Don't look now, but the New York Yankees are finally leveling off a little bit. Their 60-23 start to the 2022 season remains one of the best in Major League Baseball history, but they're no longer ahead of the pace set by the 114-win Yankees of 1998.
So, yes, Houston Astros. We're telling you there's a chance.
Though their eight-game winning streak came to an end on Wednesday, the Astros are still the hottest team in baseball. They've won 18 of 23 contests since June 12, with much of the good times coming courtesy of American League MVP candidate Yordan Alvarez's bat.
The 25-year-old slugger has collected nine of his 26 home runs during this stretch, including his first career walk-off shot on July 4 and a clutch go-ahead blast—amid "M-V-P!" chants, no less—that helped the Astros push their record to 54-28 at Minute Maid Park on Thursday.
With the Yankees having won "only" 11 of their last 18 games, the Astros have closed the gap in the two clubs' race for the top record in the American League. Not by much, to be sure, but what was a 7-game deficit on June 11 is now a 5.5-game deficit.
What's more, various tea leaves portend further good things for the Houstonians.
According to Tankathon, the winning percentage of the Astros' remaining opponents is the second-lowest in MLB. The Yankees are joint-11th on that list, with a remaining gauntlet that includes 15 games against their other rivals, the Boston Red Sox.
According to FanGraphs, the Astros also boast a 33.4 percent chance of representing the AL in the World Series for the fourth time in six years. The Yankees' chances of returning to the Fall Classic for the first time since 2009 stand at 30 percent.
Nobody should need reminding of the history between these two teams, but those who are ignorant of it would be wise to brush up on what happened in 2017 and 2019 and the subsequent scandal that further heightened the lingering drama. Suffice it to say that the Yankees' preferred means of ending their World Series drought involves dispatching the Astros in the process.
But first, the Yankees have to keep outrunning them.
Yordan Alvarez's Hitting Seems to Be Contagious
Yordan Alvarez is kinda terrifying.
He takes more than just his 26 home runs with him when he steps into the batter's box. He also leads the majors in slugging percentage at .665 and in OPS at 1.076, as well as in OPS+ at 202.
To the latter, Alvarez is attempting to become the first hitter to finish a 162-game season with an OPS+ in the 200s since Barry Bonds' reign of terror between 2001 and 2004. To the extent that he's slugging over .650 while also going five at-bats between strikeouts, he's also put himself in the territory of late-2000s Albert Pujols.
As he had one of the best rookie seasons of all time in 2019 and more recently terrorized the Boston Red Sox in the 2021 American League Championship Series, this is not Alvarez's first rodeo as a fearsome hitter. Yet it is his best. And with his results backed up by the best xwOBA of the eight-year Statcast era, whether it's legit is beyond dispute.
Driving Alvarez's success this season is a mix of extraordinary strike-zone discipline and a holistic approach to slugging. His rate of swings in the "chase" and "waste" areas of the zone is down to 14.7 percent from 20.1 percent in 2021, and his 61.2 hard-hit percentage is yet another new mark for the Statcast era.
Alvarez doesn't even offer weaknesses against any particular pitch type. He's slugging .527 on fastballs, with an even better .703 mark against breaking and a still even better .902 against off-speed. Of Houston's 13 home runs against off-speed pitches, Alvarez owns 10.
It's hard to believe that Alvarez was actually off to a slow start in April, as he was still hitting under .200 through 11 games on April 25. Since then, though, he's hit at .339/.441/.702.
Though this is a big reason why the Astros offense leads with the Yankees with a 124 wRC+ since April 26, there's a veritable village that also deserves credit. Of the nine most regular hitters in manager Dusty Baker's lineups, only catcher Martin Maldonado has a wRC+ well south of the average 100.
Back on June 6, the Astros extended Alvarez for $115 million over six years. That looked like a bargain even then, and that much more so now that he's made himself into the best hitter in arguably the best offense in baseball.
It's Not All Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander kept right on rolling on Thursday, allowing one earned run with eight strikeouts over six innings. He ran his record to 11-3 and lowered his ERA to 2.00, so he's arguably still the guy to beat for the AL Cy Young Award.
