If the Fan had a vote, the Houston Astros' manager, Brad Mills, would get this writer's vote for Manager of the Year in the National League (Francona should win it in the AL). The Astros were so bad earlier in the year that its two best players, Oswalt and Berkman, both came out publicly and said they wouldn't mind being traded. They got their wishes and both have a good chance to make the playoffs. But the Astros haven't exactly rolled over and died since those two players departed. The opposite has happened--they are thriving.
Consider that the Astros were 17-34 after play was completed on May 31. June saw an improvement and they finished that month 14-14. But they were still only 31-48. Since the end of June, the Astros have gone 33-25. They swept the Cardinals twice. They swept the Phillies. They took three out of four from the Mets...well...okay, that's not a good example. But you get the idea. The Astros are playing so well that they are currently seven games ahead of where the Pythagorean run-differential says they should be. They have out played their run differential by seven games (thought that bore repeating).
The Astros are still near the bottom of the pile in a lot of statistical categories. So how are they winning? Well, they are getting good pitching. Thirty-six year old Nelson Figueroa has pitched well in four starts and a dozen relief appearances and has a 2.36 ERA. J. A. Happ was the trade bait for Oswalt and he's gone 5-2 in eight starts with a 3.21 ERA. In the first half, Wandy Rodriguez went 6-11 with a 4.97 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 1.93. In the second half he is 5-1 with an ERA of 1.61 with a K/BB ratio of 5.08! Brett Myers took a $9 million pay cut from his last aborted year in Philadelphia and is having the best season of his career. His 10-7 record is totally deceiving for how well he's pitched all season. To sum up the starting rotation, four out of their five starters are having outstanding success since the All Star break.
The bullpen has come around too. The cement has been Brandon Lyon, who improbably and out of no where has saved 13 games, 12 of which have come in the second half. He has an ERA of 2.28 in the second half and granted, a lot of that is a bit lucky since his BABIP in the second half is .259, but he's getting the job done and that's something the Astros desperately needed.
To be truthful, losing Lance Berkman wasn't that much of a loss this year. His production was way down while with the Astros this year and his defense had really fallen off. Trading him was great for Berkman because he's had a great career and it's nice that he is going to play in the post season for the first time in quite a while. But the offense doesn't miss him. While the Astros still won't terrorize anyone with their line up, their slash lines have improved greatly in the second half. In the first half, the line was: 238/.296/.347. That's pretty pathetic, eh? In the second half, their slash line is: .264/.316/.385. That's a marked improvement. They scored 3.45 runs a game in the first half and have improved to 4.36 runs a game in the second half.
Hunter Pence is having a very good season and he's really come on in the last month. He almost single-handedly beat the Cardinals and his 112 OPS+ for the season is good. He's been helped greatly by Chris Johnson who was called up earlier in the season and has now played 71 games. His .321 batting average has been excellent. The problem with both Pence and Johnson is that they don't walk enough. Pence at 112 and Johnson at 118 would both have much higher OPS+ statistics if they took a few more walks.
Jeff Keppinger has had a real good second half too. After a terrible start, he has his OPS+ up to 100. The thing that is amazing about Keppinger is his strikeout total. He might be the hardest guy in the National League to strike out. In 478 plate appearances, Keppinger has walked 42 times and has struck out only 29 times. That's impressive!
The Astros need a shortstop who can hit. They need a catcher that can hit. They need a lead-off batter that Michael Bourn is not giving them. The one thing they will miss about Berkman is his OBP. The Astros are terribly impatient. They are dead last in the National League in walks taken and next to last in On Base Percentage. They really need to find more patience at the plate in their entire organization.
But despite those problems, the Astros have played great ball in the second half and Brad Mills has done an excellent job with what he has to work with. If you would have told anyone on May 31 that the Astros would be in third place in the NL Central on September 7, they would have thought you were smoking something funny.