Battle for AL West between Rangers and Astros sooner than scheduled

If the Texas Rangers beat the Houston Astros tonight — Tuesday night, if you’re just catching up on your reading — the Texas Rangers will be in first place.

Which was not, a month or two ago, a sentence I thought I would be writing in the middle of September. A month or two ago, the Astros looked like a really good bet for a division title and a tremendous bet for the playoffs, at least.

Actually, if you believe Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds Report, not much has changed. BP still gives the Astros a 69-percent shot at the division, the Rangers just 29 percent. Which, quite frankly, doesn’t seem quite right. Not with the Rangers just a half-game behind the Astros before Tuesday night’s game. Yes, the Astros seem fundamentally better than the Rangers. But the Rangers have only six more road games, and 13 at home. 

I’m not saying BP’s math is wrong; I’m just saying it doesn’t pass the eye test. Which isn’t to suggest we can always trust our eyes.

Let me take a crack at explaining this, though …

The biggest factor in the Odds Report, by a lot, is the fundamental quality of the players most likely to be on the field for the rest of the season. Of course that’s determined by projecting future performance of the players, and projections are based on historical performance.

Well, the Astros have outscored the opponents by 103 runs this season and the Rangers have been outscored by 25 runs. The Astros rank sixth in the American League in scoring and first in runs allowed; the Rangers are seventh and 13th. Looking at FanGraphs’ BaseRuns — which uses all the distinct events available to estimate how many runs would typically be scored and allowed — the Astros "should" be … 15 or 16 games ahead of the Rangers.

So that’s why the estimators would still show the Astros as serious favorites to finish ahead of the Rangers: The things we can count suggest the Astros are simply a lot better than the Rangers.

And yes, I know the Rangers have Cole Hamels and Derek Holland, after not having them for most of the season. But you can say exactly the same about the Astros, who added Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers.

If you’re looking for obvious reasons for the suddenly tight pennant race — I mean, reasons we didn’t see coming — you would probably start with:

– the Astros’ poor record in one-run games;

– the Rangers’ good record in one-run games;

– the Rangers’ 9-4 record against the Astros; and

– the Astros’ 4-9 record against the Rangers.

Far more than any player or players, it’s those more general results that have created the current surprising situation. Because with the exception of Rougned Odor and maybe a few others, none of the players have done anything lately that’s particularly out of the ordinary; there’s no Yoenis Cespedes here, carrying (or killing) his team.

By any objective measures, the Astros remain the best team in the American League West, as they’ve been all season long. All the estimators agree about this. But of course they actually make them play the games on the field. Which is a lot more fun for most of us.