By Jack Bellemore
Check out Nolan Bruce’s 2022 Season Preview Article for the Astros here.
2022 Record: 106-56 (.654 win%, 1st in AL West)
2022 Payroll: $154,833,332 (6th)
1. 2B, Jose Altuve, .300 AVG/.387 OBP/.533 SLG, 6.6 fWAR
2. SS, Jeremy Peña, .253 AVG/.289 OBP/.426 SLG, 3.4 fWAR
3. DH, Yordan Alvarez, .306 AVG/.406 OBP/.613 SLG, 6.6 fWAR
4. 3B, Alex Bregman, .259 AVG/.366 OBP/.454 SLG, 5.5 fWAR
5. RF, Kyle Tucker, .257 AVG/.330 OBP/.478 SLG, 4.7 fWAR
6. 1B, Yuli Gurriel, .242 AVG/.288 OBP/.360 SLG, -0.9 fWAR
7. LF, Chas McCormick, .245 AVG/.332 OBP/.407 SLG, 2.0 fWAR
8. C, Martin Maldonado, .186 AVG/.248 OBP/.352 SLG, 0.5 fWAR
9. CF, Jake Meyers, .227 AVG/.269 OBP/.313 SLG, 0.3 fWAR
10. UT, Trey Mancini, .176 AVG/.258 OBP/.364 SLG, -0.5 fWAR
1. Justin Verlander, 175.0 IP/1.75 ERA/0.829 WHIP, 6.1 fWAR
2. Framber Valdez, 201.1 IP/2.82 ERA/1.157 WHIP, 4.4 fWAR
3. Jose Urquidy, 164.1 IP/3.94 ERA/1.168 WHIP, 1.1 fWAR
4. Luis Garcia, 157.1 IP/3.72 ERA/1.131 WHIP, 2.1 fWAR
5. Christian Javier, 148.2 IP/2.54 ERA/0.948 WHIP, 3.4 fWAR
2022 Top 4 Relievers:
1. Ryan Pressly, 48.1 IP/2.98 ERA/0.890 WHIP, 1.4 fWAR
2. Rafael Montero, 68.1 IP/2.37 ERA/1.024 WHIP, 1.5 fWAR
3. Hector Neris, 65.1 IP/3.72 ERA/1.010 WHIP, 1.6 fWAR
4. Phil Maton, 65.2 IP/3.84 ERA/1.249 WHIP, -0.1 fWAR
Regular Season Recap:
Entering the 2022 season, a significantly bolstered AL West meant that many saw this as the year that the Astros could finally be dethroned after more than half a decade (with the exception of the 2020 COVID season).
The Mariners were coming off a near-playoff appearance and had added several key pieces, the Angels were getting a healthy Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon back, and the Rangers had one of the best middle-infields in baseball after signing Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.
Although the Mariners did see major improvements, making the postseason for the first time in 21 years, and unveiling a shiny young superstar in Julio Rodriguez, Houston never felt much heat from it, essentially maintaining at least a 10-game lead in the division from June to October.
So how did they do it? It’s actually rather simple, they were good at just about everything.
As a team, they had 6 players in the top 50 of total fWAR, the most of any team. On offense, Houston put up the 4th most HRs, 2nd fewest strikeouts, and scored the 8th most runs per game. Alvarez (2nd) and Altuve (5th) were both in the top 5 of OPS, the former establishing himself as one of the game’s best all-around sluggers.
In terms of pitching, they were even better. The Astros allowed the 2nd fewest runs/game, had the 2nd lowest ERA, 2nd most saves, best FIP, 2nd best WHIP, 2nd best H/9, tied-best HR/9, 3rd best SO/9, lowest opponent OPS, and best total pitching fWAR. Although the starting pitching was outstanding, their bullpen is what truly set them apart from other good pitching teams.
Though it was league average in 2021, the Astros’ bullpen skyrocketed (pun intended) to the best in baseball in 2022, sporting a league-best 2.80 ERA in the regular season and a league-best 0.83 ERA in the postseason. Long story short, the Astros’ pitching was really, really good.
Houston won 11 more games than they did in 2021, and it seems that with their usual stars and young core, they won’t have trouble replicating their success going forward.
Continuing their trend of perennial dominance over the AL, the Astros were able to put an end to a stubborn Phillies squad in 6 games, winning their 2nd (or 1st, depending on how strongly you feel about trash cans) championship in team history. This comes after falling short in the ALCS in 2018 and 2020, and in the World Series in 2019 and 2021.
Houston’s performance in the ALDS and ALCS was nothing short of pure dominance, sweeping both a hungry Mariners team and the Yankees, who had built up a considerable amount of momentum going into the series, but left the series as a shell of themselves.
