1 Year After Cheating Bombshell, Red-Hot Astros Are Reclaiming Their Elite Reputation

Nic Antaya/Getty ImagesIn January 2020, Houston Astros' reputation was damaged beyond repair after Major League Baseball reduced the boom on them following the discovery of a sign-stealing scheme that had aided their 101-win season in 2017 and World Series run in 2017.You'd swear your reputation didn't suffer even a scratch a year and a half later.With a record of 48-31, the Astros have tied for the American League's most successful record. However, they also boast the best run differential in MLB at +140. This has been evident in their 28th game, where they have gone 21-7 and outscored opponents 183 to88.Houston's wrongdoings of four years ago will not be forgotten. It is doubtful that fans and players who wanted Houston to lose its World Series title are now willing to forgive them. Andy Martino, a former player, confirmed that the cheating scheme was still in place during the 2017 playoffs.However, it is becoming harder to believe that the Astros were successful because they were willing cheat.They followed up their 2017 championship-winning campaign with a 2018 103-win campaign, then another 2018 107-win campaign and another World Series run for 2019. Even though the Astros finished last year with a disappointing 29-31 record, they still managed to win their third AL pennant in four seasons.The Astros are once again dominating, and it's not because general manager James Click or manager Dusty Baker have a significantly different roster from the one previously constructed by Jeff Luhnow. Manager A.J. Hinch. The Astros 2021 are very similar to the Astros 2017-2019, except that Justin Verlander is out of the game and George Springer is no longer with us.It's time to recognize something that the Astros have been able to appreciate over the years: They are just that good.The Astros have a great offense. This is again.Between 2017 and 2019, the Astros had a lot to offer, but their offense was undoubtedly the most impressive aspect.Houston's offense was first in the majors for all three triple-slash categories, i.e. OBP, AVG and SLG, between 2017 and 2019. However, which offense is the best depends on which park and era-adjusted stat that you prefer.OPS+ claims that the 2017 Astros had the best offense since the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig New York Yankees in the late 1920s to early 1930s. wRC+ however, says that the 2019 offense has that honor. It's a good group.After a short period of mediocrity in 2020 the Astros offense is back in action in 2021.The Astros are seeing strong seasons from Kyle Tucker (123 OPS+), and Michael Brantley (149). It's not about how they will make up for Springer's departure. He paced the offense last year with a 141 OPS+. But it is down to four key players.Yordan Alvarez, 2019, AL Rookie-of-the Year Yordan Alvarez has returned to the field after missing only two games last season due to injuries to his knees. He now boasts a.297/.366/.526 average and 13 home runs. His recent hot streak includes four home runs in Houston's seven last games.Even though Alex Bregman, third baseman and a mere 118 OPS+ before he hurt his quad, isn't the same player in 2019, fellow stalwart stars Yuli Gurriel Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve have all been able to turn back time after struggling collectively in 2020.2019:.294 Average Variable,.350 Obp,.550 SLG.294 OBP, 0.350 AVG, and.550 SLG 2020: 1.238 AVG. 2.95 OBP..238 OBP, 0.295 AVG, and.371 OBP 2021:.308 OBP, 1.388 OBP, and.520 SLGThe Astros have shifted their focus to off-speed and breaking pitches outside of the strike zone, after last season's apparent struggle. They are also back to crushing fastballs in the strike zone, hitting a solid.317 and a.519 slugging percent.It is unclear if this is related to the 2021 return of in-game camera. However, it provides a practical explanation as to why the Astros have the lowest strikeout rate in MLB and rank in the top 10 for home runs with 103. They're also leading MLB in slugging, average, and on-base, just as they were in recent years.The 2021 Astros also lead the field with 449 runs, with underlying metrics that are as impressive as their '17 or '19 offenses. It may be their current offense that is most worthy of being compared to the Ruth/Gehrig Yankees.What about that starting pitching?Even though the Astros offense is the main reason for their success, it is important to not overlook a starting rotation with a 3.29 ERA that ranks second in American League.This is not the fault of Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Verlander turned two stellar seasons in Houston into a contract worth $324 million with the Yankees following the 2019 season. This is evident in the Astros' average fastball velocity, which has increased from 94.0 mph to 92.1 in 2019, to 92.0 mph by 2020 to 92.0 by 2021.But fastballs have been a major part of Houston's success this season. Only four teams have had faster start rates with fastballs.Carmen Mandato/Getty ImagesThis is a solid proof that Zack Greinke and Luis Garcia, Lance McCullers Jr. and Jose Urquidy, Jake Odorizzi, Framber Valdeznone, all of whom have an ERA+ below 100, are simply great at pitching. It's important to note that they are good at pitching in a specific manner.They will not approach batters, regardless of whether they are left-handed or right-handed.Plate X vs. RHB 0.29 (4th in MLB).0.29 (4th place in MLB). Plate X vs. LHB. -0.31 (2nd place in MLB).This approach is logical in theory, as the standard hitter today wants to generate power by lifting the ball up. In practice, it's hard to disagree with. Astros starters have a.190 average for righty batters against pitches beyond the outer third. They're also keeping lefty batters at.168 on such pitches.Can it be ruled out that Astros starters could maintain such a low ERA despite being only 10th in the AL for strikeouts per nine innings, or is there still reason to suspect? Yes.The other element that is impossible to overlook is Houston's defense. It leads MLB with 27 outs more than average and its infielders often find the right spot at the right moment. Houston's infield allows ground balls to be allowed at a mere.203 when it is in a strategic or shifted location.Even the Astros have a flawHouston's biggest problem during the first few weeks was its inability to find reliable relief pitching. Astros relief pitchers still had a 3.94 ERA, and a low win probability as of May 29.However, this storyline has dissolved since Houston's pen posted a 3.24 ERA on May 30 and has moved into the black for WPA.Ryan Pressly, the ace closer, is driving this effort more than anyone. His last nine appearances have produced no runs on four hits and one walk, with 15 strikeouts. Brooks Raley, Blake Taylor and Ryne Stanek also have been doing a great job pitching. Cristian Javier, meanwhile, has settled in as a multi-inning weapon with a 2.70 ERA across 16.2 innings over six appearances that began May 28.It takes a microscope to see faults in the Astros' performance right now. They are really playing well and the overall shape of the American League playoff picture is changing accordingly.According to FanGraphs, the Astros had a 55.7 percent chance of winning AL West and a 15.8% chance of reaching the World Series. These figures now stand at 80.7 percent & 26.5 percent, respectively.The Astros' 2017 scandalous behavior in 2017 is still a major cause of concern, if only because they had the guts to do it. Even though that means they won't be able to win over everyone, they should have earned everyone's respect.Stats courtesy Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant.