It’s pretty rare for a 103-win team to fly under the radar, but the Astros managed to do just that.
The reigning World Series champions, no less, seemed overshadowed for most of the season by the Red Sox and Yankees over in the AL East. With nagging injuries to different parts of their roster throughout this season, the Astros never clicked to the level that they did in the ALDS against the Indians, if you can believe it.
As Alex Bregman simply put it, chronicled by Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com:
“To be honest with you, [Jose] Altuve goes down, [George] Springer goes down, [Carlos] Correa goes down, and we win 103 games. If those three don’t go down and play a full season, you’re looking at the most wins in the history of the game. Be honest, you are.”
Bregman then turned to an Astros staffer, asking him, “Am I wrong?”
The Astros staffer said, “You’re wrong, but I love you.”
It doesn’t really matter whether the Astros would have been the best team in MLB history had those three been healthy all season, but it is an important factor to consider when evaluating their 2018. All three — Altuve, Springer and Correa — were healthy for the ALDS. But Bregman, actually, had the best bat in the Astros’ lineup during the series.
Astros’ key hitters during the ALDS
Of course, this is a small sample, and it far from confirms my argument that the Astros are the best team left this postseason. The point is, though, is that they are.
Despite none of Altuve, Correa, or Springer playing in more than 140 games, the Astros still ranked first in baseball in run differential at +263. This is 34 runs better than the Red Sox, who ranked second in baseball in the stat at +229.
As our very own Patrick Brennan documented in June, the 2018 Astros were on pace to be the best team in modern baseball history. At the time, the Astros sported a .722 Pythagorean winning percentage, a solid 45 points above the second-highest mark in the modern era (1960-present). The 1969 Orioles posted a .677 Pythagorean winning percentage, ranking as the highest in baseball history over the last 58 years.
Unfortunately, the Astros regressed, but not by a lot. They finished the 2018 season with a .675 Pythagorean winning percentage, still ranking as the second-highest mark in the modern era. That’s not too shabby, and it’s notably better than the 2001 Mariners, who famously won 116 games before losing to the Yankees in the ALCS.
Of course, regular season success does not always translate into the postseason, but the Astros are head and shoulders above the remaining three other teams in many key areas.
The first of which is bullpen. Astros relievers posted the third-highest fWAR in baseball, with 8.2 total fWAR. The Brewers weren’t too far behind them, ranking fourth with a 7.1 mark, but the Red Sox (4.9 fWAR, 9th in baseball) and the Dodgers (3.1 fWAR, 16th) lagged further behind. RA9-WAR, on the other hand, shows that the Red Sox relievers rated out well at pure run prevention. But, here too, the Astros have a sizable lead on the competition, being over a win better than the next closest bullpen of the teams left (which happens to be Boston). As we all know, bullpen success in the postseason is key to winning championships.
On the starting pitching side, it’s the Dodgers who come the closest to being as good as Houston, but they were still worth five fewer wins over the course of the season than the Astros in this department. Boston? Nearly seven wins worse. Milwaukee? Over 13 wins worse. In a seven-game series, none of these teams can match Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, with Lance McCullers Jr. in the bullpen.
The only place where any of these three teams may be able to catch the Astros is in the offensive department. The Dodgers had the best offense in the league, posting a team-wide 111 wRC+, but even the Red Sox, who relied on their core of Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi, still are just tied with the Astros in the metric, at 110.
The only reason why they rate out so much higher in position player fWAR is due to defense, where they, as a team, were 34.3 runs better than the Astros. But, in a seven-game series, this may only work out to be a one- or two-run difference, at most. Defense is more important over a longer time frame, where a run saved here and there can be crucial in picking up an extra win along the way. In a short series, the effects are more minute.
With all of this considered, the Astros appear to be far and away the best team left. Whether this means they win the World Series remains to be seen. So many factors are involved in winning a playoff series, and so much could still go wrong for them. But, for now, after a completely suffocating series against the Indians, the Astros look to be better than ever in their quest for a repeat.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.