Their ALDS matchup with their AL West rival Mariners was closer than it looked. Having met 22 times in the regular season, the Astros won the season series 15-7, but played 3 very close games with Seattle in the Division Series. Game 1 saw them down 7-3 in the 8th, but a 2-run home run from Bregman and a 3-run absolute bomb of a walk-off from Yordan Alvarez sealed the come-from-behind victory. Strangely enough, it was the first ever postseason walk-off home run by a team trailing by multiple runs.
Game 2 saw Alvarez hit another go-ahead home run in the 6th, and subsequently was given the “Barry Bonds Treatment” in the 8th inning, being intentionally walked with a runner on first.
In Game 3, the Astros showcased their pitching depth, shutting out the Mariners for 18 innings, using 8 pitchers to do so, before Jeremy Pena broke the tie with a solo shot to lead off the top of the 18th.
The ALCS against the Yankees was a much-anticipated one. With several contentious years of history between the two teams in past years, the Yankees were hoping to finally break through and prove their worth against the Astros after their heartbreaking losses in the 2017 and 2019 ALCS. The Yanks were coming off an impressive series win over the Guardians, and seemed to have quite a lot of momentum.
However, it quickly died, as Houston dominated nearly every aspect of the series, sweeping the series, to many peoples’ surprise. Touted as a fierce rivalry, calling it such is a bit of an exaggeration, as this matchup has been rather one-sided over the past half-decade.
Falling behind in the series 2-1 against the Phillies after a blowout loss in Game 3, still with 2 more games in Philadelphia to play, Houston desperately needed a spark to put them back on track. They indeed did get a spark, as Cristian Javier and the Astros bullpen combined for a historic no-hitter in Game 4.
The next 2 games went smoothly, getting solid outings from Verlander and Valdez, good enough to win them their long-awaited 2nd title. Even if you’re not a fan of the Astros, Dusty Baker finally got his World Series win as a manager after falling short on multiple occasions in his 25-year coaching career.
M-SABR Predicted Record (92-70) vs. Actual (106-56):
Nolan Bruce of M-SABR’s predictions for the Astros in 2022 made it clear that in order to maintain their success, some new faces would have to step up to resolve some uncertainties.
First, and most notably, Houston was relying on rookie Jeremy Pena to fill in the Carlos Correa-sized hole in their roster. Pena filled in admirably, winning the World Series MVP, and still has room to improve in the seasons to come.
The second uncertainty was their pitching staff, which, outside of Verlander, was not clear. They did not have a sure #2 option in place, and Lance McCullers was set to miss time. Even Verlander was a big question mark going into the season, having missed most of 2020 and the entire 2021 season due to injury, and also being 39 years old.
However, everything that could have gone right, went right. Several pieces stepped up massively, particularly Framber Valdez (see below), who emerged as a perfect complement to Verlander to make arguably the best 1-2 punch in the MLB in 2022, while Verlander picked up right where he left off, returning to elite form. Aside from Valdez, solid seasons from Christian Javier, Jose Urquidy, and Luis Garcia made up for McCullers’ absence.
There was also concern about improvements of other AL West teams. Outside of the Mariners, however, no team really came close to challenging the Astros, due to a variety of reasons. Going forward, Seattle is a team to keep an eye on to challenge Houston, with a mix of veteran and young talent.
Surprise of the Season:
Everyone knew the Astros were going to be good in some capacity, but the emergence of Framber Valdez as one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2022 was a pleasant surprise. Although I personally don’t love the Quality Start as a stat, his MLB-record 25 consecutive QS was nothing short of impressive.
This Postseason, the lefty had an ERA of 1.44, going 3-0 in 4 starts, and won 2 games against the Phillies, capping off the best season of his career. Going into the season, Valdez was seen as no more as a middle-of-the-rotation type of player, who had seen flashes of success over his first 4 seasons. This season, however, he finally broke out, seeing statistical improvement across the board. How replicable this success is is yet to be seen, as his underlying advanced stats were not much better than the rest of his career, apart from slight improvements in BB% and HR%.
Players We Watched:
#1: Alex Bregman
The expectation for Bregman going into this season was for him to return to his normal, healthy self, and to firmly establish himself as a leader after the departure of Carlos Correa. Did he? Well, not exactly. After struggling with injuries the past few seasons, he finally had a fully healthy campaign.
However, his production was not nearly at the level it was at in 2019, when he finished 2nd in AL MVP voting, hitting 41 homers and posting a 162 OPS+, compared to 2022’s 23 HR and a 133 OPS+. On the bright side, he did have the 26th best fWAR. Although Bregman didn’t fully step into that leadership role, it’s safe to say that Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez made up for it.
Altuve returned to his superstar status after a few off-years, and Alvarez cemented himself as one of the league’s best pure hitters, posting a 187 OPS+, trailing only Aaron Judge, who had a pretty decent season himself. Also taking a step up was Kyle Tucker, who very quietly put up a 30 HR, 25 SB season, and is one of the premier 5-tool players in baseball.
