The Astros Are Baseball’s Most Business-like Buzzsaw
On the verge of an undefeated postseason, Houston gets the job done through overwhelming competence.
Nobody has won a World Series without losing a postseason game since 1976. Of course, Major League Baseball’s playoffs were smaller back then: The ’76 Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies in a three-game National League Championship Series, then swept the New York Yankees in a four-game World Series. The playoffs were an even more exclusive affair before that, as the World Series was the only playoff series until MLB added its two championship series in 1969. Twelve teams pulled off World Series sweeps between 1907 and 1966, vanquishing the other playoff team from the opposite league.
The currently undefeated Houston Astros, then, would be nearing uncharted waters even if baseball hadn’t expanded its postseason yet again this year. They won 106 games during the regular season and thus got to skip the league’s new wild-card round, starting their playoff run with a three-game divisional series sweep of the Seattle Mariners and an unceremonious four-game dispatching of Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees. A sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series would make the Astros 11-0 in the playoffs, a postseason record unlike anything MLB has ever seen — though even winning a five- or six-game series would safely ensconce them among the most dominant playoff teams ever. Their only peers in recent times would be the 2005 Chicago White Sox and 1998 Yankees, who went 11-1 and 11-2, respectively, en route to lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy (or, as the man it’s named after once called it, “a piece of metal”).
Dominance of some type or another is nothing new for the Astros. The last time they didn’t make at least the ALCS was in 2016, a few weeks before Donald Trump was elected president. Their success has been portable, too: It didn’t end when MLB made them stop cheating, or when manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow went into exile in the wake of that scandal. It didn’t end when various stars (Gerrit Cole, George Springer, and Carlos Correa) left the team in free agency. But if there is anything unique about 2022’s Astros, it is how quietly they’ve gone about their success. They aren’t quite as high-flying as they have been in other seasons. Their 2019 World Series runner-up had an .848 OPS, the highest in MLB from 2017 to 2022 by a 16-point margin. Their 2017 Series winner wasn’t far behind. (This year’s team had a 111 OPS+, far off 2017’s 123, which again led every team from 2017 through 2022.) The 2019 team had a plus-280 run differential, which had been beating every other MLB season in this span until the 2022 Dodgers posted a plus-334 margin. The Astros used to be loud, not just when they banged on trash cans but in how they filled stat sheets. Now they are something else: the most relentless, boring buzzsaw in baseball.
Despite the turnover and turmoil in the front office and dugout, the Astros have enjoyed a lot of continuity. Second baseman José Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman have been linchpins for their entire post-2017 run, but the roots run deeper than them. Every hitter in the starting lineup has been part of the organization since at least 2019, and every starting pitcher since at least 2017, but often longer. The Astros’ player development tastes likely changed somewhat when Dusty Baker and James Click replaced Hinch and Luhnow as manager and GM, respectively, but there are obvious holdovers in how the Astros play and what they do well.
The Astros’ identity on offense has revolved for years around getting the ball into play. Of the league’s 180 individual team seasons since 2017, no Astros team ranks in the top 30 in exit velocity, nor in the top 15 in launch angle. They have hit plenty of home runs, but only their 2019 team, which hit one on 4.5 percent of plate appearances, is in the top 25 of dinger rate in this span. Where the Astros have been truly special is in getting wood on leather. The three highest-ranking teams of the 2017-2022 period in contact percentage — how often the bat gets on the ball — are all recent Astros teams that made contact between 79.5 and 78.9 percent of the time. (At 76.8 percent, 2022’s team is 23rd.) It helps to be choosy, and the Astros have long done a good job of not swinging at bad pitches. Over that period, they have chased just 26.8 percent of balls out of the strike zone in this period, the fifth-lowest rate in MLB. In total, they’ve swung at a lower percentage of pitches over these years (45.7) than every franchise but the Yankees and Dodgers.
