Only four years go the Houston Astros were the laughing stock of the league, coming off a shameful 55-111 finish in 2013. 2011 and 2012 weren’t much better either, as they failed to crack the 60-win plateau in both those years as well. Fortunately, all the losing meant that Houston was in line for some good draft picks, and they used them (mostly) wisely, with the 11th overall pick in 2011 on George Springer, the 1st overall pick in 2012 on Carlos Correa and the 2nd overall pick in 2015 on Alex Bregman.
The play of Springer, Correa and Bregman, along with the MLB’s best second baseman in Jose Altuve, has vaulted the Astros to the top of the league. Almost four months into the 2017 season, Houston is sitting on a 66-33 record that bests the American League and is second in all of baseball to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
While Houston’s pitching has been solid, particularly their bullpen, it’s been the offense that has carried the torch for much of the season. Springer, Correa and Altuve are in the midst of career seasons, while savvy veteran pickups like Josh Reddick and Brian McCann, along with a cast of previously forgotten role players like Marwin Gonzalez and Jake Marisnick, are providing additional support.
But just how good has Houston’s offense been? Let’s take a look.
Best offense in the league…by a lot
The Astros are running roughshod over MLB pitching this year. They are first, by a wide margin, in every meaningful offensive category. Want power? Their 165 home runs are 16 better than the second place Nationals and 44 better than the MLB median. In case home runs aren’t totally your thing, the Astros also pile up the doubles and triples, with 396 extra-base hits, 36 more than the second place Nationals and 86 more than the median team.
Houston’s .293 / .358 / .505 triple slash line crushes the composite slash of second place teams at .278 / .344 / .473. The median team slash is a pedestrian .256 / .326 / .423. For some context, the Astros are basically trotting out a lineup of Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion offensive production, whereas the median team is throwing out Max Kepler and Danny Valencia. That’s just not fair.
Another impressive aspect about the Astros’ offense is that they manage to produce so many runs while playing in the most pitcher-friendly venue in baseball in Minute Maid Park. Not surprisingly, Houston’s road OPS of .901 is significantly better than their home OPS of .824.
Weighted Runs Created Plus, abbreviated wRC+, is a catch-all statistic that measures offensive production on a relative scale compared to the rest of the league and adjusts for park factors. The Astros’ 131 wRC+ score, which indicates that their offense is 31% better than league average, crushes the Dodgers’ second place score of 111, as well as the league median of 95. The implication here is that if the Astros played in a more favorable run environment, then their base level offensive statistics would be even gaudier.
Best offense of all-time?
wRC+, since it adjusts for park factors as well as league run scoring environment, is a great stat to utilize for statistical comparisons across different eras. Using just home runs, slugging percentage or total runs scored would be a flawed analysis, given that league run scoring can be vastly different in different eras (for example, it was much easier to score runs in 1999 than it was in 1962).
Well, by wRC+, the 2017 Astros boast the best offense of all-time. Their 131 score is a full five points higher than the second place 1927 Yankees, which featured 1.200+ OPS seasons from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and is generally considered as one of the best teams of all-time. The Astros’ are 11 points higher than the 1976 Reds, dubbed “The Big Red Machine”, which rostered a squad of prime-aged Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Ken Griffey Sr.
The main takeaway from this breakdown, other than the fact that the 1927 through 1933 Yankees were just absurd, is that the Astros are slugging right up there with the all-time greats.
How are they doing it? Depth
When discussing the Astros and hitting, the first topic of conversation is usually the stud trio of Jose Altuve (2B), George Springer (CF) and Carlos Correa (SS). And rightfully so, as those three have been fantastic. Their combined batting line of .332 / .405 / .577 is god-like, as is their 164 wRC+. Given that Altuve is only 27, Springer 27 and Correa 22, the Astros will be good for the foreseeable future thanks to their golden triumvirate.
But what gets lost about the Astros lineup is that, after those three, there aren’t a whole lot of name-brand, impact players. In terms of every day guys, Josh Reddick (RF), Yuli Gurriel (1B), Alex Bregman (3B), Brian McCann (C) and Carlos Beltran (DH) headline the list. Those players have operated on a scale of below average to good this season, but none have lit the world on fire. In fact, the Astros are probably regretting their signing of Carlos Beltran right now, whose presence is currently blocking top prospect Derek Fisher from the MLB squad.
But what has really vaulted Houston’s offense from the realm of great to legendary is the presence of high impact role players. The versatile Marwin Gonzalez, who has played 10 or more games at five different positions this season, is actually second on the team in OPS. Evan Gattis, the backup catcher and sometimes DH, is in the midst of a career season in terms of OPS and wRC+. Jake Marisnick, who was mainly a pinch runner and late inning defensive replacement prior to this season, has suddenly found a power stroke with a career high 11 home runs in only 172 plate appearances. Getting an aggregate .901 OPS out of role players is fantastic, and provides the necessary depth to weather any slumps among the team’s top players.
Where will they finish?
We’ve established that Houston’s offense has paced the MLB this season, is rated as the best all-time by wRC+ and is supported by both star-caliber players and tremendous depth players. But will they keep it up?
Let’s start with what the Astros’ offense excels at, and that’s plate discipline. The first step in a sustainable offensive approach is working walks and cutting down on strikeouts, and Houston is one of the MLB’s best in achieving that desirable combination. Their 17.2% strikeout rate is the lowest in baseball, while their 8.4% walk rate is fairly average. However, their low strikeout figures result in a 0.49 BB/K ratio that is second best in the league. Their swinging strike rate is also an MLB-low at 8.6%, while their contact rate is an MLB-high at 80.9%. It’s safe to say their plate discipline performance looks sustainable.
However, there are some potential issues. Their team BABIP of .318 is second in the league. That wouldn’t necessarily be a red flag if their batted ball authority was also second in the league. But the Astros rank a mediocre 12th in hard hit percentage, and only 25th in line drive percentage. Moreover, the Astros lead the league infield hits and infield hit percentage, which are often the result of fortunate luck. Their 109 infield hits represent 10.7% of their total hits, and despite having some speedy players on their roster, it’s difficult to imagine that ratio will be sustainable going forward. Additionally, Houston’s flyball rate of 36.5%, while above average, doesn’t support their absurd home run pace thus far.
Given the above, Houston’s offense looks due for some regression, but that’s not very surprising considering their current status as best of all-time according to wRC+. I would suspect their end of season wRC+ to fall into the mid-120s, but their offense to remain as baseball’s most potent.