Oakland, we have a problem, and it’s Houston. Rumors of the Astros’ decline were greatly exaggerated, and they still look like a powerhouse so far in 2021. Their pitching staff isn’t quite what it once was but it still has an ace and plenty of depth, and the lineup is back atop the majors after an off-year during the pandemic.
The A’s have played 45 games, and 10 have come against the Astros. Oakland dropped seven of those meetings, often by blowout margins. They’ve pitched pretty well against the rest of the league, but they’ve been routinely hammered by their top division rival.
- vs. Astros: 67 runs in 10 games, or 6.7 per game, .378 xwOBA
- vs. others: 137 runs in 35 games, or 3.9 per game, .301 xwOBA
In six of the 10 contests, the A’s allowed at least eight runs. They’ve only yielded that much seven times against all other opponents combined, in 35 games. And half of that other work came against some of the top scoring teams in the majors, including the Red Sox (3rd in runs per game), Dodgers (6th), Blue Jays (7th), and Rays (8th) — that group of heavyweight contenders averaged 4.1 runs in 17 games against the green-and-gold.
The point isn’t to write any of this off as a fluke. It’s that the Astros lineup is a juggernaut right now, leading the majors in basically everything. Even if you remove their games against the A’s, their five runs per game and .335 xwOBA would both rank fifth in the majors.
Several Oakland pitchers have experienced the brunt of that attack, even though their splits show they’ve been effective against the rest of the league. Cole Irvin has faced them thrice and looked like a fringe fifth starter each time, but against everybody else he’s been something of a breakout performer. (Note: League-average xwOBA is .323 for starters and .317 for relievers.)
- Irvin, vs. HOU: 14⅔ ip, 13 ER, 6 Ks, 4 BB, 3 HR, 20 hits, 2 HBP, .418 xwOBA
- Irvin, vs. others: 38 ip, 8 ER, 34 Ks, 6 BB, 3 HR, 31 hits, 1 HBP, .296 xwOBA
Co-closer Jake Diekman was never going to repeat last summer’s sub-1.00 ERA over a full-length season, but he’s at 2.46 against everyone but Houston.
- Diekman, vs. HOU: 3 ip, 3 ER, 2 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR, 6 hits, .408 xwOBA
- Diekman, vs. others: 14⅔ ip, 4 ER, 24 Ks, 5 BB, 2 HR, 10 hits, .271 xwOBA
New lefty Adam Kolarek is also coming off a sub-1.00 ERA last year, and against the rest of MLB he’s been as advertised. But the Astros have absolutely destroyed him.
- Kolarek, vs. HOU: 2 ip, 7 ER, 1 K, 3 BB, 2 HR, 7 hits, 1 HBP, .509 xwOBA
- Kolarek, vs. other: 7 ip, 1 ER, 3 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR, 8 hits, .264 xwOBA
Scrap-heap pickup Deolis Guerra has settled nicely into a long-relief role, eating innings and sometimes keeping the A’s in the game when a starter leaves early. But not against Houston.
- Guerra, vs. HOU: 3⅔ ip, 4 ER, 3 Ks, 1 BB, 1 HR, 4 hits, .424 xwOBA
- Guerra, vs. other: 15 ip, 4 ER, 16 Ks, 6 BB, 1 HR, 8 hits, .224 xwOBA
As for Reymin Guduan, he’s been a subpar but serviceable mopup man for the most part, but the Astros have lit him up to a ridiculous extent.
- Guduan, vs. HOU: 5 ip, 8 ER, 1 K, 3 BB, 11 hits, .481 xwOBA
- Guduan, vs. other: 7⅔ ip, 2 ER, 4 Ks, 2 BB, 1 HR, 7 hits, .355 xwOBA
Fortunately, most of these pitchers are not core pieces of the current October plan. Irvin is showing promise but isn’t yet anybody’s first pick to start a playoff game, and perhaps it wasn’t wise to actively line things up to have him pitch three of these 10 games against the Astros. In the pen, Diekman is a critical cog, but Guerra and Guduan are depth for the six-month regular season until further notice. Kolarek was literally optioned to Triple-A as I was writing this.
And what about the top arms? Bassitt, Luzardo, Manaea, Montas, Trivino, Petit, Romo, and Smith have combined for a .350 xwOBA against the Astros, which is still shaky but much more reasonable. Trivino, Montas, and Petit have been decent or better, Bassitt and Luzardo have been serviceable, and Romo, Smith, and Manaea have been beaten up but nothing like the numbers listed above. That group contains more names that we’re likely to see in the most meaningful action this fall, and they have a .312 xwOBA for the season overall.
Houston is still really good, and that’s a problem for the A’s. Nothing is decided in the first two months, but in this current snapshot in time, the Astros deserve their spot in first place, and the A’s deserve their spot just a half-step behind them. Hopefully that will change by the end of September, much less the end of October.