#2: Jeremy Pena
Growing up in my home state of Rhode Island, Pena was selected in the 3rd round of the 2018 MLB Draft, and made his debut in 2022 as the replacement to Carlos Correa, and has done as good of a job as you can ask in doing so. Despite not being known for his power, the rookie put up 22 HR on the season, and delivered a memorable postseason performance in the ALCS and World Series.
Being only the 9th player in postseason history to win both LCS and World Series MVP, he went 6-17 with 2 HR against the Yankees, and 10-25 with a HR in the World Series, altogether hitting .345 in the postseason. This hitting was impressive, but Pena’s greatest addition to the team is his world-class defense.
He led all shortstops with 16 Defensive Runs Saved, and won a Gold Glove, becoming the first rookie shortstop to do so. Although not quite good enough for AL Rookie of the Year, he still has a bright future ahead of him, and his hitting should only improve given time.
#3: Justin Verlander
After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2020, and subsequently missing the entire 2021 season, it seemed unlikely Justin Verlander would return to his 2019 Cy Young-winning form, especially given that he was now 39 years old.
He did indeed return to his elite form, posting a ridiculous 220 ERA+, which led the league, while also leading the league in wins and WHIP. This makes him a near-lock for AL Cy Young, which would be the 3rd of his illustrious career.
Going forward, it’s tough to predict how his age will affect his production on the mound. In good news, his wife, Kate Upton, said she does not want him to retire (sorry, Tom Brady), meaning we can probably expect a few more campaigns from the future Hall of Famer.
The ‘stros have several key players who will become free agents in 2022. Those include Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Martin Maldonado, Christian Vazquez, Jason Castro, Almedys Diaz, and Rafael Montero. Justin Verlander is also likely to opt out of his remaining year of his 2-year, $50m contract signed last year.
Michael Brantley missed the second half of 2022 after undergoing shoulder surgery, but would be a good re-signing in order to save Yordan Alvarez from having to permanently move to left field, rather than stay as DH.
Yuli Gurriel will be going into his age-39 season in 2023. However, I think his veteran presence may be worth keeping around, as he’s been a key part of the team since 2016. Despite his age, he did win both a batting title and a Gold Glove in 2021.
Rafael Montero had a fantastic 2022, and his 2.37 ERA contributed in a big way towards Houston’s bullpen. He will likely demand a much higher salary, though, with an estimated market value of around $8m, as opposed to last year’s salary of around $2m. Given his shaky career so far, it may not be worth investing too much into the 32-year old. A cheaper replacement bullpen piece can probably be signed or traded for.
Regarding the triad of catchers, Maldonado, Vazquez, and Castro, the ideal scenario would be to keep both Maldonado and Vazquez, both being very serviceable backstops. However, if money needs to be saved in order to make other signings, losing either one should not be seen as the end of the world.
Arguably, the most pressing issue of Houston’s offseason is their situation with Justin Verlander, who is likely to opt out of his current deal. Whether he decides he wants to leave Houston or not, it’s clear that he will be asking for a lot of money, and most likely a multi-year deal. It is yet to be seen if the Astros are willing to throw upwards of $40m per year at a 40 year old, but the wise move may be to let him walk.
If he does walk, Houston should look towards a younger option to replace Verlander as top dog on their pitching staff, such as free agent Carlos Rodon, who has been an underrated stud for the past 2 years. By some metrics, Rodon is better than Verlander, and is also 10 years younger, which is a huge plus. If the Astros are concerned about their future, this may be the route to take.
If not Rodon, free agents like Chris Bassit, Tyler Anderson, Nate Eovaldi, and Noah Syndergaard may be serviceable enough to maintain their solid pitching staff. If Verlander leaves, and Houston can’t find an immediate replacement, look for Cristian Javier to take a step forward. Armed with one of the best fastballs in the Bigs, he’s shown flashes of elite pitching, including his 6 no-hit innings in Game 4, and could very well build on that going forward, especially if given a full-time spot in the rotation.
Something to Watch:
An interesting thing that I’m going to keep an eye on is the general sentiment of sports fans around the Astros. Since 2019, when news of their cheating scandal broke, the Houston Astros have been one of, if not the, most hated team in professional sports. Claims that they’re frauds have dominated talking points around the franchise, even today.
However, with a World Series win, and a dominant one at that, it’s tough to deny the greatness of this team. Eventually, there comes a point where you have to realize that we are seeing a potential dynasty emerging.
This team is built for success both now and in the future, so it will be a while before they fade from relevancy. Making 6 straight AL Championship Series and now winning a World Series, several years removed from the trash can scandal, it may be time for sports fans to move on.