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Who Will Win Tough Houston Astros vs. Los Angeles Angels Division Battle?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 7, 2015

The Astros and Angels are set for a heck of a battle down the stretch. Who's going to come out on top?
The Astros and Angels are set for a heck of a battle down the stretch. Who's going to come out on top?Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Looking at the American League heading into 2015, it was easy to imagine a three-team scrap for the AL Central title and a five-club battle royale for the AL East crown. But the AL West title? Meh, there didn't seem to be much to see there.

But in the latest case of YCPB, here we are with two months left to go, and the AL West is home to the most hotly contested division race in the Junior Circuit.

At 61-49, the upstart Houston Astros are in first place. But at 57-50, the reigning division champion Los Angeles Angels are only two-and-a-half games back. That's easily the smallest lead of any of the AL's divisions, and it brings us to a question that must be answered:

Who's going to win this thing?

Good question. And clearly, the only way we're going to answer it is by treating the Astros and Angels like a couple of prizefighters: Put them on a stage, size them up and see who has the advantage.

State of the Offenses

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Aug 3, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels players Albert Pujols (left) and Mike Trout celebrate after the game against the Cleveland Indians at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. The Angels defeated the Indians 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sp
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There's no debate to be had about which of the AL West's top contenders has been a more productive offensive team on the whole in 2015. Whereas the Angels rank 10th in the AL in OPS and runs scored, the Astros rank fourth and third, respectively.

And going forward, it doesn't look like an offensive decline is written in the stars for Houston.

Carlos Gomez and Carlos Correa are a heck of a dynamic duo.
Carlos Gomez and Carlos Correa are a heck of a dynamic duo.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Though the team's offense hasn't been too explosive lately—the Astros entered Thursday ranked 15th in runs over the last 30 days—it's hard to ignore its depth.

Jed Lowrie's return off the disabled list means extra infield options. Hank Conger and Jason Castro getting hot at the same time means enviable production from behind the dish.

The club's deal for Carlos Gomez added a power/speed threat to a lineup that was already leading the AL in home runs and stolen bases. And more help is on the way, with George Springer (fractured right wrist) possibly coming off the DL in a couple weeks.

Another thing to keep in mind: Houston's offense has a budding superstar in its midst in the person of 20-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa. His .912 OPS is tops among all major league shortstops, and he's showing no signs of slowing down, with a 1.083 OPS and seven homers since the All-Star break.

As deep as the Astros' attack looks now, however, the Angels offense is not to be underestimated.

Though it hasn't been as productive as Houston's on the whole, the Angels' unit has been the better of the two recently, with 111 runs scored over the last 30 days. This is mainly thanks to Mike Trout doing Mike Trout things, but he's also gotten support from Kole Calhoun, C.J. Cron and Chris Iannetta.

MLB @MLB

If you hadn't noticed, @mike_petriello says AL MVP @MikeTrout is having his best year yet: http://t.co/16JpFQzB2N http://t.co/MoWCkNN7bI

How long those three can stay hot is a good question, but the Angels won't necessarily be in trouble if they can't. The slump that Albert Pujols has been in over the last month or so won't last forever. L.A. can look forward to the return of David Freese from a fractured finger, and what should be much-improved left field production from deadline additions David Murphy, David DeJesus and Shane Victorino.

All told, there doesn't figure to be much of an offensive gap between the clubs in the final two months. The projections reflect that. As of Thursday, FanGraphs had Houston pegged for 4.45 runs per game the rest of the way and L.A. slated for 4.34 runs per game. Small difference, that.

As such, maybe pitching will decide the race? 

State of the Pitching Staffs

What does the addition of Scott Kazmir mean for the Astros' pitching staff?
What does the addition of Scott Kazmir mean for the Astros' pitching staff?Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

As easy as it is to focus on what the Astros and Angels can do offensively, neither club would be where it is without good pitching. Both rank in the top 10 in MLB in ERA, with Houston holding only a slight advantage over L.A. at 3.53 to 3.60.

And going forward, the status quo should hold strong for both teams.

Things look especially hunky-dory in Houston, as the Astros went into Thursday with a rock-solid 3.38 ERA over the last 30 days. Feeding into that has been ongoing strong work (2.83 ERA) from a bullpen that's been outstanding all year, and the Astros have a couple of hot starting pitchers.

