Most people probably laughed when Houston Astros owner Jim Crane predicted back in January that he thought the Astros had a legitimate chance to make the playoffs.
“The goal is to make the playoffs,” Crane told Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. “The message was clear from A.J. [Hinch], and Jeff [Luhnow] said probably the same thing. The goal is to make the playoffs.”
As a matter of fact, Luhnow was not quite as bullish, but he was still pretty darn optimistic. He didn’t go as far as saying they could make the playoffs, but he did say that a winning record was not out of reach.
“The Astros, in my opinion, are going to have a winning record this year,” Luhnow said on MLB Network, per McTaggart. “I’ll go on record as saying that. I believe this is a winning team, and I think this is the beginning of many years of winning teams.”
Those predictions came on the heels of a 70-92 season in 2014, which marked a 19-game improvement from the previous year. They haven't had a winning season since 2008, but the additions of Evan Gattis, Jed Lowrie, Colby Rasmus, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and others made the confidence somewhat believable for hardcore Astros fans around the country.
So far in 2015, those predictions are coming to fruition. The Astros are one of the most surprising teams this year, and after nearly one month of play, they are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the most wins in all of baseball.
There are several reasons for their excellent start, but the main ones are the happy surprises littering both the lineup and pitching rotation.
Twenty-four-year-old center fielder Jake Marisnick, whom the Astros received from the Marlins in the Jarred Cosart trade, has fit that bill to a tee. To this point in the season, he is hitting .391 with three home runs, four doubles and two triples.
Jed Lowrie, who returned to the Astros this offseason after playing two seasons in Oakland, is hitting .300 with four home runs, and he leads the team with an impressive .432 on-base percentage.
The Astros' power trio of George Springer, Evan Gattis and Chris Carter have started off the season very slow, but the team has won without them contributing much, and now their bats are starting to come alive. Gattis has homered in each of the past three games, Carter hit a big fly last Tuesday against San Diego, and Springer has hit three homers and stolen five bases in the past eight games.
As Christina Kahrl of ESPN.com put it in a recent article, the Astros are producing just how Luhnow drew it up: lots of fly balls, tons of strikeouts and plenty of home runs. The club leads the league in all three of those categories, and they are the worst team at making contact. As a team, the Astros have only put the ball in play on 61 percent of their at-bats.
One of the most impressive things about this team is how they have managed to manufacture runs on offense. They do this mainly by being very aggressive on the basepaths, always taking the extra base and forcing the defense to make plays.
The Houston offense is fifth in the MLB in runs scored so far this season, yet their other offensive statistics aren't overly impressive. They are hitting just .247 as a team, which ranks 16th. They are finding ways to overcome their contact deficiencies, and that is something they might be able to do for the remainder of the season.
Second baseman Jose Altuve has followed up his phenomenal 2014 season with more dominance at the plate. His 39 hits trail only the Marlins' Dee Gordon for the league lead, and he has also stolen nine of 11 bases.
The pitching has also been special. Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh have each blossomed into top-of-the-rotation starters, Keuchel a legitimate Cy Young candidate and McHugh a durable strikeout pitcher.
David Schoenfield of ESPN.com believes that Keuchel is a true ace. He said in a recent article that Keuchel has made some adjustments in recent years, and now they are starting to pay dividends.
Keuchel is a sinker/slider/changeup guy, mixing in a four-seamer and occasional cutter. He's ditched the curveball he used to throw. Even though he doesn't throw hard, his game has to revolve around the command of the fastball and sinker. Even a small improvement in location has led to drastic improvement in results.
Keuchel has been so flawless this season that when he surrendered three hits and one run over eight innings of work last week against the Padres, his ERA went up to 0.73.
The Astros have also performed much better defensively than most people probably expected. With all of those big-swinging sluggers in the lineup, it would be perfectly natural to sacrifice some defense.
However, they have played superbly. Especially in the outfield, where the four outfielders—Springer, Marisnick, Rasmus and Robbie Grossman—are all natural center fielders and cover ground with terrific aplomb. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Astros have the highest defensive efficiency rating to this point in the season.
So Houston has started the season by playing a spectacular month of baseball—winning their last 10 games, including sweeps of AL West rivals Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners—by doing a ton of things right. Their starting pitching has been good, their bullpen has been excellent, the defense has been stellar so far, and they have been hitting home runs at an impressive clip.
And all of that has happened without Springer, Carter and Gattis really doing much. Springer is going to explode at some point, that's for sure, and Carter will surely start knocking balls out of the park. Gattis has started to hit with four homers in the past three games, but his average still sits below the Mendoza Line.
Those three are going to start hitting soon, and when that happens, watch out.
It is fair to expect a bit of regression from the offense—more than 11 percent of the Astros' fly balls have resulted in home runs—but at the same time, as the power trio gets hot, the lineup will be downright intimidating.
Luhnow has done a fabulous job of rebuilding this team, and Crane has been a steady leader throughout the past stretch of rough years. Not only have they built a team that can make the playoffs this season, but they also have assembled a roster and farm system that will contend for at least the next decade.
It is probably still wildly optimistic to say that the Astros will make the postseason this year, but I am going to say that they have a pretty good shot. Several analysts considered the Mariners a good choice to win the AL West this year, and some even picked them to play in the World Series.
The Astros responded to those predictions by beating them four games in a row. They are brewing something special down in Houston, and my bet is that they are going to be good for a long, long time.