Houston, We Don’t Have a Problem

Perhaps one of the most alluring characteristics of the game of baseball is its humility and and parity. A player can go on a weeks tear, absolutely scorching anything that nears the plate. Then follow that up by being stifled for a month, failing trying to barrel up the baseball. Or a team that boasts the smallest payroll in baseball, and had lost over 300 games over the last three seasons, rattles off ten straight victories to propel themselves to the top of the American League.

The Houston Astros are rolling like a freight train. Running over teams like one, too. Off to their best start since 1980, the Astros currently own the best record in the American League and second best in all of baseball. Some argue sample size and that this is nothing but a fluke start after just one full calendar month of the marathon they call a baseball season. And the AL West hasn’t been exactly as good as some perceived in the early goings with the Los Angeles Angels not looking anything like the near 100 win club of last year and the Seattle Mariners — who are looked upon as a potential Cinderella World Series team — stumbling out to a 10-15 start, and the Oakland A’s aren’t fairing much better with only 11 wins on this young campaign.

But anyway you look at it, the Houston Astros are in first place and have the best record in the American League. Which brings up the questions: How are they doing this? And can they sustain it for the rest of the season?

If you can’t score, you can’t win, right? Astros’ pitching through the first month of the season has been superb. A staff last year that had a team ERA of 4.11 has lowered that mark a full run. Currently sitting at a paltry 3.12 team ERA, which is good for sixth best in the big leagues.

One cannot talk about the Astros’ staff and not make mention of the outstanding pitching efforts of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. Keuchel, who had his coming out season last year, posting a 12-9 record with a 2.93 ERA, became one of the most effective ground ball pitchers in the big leagues in 2014. So how do you follow that up? How about starting out the year with an ERA of 0.73 and a WHIP 0.730 while only surrendering 3.9 hits per-nine innings. McHugh was a former New York Mets and Colorado Rockies farmhand and had struggled to find any length of success in the big leagues over his first seven seasons in professional baseball.  The Astros decided to take a flier on the 28-year-old in December of 2013, picking him up off of waivers from the Rockies and have since been greatly rewarded.

In 2014, McHugh let the league know who he was by amassing an 11-9 record with a 2.73 ERA and 1.022 WHIP. This year he has been just has good in his first five starts of 2015, having a perfect 4-0 record and a 3.41 ERA while only walking 1.7 batters per-nine. What’s more impressive is the Astros have won 10 straight games in which McHugh takes the bump.

While McHugh and Keuchel have been certainly impressive, the Astros’ pen has been equally as good. Last year the Astros bullpen was the equivalent of a dumpster fire. In 2014, the Astros had the worst bullpen in baseball and blew more leads then anyone. Jeff Luhnow and the rest of the Astros’ brain trust made it priority number one over the offseason to try to bring some sort of respectability back to the bullpen. The Astros made runs at top free agent relievers Andrew Miller and David Robertson, but came up empty on both. But the Astros didn’t come away totally empty handed signing both Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to help sure up the back end of ballgames.

Gregerson has only blown one save thus far. Neshek, on the other hand, has run into a bit of adversity to start the year, but has recorded some big outs over the last 10 games that has aided the Astros charge to the top of the AL West and the American League. The phenomenal job the rest of the Astros’ pen cannot go unnoticed. Will Harris has yet to have been scored upon his first 10 innings of work. Tony Sipp has only allowed two earned runs in his first 12 1/3 innings of the year, and Sam Deduno and Chad Qualls both have ERA’s south of 2.90. Not a bad improvement for the worst bullpen in baseball last year.

The Astros’ offense has been as just as good as their pitching. The smallest man in baseball, Jose Altuve, has shown why some are beginning to consider him the best second basemen in baseball. Altuve is slashing .361/.407/.509 with three HRs, 19 RBI and nine stolen bases after the first month. The reigning batting champ had a nine game multi-hit hit streak going over Astros 10 game win streak. Evan Gattis has clearly washed away any remnants of his 0-for-22 start on the season. Over the last seven days the man they call “The White Bear” has put up a .333/.333/1.048 with five HRs and 12 RBI. Two of Gattis’ homers coming on Sunday’s game against the Mariners to help them reach their longest winning streak in franchise history.

The rest of the line up has been mashing the ball just as much. Five of their starting nine hitters have four or more home runs. Which, surprisingly, Chris Carter, the Astros leading home run hitter last year, is not one of… yet. On Saturday the Astros’ flashed just what kind of power this lineup is capable of by hitting six home runs off Mariners’ pitching. Seattle blasted three of their own and set a Minute Maid Park record for home runs in a game. The Astros are also a speedy team, too. George Springer and Jake Marisnick are currently tied with Altuve for the team lead in stolen bases with nine.

Oh, yeah, the Astros are pretty good defensively, too. Only committing 20 blunders in the field so far which ranks third best in the American League.

It certainly sounds like you should grab your 2015 World Series Houston Astros banners now and start printing your tickets. But as mentioned earlier, humility is one of the best characteristics of baseball. And although the Astros are playing outstanding baseball, there are some reasons of concern for their sustainability.

The back end of the Astros’ rotation has failed to come close to anything to the like of Kechel or McHugh. Scott Feldman has been hit around a few times this season and has an ERA of 4.31. Roberto Hernandez, or the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona, has been decent you could say for a back-end-of-the-rotation starter, but past track record shows that his 4.25 ERA could balloon much higher as the season progresses. Asher Wojciechowski has an ERA about as high as his letter count of his last name.

The Astros’ offense has flaws, too. Although they have been hitting home runs in bunches, the Astros’ line up is among the most strikeout prone in baseball. Springer, Carter, Rasmus, and Gattis can all be found in the top 15 in strikeouts in baseball. They are also going to be playing without Jed Lowrie for at least a month. Lowrie was slashing .300/.432/.567 with 4 HRs and 10 RBIs before he aggravated his thumb sliding into home last week.

Divisional foes getting of to a slow start has certainly aided the Astros rise to the top. You would have to expect teams such as the Angels and Mariners to eventually get it going and not be under .500 forever.

Should you believe or not believe? Are the Astros a legit contender? It is still very early and the sample sizes are still very small. Looking at the Astros you could certainly make a case they could contend all year with the strength of the bullpen and the top of their rotation and with a very speedy and power laden line up. It’s a great story to start the year and the Astros fans deserve something to get excited about. Hopefully these Astros continue to prove everyone wrong and are still in it at the end of September.

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