The Astros had the best offense in the Majors this year, leading in batting average (.274), on-base percentage (.352), slugging percentage (.495), lowest strikeout rate (18.2%), highest walk rate (10.1%), Weighted On-Base Average (.355) and wRC+ (125), and that's actually underselling it a bit. They weren't just the best offense this year; by one advanced measure, they were the second-best offense in Major League history, behind only a little outfit you might remember called "the 1927 Yankees."
So all that said: What in the world has happened in October?
The Astros stranded 11 runners on base in Game 1 of the World Series, a big deal considering they lost the game by one run, 5-4. They went 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Carlos Correa struck out with the bases loaded to end the third inning; Yordan Álvarez struck out with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning.
It's been tough in general this month, as the Astros have a .213/.293/.362 line in October, a .656 OPS that is better than only the Cardinals among the eight teams. But it's been worse with runners in scoring position, where Houston is hitting just .185/.248/.348, an OPS of .596. (To try to put that into context, that's more or less the line that Baltimore's Chris Davis put up this year, .179/.276/.326, .601. That's not what you want.)
That's not just disappointing, it's one of the weakest postseason lines with runners in scoring positions that we've ever seen. We went back to the start of the modern playoff era in 1969, when the first divisions came into place, and looked at all postseasons where a team took at least 100 plate appearances with runners on base, leaving us with 88 teams.
Remember that .185/.248/.348 line and .596 OPS that we just shared above? Of those 88 teams:
- The .185 average is second worst, ahead of only the 1995 Mariners (.174)
- The .248 on-base percentage is the worst
- The .348 slugging is 17th worst, thanks to a few well-timed home runs
- The .596 OPS is third worst, ahead of only the '74 and '81 Dodgers
It's not all bad news, because there's a surprising argument that "batting average with runners in scoring position" doesn't actually matter, at least not if you look at the outcomes of previously poor seasons. If we look at the 10 worst team seasons for batting average with runners in scoring position before this year's Astros, you'll find something interesting. Five of those teams won the World Series!
.174 -- 1995 Seattle Mariners
.190 -- 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers
.192 -- 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers
.201 -- 2008 Philadelphia Phillies
.204 -- 2015 Toronto Blue Jays
.205 -- 2018 Milwaukee Brewers
.210 -- 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers
.212 -- 1985 Kansas City Royals
.215 -- 1998 New York Yankees
.216 -- 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers
Still, whatever the opposite of "clutch" is, this has been it, and the players aren't blind to it.
"These are the most elite guys in the world, man, they're not trying to give up runs," said George Springer when asked about the struggles with runners on. "It's hard to face these guys. We can't look into one thing or the other. We have to string together an at-bat and see what happens."
To an extent, that is unarguably correct. As we looked into near the end of the season, offense always goes down in October, thanks to the fact that the weaker teams are no longer playing, and that extra days off allows the remaining teams to use only their best pitchers more optimally. (For example, in the regular season, Patrick Corbin isn't the one coming out to relieve Max Scherzer, as he did in Game 1.)
But even with that in mind, the dropoff the Astros are showing thus far is unprecedented. Again looking at those 88 teams who had at least 100 postseason plate appearances with runners in scoring position, the 260-point dropoff in OPS from their regular season .856 to their postseason .596 is the largest ever.
-.260 (2019 Astros, from .856 to .596)
-.255 (1995 Mariners, from .854 to .599)
-.181 (1974 Dodgers, from .753 to .572)
-.164 (2013 Cardinals, from .865 to .701)
-.164 (2015 Blue Jays, from .839 to 675)
(Breaking that down into components: Their 83-point RISP drop in batting average is the third largest; their 105-point RISP drop in OBP is the largest, their 155-point RISP drop in SLG is second largest. Interestingly, the largest jump in RISP batting average came from last year's Red Sox, who famously added 75 points of average in October on their way to a championship.)
So what is causing this? Part of it is Álvarez, who has followed up a smashing rookie season (.313/.412/.655) with a miserable postseason that isn't even truly represented by his .205/.271/.273 October line -- that's nine hits in 48 plate appearances, but six of them came in the first four games of the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay. In eight games since, he's hit .107/.219/.107, which works out to three hits and four walks in 32 plate appearances.
Some of it is Alex Bregman, who hasn't been his MVP-candidate self this October (.231/.412/.385), though he's perhaps his own harshest critic on the subject. (He's hitting .091/.333/.182 with RISP this October.)
"I've been terrible this postseason," said Bregman after Game 1. "I need to get in that video room, get in the cage and figure it out."
"I've just been horrible mechanically. I've been off time. Been in between, taking fastballs for strikes, taking sliders for strikes. Taking bad pitches in the zone. Better take my bat home, sleep with it and figure it out."
Some of it is Yuli Gurriel, who famously has one strikeout in 48 plate appearances this postseason, but has hit just .229/.255/.333, though the underlying quality-of-contact metrics indicate that he might be hitting into a lot more unfortunate outcomes than his teammates are. (He's got the most plate appearances with RISP of any Astro this October, 19.)
But basically, it's a combination of the team just hitting worse with runners on ...
-- 38% hard-hit rate this postseason, but 30% with RISP
-- 26% strikeout rate this postseason, but 30% with RISP
.And some of it is the fact that it's a small sample against much better pitching than you'll see in the regular season, that the arms of the Rays, Yankees and Nationals deserve credit, that Bregman, Álvarez and the rest are all a lot better than they've shown.
And if they aren't? The Astros can still look at the 1981 and '88 Dodgers, the '85 Royals, the '98 Yankees and the 2008 Phillies for inspiration. Having a high average with runners on base is a very nice thing to have, as the 2018 Red Sox showed. It's also not a requirement for victory. It's just one path to get there.