The Houston Astros, four days removed from an eye-opening 10-game win streak, arrived in Anaheim on Thursday sporting an American League-best 18-10 record, a five-game division lead and an intriguing roster that has fans and media members around the country wondering, “Are these guys for real?”
The question could take months to answer, but the fact it's even being raised is a testament to how far they've come since their three straight 100-loss seasons from 2011 to 2013 and the strip-down and rebuilding process that ensued.
“It's satisfying to be relevant again,” Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow said before Thursday night's 3-2 win against the Angels, the first of a four-game series. “We're not naive. We know the Angels, Mariners, A's and Rangers will be fighting all year long. We just want to be a part of that fight.”
They appear much better armed for battle. The Astros went from 51 wins in 2013 to 70 wins in 2014 in part because of an improved rotation headed by bearded
left-hander Dallas Keuchel and right-hander Collin McHugh.
But their biggest strides this season have come in a bullpen that was a mess in 2014, ranking last in the major leagues in earned-run average (4.80), 27th in walks plus hits per inning pitched (1.39) and blowing 26 saves, the most in baseball.
But he signed two middle-tier free agents in right-hander Luke Gregerson (three years, $18.5 million) and sidearm-throwing right-hander Pat Neshek (two years, $12.5 million). He claimed right-hander Will Harris off waivers from Arizona and added left-hander Joe Thatcher on a minor league deal.
Those four, combined with holdovers Chad Qualls and Tony Sipp, transformed a bullpen that entered Thursday with baseball's fourth-best ERA (2.12), second-best average against (.175), second-most strikeouts (103), fewest walks (18) and best WHIP (0.80). They converted 10 of 13 save opportunities.
“There's no doubt the fastest way to turn a team around is by winning games that you're ahead,” first-year Manager A.J. Hinch said. “Blown leads can demoralize a team.”
The addition of veteran relievers “who know what
it takes to win,” Keuchel said, “can change the culture pretty quick.” Catcher Jason Castro, in his sixth year
with the team, has seen a shift.
“We come to the field with an expectation of winning,” Castro said. “It's definitely a different feeling than the teams I've been on in the past.”
Offensively, the Astros combine big power with big swing-and-miss potential. They rank second in baseball with 42 homers and lead baseball with 265 strikeouts.
“We have guys who can swing and miss with the best of them,” Luhnow said, “but they can also put baseballs in the seats.”
Their best hitter is little leadoff man Jose Altuve, a 5-foot-6, 165-pound bundle of bat speed and energy who has posted a .336 average, three homers, eight doubles, 20 runs batted in and 11 stolen bases, proving his 2014 season, in which he led the league in average (.341), hits (225) and stolen bases (56), was no fluke.
“He's like a machine, man,” said Astros backup catcher Hank Conger, a former Angel. “The way he steps in the box, you expect him to get a hit every time.”
And don't let his size fool you.
“He hit a 420-foot homer the other day against Seattle,” Luhnow said. “You just don't imagine a guy with that frame can do that. At the same time, he can steal a base, and he's the guy you want up with the game on the line.”
Four players acquired through trade or free agency last winter — third baseman Luis Valbuena (seven homers, 11 RBIs), designated hitter Evan Gattis (six homers, 18 RBIs), outfielder Colby Rasmus (five homers, 10 RBIs) and shortstop Jed Lowrie (four homers, 10 RBIs) — have added pop.
And 24-year-old center fielder Jake Marisnick, a former Riverside Poly High standout who was acquired from Miami for Jarred Cosart last July, has had an impact, hitting .338 with three homers, four doubles, three triples and 13 RBIs and playing superb defense.
“Our biggest challenge is our offense can come and go — we saw that this week,” Luhnow said, referring to a three-game sweep in Texas in which the Astros scored five runs. “If our power guys don't produce, it's tough to score runs.”
Hinch, the former catcher who replaced the fired Bo Porter last September, appears to be a better fit in Houston than he was in Arizona, where he was only 35 when the Diamondbacks hired him in May 2009. He was fired in July 2010.
“He was a big league regular and backup,” Luhnow said. “He's been a GM, a farm director, and he has a psychology degree from Stanford, which he probably uses on me, and I don't even know it. He communicates well, he's created a fun, collegial tone in the clubhouse, and it's working.”
With a loaded farm system that includes three highly touted prospects who could have an impact this season — shortstop Carlos Correa and pitchers Mark Appel and Lance McCullers Jr. — the Astros are on the rise. Even if some aren't quite sure whether they've arrived.
“The way we've played this year is just a glimpse into our capabilities,” Castro said. “The rest of this year and beyond, with the guys we have now and the ones coming from the system, it's only going to go up from here.”