Don’t look now: Houston doesn’t have as many problems as before

George Springer and Jose Altuve are just two young cogs in the Astros' improving wheel.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Entering Friday, the Houston Astros feature the longest winning streak in the majors — and a rookie slugger on a home-run tear.

Thursday’s 3-1 victory over the visiting Baltimore Orioles was the Astros’ sixth consecutive win. The streak started with the final two games of a four-game series in Seattle and included a three-game sweep in Kansas City. No, wait: Make that a clobbering of the Royals.

The Astros certainly earned their status as a punch line, losing 100-plus games in three consecutive campaigns. Before this season, the Astros had lost more games in the last three years than 15 different teams had lost in the last four.

The perception is that the Astros are an experiment, and the perception is that the experiment is a long ways from completion. The Astros still get no respect, and they had a miserable beginning to 2014.

But don’t let the start and the history fool you. The Astros, 23-32 through Thursday, are actively shedding their losing reputation and are perhaps, no longer a punch line.

The Astros were going to get decent again at some point. That much was inevitable, and they’ve drawn praise from all corners for a deeply talented farm system. But the Astros, 14-13 in May, might be ahead of their own schedule.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) combines all the known elements of the game into a single number to try to estimate overall value. Usually, it’s seen when referring to individual players, like the Angels’ Mike Trout or the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, but it also works on the team level.

Here are the Astros’ month-by-month team WAR totals since April 2011.

Without a point of reference, it might not be easy to know what to make of this. We know that the Astros have been terrible, so it makes sense that their month-by-month WARs have been terrible. Above is the most terrible monthly WARs, but notice May 2014. This month isn’t over yet, but the Astros have had their best month in years. It’s their best month by about two wins over the runner-up. It’s three wins over third place.

Between 2011-’13, the Astros were last in the majors in WAR, by an awful lot. They came in at 34; next-worst were the Twins at 56. This confirms that those Astros were a disaster. You might have some quibbles with the WAR formula, but it’s not like it really missed on the Astros’ calculations.

In the opening month of the 2014 season, the Astros were again last in the majors in WAR. They came in at -0.4; next-worst were the Pirates at 1.3. The Astros were 9-19 in April 9-19. That’s what bad teams do, losing twice as much as they win.

But it isn’t April anymore. Houston is a good example of "April showers bringing May flowers." Here are the top five teams in WAR for May:

Right there, tied for fourth, are the Astros, behind some of the best and hottest teams in the league. Because of the way the Astros started, they still look like a mess of a team in the standings, but they’ve been playing competitive baseball for weeks, meaning the AL West might not have a single pushover.

The Astros, presumably, are not really a top-five ballclub right now, but there’s reason to believe they’re back to all right. There’s reason to believe they’re a team worth a darn or two.

Certain Astros were expected to do well. Second baseman Jose Altuve has been a good young player even in the club’s darkest period. Catcher Jason Castro has come on strong offensively and defensively. Dexter Fowler added some competence to center field, right-hander Scott Feldman added some strength to the rotation, and third baseman Matt Dominguez is serviceable.

But this team also has one breakthrough prospect — that rookie on the home run tear — and a couple of major rotation surprises.

AROUND THE HORN

After scuffling through a rough early introduction, right fielder George Springer has caught fire in May, drilling homers in between walks and strikeouts. The strikeouts will probably always be there, but Springer, before this year, was one of the most fascinating prospects in the league because of his power/athleticism combination.

There were questions as to how that might translate to the bigs, but so far he’s answering those questions, maximizing the contact that he does make. Springer is looking like a core asset for most of the next decade. In Thursday’s victory, Springer hit his seventh homer in the past seven games — he had a two-homer game on May 24.

The thing about Springer, though, is that he was a known-talent. His success isn’t a complete and utter shock.

But when it comes to the rotation? Lefty Dallas Keuchel and righty Collin McHugh haven’t just been the two best starters on the Astros, they’ve been two of the better starters in the majors.

Before this year, Keuchel had a career ERA of 5.20, while McHugh was at 8.94. Keuchel was a nobody, and McHugh was a waiver claim who wound up an April spot-starter. Even the Astros didn’t expect McHugh to last longer than one or two starts.

But owing to a new repertoire and quality command, Keuchel has pitched like a groundball-heavy ace. McHugh has kind of been the other Dallas Keuchel, altering his arsenal while gaining strength.

The key for Keuchel has been a new slider. The key for McHugh has been an unhittable curveball. While neither is probably this good, they both look legitimately good, arriving almost out of nowhere.

So the Astros have been good for somewhat surprising reasons — with further talented players in the pipeline. Observers liked their youth before Keuchel and McHugh emerged as capable starters, and at this point the team is slowly, but surely, addressing its holes.

The roster remains incomplete, but following Springer ought to be Jonathan Singleton, who’s mashing the ball as a first baseman in Triple-A Oklahoma City (.265, 13 homers 40 RBI in 51 games). Other good prospects are in or approaching the upper levels, and while the Astros have had some issues finding a stable bullpen, they don’t need a good bullpen right now. That’s what a team worries about when it’s trying to compete, which the Astros will do soon, and maybe sooner than most figured.

The Astros are something of a controversial organization, getting labeled as an "outcast." Some have been rubbed the wrong way by their on-field experiments, their analytical techniques and personnel decisions.

For years, the Astros did little to make themselves appear respectable. They’ve remained steadfast in their belief that winning will solve most everything, as it often does. The Astros have been confident that, in time, they’ll win.

In part by design and in part by surprise, that time appears near. Which means it’s time to find a new joke when it comes to baseball punch lines.