Potent Astros offense is making history

September 9th, 2019

With and dominating opposing hitters and dueling for the American League Cy Young Award, and now in the rotation as well, it can be easy to overlook the Astros’ offense at times.

That would be a mistake, and not just in light of Sunday's 21-run outburst against the Mariners. Houston’s offense is the most potent in the Majors, a huge reason why the club entered Sunday tied with the Yankees for the best record in MLB.

The Astros do everything well at the plate and possess both firepower and depth. That has allowed them to not only lead the Majors in several categories in 2019 but also post some numbers that qualify as historically great.

Here is a look at how difficult the Astros’ lineup is to contain, as it steamrolls toward October.

It’s a diverse attack

Nobody can accuse the Astros of being one-dimensional.

• They are patient at the plate, entering Sunday tied for MLB’s fifth-lowest swing rate (45.2%). And when they do swing, they make contact, as their 21% whiff rate is easily the game’s lowest.

• They are tied for the highest walk rate in MLB (9.9%), while also posting by far the lowest strikeout rate (18.3%).

• Thanks to that ability to make contact and make pitchers work, they lead the Majors in both batting average (.275) and on-base percentage (.352).

• Yet the Astros don’t sacrifice thump. They rank in the top five in home runs (241), isolated power (.214), and slugging (.489).

Put that all together, and Houston’s park-adjusted wRC+ sits at 124 (or 24% better than league average). The next-best team, Minnesota, is at 117. To put a 124 wRC+ in perspective, that’s within a few points of what Ronald Acuña Jr., Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper, Francisco Lindor, and Jorge Soler have posted this season.

It’s one of the most effective offenses of all time

How often is a team’s hitting at least 20% better than league average? The answer is, almost never.

Going all the way back to 1900, the 2019 Astros would be only the ninth team to reach that mark -- and could finish with the highest wRC+ of any team in 88 years. Of course, this isn’t uncharted territory for this team. Several of the same players helped Houston post an almost identical number two years ago before embarking on its championship run.

Highest team wRC+ in modern history

  1. 1927 Yankees: 126
    2-T) 1930 Yankees: 124
    2-T) 1931 Yankees: 124
    2-T) 2019 Astros: 124
  2. 2017 Astros: 122

Any time you are in a group with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s Bronx Bombers, that’s a good sign.

There’s no hole in the lineup

To be clear, the Astros aren’t the only team with a fearsome offense in 2019.

The Yankees can slug with anyone at full strength, and their fill-ins have excelled amid numerous injuries, allowing the team to give very few plate appearances to unproductive hitters. The Red Sox, who are not even in playoff position, have four of the top 30 hitters in MLB, by wRC+. The Twins already set a new single-season home run record. The always-deep Dodgers have 11 different hitters who have been above league average in 100-plus plate appearances. The Braves have three sluggers with at least 35 homers. Other contenders can claim their strengths as well.

But the Astros have a collection of stellar bats that might turn out to be unprecedented.

To illustrate that, let’s look at OPS+, which, similarly to wRC+, adjusts a hitter’s offensive contributions for ballpark and compares them to league average. With less than 20 games remaining, Houston has five hitters this season who have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, and an OPS+ of at least 130: , , , , and .

Most qualified hitters with at least a 130 OPS+
1-T) 2019 Astros: 5
1-T) 1987 Tigers: 5
1-T) 1970 Giants: 5
1-T) 1953 Dodgers: 5

That Detroit club had Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson and Darrell Evans, in what was a wild year for offense. San Francisco featured Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Bobby Bonds. And Brooklyn boasted Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider. It’s more good company for Houston.

Add in , who has missed significant time due to injury, and rookie , who didn’t get called up until June, and the Astros have two more hitters who clear that bar.

Most hitters with at least a 130 OPS+ in 250+ PA

  1. 2019 Astros: 7
    2-T) 1993 Tigers: 6
    2-T) 1987 Tigers: 6
    16 teams tied with 5, including 2019 Yankees

It’s an impressive group in Houston. Bregman appears headed for a top-three AL MVP finish. Springer, who returned to the lineup on Sunday following a head injury, is putting up the best numbers of his career. Altuve is back to being one of baseball’s top hitters in the second half. Correa has been excellent when healthy, which the Astros still think he will be by the postseason. Gurriel, who also is a bit banged up at the moment, is one of MLB’s leading home run hitters since late June.

Then there are the newcomers. Brantley has been a perfect fit in his first season after signing with Houston, while the 22-year-old Alvarez has gotten off to one of the finest starts to a career in MLB history.

The Astros aren’t slowing down, either. Even with Correa mostly sidelined, the Astros have four of the dozen most productive MLB hitters since the All-Star break, and six of the top 30.

Injuries are always a threat, and Correa and Gurriel still were out of the lineup on Sunday, even with Springer returning. But if the Astros have all hands on deck come October, their lethal offense is set up to make life difficult for postseason opponents.