1. Houston Astros (41–16, plus-102, LT: 1)
We knew Houston's lineup would be deadly, with veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick getting added over the winter to a young and talented core that includes Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. The bullpen figured to be excellent as well, following a season in which Astros relievers led the majors in strikeout rate and Wins Above Replacement. The concern was over the rotation—could it be competent enough to pair with Houston’s other strengths and fuel the team’s first division title in 16 years?
The answer thus far has been an emphatic yes. The Astros’ starters haven’t merely performed competently. They’ve been awesome, leading the AL in ERA and ranking second in strikeout rate and helping the club to the best record in baseball.
For ace Dallas Keuchel, a shoulder injury sapped his ability to pitch last year, but a return to health has fueled a league-best 1.67 ERA this year for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner.
The bigger story has been 23-year-old firebreather Lance McCullers Jr. His unreal stuff was evident from the start, with McCullers lighting up the league as a rookie in 2015 thanks to an array of tantalizing pitches, including a 94-mph baffler that could technically be called a changeup, assuming you’re into hitters being haunted by a non-stop horror movie. Still, injuries and shaky command held McCullers back, as he walked an astronomical five batters per nine innings last year while making only 14 starts in the majors.
This season he’s put it all together. Only one pitcher in baseball ranks in his league’s top five in both strikeout rate and groundball rate and that’s McCullers, at 28.4% (fifth) and 61.7% (second; Keuchel leads with a jaw-dropping 67.4% groundball rate). McCullers has cut way back on his four-seam fastball usage and gone to a funky three-pitch repertoire, with his curve as his most frequent offering. SI’s Tom Verducci’s chronicled how incredibly great McCullers’ Uncle Charlie has been this year; when you throw a bender nearly half the time and hold opponents to a .222 batting average and .315 slugging percentage with it, you’re doing something truly special . . . including setting records.
Led by McCullers and Keuchel, as well as that explosive offense and stingy bullpen, the Astros have won 10 games in a row. Only eight other teams in the past half-century have started a season as hot as this Houston team, and all but the 2001 Mariners went on to reach the World Series. It’s almost as if somebody predicted this would happen.