There’s a surprising new best team in baseball, and it doesn’t reside in Chicago, New York or L.A. Instead, it’s the Houston Astros, who are projected to finish with the majors’ top record according to both FanGraphs.com and FiveThirtyEight’s own Elo ratings. Those are lofty expectations, but if the Astros can meet them, they’ll complete a historic turnaround that few teams in major league history can match.
It’s still early, but the Astros are putting up some dominant numbers this year. Their pitching staff has added an extra strikeout per nine innings compared with 2016 while also increasing their ground ball rate, and those two trends have helped drop Houston’s team-wide ERA by more than a half a run. Much of that improvement stems from the bullpen: Led by the surprising and versatile Chris Devenski, the ’Stros relief staff is on pace to produce several more wins above replacement than they did last year.
And the Astros have improved even more at the plate. So far, Houston has racked up a weighted runs created plus of 118, 19 full points better than it managed last year. Rather than being too dependent on second baseman Jose Altuve, the Astros are now getting offensive contributions throughout the lineup, from shortstop Carlos Correa (144 wRC+) to catcher Brian McCann (114). Last year, only six Astros cleared a wRC+ of 100 (denoting an average performance); this year, 10 Houston players are above that bar.
The one aspect of the game where Houston has gotten worse is on defense. As a unit, the Astros have slipped from above average in 2016 to 27th in baseball this year. Colby Rasmus was an unexpectedly solid defender last year, and the Astros lost him to the Rays in the offseason. But they replaced his poor bat (25 percent worse than league average) with that of Josh Reddick, whose offense has more than made up for any defensive woes.
Combine it all, and you have a team that’s finally living up to its considerable potential. Last year, the Astros were the preseason favorites in the AL West, but they finished with a disappointing 84 wins. A combination of injuries, lackluster performances and bad luck conspired to keep a talented team from reaching the playoffs. This year, though, everything is clicking, and they’ve earned the best record in baseball.
Houston also sports the highest Elo rating in the league (1574), having stolen the top spot from the Chicago Cubs earlier this month. And like the Cubs before them, the Astros are hoping to complete one of the most impressive comebacks in MLB history.
In 2012, the 55-win Astros were one of the worst teams ever, so much so that General Manager Jeff Luhnow was criticized for bringing NBA-style tanking to MLB. Houston hit a low point on Aug. 31 of that season, slipping to an Elo of 1399. But since that nadir, they’ve added 175 points of Elo over a stretch of 737 games, an improvement a team only manages about once in every thousand chances in MLB history. That number is eerily similar to the one describing the rarity of what the Cubs achieved during their march to a championship last season. And the Astros will probably increase that margin of Elo improvement if they continue winning over the rest of the season, further adding to what is already a historic turnaround.
They’re only about a third of the way into their schedule, but Houston is already almost a postseason lock. According to our MLB predictions, they have a better than 95 percent chance of making the playoffs and an 18 percent chance of winning the World Series. Following in the footsteps of the Cubs, the Astros have gone from league laughingstocks to a championship frontrunner in remarkably little time. The team that Sports Illustrated declared back in 2014 would become the 2017 World Champions looks primed to fulfill that prophecy.