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The Astros Are Good Again. That’s Complicating Their Story.

When the Houston Astros spent most of the 2020 regular season underperforming, it was tempting to see their struggles as proof that their sign-stealing system fueled the franchise’s recent rise. The official investigation into the scheme — which involved using video to decode opponents’ signs in real time, then transmitting the signs to batters via noises (like banging on trash cans) — found that it had been in effect for the entire 2017 season, plus parts of the 2018 regular season. But rumors that Houston used even more outlandish methods in 2019 (up to and including the World Series) weren’t hard to find. For many, the Astros’ drop-off in the 2020 regular season, which ended with them making the playoffs but with a losing record,1 merely confirmed how much Houston had benefited from its brazen rule-breaking over the previous few seasons.

Of course, that narrative was shaken a bit when Houston immediately rattled off wins in five of its first six postseason games, sweeping the Minnesota Twins and besting the Oakland Athletics in four games en route to the American League Championship Series. While the Astros did eventually lose that round, they battled back from a 3-0 deficit to force a seventh game against the Tampa Bay Rays, coming within a ninth-inning rally of returning to the World Series. And this year, it’s been mostly business as usual for Houston. Though the Astros sit a game back of the A’s in the AL West standings, they are on track to win 92 games, with a 76 percent chance to make the playoffs and 9 percent title odds — a surprising bounce-back season if their previous success owed more to trash cans than talent.

It’s easy to see why Houston’s 2020 performance brought up so many questions about the legitimacy of the team’s earlier accomplishments. Not only did the Astros’ overall record decline from 2019 — at a whopping pace of 29 games, if extrapolated out to a 162-game schedule — but their offense (you know, the area of the club that used the sign-stealing tactic) fell off a cliff in particular. Houston had led MLB in a wide variety of hitting metrics in 2019, including batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, contact rate, walk rate and weighted runs created plus (wRC+). Last season, the Astros dropped to 20th in batting average, 23rd in on-base percentage, 16th in slugging, 16th in OPS, 20th in walk rate and 17th in wRC+. The only category in which Houston stayed on top was contact rate.

A dip in hitting production wasn’t the only reason Houston took a step backward in 2020. With Gerrit Cole departing via free agency and Justin Verlander injured, the Astros’ pitching staff went from No. 1 in wins above replacement2 to No. 12; their defense also dropped from first in WAR to 16th. But for a team whose lineup had once drawn comparisons to the scariest groups from throughout history, it was the offensive trends that raised eyebrows — particularly given that the Astros brought back largely the same group of hitters: Only 13.5 percent of the value generated by their position players in 2019 came from those who didn’t return to the club for 2020 (a measure of turnover that ranked seventh-lowest among MLB teams).

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Some of the decline was the product of genuinely detrimental changes in the Astros’ approach. They ranked last in pitches seen per plate appearance, swung at the first pitch more often and didn’t work their way into hitters’ counts as frequently. Their average launch angle increased by one entire degree, and they became the most pull-happy team in the league. It’s possible that all of this came in a misguided effort to prove they weren’t merely the product of stealing signs. But as we often noted last season, 60 games in baseball is a pretty small sample. And some of Houston’s 2020 offensive problems looked like bad luck: While the Astros’ average exit velocity and rate of hard-hit balls barely budged from 2019, their batting average on balls in play fell from .296 to .273, and their rate of home runs per fly ball dropped from 12.6 percent to 8.6 percent.

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(For those curious about the effect of intimidation after Houston became baseball’s No. 1 villain: Although some opponents took out their frustrations via the beanball, Houston’s rate of hit batsmen per plate appearance actually stayed exactly the same — at 1.03 percent — from 2019 to 2020, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. The Astros were also mostly spared abuse from visiting fans thanks to COVID-19’s empty-stadium rules.)