This year, the Astros were more aggressive. They swung at 48 percent of pitches, the 15th-highest rate in the league. Their highly coordinated hitters are still getting wood on the ball, though, as their contact rate was second behind the Cleveland Guardians. Not coincidentally, Houston had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the league and the eighth-highest walk rate. The Astros were one of the least fortunate teams in baseball in terms of what happened to their batted balls once they were in play. Their batting average on balls in play was 25th, despite the Astros being 13th in average exit velocity and 11th in the percentage of their contact that Statcast defined as “hard-hit,” or coming off the bat at more than 95 miles per hour. The Astros’ expected batting average was .249, fifth-best in MLB. In actuality, Houston was 12th at .248.
The greatest endorsement of the Houston offense might be that it has been fundamentally unlucky and yet still finished sixth in baseball in wRC+ (112). It also helped that the Astros hit 214 home runs, fourth-most in the league. If you’re looking for a change in Houston’s approach since Luhnow and Hinch’s firings, it might be here: Starting in 2020, Astros hitters started swinging with an uppercut that they hadn’t before. The team’s launch angles have been around 14 degrees the last three years, up from 11-12 under Luhnow’s and Hinch’s. (The league average is about 12 degrees.) The Astros are not hitting more homers than they used to, but swinging for the fences has probably helped weather the losses of Correa and Springer, who have averaged 28 and 36 home runs per 162 games, respectively, during their careers. Also helpful is the revolutionary strategy of “having Yordan Álvarez,” the 25-year-old designated hitter who hit a career-high 37 bombs this year.
Pitching-wise, the Astros have arrived at a reasonably simple formula: Pour on the heat, and throw in a few goodies for balance. They threw fastballs 51.7 percent of the time, a noticeable jump from figures in the 40s over the previous three years. Staff-wide, their average fastball was 94.2 miles per hour, led by a couple of fireballing relievers (Ryne Stanek, Bryan Abreu, and Hunter Brown) at 96 and above. But even the Astros’ starters throw extremely hard: Justin Verlander (95.1) leads a crew of others who sit in the 93-94 range. The Astros’ staff has also gotten a lot of outs with a mix of sliders, curveballs, and cutters, all pitches that have netted positive run values over the course of the Astros’ season. Verlander’s fastball, it won’t surprise anyone, has been the most valuable pitch of any on the Houston staff, worth 24 runs better than average over the year. (Verlander is throwing a harder fastball at age 39 in 2022 than he was at age 29 in 2012.)
The pitching staff makes things easy enough for the defense. Houston’s staff strikeout rate was 26 percent, only a hair behind the New York Mets at the top of the league. But the defense held up its end, too, producing the third-lowest average allowed on balls in play (.268). The Astros are one of the most shift-obsessed teams in baseball, deploying it fully half the time. The Astros were fifth in Defensive Runs Saved (67). Of those saved runs, 34 came from infield shifts and another 13 from outfield shifting, rather than anything a player did in particular. The Astros do have some brilliant defenders, including shortstop Jeremy Peña (15 runs saved) and right fielder Kyle Tucker (13). But more than anything, Houston is what happens when an elite pitching staff meets ideal defensive planning behind it. The result was a 2.90 staff ERA that placed second behind the Dodgers. And they have been typically stingy in the postseason, as opponents are putting across just 2.6 runs per game against them.
One thing that hasn’t held up in the playoffs is the offense. At least, sort of. The Astros are scoring 4.4 runs per game, a little less than the 4.6 they scored in the regular season. Some of their best hitters (Peña and Bregman, in particular) are still raking, but a few have had brutal stretches. Tucker has a .634 playoff OPS, and Altuve has all of three hits in 32 at-bats. The terrifying conceit of the Astros all year has been that, as good as they’ve been, their offense has had room to grow if a few balls bounced their way. You can be the judge of how likely it is that Altuve continues to hit .094 against the Phillies.
Add it all up, and Houston has built an unassumingly dominant regular season and playoff run on the pillars of being good at just about everything. But for such a workmanlike team, it will be hard for the Astros to fly under the radar if they finish off the job at hand with a sweep, capping off an undefeated postseason. And it will be even harder still to deny these Astros’ place in history as one of the greatest teams in baseball history.
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