Slow starters; does history suggest the Houston Astros can still make the postseason?

There was a heightened sense of anticipation around Houston for the start of the 2016 baseball season. The Astros had defied all expectations in 2015 to finish with an 86-76 record in the regular season, before defeating the New York Yankees in the American League wild card game, and then putting up a brave fight in a 3-2 loss in the Division Series to the eventual champions, the Kansas City Royals. With the core of a promising team still in place and the experience of a run to the play-offs in the previous season, Astros fans could be forgiven for their optimism and expectations of another tilt at postseason baseball.

One month into the season, however, and things look a little different for the Astros from the positive outlook on Opening Day. They sit at the bottom of the AL West with a 7-17 record (tied for worst in the American League with the Minnesota Twins), and seven games back from the AL West frontrunners, the Texas Rangers. Only time will tell if the Astros can mount a play-off challenge from this distant position – but given their poor start, does history give us any indication as to the likelihood of a second consecutive season of postseason baseball?

The omens, unsurprisingly, aren’t good.

The Astros have made the play-offs on ten occasions in franchise history, but only twice have they played less than .500 baseball in April before playing in the postseason – in 1981 (7-12) and 2005 (9-13). Even 9-13 for April 2005 only tells half the story, as the Astros then went on a disastrous 6-17 run for the next 23 games, leaving them with a dismal 15-30 (.333 win PCT) overall record. Despite this atrocious start, the Astros recovered to the National League wild card and ended with an 89-73 record, eventually reaching their only World Series to date, where they were swept by the Chicago White Sox.

Houston Astros win-loss records in seasons they have made the postseason.
Table showing Houston Astros win-loss records, both overall and for April, when they have made the postseason.

In addition, since the change in 2012 which saw the one game play-off introduced for the wild card spots in each league, 40 teams have qualified for the postseason. Of those 40 teams, only six (15%) had a sub-.500 record heading into May, and none of them had as bad a record as the Astros do currently. The Rangers (who hold the worst April record in the last four years whilst still making the play-offs) had a 7-14 record at this stage last year, before their second half surge saw them grab the AL West crown.

So what does it all mean? Well, this time last season, the Astros were sat atop the AL West with the best record in the American League; before the start of play today, they sit at the bottom of the AL West and tied for the worst record in the American League. The Astros have never made the postseason after such a sluggish start, and neither has any other team in the last four seasons of the revised play-off format. As an Astros fan, I’d like to see nothing more than a 2005-style revival which sees the team playing baseball well into October – but at the moment, history and statistics suggest that won’t be the case.

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Raw Data – Excel – list of April records for the Astros when qualifying for the postseason, and April W-L records of all teams making the postseason from 2012 to 2015.

All information correct as of 1st May 2016. 

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