Whatever the cause for last season’s slump — cheating-scandal hangover, bad luck or just a less effective hitting approach — this Astros lineup has found its groove again in 2021 so far. They now rank first in average, third in OBP, sixth in slugging, second in OPS, first in contact rate (again) and first in wRC+. (Perhaps relatedly, their BABIP is also back up to .299.) The only category in which Houston hasn’t rebounded to a top-five ranking again is walk rate, where the team sits 14th. Although they haven’t all fully bounced back to 2019 levels, most of the remaining Astros who had fallen off badly in 2020 — particularly second baseman José Altuve, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and shortstop Carlos Correa — are having good seasons at the plate again in 2021:

Most of the holdover Astros have bounced back

Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) for Houston Astros batters with at least 150 plate appearances per 162 team games in 2019, 2020 and 2021

wRC+ by season
PLAYER 2019 2020 2021
Yuli Gurriel 132 79 152
Alex Bregman 169 123 135
Carlos Correa 143 98 133
José Altuve 139 77 133
Michael Brantley 134 135 129
Aledmys Díaz 119 97 109

Source: FanGraphs

That’s been crucial for Houston’s playoff chances because its bullpen ranks second-to-last in WAR — a huge downgrade from the team’s top-10 placement during its World Series-bound 2019 campaign. Instead of that balanced team, which ranked No. 1 in WAR from both its position players and its pitchers, the current Astros are all about their third-ranked batters and less about their 18th-ranked pitchers. And unlike in 2020, the batters have delivered.

But again, maybe we could have chalked a lot of that disappointment up to the short-season nature of 2020. One stat that never lost faith in the Astros was our Elo rating — which responded at a glacial pace to Houston’s slow start last year because it simply takes forever to separate signal from noise in baseball. Even after 60 games of sub-.500 play, the Astros still ranked fifth in Elo, just two spots lower than where they’d started the season! That might seem ridiculous, but backtesting shows that the optimal rate at which to update MLB teams’ ratings is many, many times slower than in the NFL or NBA.3 It would have taken a lot more games than 2020 had to offer to convince Elo that the Astros had actually gotten as bad as their record indicated.

Because of this, the Astros still have a deceptively impressive streak going. According to Elo, they have been a top-five ranked team for 605 consecutive gamedays — i.e., days on which at least one MLB game (regular season or playoffs) was played — dating back to Sept. 26, 2017. Not only is that the longest active streak in baseball — 55 days longer than the Yankees’ current streak — but it’s also the fourth-longest streak of the free-agency era (dating back to 1976):

The Astros are historic top-five fixtures

Most consecutive gamedays* ranked among the top five in FiveThirtyEight’s MLB Elo ratings for teams since 1976

Streak Dates
Team Start End Consecutive Gamedays
Braves 7/29/1994 9/11/2000 1,154
Mets 7/31/1985 7/30/1989 783
Yankees 4/18/1997 9/26/2000 760
Astros 9/26/2017 605
Yankees 4/21/2018 550
Athletics 7/30/1988 6/25/1991 538
Red Sox 7/20/2007 4/16/2010 516
Braves 5/30/1992 7/27/1994 449
Indians 7/28/1994 5/15/1997 438
Cardinals 6/11/2004 6/24/2006 417
Dodgers 9/19/1976 4/14/1979 416
Dodgers 9/12/2018 409
Tigers 7/19/1983 8/5/1985 395
Yankees 6/24/2009 5/15/2011 371
Yankees 5/17/2011 4/4/2013 365
Astros 4/24/1998 9/27/1999 348
Mariners 4/11/2001 8/29/2002 342
Reds 4/7/1976 7/28/1977 298
Yankees 5/1/1985 8/9/1986 293
Rangers 7/10/2011 10/13/2012 293

*A gameday is a date on which at least one MLB regular-season or postseason game takes place.

Source: Retrosheet

Good luck to Houston in matching the Big Three-era Atlanta Braves, who ranked among MLB’s top-five teams for a staggering 1,154 consecutive gamedays: The Astros would need to almost double their current streak to reach Atlanta’s level. But they might be able to chase down the Yankees’ dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s if they maintain their performance going forward — which seems more likely now than it did for most of last season.

After the cheating scandal — and the ugly team culture that allowed the sign-stealing practice to grow — many baseball fans enjoyed seeing the Astros struggle through the 2020 regular season. The numbers driving their declining performance fit nicely with the notion that Houston’s success over the previous half-decade was unearned. However, the 2021 Astros are proving that those kinds of narratives rarely give us a clean and satisfying conclusion. Some of Houston’s hitters cheated for years, but the Astros roster is also littered with talented baseball players. Both things can be true, and Houston’s ongoing place near the top of the power rankings is a reminder that moving on is complicated when the game’s villains don’t just go away.

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  1. The Astros and Milwaukee Brewers of 2020 joined the 1981 Kansas City Royals as the only sub-.500 teams to make the playoffs.

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  3. For all of the hardcore Elo fans out there, the K-factor for baseball Elo in the regular season is just 4; in the NFL and NBA, the K-factor is 20.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.