two weeks, too. The Astros play both teams thrice and both series are on the road, where Houston has played far better than inside Minute Maid Park.
So, the Astros have the clear scheduling advantage. Their postseason experience can’t be overlooked, either, especially up against two teams that have played a combined three playoff games in the past seven seasons.
Divisions are not won on paper or due to cupcake schedules. An inconsistent Astros team still must win those games and play to its capabilities. But, of the three contenders, they seem like the safest bet.
What is the playoff outlook for the Astros if they stay in the wild-card spot? How significant is seeding in the new system to the Astros chances to repeat? — John G.
Adding on to this: if they miss out on the division, do you see them maneuvering into the 6 seed to get the mediocre winner of the Central instead of the superior second-place East (or Texas) opponent?
Indeed, John, if the playoffs began on Monday the Astros would have the No. 6 seed and match up against the Minnesota Twins: projected winners of the worst division in years.
It’s arguably a more enviable position than either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed, but Houston can’t concern itself with that. Getting into the playoffs must be its foremost goal: whether that’s winning the American League West or securing a Wild Card spot.
Clinching a playoff spot may not be attainable until the season’s final week, condensing any time the Astros have to “maneuver” into the No. 6 seed. If they are a game or two back in the West before the final road trip of the season — which features three games in Seattle — it makes little sense to abandon hope and, for all intents and purposes, tank for the sixth seed.
It goes without saying, but winning the division should be Houston’s priority. With it would come a first-round bye and the ability to line up its pitching staff — something that seems mandatory for such a top-heavy rotation featuring Verlander, Valdez and three question marks behind them.
Only one off day between the Wild Card series and American League Division Series means the Game 1 Wild Card starter wouldn’t be on regular rest until Game 2 of the DS. The Game 2 Wild Card starter wouldn’t get to regular rest until Game 4 of the ALDS, which is a best-of-five series. The strain all of this would put on a bullpen is obvious, too.
One other thing: a matchup against Minnesota may seem like an ideal outcome, but be aware this is the same Twins team that won four of its six meetings against the Astros during the regular season.
Chandler, when it comes to the Seattle Mariners and the Astros, you have said in several interviews that “these two teams don’t like each other.” There’s been hit by pitches and ejections in the last few years so don’t doubt it. Could you expand on that? — Joseph E.
Generally, Joseph, teams don’t like getting dominated. Prior to this season, the Astros had won 49 of their last 68 games against the Mariners, including 22 of the past 30 meetings at Minute Maid Park.
In 2019, with Seattle mired in a “step back” the Astros’ dominance helped to start, Houston won 18 of the 19 games it played against the Mariners with a plus-61 run differential.
A step forward is now obvious. The two teams met in last season’s ALDS and Seattle has already secured this season’s series against the Astros. The Mariners won six of the team’s seven meetings in Houston, including a three-game sweep earlier this month. The Mariners had not swept the Astros in any series since 2018.
Winning helps to exorcise some demons, but others are more difficult to forget. Lingering anger from the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing scheme is apparent, as it is for certain clubs and players around the league.
Clubhouses, for the most part, take on the personality of their veteran players. Seattle still has a few remaining from 2017 and 2018, when Houston electronically stole signs inside Minute Maid Park. Houston finished those two seasons 24-14 against the Mariners. Those were the first two years of Scott Servais’ managerial tenure, too.
There is no love lost between the two teams and between Servais and members of Houston’s coaching staff. Pitches thrown up and in at Jose Altuve across the past two seasons have drawn the Astros’ ire, too, creating shared scorn. Benches have cleared between the two teams at least once in each of the last two seasons.
The balanced schedule has helped to simmer some tensions and there isn’t widespread mutual hatred. Julio Rodríguez and Jeremy Peña are close. Altuve played with Eugenio Suárez in the World Baseball Classic on a team managed by Astros first-base coach Omar López. Teoscar Hernández is a former Astros farmhand and a familiar face to many on Houston’s major-league staff.
Where do you see the current dynamics between Astros leadership? Especially re: (Jim) Crane, (Dana) Brown, and Dusty (Baker). — Harrison F.
Parse Brown’s comments and Baker’s lineup decisions that Brown has seemed to question, it’s clear the first-year general manager has afforded Baker autonomy to manage the team and clubhouse as he sees fit.
Brown also did not hire Baker; Crane did. It’s still unclear who among the two men will make a decision on Baker’s future after his contract expires this October, if there’s one to be made at all.
Crane’s influence during the trade deadline is obvious — Verlander even acknowledged last month that his relationship with the owner influenced his choice to waive his no-trade clause — but owners are almost always involved during deals with that amount of money.
(Top photo of Brantley: Bob Levey / Getty Images)