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Will the Astros tower over postseason competitors or be dwarfed by them? That is the question.

Image: Marco Torres

At this point, 90 percent of the Astros’ regular season is history. As the team begins a 9-game home stand, their final one of the year, it sits firmly atop the American League West, having amassed a record that’s the envy of all but a few teams in baseball. The ‘Stros have the highest batting average in baseball (.281), the highest on-base percentage (.345), the most runs scored (795), and an astounding five of the top 20 hitters in the American League, including Jose Altuve, who of course is the best in all of baseball.

And here’s one more stat to keep in mind: the Astros have about an 11 percent chance of winning the World Series.

WHA?

To be clear, the 11 percent is not a stat per se but a prediction, one by FiveThirtyEight.com, whose reputation largely rests on political prognostication. But the rest of the MLB’s Nostradamuses aren’t much more sanguine about the ‘Stros chances. Why, you may ask. Well, the easy answer is Astros pitching, which was solid during the season’s first half, intermittently disastrous after the All Star Break, and is only now slowly regaining its former prowess. No one doubts that a healthy five-man rotation made up of Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton could pitch to devastating effect in the postseason, but the health of at least two of those men is in question as of this writing (which is why Brad Peacock’s solid performance during the Astros’ 5-2 victory over the Angels last night made us all rest a little easier.)

But there’s another reason for the Astros’ undervalued futures, one with an even fuzzier provenance, namely the team’s youth and limited postseason experience. A perception seems to exist among MLB soothsayers that Houston doesn’t have the mental toughness and maturity of some of the other clubs, both of which are presumably crucial for a successful postseason run. But this is the sort of charge that’s leveled at all young teams, and neglects to consider the crushing weight of expectations that experience often brings with it (we’re looking at you, Cleveland).

Whatever happens in the future, the fact remains that the club and its leadership have engineered a magnificent, near-miraculous feat over the past few seasons, turning one of the biggest jokes in all of professional sports into a team for the ages. It’s an accomplishment that cannot be attributed to the acquisition of any one player, nor the levy of lavish salaries. It is not a team that was made, but one which was born and nurtured, slowly and carefully. And yet not even that—not even the vaunted, careful cultivation of players in its farm system—could have created the 2017 Astros by itself. In the end, there is no explanation for why the Astros are where they are at this moment in the season.

Which is what makes them so deadly, at least potentially.

Whatever they might tell you, no team the Astros play has any idea what club it will face on any given day. They might be murdered by our bats… or not. They might get to our starting pitchers early and often… or struggle to eke out more than a few hits a game. They might hit us hard, only to find that a long throw to first or a diving catch makes it all come to naught. Scouting reports and sabermetrics are nice, but neither ever seems to predict with any precision what will happen during an Astros game.

Such unpredictability is the source of much consternation and frustration and head-scratching among Houston’s fans, as any casual glance at a comments section or sub-Reddit string will reveal. But on other nights, that same frustration and consternation is visited on the Astros’ opponents, even as ‘Stros fans are whooping and hollering and pinching themselves. All of which is to say that 1) being an Astros fan is hard, 2) it was ever thus, and 3) if the Astros can weaponize their unpredictability without blowing themselves up in the process, they will confound every team, and every odds-maker, in baseball.

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