It’s not even May, and the outlook within the American League West is pretty grim unless you happen to be a member of the Houston Astros. With a 14-7 record, and a plus-15 run differential, the Astros already sit four games ahead of both the Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics.
They’re not getting caught. It’s over.
While, obviously, something catastrophic could befall the team – and almost did – it looks like Houston has come into its own as was expected in 2016 following the Astros’ Cinderella run of 2015. And they’re not even at their best … yet.
When the Astros finally click, they’re going to be unstoppable – and not nearly enough people are talking about them.
Top-flight pitching that hasn’t hit its ceiling
Let’s marvel at exactly how good Dallas Keuchel has been. He’s inducing ground balls at a career-best 65.6 percent. Combined with a 26 percent soft contact rate against (fifth best in the majors), his absurdly low .188 BABIP seems at least somewhat sustainable. He has a 4-0 record with a 1.22 ERA. He’s finished at least seven innings in all five starts, and looks poised to reach the 200 innings pitched plateau for the third time in four seasons.
Lance McCullers, on the other hand, has scuffled a bit. But he has an identical soft contact percentage as Keuchel, and a slightly lower hard contact percentage. He’s been a bit unlucky, allowing a .342 BABIP. He’s also been far better at home (1.83 ERA) than on the road (9.64 ERA). His luck should even out, and as long as he stays healthy, he will provide a formidable power-pitching companion to Keuchel’s finesse arm.
The rest of the rotation has been less impressive, but Collin McHugh should be back in June. Joe Musgrove, Charlie Morton, and Mike Fiers will be volatile, though Musgrove is a viable candidate to improve as his peripherals aren’t far off his successful debut in 2016, and his fastball velocity has even improved.
The crown jewel, however, might be the bullpen. Chris Devenski has demolished opponents in a long relief role, posting a 1.26 ERA while striking out 27 batters in 14 1/3 innings over six appearances. Sure, Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson don’t have shiny ERAs, but the rest of the bullpen has been so good – from Brad Peacock not yet allowing a run to Will Harris and Michael Feliz being sharp – that it’s bought them time to figure things out.
The bats aren’t even close to their best
The Astros are currently seventh in the majors with a .756 team-OPS. Not bad. But don’t forget that Carlos Correa and George Springer are both hitting below .220 – and Springer is nursing a hamstring injury – while former top prospect Alex Bregman has yet to hit a home run. The only thing Carlos Beltran leads the team in is strikeout rate.
Before Jake Marisnick was diagnosed with a concussion and Teoscar Hernandez collided with Jose Altuve, this was the healthiest team in the American League. To win, you need a little bit of luck to fall your way – look at the Toronto Blue Jays‘ pitching staff in 2016 – and maybe it wears out in Houston, or maybe it extends just long enough.
But it’s only a matter of time before these bats wake up. In the meantime, Astros fans will take Yuli Gurriel‘s .344 batting average and Brian McCann‘s .373 OBP. This is what makes the Astros so dangerous. Even when their superstars flounder, the supporting cast is there to bail them out.
Oh, and Altuve is still Altuve. He’s stolen seven bases and is hitting .312. The home runs may dip, but he’s a legitimate MVP candidate.
The rest of the West is far from wild
The Seattle Mariners were expected to be good enough to challenge for a playoff spot. The Texas Rangers have made the postseason five times in seven seasons and still have a potent offense and amazing pair of rotation anchors in Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels.
They’re at the bottom of the division. For the Mariners, losing Felix Hernandez is a nightmare. For the Rangers, once you get past Darvish and Hamels, there is not much to like. Additionally, Adrian Beltre is out long term.
While there’s bound to be some positive regression, the same can be said about the Astros. They aren’t firing on all cylinders yet, and have only lost back-to-back games once all season.
Extending the lead
After wrapping up the current series against the Cleveland Indians, the Astros will play their next 10 games against division opponents, including a four-game home set against the Rangers. Even at the bottom of the standings, the Rangers remain the most realistic alternative to storm the division. Winning that series will go a long way to burying the Rangers.
The Astros reached the postseason in 2015, well before their rebuild was expected to yield fruit. They’re better now, having complemented a stock pile of top young talent with viable veterans like Beltran and McCann. This is the equivalent to the Chicago Cubs in the National League, only without a World Series championship. By midseason, there may not be a worthwhile challenger in the entire American League.
Needless to say, I’m feeling pretty good about my preseason pick for the World Series.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)