‘Houston, No Problems’: Astros off to Best Start in Franchise History

The Houston Astros are enjoying a reversal of fortune through 44 games this season, playing their way to a 28-16 record, the best start in franchise history.

At the 44-game mark in 2014, the Astros sat in last place in the AL West division with a record of 16-28, 12 games out of first place. This season, their 28-16 mark has them in first place, 5 1/2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels.

The Astros have not had a winning season since 2008, and have not appeared in the playoffs since 2005 where they lost in the World Series to the Chicago White Sox.

So, what’s been the difference for the Astros this season?

The Catalyst:

Dallas Keuchel: 6-0, 1.67 ERA, 46 K/20 BB in 9 starts

'Bearded Brilliance': Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel has dazzled on the mound thus far in the 2015 season. (Dennis Poroy/Getty Images)

Bearded Brilliance‘: Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel has dazzled on the mound thus far in the 2015 season. (Dennis Poroy/Getty Images)

The stud of the starting rotation so far this season has easily been Dallas Keuchel, who has pitched at least 6 innings in all nine of his starts. The Astros are 8-1 in games started by Keuchel, while he has picked up the win in 6 six of those games.

A 12-game winner in 2014, Keuchel’s performance on the mound has been an important factor in the Astros success through the first quarter of the season.

His 1.67 ERA and 64 2/3 innings pitched tie him 4th in the majors with Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer. He leads the majors with a 3.0 WAR, and only Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals has as many as 6 wins with no losses this far into the season.

If Kuechel can maintain his early success, not only will he find himself in the discussion for the AL Cy Young award, but the Astros should continue to benefit from his strong pitching and keep up their winning ways.

The Bat:

Jose Altuve: .294 avg., 5 HR, 25 RBI, 14 stolen bases

The 2014 American League batting champion is back at it again, swinging a hot bat for the Astros through the first month-and-a-half of the season.

Altuve, who won the batting title last season behind a .341 average, has posted a .291/.345/.428 slash line this season, knocking out five homers and driving in 25 runs, while appearing in all 44 of the Astros games. He is currently tied for third in the majors with 14 stolen bases on 19 attempts and has proven difficult to strikeout, K’ing just 19 times in 180 at-bats.

A two-time All-Star, Altuve has recorded a career-high 7 homers in a season twice during his brief career, and stands to exceed that total this season.

Though he enjoyed a better month in April, and has been struggling of late, just 3-for-32 over the last 8 games, Altuve’s offense has played a key role in Houston’s impressive start. Look for his recent slump to be snapped quickly, and for his average to rise once again to .300 and above.

Light-Tower Power:

Home Runs: 62
Runs Scored: 192

'Going, going, Gattis': Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis (center) has smacked eight homers this season. (Pat Sullivan/AP Photo)

Going, Going, Gattis‘: Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis (center) has smacked eight homers this season. (Pat Sullivan/AP Photo)

Despite having a major-league worst .228 batting average as a team, the Astros have shown a penchant for putting runs on the boars, especially by way of the long ball, notching a league-high 62 home runs this season.

Led by Luis Valbuena’s 10 round-trippers and Evan Gattis’s 8, the Astros as a team have been launching souvenirs into the bleachers through 44 games, rocketing 38 blasts into the seats in 25 games at home.

To go along with the powershow, the Astros have been scoring runs at a torrid pace, with 192 runs crossing the plate. They have notched at least 6 runs in a game 17 times this season.

But again, the Astros offense has been far from perfect, as they have just 333 hits on the season, T-28th in the majors, and have struck out 400 times, the second-most among all teams.

If the Astros can find a way to get more runners on base, and maintain their early display of power, they should have no problem outscoring their opponents. Especially with how their bullpen has been performing.

The Bullpen:

If someone told you that the Houston Astros bullpen had the worst ERA in the majors last season, it would be hard to believe them with how well that same bullpen has been pitching in 2015.

A relief is exactly what the relievers for the Astros have been this season, recording a 2.14 ERA, second-lowest in the league, and holding opposing hitters to a league-low .181 batting average. The Astros bullpen posted a league-high 11 wins and struck out 150 batters, the second-highest total in the majors behind the New York Yankees.

This season’s performance is a far-cry from an abysmal 2014 season, during which the Astros bullpen had a league-worst 4.80 ERA and allowed opposing batters to hit .260 against them, the fifth-highest average against among all teams.

Will Harris has been the bullpen leader so far, allowing just one earned run in 22 2/3 innings pitched, giving him a 0.45 ERA, the second-lowest of any reliever who has thrown at least 20 innings. Harris has struck out 29 batters while relinquishing only 6 hits and 6 walks.

At the back-end of the ‘pen, Luke Gregerson has converted 11-of-12 save opportunities.

Looking Ahead:

Carlos Correa: .364 avg., 9 HR, 39 RBI, 18 stolen bases (in 40 games at AA & AAA)
Domingo Santana: .301 avg., 10 HR, 25 RBI (in 40 games at AAA)

In the Astros system are two talented prospects knocking on the door to the big leagues- shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder Domingo Santana.

The 20 year-old Correa, considered to be the team’s best prospect and third best prospect in all of baseball, began the 2015 season with the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks. He hit .385 with seven homers and 32 RBI before being sent up to Triple-A.

With the Fresno Grizzlies, in 11 games since his call-up, Correa has 15 hits in 48 at-bats, including two home runs, and has scored 12 runs. He has stolen 18 bases total this season, in 40 games across both levels.

Santana, 22, got his first taste of the big leagues in 2014, but struggled in just 18 plate appearances. He struck out 14 times and reached base just once by way of a walk.

Through 40 games this season, he has posted a .301 batting average with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies. The only trouble for Santana in moving up to the majors will be finding him a spot on the Houston roster.