Let's make one thing clear: Nobody saw this coming. If you said Houston would be 18-7 and riding a 10-game winning streak through 25 games, then you're a liar. However, some were on the right track about the Astros surprising the baseball world. Nobody could have predicted for it to be this good, though.
Inside the surprise that is Houston's American League-best record there have been plenty of other performances that were difficult to predict. Luckily for the Astros, almost all of these things have been positives because, well, most baseball fans would have predicted 7-18 before 18-7 for Houston's first 25 games.
The Crawfish Boxes staff gave their takes this weekend on the subject as Houston completed their four-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners. This week's question:
What has been the most surprising factor in Houston's surprising start?
If I had to pick one player it would be Jake Marisnick. We were all hoping for the best with his bat but I don't think anyone expected him to break out this much. Granted he will regress but he's really helped out the offense this month.
Speaking of offense the most surprising factor would be that despite the mediocre starts of Evan Gattis, Chris Carter, and George Springer this team finished the month with 103 runs scored, good for 9th place in the league. They even accomplished this as they led the league in K's and K%, so they've basically been doing it all on walks, steals, doubles and homers.
I'm not sure how bad Jed Lowrie's absence is going to hurt, but if they can keep up this pace offensively to go along with their pitching then they have a real shot at winning the division.
I am most surprised that the Astros are having all of this success while the 1B and DH position have been worth -0.5 and -0.6 WAR, respectively (as of May 2). It's early in the season, so we have to look at WAR with a grain of salt (Jake Marisnick is on pace to rival Barry Bonds). However, two positions that you would expect to rake offensively on a good team have had wRC+ of 33 and 66. If you have have told me this in late March, I would have shook my head and wondered if .500 were even a possibility this month. Carter and Gattis won't be down all season. When they get it going, we may win all of the games.
My answer is also the fact that it's happened with Carter, Gattis and Springer struggling so much, I'm more than amazed that we've scored enough runs with those three playing such a small role. But everyone else has said it already, so I'll point to the starting pitching. Now, we knew that the starting pitching was probably the biggest strength of the club, but it's been incredible, by and large. Keuchel has been nigh-untouchable, McHugh's ERA is under three (prior to Saturday's start) and he has darn-near six strike outs for every walk he issued, Feldman's numbers are deceptive because that one blow-up still has his ERA high (it's 2.73 outside of that one bad one). That's your top three, and the club is 12-2 in their starts.
Then you look at the back end and realize that Roberto Hernandez, a non-roster invite who you're paying peanuts, has an ERA under four and has done no worse than a quality start in his outings, and he's just your number five. Heck, Deduno just looked rock-solid in his first start, and combined with his significant innings out of the pen, owns a 2.70 ERA (as of May 2). Wojo got rocked, but he's a rookie prospect and wasn't even going to make the club before Oberholtzer got injured. Imagine if Obie hadn't hit the DL; he's been our pick to break out for months now, and you could easily have had a five-man rotation with a collective ERA around 3.50.
The ERA for pitchers who have made starts (and this is just their starts, not any bullpen time) is 3.47. That's including Feldman's meltdown, all three of Wojo's bad starts, Peacock's one mediocre start...all that included, the offense only has needed to average 3.5 runs per game during the time the starters have been on the mound. I mean, you score 3-4 runs per game, and you're right in it, if not in the lead, during the later innings. The offense would have to have been utterly, thoroughly helpless for this club to not be at least .500 to this point, thanks to the starting pitching.
Besides the obvious surprise of Marisnick, I'd say I've been surprised at the consistency, depth, and breadth of this team during this 15-game streak. There's an inspiring confidence and swagger to these Astros. This team has gelled. (I'm by no means assuming this is going to last.)
Let me put in a word for the Astros' defense. I felt this might be a weak spot coming into the season, and the defense has been steady--and, yes, good. You don't think that has something to do with the pitching results so far? I assure you that Keuchel wouldn't have a sub-1 ERA without some terrific fielding plays (including his own) behind him. With 3 CFers in the outfield, the defensive improvement may be understandable. But guys like Valbuena and Carter have looked good too. The Astros have the 5th best UZR/150 in the majors (as of May 2). Look at the Astros' Inside Edge results. Some analysts like to look at the 40%-60% and 60%-90% probability fielding plays as the most important. The Astros are ranked first in the former and second in the latter behind the Blue Jays).
This stat has been thrown around quite a bit already: The Astros haven't lost a game they've led in. The obvious answer for this is an improved bullpen, which entered Sunday with a 2.21 ERA (third-best in the AL). Houston hasn't blown a save, and outside of bombs from the hot-hitting Nelson Cruz and Logan Morrison, Astros closer Luke Gregerson has been untouchable. Better yet, Houston is tacking on runs. The finale of the series sweep in San Diego saw Houston enter the ninth inning with a 3-1 lead over the Padres. The Astros added four runs to blow open the game, including three off Padres closer Craig Kimbrel. An improved bullpen is big for Houston's playoff hopes, but this lineup will be tough to play catch up against.
The most surprising part to me has been how weak the rest of the AL West has been. One of the reasons why I picked the Astros to win just 10 games this month were all the games against in-division opponents.
Yet, the Angels hit the ground flat. The Mariners got all the offense they could ask for out of Nelson Cruz and still can't win. Texas has been horrible and the A's have been unlucky.
The A's are the only team in the division (beside the Astros) who have a positive run differential. Ditto by Base Runs, which has the other AL West teams outside of Oakland and Houston significantly worse than we thought.
If this holds up for any length of time this year, it could mean good things for Houston's hot start. If the Angels aren't any better than the Rangers this year, or the Mariners can't get it all put together, Houston may be in a two-team race with the A's.
That's pretty shocking to think about.
Coming into this season I was confident in my prediction the Astros would be a .500ish team and fall somewhere in the middle of the AL West. I'm delighted that they are off to a much more impressive start and the real surprise has been just how many players are a part of that impressive start. This run has been a true team effort.
It's not a team built on one or two names. The offense has come from Alutve and Gattis and Marisneck and and and... The pitching has been amazing from Keuchel and McHugh, but the rest of the rotation hasn't disappointed and the bullpen has been downright reliable and at times just brilliant.
So are there a couple of stars that we can point to that have the Astros 18-7? Nope. It's the whole darn team, and after the past few seasons the idea of a team firing on almost every cylinder is the best surprise of all.