Catchers Humberto Quintero and Carlos Corporan of the Houston Astros high five their newest teammate Jose Altuve who was just brought up from AA Corpus Christi at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.Earlier in the day second baseman Jeff Keppinger was traded to the San Francisco Giants which made room for Altuve to be brought up. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The Houston Astros aren't winning a lot, but everything's going great. Unlike most teams in the league, both things can be true.
I could type out "It's still early! It's still early!" until my cuticles peel back, or I could just point out the production that the Kansas City Royals are getting from their middle infield:
A tenth of the season is gone, and the Royals have enjoyed vintage Utley/Rollins production when they should have expected vintage Febles/Neifi. Or current Febles/Neifi. These guys weren't supposed to be good, and they probably won't be. So for now, they stand as a triumvirate of "It's still early!" examples.
That doesn't mean that everything that you see in the early-season standings or stats is meaningless: The Houston Astros were expected to be bad. Quite bad. And so far, they have not been good. Even with a win against the Brewers on Wednesday, the Astros are still on a 100-loss pace. You don't need to aim the sample-size cannon at people claiming that the Astros we're seeing is probably the Astros we're going to keep seeing.
Except, that's not entirely fair. The Astros are 7-12, sure, but they've also outscored their opponents. Based on runs scored/runs allowed, they should be 10-9. There's a lot of "It's still early!" in that Pythagorean record, but they've certainly played better than expected so far. And considering that the Astros, even in their wildest fantasies, aren't expecting to compete with the Cardinals, Brewers, or Reds this year, they have a very simple goal for this season: They want to figure out who's coming along with them to the next contending season.
That philosophy was behind the Astros pulling a couple of players straight out of double-A last year and plopping them straight in the majors. One minute J.D. Martinez and Jose Altuve were in Corpus Christi, and the next minute they were in Houston. That reminds me of the time I visited my buddy Murray in the TAMUCC dorms and drank root beer schnapps, and then … well, it was a surprise for Martinez and Altuve to get called up, anyway. It's not like they were highly regarded before the 2011 season, either: Martinez was Baseball America's #6 prospect in the Astros' system, and Altuve was #28.
And they held their head above water, at least. Altuve had a .297 OBP and minimal power, but for a 21-year-old who started the year in high-A, it was pretty impressive to hit .276. Martinez struck out more than three times as much as he walked, but he did flash a little power. They weren't supposed to be in the majors, and they didn't embarrass themselves when they got there.
This year, they're both going nuts. Altuve is hitting .377/.429/.551, showing impressive doubles power -- impressive for a 21-year-old middle infielder, much less the shortest hitter in baseball over the past 30 years. Martinez is hitting .313/.432/.507, which is close to what he was doing in double-A before his call-up.
Even more impressive is how the two are arriving at those shiny numbers. They're walking. In 77 plate appearances, Altuve has walked more than he did in 234 last year. In 81 plate appearances, Martinez has walked more than he did in 226 plate appearances last year. Altuve should earn his fair share of walks without trying too hard, of course:
Well, he's taller than Edwin Jackson, at least, which … wait, no, Jackson is over 60 feet away in that picture, so there's a little perspective trickery going on. That's a good picture to remind you why Altuve needed to hit over .400 in high-A to get promoted. But regardless why Altuve and Martinez are showing better discipline, the important thing is that they are. Martinez put up flashy stats in double-A, but he was a 23-year-old repeating the league, and his peripherals in the majors were pretty bad. His early start is a sign of a serious, needed adjustment.
This sort of happy-they're-doin'-what-they're-doin' start permeates the Astros' offense. Jason Castro is hitting just fine for a defense-first catcher; Jed Lowrie is getting on base now that he's back on the field; Jordan Schafer is showing some potential (and he's still just 25). Save for one or two exceptions, the players in the lineup are playing on the right side of their expected-performance spectrum.
And Altuve and Martinez, two players who might not have had a shot to reach the majors before 2013 in another organization, are leading the way.
It's still early. It's still early. But what you're looking at with the Astros is a team that could lose 100 games and still be happy with how things went this season. If Altuve can develop into a marketable, valuable player, if Martinez can be a cheap middle-of-the-order hitter, and/or if Castro, Lowrie, and Schafer give them any kind of offensive production up the middle and hope for the future, this season could be a raging success.
Before the season, I pegged the Astros to be the absolute worst team in baseball. They have a .368 winning percentage. I could still be right. But they're also on pace to have an amazingly successful season if things stay the way they are. The Astros aren't winning, but that's not what really matters this season. The things that do matter are going just fine.