It's been a weird few years for the Houston Astros. Between 2011 and 2013 they had one of the worst three year stretches in baseball history, going 162-324, winning fewer than 60 games each year. 2014 was better; they went 70-92 and fired manager Bo Porter in September because apparently they were expecting to be better or something. With these miserable seasons they had accumulated quite a farm system, even though of their number one picks, Brady Aiken didn't sign and Mark Appel was a disappointment before being traded to the Phillies in a deal for Ken Giles. Still, Carlos Correa was clearly the real deal and Lance McCullers was on his way up. In 2015 they made the playoffs for the first time since 2005 behind strong seasons from Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa among others and a Cy Young season from Dallas Keuchel. However, after a blazing 18-7 start, they cooled off for the rest of the season, going 68-71 through September. 2016 they went 84-78, missing the playoffs, with Keuchel having a massively underwhelming season, seeing his ERA balloon to 4.55. Finally, that brings us to this year. The 'Stros have the best record in baseball, at 52-26. Here's a look at what they did to jump another level.
Improving their weaknesses
This may sound a little dumb and obvious, but Houston's front office was exceptional at improving the areas where they struggled last year. Their 2016 catcher was Jason Castro. Castro's biggest strength is his defense, but it's still difficult to contend with a catcher who hits .210/.307/.377. This offseason they traded a pair of minor leaguers for Brian McCann who (along with being the protector of all things sacred and holy about baseball) is hitting .261/.343/.463. In left and center field, they replaced Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez, who last year hit .206 and .210 for the Astros respectively with Nori Aoki who despite his shortcomings in power and drawing walks is certainly an upgrade and Josh Reddick, who is enjoying the best season of his career, hitting .297 with an OPS+ of 132. Like I said, improving the weaknesses of a team seems obvious, it's what a front office is there for, but look at how many teams haven't done it. At the end of 2016, the Mets were in a similar situation, having had an excellent 2015 and a not quite as good 2016 with a tough division rival they needed to keep up with. Like the Astros, they had a weakness at catcher, with Travis d'Arnaud hitting a paltry.247/.307/.323 and providing defense behind the plate that's mediocre at best. Flash forward a year and d'Arnaud is hitting .226 in the seven car collision that is the Mets season. To be clear: Not improving at catcher definitely isn't why the Mets are bad this year, but it shows that front offices aren't always as proactive in improving as the Astros' was this offseason.
The Keuchel Resurgence
The Astros rotation has been led by the one-two punch of Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, who have combined to go 16-1 with ERAs of 1.67 and 2.53. Let's take a look at Keuchel because McCullers' success isn't too surprising given that he's 23 and has stuff so nasty it was only a matter of time until he figured it out. Keuchel's different. After his Cy Young season he took a step back in 2016 partially because of his drop in velocity. His fastball, cutter, and slider all saw drops of around a mile per hour. In 2016 he also used his fastball and changeup less often (59% of the time) and relied on his breaking stuff more, as if to compensate for his drop in velocity, but this year before going on the DL, he's back up to the ratio he used to success in 2015, throwing his fastball and changeup 67% of the time, closer to the 69% mark in 2015.
This is the best Astros team since 2005. All the prospects are here. The bullpen's been solid, and if they can pick up another arm at the deadline to go with Keuchel and McCullers they'll be built for the playoffs. That would fit in with what they've been doing recently; just continuing to improve.