Best Team in Baseball? Not So Fast

Following an 84-78 season in which they failed to make the playoffs, the Houston Astros have surprised as the best team in baseball through two months this year with a 42-16 record, making them the first team with this many wins through 58 games since the 2001 Seattle Mariners. Following an abysmal 162-324 stretch from 2011-2013, the Astros acquired and developed an abundance of young, homegrown talent, and now many of these players are set up to contribute to what is likely to be a bright future in Houston. But just how legitimate is their claim to be baseball’s best team in 2017? To answer this question, I’ll break down their hitting and pitching performance.

 

Hitting

So far in 2017, Houston has been thoroughly dominant at the plate, ranking first in the MLB in runs scored and second in HRs, batting average, OBP, wOBA, SLG, and K%. Jose Altuve (.329 average/39 runs/8 HRs/28 RBIs) and Carlos Correa (.310/37/10/38) are among the MLB’s best hitters and should garner MVP votes while George Springer (.272/41/14/34) has improved his overall hitting profile following a 2016 season that saw him lead the MLB in runs. Yet, outside of these three likely All-Stars, their lineup is difficult to trust. While Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, and Josh Reddick should continue to provide good but unspectacular production, a couple key players have gotten off to unsustainable starts. Marwin Gonzalez (.313/25/12/34) looks like a completely different player with a 7.7% increase in walk rate, a .174 increase in ISO, and a .059 increase in batting average despite a mere .015 increase in BABIP from just last season, and while he currently ranks 12th in the MLB in fangraphs’ consummate “offensive score” with a score of 15.8, it’s difficult to imagine him sustaining this level of production given that he compiled a cumulative score of -31 from 2012-2016. Meanwhile, sample size is also playing a role in Jake Marisnick’s hot start, as his .286 ISO will likely normalize closer to his career mark (.126) along with his .371 BABIP (.300), which combined with his high strikeout rates will likely send his .268 batting average down. Overall, the Astros’ “Big 3” should help them maintain their standing as a Top 10 lineup, but barring an outside addition a lack of depth will make their Top 2 start difficult to sustain.

 

Pitching

Houston’s pitching has been just as excellent as their hitting, as they currently rank first in the MLB in strikeouts per 9 innings (10.09) and xFIP (3.37), second in ERA (3.43), and fourth in FIP (3.66) despite a defense that grades as the MLB’s sixth worst according to fangraphs’ consummate score. Their rotation is led by former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel (1.69 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 8.21 K/9) and breakout star Lance McCullers (2.71 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 10.46 K/9), who have already combined for almost 4 WAR in this young season. They aren’t without their concerns regarding sustainability, as Keuchel’s ERA is likely to regress into at least the Mid 2s due to a .222 BABIP allowed and a 88.7% LOB% and McCullers has yet to pitch more than 125.2 innings in an MLB season, but both should continue to be major assets for this team. However, there is a significant dropoff after these two, as the rest of the regular rotation (Mike Fiers, Charlie Morton, Joe Musgrove) has combined for only 0.5 WAR. None have an ERA below 4.00, and only one (Morton) has a FIP or xFIP below 4.40. Moving on to their bullpen, of the Astros’ 8 relievers that have thrown more than 15 innings so far, only one has an ERA above 3.65, only two have a FIP above 3.00, and none have a K/9 below 8.60. At the back end, Ken Giles is one of the AL’s better closers and should improve his 3.63 ERA once his LOB% of 66.4% improves. Overall, while the Astros’ pitching staff should remain one of the league’s best as long as Keuchel and McCullers are healthy to bridge a strong bullpen, their top-heavy rotation and shaky defense raise some valid questions regarding the sustainability of their performance.

 

Conclusion

Between their league-best record and elite hitting and pitching performance, no team has gotten off to a better start than the Astros in 2017. However, looking at both the top-heavy composition of their roster and over-performance of key players, they may not be as close to winning a championship as many seem to believe and calling them the MLB’s best team may be a bit premature. Star players in each phase of the roster don’t overshadow an overall lack of depth, and this team simply doesn’t stack up to the recent champion Cubs, Royals, and Giants teams that complemented their stars with a well-balanced roster. However, with the trade deadline still a little less than two months away, it certainly isn’t too late for the Astros to make the necessary improvements. Adding a big bat to protect the “Big 3” in the heart of the order and/or a veteran arm or two to account for the youth and underperformance of their rotation outside of Keuchel would go along way toward making the Astros championship contenders. However, until that happens, I believe it would be wise to pump the brakes on what is a very young team despite the tremendous potential they’ve shown.

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