At 14–7 and in first place in the American League West, are the Houston Astros finally making the leap from cellar dweller to true contender?
Who wants to wait until 2017? After sweeping the Padres in San Diego to win their sixth straight game and 10th out of 11, the Astros are the hottest team in the majors, off to their best start in nine seasons and showing signs of turning the corner on their long rebuilding process.
Via Wednesday’s 7–2 win over the Padres at Petco Park, Houston completed a three-game sweep during which it trounced the hosts by a combined score of 30–9—all the more impressive given that San Diego started James Shields, Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner, the team's three best starters. That wrapped up an 8–1 road trip that also saw the Astros take two out of three in Seattle and sweep a three-game series in Oakland.
Thus far, the Astros’ +27 run differential is second behind the Royals' +38, and at 14–7, Houston's record is tied with Kansas City for the league's second-best, half a game behind Detroit (15–7). The start is the exact inverse of the Astros' 2013 and '14 showings through 21 games; last year, they didn't bank their 14th win until May 14, their 41st game, and the year before that, they didn't do so until May 22, their 47th game. Overall, this is Houston’s best start since '06, when they went 15–6, though they finished just 82–80 that year, missing the playoffs.
Leading the way thus far has been Dallas Keuchel, who on Wednesday limited the Padres to three hits and one run over eight innings. The lone run and two of the hits came via San Diego's first three batters; after yielding Matt Kemp's RBI double, the 27-year-old lefty retired 23 of the next 24 Padres he faced, striking out four and walking none. The run broke a 15-inning scoreless streak that included six shutout innings against the Angels on April 18 and then nine innings of two-hit shutout work against the Athletics on April 24 in Oakland, a game that remained scoreless into the 10th and was won by Houston in the 11th.
Through five starts and a league-high 37 innings, Keuchel is sporting a 0.73 ERA, thanks less to his ability to miss bats (he's whiffing just 5.4 per nine, twice as many as he's walked) and more to a .158 batting average on balls in play. That's unsustainable, but it does point to a much-improved (and extremely shift-happy) defense whose .737 efficiency is a marked improvement over last year's .685—a 43-point swing relative to the league average. It also testifies to the reality of Keuchel's emergence as the Astros' ace. After two seasons with ERAs above 5.00, last year he posted a 2.93 ERA (seventh in the league) across 200 innings en route to 5.1 WAR (fifth) thanks to excellent control and an MLB-high 63.5% ground-ball rate.
Keuchel isn't the only Astros starter who has carried a strong 2014 showing into this year. Twenty-seven-year-old righty Collin McHugh, a December 2013 waiver pickup who put up a 2.73 ERA in 25 starts and 154 2/3 innings last season, has posted a 2.92 ERA through four starts, three of which have been quality. Thanks to a 23/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio across his homer-less 24 2/3 innings, his 1.79 FIP leads the league. The rest of the rotation—Roberto Hernandez, Scott Feldman, and a rotating cast in the five spot—hasn't been as solid, but collectively, the unit's 67% quality-start rate leads the league, and their 3.55 ERA is third. The bullpen—led by new closer Luke Gregerson and setup men Tony Sipp and Chad Qualls—has been even better, with a 2.27 ERA (third) and a 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio (first). In all, the team is tied for the league lead in run prevention at 3.48 per game thanks to the lowest walk rate (2.3 per nine) and second-lowest homer rate (0.7 per nine) to go with their batted-ball efficiency.
Meanwhile, the Astros' offense has capitalized on a league-high 29 homers to score 4.76 runs per game, eighth in the league but 0.3 runs per game above average. That showing owes little to sluggers Chris Carter, Evan Gattis and George Springer, all of whom are below the Mendoza Line; the trio has contributed eight homers, but they've hit a collective .181/.268/.317 and struck out in 33% of their plate appearances. Instead, it's been Jake Marisnick (.389/.433/.648), Jed Lowrie (.300/.432/.567), Jose Altuve (.355/.390/.484) and Colby Rasmus (.254/.319/.524) who have done the heavy lifting. Lowrie and Rasmus have homered four times apiece, while Luis Valbuena (.224/.286/.474) leads the team with five.