Keuchel is third in the AL in ERA and second in innings pitched.
Keuchel is third in the AL in ERA and second in innings pitched.Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

One is Cy Young front-runner Dallas Keuchel, who's pitched to a 2.36 ERA over his last seven starts. Another is new addition Scott Kazmir, who has a 0.44 ERA in three starts with the Astros and a 1.07 ERA stretching back over his last 10 appearances. Collin McHugh is also quietly pitching well with a 3.19 ERA over his last nine outings.

The only thing the Astros are lacking, really, is depth at the back end of their rotation. The previously awesome Lance McCullers Jr. was bad enough in his most recent start to earn a trip back to the minors, where Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle reports he's likely to stay for a few weeks. In the meantime, the Astros will be putting their trust in two not-so-sure things in Scott Feldman and Mike Fiers.

Mind you, the Angels pitching staff isn't perfect in its own right.

Veteran left-hander C.J. Wilson is likely done for the year with a bad elbow. Also, the club's bullpen has struggled a bit with a 4.24 ERA over the last month, with David Adler of MLB.com pointing out that it's also been taxed by some close affairs in recent days.

But though less than perfect, the Angels pitching staff is in a better state than it seems at first glance.

One thing L.A. has is a foursome of starters that's clicking on all cylinders. Garrett Richards has a 2.90 ERA over his last 10 starts. Rookie lefty Andrew Heaney has yet to have a bad start with a 1.97 ERA in seven outings. Even in regressing a bit, Hector Santiago has a solid 3.34 ERA over his last 12 appearances.

And after struggling for much this season, 2014 breakout star Matt Shoemaker has finally come through with a 1.69 ERA in his last seven outings.

"Everything he did last year was so spectacular," Angels skipper Mike Scioscia said, via Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, after Shoemaker whiffed 10 Cleveland Indians on Tuesday. "You're seeing stuff reminiscent of last year."

The one catch with the Angels rotation is that it doesn't have an answer for Wilson's absence. But that could change, depending on what Jered Weaver does upon his return from a hip injury. As Scioscia told Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register, the reports the club is getting about Weaver's rehab is that he's "light years" ahead of where he was when he first went on the DL June 21.

With the Astros boasting a strong bullpen and a top-heavy rotation, and the Angels sporting a rotation that has a chance to be strong across the board, there's a real chance that the two clubs could be neck-and-neck in the run-prevention department the rest of the way.

Not surprisingly, that's what the projections expect to see, with an average of 4.15 runs allowed per game for Houston and an average of 4.09 runs per game for L.A.

All told, it's hard to say that the AL West race will be won because the Astros or the Angels did one thing in particular so much better than the other. Rather than their performances, the race could come down to what kind of opposition they'll be facing the rest of the way.

And to that end...

The Road Ahead

Will Houston's remaining schedule be what gives it the AL West title?
Will Houston's remaining schedule be what gives it the AL West title?Patric Schneider/Associated Press/Associated Press

What kind schedules are the Astros and Angels looking at for the stretch run?

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs has a piece up that dives into that very question. And in it, among the lessons to be learned from his data is that the Astros' remaining slate doesn't figure to impact them one way or another. The Angels' remaining schedule, on the other hand, is likely to hurt them.

And when you look at what both clubs are walking into, that holds up.

With 52 games to L.A's 55, Houston has the advantage of simply having fewer games to play down the stretch. It also plays 48 percent of its remaining contests at home, compared to 45 percent for L.A. Also, the combined winning percentage of the Astros' remaining opponents is .497. For the Angels, it's .503.

While things look about equal everywhere else, here's an area where things don't look even. The Astros don't have the easiest remaining schedule, but theirs is at least easier than the Angels'.

So Then...

Here's one thing that seems certain: The race between Houston and L.A. will not end soon. Instead, it looks like a contest that could go down to the wire.

But if we're going to pick a team—and as you'll see, we are—we're going to pick the Astros.

Their odds of winning the division probably aren't as high as the 65.4 percent chance that FanGraphs was giving them Thursday, but they look pretty good. Having the easier schedule is an advantage that could prove to be huge, and the Astros likely aren't going to be hurting for the offense or the pitching with which to tackle that schedule.

Regardless, one thing you can take away from all this is the following: If you like a bit of high drama in your division races, the thing to do is look west.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked and are accurate as of Thursday, August 6.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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