The Houston Astros are the hottest team in baseball. It wasn’t too long ago that suggesting that might have been a joke, but with a nine-game win streak powered by their five-homer, 11-4 win over the Seattle Mariners on Saturday night, Houston has the best record in the American League. For reals.
Four weeks in, the Astros have shown off almost everything you’d have wanted them to show off, and they've proven why they’re a team to be taken seriously, not just in the season’s early weeks, but in every week to come.
Collectively, the Astros lead the league in home runs with 37, and in strikeout rate and fly-ball rate. Their percentage of runs scored on homers -- their Guillen number, as Baseball Prospectus calls it in honor of Ozzie’s homer-dependent 2005 White Sox world champs -- is 47 percent, also the highest mark in the league. They’re the least likely team to get the ball in play, doing so in just 61 percent of their at-bats before Saturday night’s win.
The thing about that number is it has been spread around. The contrast with the Seattle Mariners, preseason favorites to contend in the American League West, could not be stronger: While Nelson Cruz homered two more times to get to 13 blasts, providing further validation for GM Jack Zduriencik’s decision to sign him, nobody else on the team has more than three. On the Astros, nobody has more than Luis Valbuena’s six home runs, but the power is spread throughout the lineup. More than 11 percent of the Astros’ fly balls were going out of the yard before Saturday’s five bombs, numbers that might be impossible to sustain, but they reflect exactly the intent as far as the kind of lineup general manager Jeff Luhnow & Co. put together. When things are going good, this is what the Astros can do.
Those kind of numbers might sound like beer-league stats, but the Astros aren’t just bash-or-bail bombers. They also lead the AL in steals with 31, and where the home runs are a function of lineup-wide power, the steals belong to Jose Altuve, Jake Marisnick and George Springer with nine apiece. And that trio has been caught just four times. That’s just smart management: Houston steals when it can with those who can. That’s the direction the game has been headed for years, but if the Astros keep stealing bases this efficiently, their 86 percent success rate would rank among the 10 best since the deadball era, up among a stack of those Phillies teams from the late 2000s.
That sort of athleticism is also showing up in the early-season numbers on defense. With an outfield comprising Springer, Marisnick and Colby Rasmus -- with Robbie Grossman coming in off the bench -- the Astros have four guys who have played a lot of center field on their careers. Altuve is putting up good numbers at second, providing an answer to the one complaint that has been made about the mighty mite. This really isn’t just a team from your softball league -- before Saturday’s game they were third in the majors in defensive efficiency as far as converting balls in play into outs.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the team has been the starting pitching. Dallas Keuchel seems to be already earning his wings as an ace, but his five quality starts in five turns is just part of the Astros’ tally of 15 QS, tied for the AL lead with the Tigers. Scott Feldman has been a pleasant surprise as the innings-muncher he was signed to be, while Collin McHugh -- convincing Bert Blyleven impression aside after giving up four solo homers in Saturday’s win -- might be on the cusp of becoming something more than that. Add in a bullpen peopled almost entirely with veterans who can be trusted in their roles, and it’s a staff that might be sturdy enough to deal with the five-month race left to run.
What’s scary about this team is how much has yet to go right for them, even with a 17-7 record. Sure nobody expected Valbuena to go crazy in the early going, but I’m talking about the things that they’re supposed to be able to count on. But once he cools down, you can expect some of those things to start going to change. Superstar-to-be Springer has yet to explode this season, but he will. Slow starts from the team’s actual slugging slugs, Chris Carter and Evan Gattis, can’t last forever. But if neither of them comes around, first-base prospect Jon Singleton is waiting in the wings, having started off well at Triple-A Fresno (.839 OPS with four HRs through Friday). Shortstop Jed Lowrie will be out until late July after tearing up a thumb, but maybe that was expected, given Lowrie’s track record for fragility, and maybe that -- plus top prospect Carlos Correa’s sizzling start at Double-A with an OPS north of 1.100 -- gets the kid the call sooner rather than later. The Astros’ assault on the scoreboard should get stronger still as the season continues.
It’s easy to identify what this team still doesn’t have: Another front-end starter beyond Keuchel, someone you can count on to provide a low-scoring game, and maybe a true power arm for the late-game mix. But after that, you can’t help but see a team that needs to be taken seriously, not eventually, but now. Anybody who can get to 85 wins is in the picture for winning the AL West. If the Astros find a way to add pitching in-season, that’s in reach. And for all of the flak that Luhnow and his management team took for blasting a bad team to its foundation, you can consider that sweet payback if this particular plan comes together a little bit ahead of schedule.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.