Astros' ascent highlighted by breakout performances

Altuve propelled club's 19-game improvement en route to AL batting title

Astros' ascent highlighted by breakout performances

HOUSTON -- The Astros certainly expected to take some steps forward last season, coming off a 111-loss campaign in 2013 that left them with nowhere to go but up. The club wanted to see some steps in the right direction on the field as the first wave of prospects hit Houston.

After winning 70 games in 2014 -- an improvement of 19 games -- the Astros climbed over the Rangers in the American League West standings and had some promising individual performances that had everyone believing they are headed in the right direction.

No player had a bigger impact on the club than All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, who smashed the team record with 225 hits and became the first Astros player to win a batting title by hitting .341. Altuve went from a player only most hardcore baseball knew about to one of the bigger names in the game by season's end.

Altuve records hit No. 225

Then was the debut of several top prospects, including outfielder George Springer, who walloped 20 homers in 78 games and showed signs of stardom. First baseman Jon Singleton, outfielder Domingo Santana and pitcher Mike Foltynewicz also made their debuts and will be expected to contribute in 2015.

On the mound, the Astros had left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who was one of the top lefties in the game, and right-hander Collin McHugh, who was picked up off waivers and was nothing short of dazzling.

The arrival of the kids, Altuve's big season and the emergence of McHugh and Keuchel helped the Astros move back to respectability and take a huge step towards contending.

5. Emergence of McHugh

When the Astros picked up the right-hander off waivers before the season, many were saying, "Collin McWho?" McHugh began the season in the Minors but was called up to make a spot start in April in Seattle and proceeded to strike out 12 batters in 6 1/3 innings. He was here to stay. He made 25 starts and went 11-9 and led all rookies in ERA at 2.73, leading the team in ERA, strikeouts (157) and opponents' average (.208). He was named AL Rookie of the Month in September after going 4-0 with a 1.59 ERA and a 0.56 WHIP in four starts. McHugh finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

McHugh's terrific start

4. Keuchel's breakout year

The lefty narrowly made the rotation to start the year, but it wasn't long until he was considered the team's ace. Keuchel led the AL in complete games with five -- the most by an Astros lefty since Mike Hampton in 1997 -- en route to going 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA in 29 starts. He led the staff with innings (200), complete games and quality starts (21), while ranking second in strikeouts (146) and ERA. He had a 3.63 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio which led the Majors. Keuchel also became the first Astros pitcher to win a Gold Glove Award.

Keuchel on winning Gold Glove

3. Moving on up

Sure, after winning only 51 games in 2013, the Astros had nowhere to go but up. But their 19-win game improvement was the second- best turnaround in Astros history, falling just shy of the 21-game improvement the club enjoyed from 2000 (72-90) to '01 (93-69). It was also the second-best jump in the Majors last season. The Angels won 20 more games in 2014 than they did in '13.

2. Springer arrives in big leagues

Fans had been clamoring for the high-flying outfielder for months, and when Springer finally reached the Majors, he didn't disappoint. Springer, called up in mid-April, wound up playing 78 games before a quad injury cost him the final 2 ½ months of the season. He hit .231 with 20 homers and 51 RBIs and was named the AL Rookie of the Month in May, hitting .294 with 10 homers and 25 RBIs. He set franchise rookie records for homers (19) and RBIs (50) prior to the All-Star break and had a span in May in which he hit seven homers in a seven-game span.

Springer's two-run blast

1. Altuve wins a batting title

Altuve, the 5-foot-6 second baseman with great hand-eye coordination, provided one of the best stories in baseball in 2014, winning the AL batting title. Altuve was nothing short of a hitting machine, batting .341 to lead the Majors. He also led the Majors with 225 hits, which was a team record. He had the most hits by a second baseman since Charlie Gehringer had 227 for the Tigers in 1936, and he set a record for most hits by a Venezuelan-born player. Not bad for a guy who was turned away at a tryout camp in Venezuela at 16 years old because of his size.

Altuve on record-breaking season

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.