Lowrie, Rasmus and Valbuena were all off-season acquisitions added by general manager Jeff Luhnow, the first two via free agency (three years and $23 million for Lowrie, one year and $8 million for Rasmus), the third via a trade that sent Dexter Fowler to the Cubs. While their current salaries ($8 million this year for Lowrie, $4.2 million for Valbuena in his third out of four years of arbitration eligibility) are modest by MLB standards, they help to account for the team's jump in payroll from $50.5 million on Opening Day 2014 to $72.5 million this year. That's still 29th in the majors, but it's nearly triple the $26.1 million Opening Day payroll from just two years ago. For all of the criticism of the Astros' minimal spending during the rebuild, they’re no longer outliers.
Alas, Houston will be without Lowrie for awhile. The 31-year-old shortstop tore the ulnar collateral ligament of his right thumb while sliding into home plate during Monday's win, a game in which he had previously homered. He'll undergo surgery that will sideline him for 8–12 weeks, which means that he probably won't be back until after the All-Star break. Understandably, there's clamor to call up Carlos Correa, the No. 1 pick of the 2012 draft and a consensus top-five prospect who's currently tearing up Double A (.387/.452/.760), but don't expect his arrival anytime soon. That torrid 18-game performance represents the 20-year-old phenom's first taste of the Texas League, a level for which he was almost certainly bound before breaking his right ankle last June 22. While Lunhow has conceded that Correa has played his way into the shortstop conversation and that he could bypass Triple A on his road to the majors, such a promotion isn't likely to happen until later this year, or even next.
In the meantime, and with considerably less fanfare, the team has recalled Jonathan Villar to pair with Marwin Gonzalez at shortstop. The 26-year-old Gonzalez hit a respectable .277/.327/.400 for a 105 OPS+ in 310 PA last year, a vast improvement over his 61 OPS+ from 2012 to '13, and over the 75 OPS+ that the 23-year-old Villar has produced in 547 career PA across the last three seasons. Both are switch-hitters, with Gonzalez the stronger against righties and in the field, at least according to the defensive metrics.
Recent history shows that a 14–7 start isn't one to take lightly. Of the 47 teams to jump out to such starts from 1995 to 2014, 22 won their division, and another six claimed a wild card spot, only one of whom did so since the addition of the second slot in each league. The teams collectively posted a .550 winning percentage, roughly the equivalent of an 89-win season. That said, the most recent 14–7 teams show just about the widest range of outcomes possible. The 2013 Rockies wound up 74–88, last in the NL West, while the 2014 Braves finished 79–83. On the other side of the coin, the 2013 Red Sox won 97 games and the World Series, and the 2013 Rangers won 91 games but lost a Game 163 play-in for a wild card berth.
Any of those outcomes would nonetheless represent improvement for a team that won 70 games last year after averaging just 54 wins over the previous three and finishing below .500 for six straight seasons. That said, even last year’s team found time to make at least one 14-7 run, as did the Braves, Marlins, Padres, Rangers, Rays, Reds and Rockies, a group that combined to average just 74 wins last year.
Via the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, which incorporate the team's schedule and individual PECOTA player projections for the remainder of the season, the team's chances have improved greatly since the preseason, though the Astros are still far from automatic. In March, BP gave the team a 13.6% chance at reaching the postseason, the longest odds in the AL West (even after the Rangers lost Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery) and the third-longest in the league. Thanks to a division in which none of the other four teams are above .500—in part because the Astros have gone 10–5 against them—those odds are up to 37.2%, third-best in the West behind the Angels (54.9) and Mariners (41.5), and more or less tied with the Yankees (37.4) for the league's sixth-best shot. Likewise, via FanGraphs' odds, Houston has a 35.0% chance at reaching the postseason, the seventh-best chance in the league.
As with any hot start, most of the small-sample extremes of the individual players will prove unsustainable, a caveat that applies to the likes of the struggling Springer and his fellow sluggers just as it does to Keuchel and Marisnick. Still, the early evidence suggests that this is a much-improved team, one with a reasonable chance of finishing above .500 and with enough wins in the bank to suggest that even greater things are possible—even if it's not 2017 yet.