MLB
June 24, 2021

Houston Astros vs. Oakland Athletics: Who Will Win the AL West?

At the moment, most MLB divisions have at least three teams that pose a legitimate threat to win a division title and make the playoffs in 2021. However, the AL West appears to have already been whittled down to a two-team race between the Oakland Athletics and the Houston Astros.

Since the Astros joined the AL West in 2013, these two teams have combined for five of the eight division titles. On top of that, these two teams have finished first and second in the division in three consecutive years, so the A’s and Astros competing for AL West supremacy is nothing new. 

But who has the advantage this season? We’ve already seen things bounce back and forth multiple times. The Astros jumped ahead early by winning five of seven head-to-head games with the A's during the first two weeks of the season. Of course, Oakland responded with a 13-game winning streak to help them take the division lead. More recently, the Astros have put together their own double-digit win streak to leapfrog the A’s in the standings.

With a race that could be tight all season, let’s see how Houston and Oakland match up against one another over the long haul.

Hitting

With all due respect to the A’s, there are few teams in the majors that can measure up to Houston’s hard-hitting lineup.

The Astros currently lead the big leagues in runs scored, batting average and OPS, among other categories. In most categories, there’s a sizable gap between the Astros and the team ranked second. Houston has dealt with injuries and players missing due to COVID-19 protocols just like any other team. But they’ve managed to survive those temporary losses because everyone else in the lineup is raking. Most of Houston’s regulars are having strong campaigns, posting an OPS over .800 with Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, and Michael Brantley all owning an OPS over .900. Before he was sent to the IL recently, Alex Bregman could have been considered the weak link in Houston’s lineup, and he’s batting .275 with an OPS of .787. That’s how good the Astros' attack has been this year.

To their credit, the A’s are having a strong offensive season, ranking in the top half of the American League in most offensive categories. The trio of Matt Olson, Ramon Laureano, and Mark Canha has been exceptional all season. After a slow start to the campaign, Matt Chapman has come alive during the month of June. Players such as Jed Lowrie, Elvis Andrus, Sean Murphy, and Seth Brown have all had hot streaks at some point to contribute to Oakland’s lineup. However, the A’s are an above-average offensive team at best, which is nowhere near the level of the Astros' lineup.

Rotation

Many people believed the Houston rotation could be an issue for the Astros with Justin Verlander missing the entire season. The offseason signing of Jake Odorizzi hasn’t exactly paid off, either. But outside of Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros have put together a strong rotation with some young pitchers.

McCullers, to his credit, has arguably been the team’s best starter while Greinke provides stability and a veteran presence. But it’s the likes of Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia, and Cristian Javier who have carried the Houston rotation and given the Astros one of the best starting staffs in the American League. Meanwhile, Framber Valdez has been outstanding in his return from injury, giving the Astros six quality starting pitchers.

While Oakland’s rotation also ranks among the top five in the American League in ERA, the A’s fall closer to the category of solid but unspectacular. In fairness, Chris Bassitt’s consistency has been impressive while Sean Manaea has found his groove lately. The emergence of Cole Irvin and James Kaprielian has also helped Oakland immensely. However, Frankie Montas has had crazy peaks and valleys, Jesus Luzardo recently had to be optioned to the minors, and Mike Fiers probably won’t be back until August or September.

Right now, the A’s don’t have the depth to deal with another injury and are hoping that Irvin and Kaprielian don’t hit a wall. If that happens, Oakland’s rotation could go from above-average to below-average in a hurry.

Bullpen

In the bullpen, both the A’s and Astros could have problems in the postseason compared to the other contenders in the American League. In Houston’s case, closer Ryan Pressly has been great, but the rest of the bullpen has been either problematic or plagued by injuries. The Astros have over a handful of relievers on the IL right now, making it difficult to put guys in defined roles. Outside of Pressly, Ryne Stanek has been the only reliever in the Houston bullpen who’s been anything close to reliable.

Oakland’s problems are a little different. Trevor Rosenthal hasn’t pitched all season after being expected to be the team’s closer this year. There’s a chance the A’s will get him back in August, but even that’s far from a certainty. To be fair, Lou Trivino has done a fine job in the closer’s role with Yusmeiro Petit, Jake Diekman, and Deolis Guerra being solid setup guys. But that’s where it ends for Oakland’s bullpen. Sergio Romo has an ERA over 5.00 and J.B. Wendelken was posting disappointing numbers before going to the IL in early May.

It’s possible the A’s have captured lightning in a bottle with Cam Bedrosian, who was terrible in Cincinnati but lights out since Oakland gave him a shot. But as it stands, the A’s have a bullpen that’s solid but not going to stand out from the pack.

Intangibles

This is another area where both the Astros and A’s look good. After all, both teams have a winning pedigree and are no strangers to a tight playoff race. That being said, both teams are relying on a fair amount of young pitchers, so how those pitchers react in September when each game is packed with pressure remains to be seen.

One area where the Astros might have an edge is at the trade deadline. In past years, we’ve seen the Astros make bold moves for pitchers like Greinke and Verlander who ended up making a difference. If the Astros feel they have legitimate World Series hopes this year, they could make a big splash at the deadline. On the other hand, a small-market club like the A’s is less likely to pull off an impact trade. They will be more hesitant to give away top prospects, eat the contract of a veteran player, or spend on a rental player they’ll never be able to afford in free agency this winter.

Last but not least, there’s Houston’s history of cheating. The Astros know that they’re public enemy No. 1 in baseball after their cheating scandal came to light, ironically at the hands of current Oakland pitcher Mike Fiers. We’re obviously assuming that the Astros no longer have an unfair advantage despite the fact that they’re racking. It’s not unreasonable to think that the Astros will be a little extra motivated this year to prove that they can win another World Series without cheating.

Verdict

The current standings in the AL West tell us that this is a close race, but that’s quite misleading. There is a sizable gap between the Astros and the A’s this year. We can see that in the run differential of each team. Houston’s run differential is a league-high +135 while Oakland’s run differential is a modest +33, which is fifth in the American League and ninth in the MLB. 

As the season moves along, look for the Astros to pull away in the AL West and create a somewhat comfortable lead that’s reflective of the run differential of the two teams. While the A’s are a solid and well-rounded team, the Astros have an elite lineup, a strong starting rotation, and a bullpen that’s passable. They are superior to the A’s in most aspects of the game, they’re arguably more motivated, and they’re more likely to make significant improvements at the trade deadline.

In other words, the Astros are the best team in the AL West, and it’s not nearly as close as the current standings indicate.

Photo: Getty Images