Tombstone Milestone, or not quite

So we’re not quite to Memorial Day, not quite to 45 games, and not quite to the 7th anniversary of the June 1, 2005 tombstone that will forever live in Astros infamy. But yesterday’s off-day after 44 games offers a good chance to take a step back and look at where these 2012 Houston Astros find themselves about a quarter of the way through their 50th anniversary season.

First, the raw numbers: 21-23, 3rd in the NL Central, 4.0 games back of 1st. That’s already a huge improvement over the 15-29, 6th in the NL Central, 10.5 games back that the team found themselves facing at this point a year ago. That’s Houston’s best mark through 44 games since they were 24-20 back in 2008, their last winning season. A deeper look at the stats, however, shows that they’re doing historically even better than that.

My last post, 25 games in, highlighted the Astros’ positive run differential in spite of their losing record, and their fifth place rank in that category in the NL. Now three weeks further along, Houston has maintained that ranking, and trends carried to Memorial Day tend to carry much more weight than trends through only April. Houston has outscored their opponents 182-170 so far, for an average run differential of 0.3 per game. That may not sound like much, but consider that Atlanta only missed the playoffs last year by a Hunter Pence 13th-inning single, with a 0.2 run differential per game. St. Louis stole Atlanta’s playoff spot and won the World Series with a 0.4 run differential. Given the new playoff format for 2012, both of those teams would have made the playoffs this year.

If these Astros manage to finish May keeping that run differential in the positive, it will be the first time they’ve done so through the first two months of a season since 2004. They’ve gone 12-9 for a .571 winning percentage so far this month, following an unlucky 9-14 April in which they still outscored their opponents 104-100. Based on Pythagorean (or Expected) won-loss, the Astros should be tied with current 1st-place Cincinnati at 23-21, but Cincinnati has outperformed their X_WL to 25-19 mark on the strength of their current 6-game winning streak.

This is a team that, of course, traded away their two best players each of the last two years (Bourn & Pence in 2011, Oswalt & Berkman in 2010). Last year they were FAR worse than they had ever been in their previous 49-year history. Even with the losing record to date, nobody but nobody expected these Astros to be this good, this soon. So what’s made the difference?

First of all, Houston’s four big contracts – Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, and Brandon Lyon – have all provided significant value. The 2012 edition of Chris Johnson looks like the 2010 edition again, rather than the 2011 version that got demoted to AAA. Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie might be the Astros’ best middle infield combo since Billy Doran and Dickie Thon in 1983. And while the outfield is ugly, led by J.D. Martinez’ .698 OPS, at least Martinez and Jordan Schafer are getting on base above league average, and even Brian Bogusevic has provided a positive WAR (0.2) so far.

This is still a very young team, so how they’ll hold up over the long haul of 162 games together remains to be seen; I wouldn’t advise any more than cautious optimism at this juncture. But these 2012 Astros actually have a legitimate shot of posting Houston’s first winning record since 2008. And given the holes in St. Louis and Cincinnati, maybe – just maybe – more than that.

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