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Well, the Astros certainly didn't see this coming. And neither did sports bettors.
Entering Wednesday, Houston is the third-least profitable team (-$635 return on $100 bets) en route to a 7-10 record and have the ninth-worst winning percentage (.412) in baseball. The Astros have lost six of their last seven games and are 4.5 games back of the division-leading Athletics, who swept Houston last weekend.
Even with their shaky start, the Astros are +1200 to win the World Series at theScore Bet and +550 to emerge out of the American League. So what happened to the reigning AL champions, and should sports bettors believe in their revival?
Where do we start? Little has gone right for Houston through the opening three weeks of the season as it entered Wednesday ranked 14th in average scoring margin (+0.12) after leading the league in each of the last two years. The Astros haven't started this poorly since 2016, the last time the club missed the playoffs.
Start with Tuesday's 7-6 loss to the Giants, who hadn't beaten Houston since 2015 and dropped seven of their last nine games before the win. The Astros allowed five runs over the final four frames to squander a 6-2 lead - the seventh time the bullpen has blown a save this year, most in MLB.
Injuries have decimated Houston's pen, which is relying on rookies and unpolished arms with little success. Closer Roberto Osuna isn't coming back anytime soon, and that leaves more questions than answers for MLB's least reliable bullpen.
It wouldn't matter as much if Houston boasted the same elite rotation as last year, which featured three top-end aces. Fast forward to this season - Gerrit Cole is in New York; Justin Verlander is on the shelf; and Zack Greinke has seen his velocity drop on his four primary pitches, a troubling sign for the 36-year-old. The rest of the rotation has plenty of upside, but the Astros' up-and-coming arms aren't polished.
Entering Wednesday, Houston has allowed the fifth-highest xwOBA and xSLG in the majors. It also ranks dead last in opposing chase rate (20.6%) and second-to-last in swing percentage (42.1%). Simply put, the Astros' makeshift rotation isn't deceiving hitters and opposing teams are taking advantage.
It's been the opposite for Houston's bats. They've plated among the most runs in the majors, but good luck is at play as they rank near the bottom in xwOBAcon (.364), which measures contact quality, as well as barrel rate (5.7%) and hard-hit rate (33.4%)
It's easy to point to the sign-stealing scandal as the culprit for their troubles, but that'd be too easy. The Astros rarely swing and miss, and are still among the leaders in strikeout rate (20%) and walk rate (10.5%). Instead, it's about everything else. They can't make quality contact and can't generate strikeouts. Even the little things are awry. Houston's defense is the worst in baseball this year, and its baserunning isn't much better.
There's enough talent on this roster to get right, and the opportunity to prove it is around the corner with a series against the lowly Mariners. Then, things get tougher. Their next seven games come against the Rockies and Padres, two of the biggest surprises of 2020, and the Astros still have plenty of ground to make up on the Athletics.
Oakland has the same title price as Houston (+1200) but is a better bet in every way. The Athletics are hitting it as hard as any team in the league, their ERA (3.27) was third-best entering Wednesday, and they have, arguably, the best defense in the MLB.
Look, slumps happen. The Astros' discipline at the plate leaves room for their contact rates to improve and their young arms will mature. But now isn't the time to buy. Houston's rotation and bullpen aren't playoff ready, and the "little things" like defense and baserunning will only exacerbate the existing issues. Stay away from Houston until we see more.
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.