As of tonight, well over half of the teams in the league will have played at least 32 games, so it's fair to say that the season is about 20 percent done. That makes me incredibly depressed, of course. Where did the time go? It also makes me reflective and curious as to how the most surprising team in baseball, the Houston Astros, sits in first place at 20-12 and five games up in the AL West.
The Astros lost 416 games from 2011-2014, and had not had a winning season in six years. The slash and burn approach to team building taken by Jeff Lunhow and his baseball ops team took a serious toll on the team's fan base, who refused to watch either at the park (the club was 12th out of 15 in attendance in 2014) or the TV (where the club actually earned a 0.0 rating at one point). There were definitely signs of improvement last year, but not enough to project Houston for more than a .500 club in 2015.
Yet here we are.
It's impossible to say too much about the incredible starts by team mainstays Dallas Keuchel and Jose Altuve. Last year's American League batting champion, Altuve is hitting .338 again this year, with a .390 on-base percentage and impressive power (eight doubles and four homers). At 25, next to Mike Trout he might be the most dynamic position player in the American League.
Keuchel broke out with a 2.93 ERA in 200 innings last year, completing five games and winning a Gold Glove (for whatever that is worth). Through seven starts in 2015, Keuchel sports a 1.39 ERA and only a single home run in 51.2 innings. While that can't possibly last all year, especially since Keuchel is only average at missing bats, it has been remarkably valuable for Houston.
The incredible start by Jake Marisnick is also instructive. When the Astros traded Dexter Fowler and his questionable outfield defense to the Cubs, it raised some eyebrows around the league. Marisnick was a strong prospect, and only 24, but he had only managed a .264 on-base percentage and a 14/94 BB/K ratio through his first 105 big league games. While the Astros made the decision because of his defense, it's his growth as an offensive player that has made this such a great move. Through 100 plate appearances, Marisnick has upped his walk rate, cut his strikeouts, and cut down on his infield popups significantly. He is starting to look like the superstar he was projected to be.
But no discussion of the Astros' improvement is complete without talking about the team's bullpen. Last year, AL relievers boasted a 3.63 ERA overall, but the Astros bullpen ended the year at 4.80, with a strikeout to walk ratio of only 2.33/1. Chad Qualls was their best reliever. It was awful. Revamped over the offseason, this collective is now an asset. Newly acquired Luke Gregerson, Joe Thatcher, Pat Neshek, and Will Harris have combined to have a 2.20 ERA and only seven walks against 53 strikeouts in 49 innings. Holdovers Tony Sipp and Qualls are also significantly better.
Overall, the team sports a 2.13 ERA, a 5.3/1 K/BB ratio, and a 0.814 WHIP in 97 innings. While the starting rotation's ERA is actually higher this year than last, the incredible performance by this collection of free agents and waiver pickups are simply holding more leads than they could have last year, and keeping the Astros in games long enough for their offense to come back. It's a great lesson that, while we tend to minimize the difference that a single reliever acquisition can make on a club, the cumulative effect of building an effective bullpen can truly turn a club around.