So far, with the month of May almost ready to pass by.The outlook of a “rebuilding” season to the eyes of many fans in Houston have taken a twisted turn, and have culminated in a current stranglehold on top of the division standings, and with the best record in the American League. The fury of budding stars on offense and an evolving starting rotation is reason to label this Houston team as baseball’s most re-surging ball club. Over the last four years, from 2011-2014, the Astros franchise have lost 416 games and have not had a winning season in six years. Much of this was the cause for national baseball writers to place them as division doormats yet again.
On paper, seemingly only reigning batting champion Jose Altuve was seen as the lone spark to ignite this Astros offense that is currently batting .234 as a team. While Altuve has progressed even more as a hitter in 2015, by possessing a .364 OBP and steady .299 batting average. His sharp defensive awareness at second base is the defining line in Altuve’s reckless playing style. Though, it hasn’t been just Altuve doing the damage for Houston, as the Astros have paired their young talent with shrewd offseason pickups to build a roster filled with positive contributors.
Center fielder Jake Marisnick has quietly been one of MLB’s best players so far in 2015; even though he has tailed off in batting .271 with a .308 OBP. he has formed a strong outfield trio with George Springer and Colby Rasmus. Catcher Hank Conger has endured a roller coaster career of late, but has seemed to have found a home in Houston by providing occasional power. Time will tell how much the loss of Jed Lowrie will hurt Houston, as he had been on fire at the plate in late April before suffering a leg injury that will now force him to be out until the All-Star break.
Similar to the unexpected surprise from their offense, no one thought that their starting rotation would be this good, this early. The young arms that were depicted as “too young” or “not yet polished” have shown incredible maturity in stressful situations. In 10 starts, third year man Dallas Keuchel has a 6-1 record as a starter, while maintaining an almost flawless 1.98 ERA through 72.2 IP. Collin McHugh was projected to win 19 games this season, and so far he is on pace of eclipsing that mark easily. While McHugh is still in the process of figuring it out as a starter, his ERA is hovering just above 4.00. The only blemish that is on the horizon from a pitching perspective is the lack of depth and an inability to strike batters out. Overall, Houston’s starters average 5.90 K/9IP, which is one of the lowest in MLB. This in fact makes opposing batters able to put the ball into play easier. Other than McHugh’s and Keuchel’s rather blossoming performances, it is brought down by the back end of their rotation with Scott Feldman and Roberto Hernandez, who combined have ERA’s almost up to 10. This must be a problem they must fix in order to maintain their winning ways and extend their postseason aspirations later in the year.
As the starting pitching will look to improve their overall depth, the Astros’ improvement is not complete without talking about the team’s bullpen. Last year, AL relievers boasted a 3.63 ERA overall, but the Astros bullpen ended the year at 4.80, with a strikeout to walk ratio of only 2.33/1. Chad Qualls was their best reliever, for many years, and induced many headaches for the fans. Now revamped over the offseason, this collective unit is now an asset. Newly acquired Luke Gregerson, Joe Thatcher, Pat Neshek, and Will Harris have averaged a 2.34 ERA by only surrendering 13 walks against 76 strikeouts in 70.2 innings. Holdovers Tony Sipp and Qualls are also significantly better.
Overall, the team sports a 3.57 ERA, a 5.3/1 K/BB ratio, and a 1.16 WHIP in 434 innings. While the starting rotation’s ERA is actually higher this year than last, the incredible performance by this collection of free agents and waiver pickups are simply holding more leads than they could have last year, and keeping the Astros in games long enough for their offense to come back. It’s a great lesson that, while we tend to minimize the difference that a single reliever acquisition can make on a club, the cumulative effect of building an effective bullpen can truly turn a franchise around.
The mainstay that is the key reason to the jumpstart of this organization as whole is the development of the farm system. Before this season, when the Astros traded Dexter Fowler and his questionable outfield defense to the Cubs, it raised some eyebrows around the league. Marisnick was a strong prospect, and only 24, but he had only managed a .264 on-base percentage and a 14/94 BB/K ratio through his first 105 big league games. While the Astros made the decision because of his defense, the continued persistence and a hint of patience has made his growth as an offensive player an amazing sight to see. As of now, through 100 plate appearances, Marisnick has upped his walk rate, cut his strikeouts, and cut down on his infield popups significantly. He is starting to look like the superstar he was projected to be.
Not only was the emergence of outfielder of Marisnick a telling sign of the budding minor league core that Houston has grown from the ground, but the few spark plugs in Triple-A are a sign of re-assurance. Five players in the MLB minor league Top 30 prospects are from the Astros organization; thus being young short stop Carlos Correa, stand out outfielder Domingo Santana and RHP Mark Appel.
Maintaing this success over the course of the drawn-out summer months will be their biggest challenge as almost no one on the current roster has playoffs experience. As it stands, Houston holds a commanding lead in the division, with a 30-18 record and a 6 game lead over the Angels. For the most part, the Astros are blessed to be in a rather weak division as only 2 teams are above .500. But still, their promise in their upstart offense oozes potential to keep up their energetic play, while they still disprove every theory wrong that is set out in front of them.