With the best record in baseball, the Houston Astros are an early favorite to make it to the World Series this year, even with the vagaries and randomness inherent in the short-series playoffs.
Their rotation has a strong enough one-two punch to make finding a starter for that third game easier. Their bullpen seems to be putting it together, and they start a lineup with young stars and veteran leadership still capable of production.
These ingredients should seem somewhat familiar to baseball fans, because they were the secrets to another team’s success just a season ago.
That’s right — this is the formula that pulled the Chicago Cubs out of a hundred-year slump and into the limelight. Win more games than anyone else — win more than anyone thinks you should — on the backs of young talent, enough starting pitching, and good luck. How about the specifics, though? How can you build a Cubs-like team without Kris Bryant?
The combination of Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve is a good place to start, and having George Springer’s power in the outfield doesn’t hurt either. Springer and Altuve are in their prime this season, and Correa is perhaps one of the most mature 22-year-olds to ever play the game, both at the plate and off the field. Not only are these some of the most talented offensive players in Major League Baseball, but they’ve all improved from last season, along with the rest of their team. The Astros are striking out less and walking more than they did in 2016, a possible indicator of a new team philosophy at the plate — or simply the continued maturation of a young and talented team, such as the 2016 Cubs.
On the pitching front, the Astros are only a bit behind the Cubs in talent or reputation. While Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers don’t quite add up to Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Kyle Hendricks, it’s not a bad starting place. If the bats ever go cold, Houston might have some cause to worry; 11 of its 29 wins are by two runs or fewer. Starting pitching, while always difficult to acquire, is in some ways the easiest place to upgrade. There will likely be a team with a better-than-average starter that can be persuaded to part with said starter for the chance to work on its own rebuild. Placing that starter into the third or fourth slot is a lot easier than balancing playing time at various positions on the hitting side.
It does still feel a little early to compare this Astros team to last year’s Cubs team, though we’re finally beginning to reach the stabilization points of the stats that can tell us more specific things about individual players and the teams they contribute to — as far as those stabilization points exist (see Carleton, Russell at Baseball Prospectus). At the same point in the year, the 2017 Astros have an almost identical record to the 2016 Cubs, though not as many ridiculous blowouts. Their strikeout and walk percentages, as a team, compare favorably with that Chicago offense, and while the American League West isn’t as much of a cakewalk as it seemed in late April, it’s still not exactly filled with serious contenders.
So, are the Astros peaking at the right time? Their continued lead — despite a surprising hot streak by the suddenly-lively Texas Rangers — and recovery from the first mini-slump by their important batters (“slump” meaning that Jose Altuve’s batting average dropped below .300) is a good sign for their ability to produce at a high level for the rest of the season.
You can’t predict baseball, so while the Astros appear to be on the right track, appearances have to turn into sustained results.
By Kate Morrison