Are the Houston Astros the Best Team in the American League?
The fact the Houston Astros have one of baseball's best records heading into Thursday isn't a big surprise. After all, they were picked by a great many to win the American League West. This is a team that made the playoffs two years ago and is filled with exciting young talent. So far in 2017, they're playing like the best team in the American League.
After their 4-2 win over the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday, Houston is 23-11, with a 6-game lead over the Seattle Mariners in the AL West, and they are just one-hundredth of a percentage point behind the New York Yankees (21-10) for the best record in baseball.
Great Young Offensive Stars
The top two position players on the team, in terms of fWAR, are Carlos Correa and Marwin Gonzalez (1.0), which ties them for 20th in the AL. There is no position player having an MVP-type season as of yet. But Gonzalez has been their most impactful bat with a team-leading 9 homers in 90 plate appearances, and Correa has a studly slash line of .273/.346/.455 with a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 122 and a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .344.
As a team, Houston is third in runs scored, tied for third in dingers, and is tied for second in wOBA and wRC+. In all, the Astros have nine players with a wRC+ over 100, which is considered a league average number for a run producer. Only Carlos Beltran and Norichika Aoki are below that number.
George Springer is second on the team in home runs (7), and Brian McCann is third on the team in fWAR (0.9). While his batting average isn't anywhere near the .338 he put up last year, Jose Altuve's .295/.370/.495 slash line is still solid, and his wOBA of .356 is eighth-best among MLB second basemen.
In other words, as good as the offense has been, there is still some room for improvement. Yikes.
Rotation Keeping It Together
Stability has been the name of the game for the Houston rotation so far in 2017. Coming into the season, this was perceived to be their weak link, and if you look at their ranking in terms of fWAR (1.4, 13th out of 15 AL teams), you'd say they're not getting the job done.
The reason their fWAR is so low is because Fangraphs uses fielding independent pitching (FIP) to calculate their WAR totals, not ERA. FIP aims to strip out luck on balls in play and only takes into account strikeouts, walks and homers allowed when coming up with a WAR score. So far this year, Houston's starting rotation has a FIP of of 4.56 -- 11th out of 15 American League teams -- but an ERA of 3.69, 4th-best in the AL.
The best news of the season for the Astros thus far is the re-emergence of Dallas Keuchel, who is 5-0 in 7 starts with a 1.88 ERA in 52.2 innings pitched. He's not striking a ton of guys out (7.01 punchouts per nine), but he is walking a mere 2.22 per nine innings and has allowed just a .178 batting average to opponents. That's light years better than the 4.55 ERA he put up last season, although his FIP last year (3.87) and his FIP this season (3.75) are nearly equal. He's also getting better luck on balls in play this year (.195) than he did in 2016 (.304).
Charlie Morton (3.63 ERA) has been surprisingly effective, as has Lance McCullers (3.40 ERA), who leads the team with a strikeout rate of 28.9%, 10th-highest among qualified starters in MLB. Houston likely will be looking to add another starting pitcher over the next month or two. Joe Musgrove and Mike Fiers both have ERAs over 5.00, but at the very least, the rotation has stayed healthy this year as no one in the rotation has missed a start due to injury.
Bullpen Missing Bats
The Astros have put together one of the best bullpens in baseball so far this season. They are second in the American League in fWAR from relievers at 2.3 (the Cleveland Indians are 1st, at 2.4), third in FIP (2.87) and fifth in ERA (2.93). Their strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.37 is third-best among AL bullpens, which is particularly impressive when it's coupled with a 31.3% strikeout rate that is tops in the league.
Chris Devenski is the best relief pitcher in baseball you've never heard of, leading the relief corps in fWAR with 0.9. He's an old-school fireman, capable of going multiple innings in every outing, and his 21.0 innings pitched are third-most in baseball. Devenski is (and this is not a typo) striking out 49.4% of all batters faced this season. Only three qualified relievers have a better strikeout rate (Tommy Kahnle, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen).
Ken Giles' ERA of 3.86 may not look terrific for a closer, but his FIP of 1.64 is best in the 'pen, and it proves he's pitching better than his ERA indicates. Will Harris (0.5 fWAR), Brad Peacock (0.3 fWAR) and Michael Feliz (2.08 ERA) have also been excellent for the 'Stros.
Huge Weekend Showdown
This weekend's marquee matchup is in the Bronx, with Houston traveling to New York to take on the Yankees. These are the two best teams in the AL right now, both filled with young lineups and starting rotations that have some question marks outside of the top guys.
After the four-game set, we should have a better idea of which team has the edge as we move into mid-May. But at the moment, it's clear Houston has the leg up in their own division.
All in all, the 2017 season is shaping up to be a great one for the Houston Astros.