He may already have two of those, but the sheer improbability of this effort nonetheless boggles the mind. Pitchers in their first year back from Tommy John surgery aren't supposed to be this dominant, much less ones that are less than a year away from turning 40.
Yet as much as Houston's moundstaff revolves around Verlander, the veteran ace notably wasn't involved in any of the club's top pitching highlights of 2022. He twirled neither of the club's two immaculate innings against the Texas Rangers in June:
Nor was he one of the three hurlers who no-hit the Yankees on June 25:
Most responsible for the latter was Cristian Javier, who struck out 13 in that game and then 14 in his next assignment on July 1. Two days later, Framber Valdez paced a 20-strikeout game.
The Verlander-Valdez-Javier trio has been formidable of late, pitching to a 2.36 ERA with 103 strikeouts over 87.2 innings since the Astros began their nigh-unbeatable run on June 12. Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy have also done well, putting up a 3.21 ERA over 47.2 innings.
Anyone who watched the Astros take on the Yankees for four games between June 23 and 26 might have come away with the impression that Houston's bullpen is its weakness. It did, after all, serve up leads in the first and last games of the series, both of which resulted in Ls for the visitors.
It's not all because of the arms that the Astros rank third in the majors in allowing just 3.37 runs per game. They're also playing elite defense, placing second in defensive efficiency and outs above average and third in defensive runs saved.
Though it helps to have potential Gold Gloves in shortstop Jeremy Pena and center fielder Jose Siri, Baker and Houston's front office also have a hand in the team's defensive brilliance. When the Astros shift their defenders, the opposition hits .244. This, too, is second in the league.
Whether this club's extraordinary run production/prevention balance qualifies it as the best of the Astros' recent super-teams is another question. It's hard to top the 107-win team from 2019 or the 103-win team from 2018, which actually had a superior run differential.
But if it's a question of whether the 2022 Astros are worthy of the teams that came before them, well, there is no question.
See You at the Trade Deadline
The Yankees are going to be fine. After the start they've had to this season, they could play .500 ball the rest of the way and still win 100 games.
There have always been cracks in their armor, however, and they've lately become more noticeable.
The Bronx Bombers have had a weirdly hit-or-miss offense all year, leading the majors with 5.1 runs per game but also scoring two or fewer runs 26 times. That speaks to how their lineup has generally been over-reliant on AL MVP favorite Aaron Judge and fellow sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo.
That threesome has kept the power coming since June 19 but has hit just .183 with a .298 OBP in the process. To boot, the club revealed on Friday that the 6'7", 282-pound Judge is banged up at the moment:
New York's starting pitching has likewise cooled in the last few weeks, particularly pertaining to starters not named Gerrit Cole. The foursome of Nestor Cortes, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon and Luis Severino have a 5.25 ERA over their last 13 starts.
Granted, none of this is cause for panic. But between these concerns and the steady creeping of the Astros on the No. 1 seed for the American League playoff field—which carries both a first-round bye and home-field advantage—the Yankees ought to be in an aggressive mood with the Aug. 2 trade deadline looming.
They're going to be on the lookout for outfielders, according to Jon Heyman of the New York Post. They've also been connected to aces Luis Castillo of the Cincinnati Reds and Frankie Montas of the Oakland Athletics, though the latter's status has been upended by shoulder inflammation.
If the Astros are going to keep pace, they'll have to address some of their own weaknesses.
The big one is behind the plate, where Maldonado bears responsibility for the league-low minus-1.1 rWAR that the Astros have gotten from their catchers. Willson Contreras, who's arguably the best catcher in baseball right now, is there for the taking. And since the Astros have also been connected to them, there could be a bidding war between them and the Yankees for Castillo and Montas.
It may well be that whichever team wins the trade deadline also ends up claiming the race for the top spot in the American League. Because if the Yankees are the favorite for now, it might only be because of their 5.5-game lead and not because they're playing better baseball.
What's a good bet either way is that the double-header that the Astros and Yankees are due to play on July 21 won't contain the last games they play this season. The paths of both clubs are pointed squarely at a rematch in the American League Championship Series.
You know how there are some things that just feel like they need to happen? Yeah, this is one of those.