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Appreciating the talented Astros

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While they are not going to break the single-season record for wins, this Astros team is historically good.

Houston Astros v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Astros are really good. I know, I know, great analysis, but I don’t think fans truly appreciate just how historically good this team has been so far in 2019. That might sound strange given that the team is “only” tied with the Yankees for best record in baseball, and not, say, ten games ahead of them and well on their way to breaking the 2001 Mariners’ record of 116 wins.

However, a team’s talent can’t be measured solely by its record. Sometimes it can’t be measured by run differential, either. They have an impressive +220 run differential and +226 BaseRuns differential, but the Dodgers have them beat on both accounts. Sequencing is a major factor here, though. For example, the Dodgers’ hitters have a 118 sOPS+ with RISP, while the Astros are a bit worse with a 112 sOPS+.

(sOPS+ compares how a player or team performed with respect to a certain split compared to how the league performed. For hitters, higher is better. Pitcher hitting is included, and this stat is not park adjusted.)

Let’s take a closer look at a few aspects of how this team performed outside of runs scored or allowed. In other words, let’s take a closer look at what the players can more directly control.

In June 2017, I wrote about how the Astros were a historically good offense. They finished the season with a 122 wRC+, which was the best offense by a team since the 1931 Yankees, and the fourth best of the live-ball era. The first two, unsurprisingly, were the 1930 and 1927 Yankees.

As expected, the Astros took a step back in 2018 to a 110 wRC+, as there was little chance that the team could duplicate such a monstrous offensive year. Carlos Correa and José Altuve suffered at the plate not only due to injury, but also because their 2017 performances were hard to sustain. George Springer regressed, too, as did Marwin González. Alex Bregman’s MVP-caliber breakout was not enough to make up for all of that.

Right now, the 2019 Astros’ offense is technically even better than they were in 2017. I say technically because one point of team wOBA is probably within the margin of error for the stat. That being said, the team’s 123 wRC+ is the fourth-best ever by a team in the live-ball era, only behind the three Yankees teams I mentioned before. To give that some more context, this season’s Yankees have a 116 wRC+ and the Dodgers have a 112 wRC+. Fun fact: the Twins have a 117 wRC+, which is tied with five other teams for 13th-best all time. Breaking the single-season record for home runs probably helped with that.

The Astros have five players with at least 475 PA that have a 136 wRC+ or better. Bregman has not missed a beat from last year, hitting .297/.416/.578 for a 164 wRC+. Springer is having a career year with a 155 wRC+. As everyone is well aware, Michael Brantley has been a tremendous pickup with a line of .321/.381/.518 and a 141 wRC+. Correa and Yordan Álvarez have a 141 and 173(!) wRC+, respectively, though they both are hovering at around 300 PA for the season so far.

This team is also great at making contact, which is ironic for two reasons: 1) This team struck out at historically high rates during its tanking years. 2) It is unreal that they can slug .486 while maintaining those high contact rates. Astros’ hitters have struck out in only 18.4 percent of their plate appearances this season. The only other two teams below 20 percent are the Pirates and Angels, the former of which is a subpar offensive team, while the latter is being inflated by Mike Trout.

Thanks to FanGraphs’ new plus stats, we can see how the contact rates of this Astros team compares historically. While not as impressive as the overall offense, the team’s 81 K%+ is in a seven-way tie for twelfth best of the live-ball era. Coincidentally, one of the other six teams is the 2017 Astros!

It’s not just the offense that has been outstanding, though. The pitching staff has been very good as well, just not historically good by RA9 or FIP, and DRA only goes back so far. However, similarly to the offense, the pitching staff has been enjoying its own historically good strikeout rate. Their 27.5 K% is the third best all time, just a smidgen behind the 2017 Indians. Who’s in first, you ask? The 2018 Astros with a 28.5 K%!

Gerrit Cole is on track to break the all-time single season record for strikeout rate by a qualified starting pitcher with a 38.7 K%, which would break 1999 Pedro Martínez’s record of 37.5 percent. Of course, Pedro did it in an era where the strikeout rates were much lower. He had a 239 K%+ that year compared to Cole’s 171 K%+. It should be emphasized that K%+ does not adjust for quality of competition, which would probably widen that gap if it did.

There are good reasons why FanGraphs has the Astros at nearly a 30 percent chance to win the World Series, which might not sound high, but trust me, that is really high for the sport of baseball. The next highest goes to the Dodgers at less than 17 percent. This team is in as good a shape as a baseball team can be to win its second World Series in three years.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.