The Houston Astros Are Young In 1st Place & Scary Good! More Talent On The Way?

The Astros have a 14-game lead in the AL West. They’ve lost 16 games this season, and the next closest team to them has 30 losses. They’ve scored 106 more runs than they’ve allowed, and they have the best record in baseball.

 It’s possible, if not likely, that the Astros are the best team in baseball.

Marc Normandin has already talked about the infamous Sports Illustrated cover, but I want to bring it up one more time. Back in 2014 — like, they had Playstation 4s and everything back then — it was considered hilarious for a magazine to suggest that the Astros would win the World Series in four seasons. They were butt-slide bad, and I had to write a response to the article that took a brave stance of “Hold on, it might not be such a wild idea.” It would have been imprudent not to hedge your bets after 324 losses from the Astros over the previous three seasons.

My thesis today is that the Astros might be better than they’ve been so far this season.

 It’s nearly impossible to improve on a .724 winning percentage, so I’m not going to argue that this is a true .800-winning percentage team. I think it’s likely they will win fewer than three-quarters of their remaining games. So I’m using rhetorical chicanery to suggest the Astros might be better. When that definition of “better” translates roughly to “but they’ll start losing more games,” you can take it with a grain of salt.

But when I’m confronted with a surprising team — either a surprise contender, or an expected contender that’s blowing away the rest of the competition — I like to play a game called Should They Be Doing This? It’s fun for the whole family. Minutes to learn, lifetime to master. It goes like this: Look at the players on the roster and pick out the ones who surprise you.

Tally them up and you’ll have a good idea if the team is something of a mirage. When the Twins go on a winning stretch on the back of Miguel Sano’s bat, for example, that makes sense. When they do the same because no one can score runs off Eric Hacker, perhaps you should reserve a little skepticism. That sort of thing.

For the Astros, you can break them down thusly:

 

The players who are performing much better than expectations

Marwin Gonzalez is eating locks of Ben Zobrist’s hair. It’s the only explanation. Unless he severed Lance Berkman’s arms and ground up his bones to make a medicinal powder. If neither of those are the case, I have several other theories that get much darker.

After three years of a sub-.300 OBP and a 90 OPS+, I refuse to believe that the 28-year-old Gonzalez is a superweapon now. While it’s noteworthy that he’s three walks away from his career high — in 355 fewer plate appearances compared to last season — and the change in his approach could explain a lot, I’ll err on the side of the previous five seasons.

 Dallas Keuchel is outstanding. He’s probably not Clayton Kershaw, though, and the ERA will eventually get over 2.00.

Jake Marisnick is like a secret 30-homer player off the bench, but he’ll regress.

Uh, I guess Brad Peacock is a thing. And, really, the entire bullpen is filled with weirdos and ne’er-do-wells who can strike the world out, which I wasn’t expecting, at least not to this degree.

But that can’t be the end of this section, can it? For a team to go 42-16, they have to be filled with surprises and flukes, right?

That can’t be the end of this section. Because the next section goes like …

The players who are performing much worse than expectations

Yulieski Gurriel has a .303 OBP and 100 OPS+, which isn’t what a team should want from its first baseman. His plate discipline is a concern, and he’s not making up for it with his average, power, speed, or defense. He’s 33 and close to replacement level, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Norichika Aoki’s career OBP, by year:

  • .355 (2012)
  • .356 (2013)
  • .349 (2014)
  • .353 (2015)
  • .349 (2016)

This year’s .308 OBP is something of a disappointment, then. Or a cosmic disturbance.

I’m not sure how much the Astros were really expecting from a 40-year-old Carlos Beltran — slightly less than they got in 2004, perhaps — but his average, OBP, and power are all down substantially. It’s not like he moved from Yankee Stadium to AT&T Park, so the age gremlins might have gotten him.

Alex Bregman has not taken the world by storm like Kris Bryant.

Charlie Morton has been OK, but not great. Mike Fiers is broken, perhaps, and the entire rotation behind Keuchel and McCullers has been underwhelming, at best.

It’s not an extensive list of disappointing players. But for a team that’s winning nearly three out of every four games, it’s still telling that over a quarter of their roster has been a disappointment, including four projected lineup cogs.

The players who are performing about as well as expected

The rest of them? Jose Altuve is incredible. Carlos Correa is incredible. George Springer is incredible. Brian McCann and Evan Gattis complement each other extraordinarily well. Josh Reddick is just OK, but that’s been his thing for a while.

 It’s not like there’s a player on an 80-homer pace. It’s not like Altuve is hitting .440, which would be absurd, even for him. These are quality players providing quality production.

And with all that written, it’s time to get to the part where the Astros can get better. Not in a .800 winning percentage sense, but in terms of building a quality team with less of the postseason left to chance.

The trade deadline. All of those problems will either be fixed or the Astros will be open to fixing them. Have problems with the back of the rotation, still? Here’s Jose Quintana. Or Johnny Cueto. Or Quintana and Cueto. Is Beltran still disappointing? Here’s Yonder Alonso, who is like the Marwin Gonzalez of first base. There are so many different ways the Astros can go.

Please, hold your Carlos Gomez heckling until the end. We’re almost done.

There are so many different ways the Astros can go, and while it’s unlikely that the Astros will start winning more games, or even maintain their current pace, they’ll have opportunities to improve their assembled talent and become even scarier.

A scarier Astros team isn’t anything the American League needs right now. But it’s probably coming. Just don’t think about how their keystone combination is still impossibly young and otherworldly and how they’ll be around for the better part of the decade, because that’s extra scary, too.

 It was just a couple years ago that the thought of the 2017 Astros made the internet heckle a poor, defenseless magazine. Look at them now. They’re the best team in baseball, and they have a shot to get better.
By Grant Brisbee