Houston Astros (86-76, second in AL West)
The Astros had one of the most abysmal three-year periods from 2011-2013 when they lost at least 100 games including a franchise-high 111 in 2013.
So it’s not really all that surprising that so much futility drew so little attention to the franchise except only when they would reach the inevitable 100th loss.
It’s therefore not surprising that it went unnoticed in 2014 that the Astros were one of the most improved teams that year. They improved by 19 wins, albeit from 51 wins to 70 wins.
The Astros were again one of the most improved teams in 2015. This time the Astros improved by 16 wins from 70 to 86 wins. The Astros held first place in the American League West division for 139 days of the season. They went 11-16 in September and acquiesced the division, but it was enough to snag their first postseason appearance since getting swept by the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.
The Astros found the one thing they had been missing the year before and that was the home run ball. The Astros had only five players hit at least 10 home runs in 2014. In the offseason, the Astros added Luis Valbuena, Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie and Hank Conger. Over the course of the spring and the summer, rookies Carlos Correa and Preston Tucker made their professional debuts.
The end result was that the Astros finished two home runs behind the Toronto Blue Jays for second most home runs hit in baseball and they also had the second highest slugging percentage. The Astros had 11 different players hit at least 11 home runs, and five players hit at least 20 home runs.
The other perk is if the Astros were to keep the offense in tact, Jed Lowrie is the oldest player at 31.
The offense proved to be more than enough for the Astros’ two pitchers who combined to win 39 of the Astros’ 86 games.
The Astros were counting on Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh to follow up their elite 2014 seasons in which Keuchel had a 2.93 ERA and McHugh had a 2.73 ERA. Keuchel went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA to win the AL Cy Young Award. McHugh went 19-8 with a 3.89 ERA.
That formula provided a successful first foray into the postseason.
The Astros went to Yankee Stadium and handled the stage with poise as Keuchel went six shutout innings, allowed four base runners and struck out seven while the offense was powered by two solo home runs by Rasmus and Carlos Gomez. The Astros acquired Gomez from the Milwaukee Brewers at the trade deadline. The payroll and the history of the Yankees didn’t phase the Astros as they won 3-0.
The Astros proved they weren’t just happy to be in the postseason as they moved on to the division round to face eventual World Series champions the Kansas City Royals.
The Astros ended up being the stiffest challenge to the Royals in the postseason.
They had a 2-1 series lead on the Royals thanks to McHugh and Keuchel.
McHugh went six innings in game one at Kauffman Stadium and was effective allowing four hits and one walk. The Astros manufactured three runs early and survived two home runs by Kendrys Morales with two home runs by Rasmus and George Springer and won 5-2.
Keuchel pitched in game three after the Royals tied the series in game two. Keuchel came through again with seven innings, one run and five hits allowed and seven strikeouts. The Astros won 4-2 at Minute Maid Park thanks to two RBIs from Jason Castro.
In game four, the Astros appeared set to advance and pull the upset of the defending American League champions thanks to AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa who went 4-for-4 with two home runs and four RBIs.
Unfortunately, with the Astros up 6-2 in the eighth inning, Correa wasn’t able to corral a funky hop on a routine double play ball and the flood gates opened and the Royals put a five spot in the inning to take the game and the series in five.
It had to be disappointing to be that close to winning the series, but one thing is very clear – the misery is over for the Astros.
Postseason: Won AL Wild Card game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium
Lost AL Division Series 3-2 to the Kansas City Royals
SP Dallas Keuchel: GS 33, IP 232.0, W-L 20-8
2B Jose Altuve: G 154, AB 638, BA .313
SS Carlos Correa: G 99, AB 387, HR 22
RF George Springer: G 102, AB 388, HR 16
SP Collin McHugh: GS 32, IP 203.2, W-L 19-7
Biggest Need: Designated hitter
Evan Gattis had 558 plate appearances as the Astros’ DH after two 20-plus homer seasons with the Atlanta Braves. Gattis set career highs in games played with 153, home runs with 27, 88 RBIs and a stunning 11 triples, which was third in the AL. It’s certainly possible that this was a career year for Gattis, and yet he was still limited. He hit .246, struck out 119 times and walked only 30 times with a .248 on base percentage. The Astros had the third worst value in baseball at DH.