How Astros are winning strikeout game, again

Houston could be second team ever to lead in both hitting and pitching K%

August 10th, 2019

It's always been a good thing as a pitcher to collect strikeouts, and it's usually been a good thing as a hitter to avoid them. That's been true -- to varying degrees, as the style of play has changed over the decades -- for the entire history of baseball. But it's probably more true now, simply because of how power-friendly today's game is. From 2002-2014, the MLB-wide OPS on contact was between .821 and .862. This year, that number is up to .920.

You can see why pitchers are doing whatever they can to miss bats -- the last time the league strikeout rate didn't increase or hold steady was 2005 -- and you can see why contact hitters like Gio Urshela are suddenly more valuable than ever. (This isn't true in all cases, obviously. Joe Panik's 9.8% strikeout rate was the third-lowest in baseball, but a complete lack of power led to the Giants cutting him loose this week.)

This leads us to the Astros, who have developed a well-earned reputation for being well ahead of the curve in terms of data and analytics -- books have been written about the topic -- and have baseball's best offense and fourth-lowest ERA. Guess what they're doing with strikeouts: all the best things.

If the best thing you can do as a pitcher is to get strikeouts, the Astros do that better than anyone: Their 27.3% strikeout rate is the highest in baseball.

If a very good thing you can do as a hitter is to avoid strikeouts, the Astros do that better than anyone, too: Their 18.4% strikeout rate is the lowest in baseball.

If this holds up through the rest of the season, it would be only the second time in the history of baseball that a team led in both pitching and hitting strikeout rate, behind the 2013 Tigers, a team that featured Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Max Scherzer ... and current Astros ace Justin Verlander. It would be one of just three dozen times that a team has finished in the top three in both marks -- a group that includes the 2017 and '18 Astros.

As you'd expect, this is no accident. This is all part of the plan.

Houston hired Jeff Luhnow to run their baseball operations on Dec. 8, 2011, and we know what happened next: Over the next three seasons, the Astros lost 310 games, 24 more than any other team. Their pitchers had the third-worst strikeout rate. Their hitters had the worst strikeout rate, with the 2013 team setting what was at the time baseball's highest-ever strikeout mark. It was bad, in just about every way it could be bad. It got a little better in 2015 and '16, but, as you can see, the turning point here was really '17.

This is really a culmination of two things, neither of which sound revolutionary, but in some ways, they are. 1) They got better players. 2) They made the players they kept or acquired better.

"We had a lot of feast-or-famine hitters in this lineup in the last few years," Luhnow said to back in 2017. "They go on streaks. Sometimes you go on big winning streaks because you have guys hit home runs. But you can just as easily go on a long losing streak, because guys are striking out. And I think when we looked at players we wanted to add … we wanted players who could do damage with a lot more contact hitting, swing at the right kind of pitches."

That's what he said, and that's exactly what happened. Entering Friday, there were 109 batters who received 400 plate appearances this year, and, ranked by lowest strikeout rate, Houston had four of the top nine.

Lowest batting K%, min 400 PA

9.2% -- David Fletcher, LAA
10.1% -- Michael Brantley, HOU
10.6% -- Yuli Gurriel, HOU
11.4% -- Josh Reddick, HOU

11.4% -- Jean Segura, PHI
12.1% -- Adam Frazier, PIT
12.4% -- Miguel Rojas, MIA
12.7% -- Nick Markakis, ATL
12.9% -- Alex Bregman, HOU
13.2% -- José Ramírez, CLE / Jeff McNeil, NYM

Brantley was signed by the Astros as a free agent last December. Gurriel was signed in the summer of 2016 and made his Houston debut later that year; Reddick was signed as a free agent after 2016. Their ability to make contact was a selling point, and there's a reason that low-contact former Astros like Chris Carter and Colby Rasmus aren't around anymore.

Again, "fewer strikeouts" and "good hitters" are not exactly the same thing, because Reddick is actually having a down season, because Nelson Cruz's power surge has come with a career-high strikeout rate and because you'd absolutely take Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge on your team no matter how much they whiff. It's never one size fits all, obviously. But in a world where contact leads to production more than ever, making that contact is more appealing than ever, in a general sense.

They've also managed to improve some of those who stayed. Bregman struck out 24% of the time as a rookie in 2016; he's at just 12.9% this year. Springer whiffed 33% of the time as a rookie in '14; he's at 20.6% this year. Is it unfair to compare partial rookie seasons to in-their-prime years from All-Stars? Absolutely. But that doesn't happen by accident, either, and Springer in particular has spoken about how he tried to cut down the strikeouts.

On the pitching side, well, you know the stories. So long, low-strikeout former Astros like Jarred Cossart, Brett Oberholtzer, Scott Feldman and even former AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. Hello, high-strikeout beasts like Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Ryan Pressly.

And, as they've become especially famous for, the Astros take those pitchers and make them better. We saw it with Verlander, Cole, Charlie Morton, Harris, Pressly and others, usually revolving around taking high-spin pitchers and getting them to throw their best pitches more while de-emphasizing the pitch-to-contact sinker, and we might be seeing it again. Remember last week when they took Aaron Sanchez, fresh off a 6.07 ERA with Toronto, and he threw six no-hit innings in his debut? It wasn't by accident:

Coming along with Sanchez from Toronto was Joe Biagini, who threw one inning in that no-hitter, and the changes they've already made to him are clear, too.

The Astros aren't the only team doing this. They're just doing it better. Baseball rewards contact -- good, hard contact, not lousy, rolled-over, ground-out-to-second-base weak contact, which separates them from some unproductive high-contact teams -- more now than at any other point in baseball history. Houston is taking full advantage of the baseball landscape we now live in, just like they always seem to.