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Starting Nine: Most improved Astros

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A few Astros have taken their games to the next level this season. Who has taken the biggest leap?

Bob Levey

The Houston Astros are already just four wins away from matching their 2013 win total, thanks to plenty of improvement from key parts of the roster. Houston is certainly headed the right direction, but with a depth of prospects entering high levels of the minors, players on the Major League team have something to prove every day.

Some have answered the bell, some have not. In today's Starting Nine, we focus on who has stepped up their game in 2014.

Which Astros' player has impressed you most with the progress they have made this season?

Chris Perry

This question caught me off guard. I want to say Altuve or Keuchel, but I can't. For one, I predicted Keuchel's breakout, and all he's really doing is the same thing he's always done, but with better defense and non-crappy luck. Altuve has been incredibly impressive this season, and has blown away my expectations. But a lot of that is a .363 BABIP, and so I don't know if his performance is more than regular improvement combined with a bit of fairy dust. Same thing for Collin McHugh.

So I'm gonna go with Josh Fields.

2013: 4.97 ERA (5.10 FIP / 4.20 xFIP) while walking 11% of his batters faced and striking out 25%, all with a "lucky" .245 BABIP.

2014: 4.20 ERA (1.94 FIP / 2.66 xFIP) while walking 7% of his batters faced and striking out 34%, all with an "unlucky" .351 BABIP.

I don't know what Fields changed this season. Maybe it's more evidence of the "Brent Strom" magic that we are all beginning to suspect exists out there at MMP. Are we seeing the next Dave Duncan at work, a pitching coach who just understands pitching, psychology, and mechanics so well that he can take straw pitchers and turn them into gold? All I know is that last season Fields struggled and his struggles were legit. This season, he's dominating hitters, and he's doing it despite allowing more hits on balls in play, meaning we can expect even more improvement because of his peripherals. Fields isn't even arbitration eligible until 2016 despite being 28 years old. He's a guy that the Astros can pencil in at the back of their bullpen (Closer?) for at least four more cheap years. Or maybe they wait a couple seasons and then trade him for a king's ransom. I had hoped for this performance when the Astros claimed Fields during the 2013 Rule 5 draft. In 2014, Fields has delivered.

Brian Stevenson

There are, to me, four key possibilities for this answer; Keuchel, Altuve, Fields and McHugh. We at TCB already expected a significant improvement from Keuchel, and Altuve had shown this kind of potential in the minors and was young enough to reasonably expect improvement in the Majors as it was. Fields always had this upside, and while he's been even better than expected, it's only been for a couple of months still. And all three of those guys had some level of hype or expectation or previous good showing coming into the year. I'll go with McHugh, then; his breakout has been a shock, and extremely impressive. The thing with McHugh is that his breakout isn't just about himself; it's validation for Brent Strom and his methods to pitching and coaching, and it's validation to the intelligence of the front office and their ability to identify talent and potential. McHugh has been not only a shining beacon of hope just for his own career being meaningful and helping the Astros, but he also gives hope that more aside from him could be coming in the future.

Clack

I think McHugh and Keuchel are the obvious candidates for most surprising improvement. Since I have to pick one, I'll choose Keuchel. Based on his stuff, coming into this season I felt that Keuchel had a ceiling as a 4 or 5 rotation slot pitcher. Yes, I realized that his peripherals last year made him a solid starting pitcher. But I would not have predicted that he would break out as a Top 20 starting pitcher. Keuchel's progress reflects his ability to adjust, hone his craft, and understand the art of pitching. Kudos.

Brooks Parker

It has to be Collin McHugh. Yes, Keuchel and Altuve have both outperformed expectations, but they were expected to be good ML players. McHugh was thought to be a Quad-A guy and he's solidified himself as a solid MoR pitcher. A lot of people doubt that he can sustain this success, but I'm confident that he can.

Rags to riches in terms of pitchers.

Hipster Anthony Boyer

I don't want to go along with everyone else, so here's an answer you weren't expecting: Brett Oberholtzer. Of course, you weren't expecting it because Oberholtzer has been almost exactly the same in 2014 as he was in 2013. 0.02 difference in FIP between 2013 and 2014; 0.2 difference in xFIP. 0.9% difference in groundball rates. 0.21 difference in K/9. Walks per nine have actually been worse by almost a half a walk per nine innings.

But for a guy who many saw as a JAG ("just a guy,") Oberholtzer's consistency actually increases his value - the fact that he's done it in his sophomore campaign, with increased exposure to hitters and twenty (and counting) more innings pitched in 2014, is impressive. Keuchel, McHugh, Feldman, and - before being traded - Cosart have been the focus of the rotation and rightfully so. But Oberholtzer has taken advantage of his opportunities. Hes tied with Collin McHugh for second-most among Astros pitchers in fWAR thus far this season. Not bad for a JAG.

Even More Hipster David Coleman

Honestly? It's Jason Castro's defense. I know, I know, we talked about that rule for catcher defense and that may explain why Castro stands out to me so much right now. He's not hitting, so his defensive reputation goes up.

But, by all accounts, he's gotten much better as a pitch framer and now ranks in the top 10 in baseball in that category. Plus, he's also saving a bunch of runs by blocking balls in the dirt. He's at least in the top half of catchers in the league there. Where was he three years ago? Not nearly that good. He got ripped nearly every game for not blocking balls he should.

That's why it's so surprising to me. To see his improvement in such a small time (sandwiched around a major knee injury), Castro really has impressed.