Houston's awesome hitting feat is defying trends

August 4th, 2017

This has been the season of the strikeout and the home run. Hitters around baseball are striking out much more than they have before.
Most strikeouts per game (per team):
2017: 8.24
2016: 8.03
2015: 7.71
2014: 7.70
2013: 7.55
You read that right, the top five strikeouts seasons are the past five seasons. And while that is happening, hitters around baseball are hitting more home runs than they have before.
Most home runs per game (per team):
2017: 1.26
2000: 1.17
2016: 1.16
1999: 1.14
2001: 1.12
People around baseball will tell you: This is not a coincidence. These two things, strikeouts and home runs, go hand in hand. Big home run hitters, since the dawn of Babe Ruth, generally have been big strikeout guys. You look at the players with the most strikeouts in baseball history -- Reggie Jackson, Jim Thome, Adam Dunn, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez -- and what do you see? That's 2,942 home runs right there, just those five players, and while there are certainly power-hitting exceptions (Ted Williams almost never struck out; Henry Aaron never whiffed 100 times in a season and Big Ted Kluszewski had more homers than strikeouts four times in his career), they are exceptions.
As the writer Bill James has put it: Good hitters historically strike out more, not less, than weaker hitters.
"Well, you sacrifice a little of your zone control when you hit home runs," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "You also go deep in the count when you're selective."
You may ask why we're quoting Hinch, who hit all of 32 home runs in his big league career (while striking out 214 times). Well, it is because Hinch's team is doing something remarkable here in 2017. In this wild season of strikeouts and home runs, Houston has hit the most home runs in baseball. And somehow, it also has struck out the fewest times in baseball.
It's kind of insane.
"We weren't striving for any statistical thing," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said, but he's smiling when he said it.
You get the sense the data-driven Astros are always striving for statistical things … and looking to push new boundaries. Luhnow is known throughout baseball for his futuristic approach to the game, for rejecting convention and trying to figure out baseball's next big thing. Houston has hit upon an approach that defies the gravitational pull of the game right now.
Just look at the top home run-hitting teams and how they rank by (fewest) strikeouts:

  1. Astros: 1st
  2. Rangers: 25th
  3. Nationals: 11th
    4 (tie). Brewers, 30th
    4 (tie). Rays, 29th

    "We had a lot of feast-or-famine hitters in this lineup in the last few years," Luhnow said. "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."
    The transformation has been stark. From 2012-15 -- Luhnow's first four years as GM -- the Astros struck out more times than any team in the league every single year. The 2013 Astros struck out 1,535 times, which was the Major League record until the Brewers broke it last year (1,543). Heck, last year's Astros "improved," because they didn't finish dead last in the league; they were 14th, just ahead of the Rays, and "only" struck out 1,452 times.
    Houston also hit only 198 home runs last year, ninth in the American League.
    Currently, the Astros' 175 homers are eight more than the Rangers, who have the second most in MLB; they could add 74 homers to what they did last year. Meanwhile, Houston's 731 strikeouts are 17 fewer than the next team (Cleveland, 748), and more than 300 fewer than the league leaders (Milwaukee, 1,075). 
    "I don't really know what we're doing," Astros star and AL MVP Award candidate said. "But whatever we're doing, it's good."
    Well, it seems to be a three-step plan:
    Step 1: Replace some high-strikeout guys
    Last year, the Astros had seven players in the lineup who struck out at least 100 times. So Luhnow completely altered that lineup. He let catcher (123 strikeouts) go via free agency, and he traded for , who has struck out just 44 times in 69 games.
    Free-swinging (121 strikeouts) was allowed to walk as a free agent. (100 strikeouts in 85 games) was let go, and , who developed into a very disciplined hitter with Oakland, was signed. Designated hitter Evan Gattis, who is an old-fashioned go-big-or-go-home type of hitter, was kept, but his at-bats have been limited after the Astros got veteran .
    "The way I look at it," Hinch said, "we acquired a lot of quality at-bat guys."
    Step 2: Work individually with players to cut down strikeouts
    Of course, every team does this, but the Astros seem to be having more success with it. will probably always strike a lot. He's a big guy, there are a few gaps in his swing and he has consistently been a high strikeout guy throughout the Minor Leagues and in the first few years of his big league career. But Houston feels like it has a good plan for Springer so that he strikes out a bit less without sacrificing his great power and dynamic game.
    "He knows a ball vs. a strike," Hinch said. "For him, it's about not swinging at [pitches toward] his back knee, fall all over himself, overswing, exuberant, athletic, try to do everything and hit it over the train. Put a good at-bat, put a good swing together. Be a good hitter first. The power will come naturally, because he's so strong."

Springer, who is on the disabled list with a sore left quad, seems to have bought in. He struck out 178 times in 162 games last year; this season, he's down to 86 K's in 93 games. Sure, Springer still strikes out a lot, but that's 30 fewer strikeouts over a season, and his power is way up, his slugging percentage is up almost 150 points.
Then there's , who is down about a dozen strikeouts from last year and whose power and batting average are way up.
"For Marwin," Hinch said, "it's a little bit of pitch selection. For him, it's just not swinging at breaking balls."
, who is currently sidelined with a left thumb injury, whiffed in more than 21 percent of his plate appearances last year, is down below 19 percent this year.

Altuve, who struck out a career-high 85 times in 2013 when he hit just five home runs, began cutting down on his strikeouts then, and he believes the strikeout-power turnaround is a mental approach. He said that the he and his teammates have found a balance between not trying to hit home runs and not trying to avoid strikeouts.
"I was just going there to put on good contact with the ball," Altuve said, "and for some reason, I stopped striking out. … We have a plan. We have an idea of what we're trying to do out there."
Step 3: The plan
The problem with talking about any plan in baseball is that it makes things sound too simple. Every team has a strategy to cut down on strikeouts, every team has a plan to get hitters to make better contact, and there are 30 teams out there with smart people and innovative ideas.
But the Astros' approach of getting hitters to understand the strike zone, to understand the pitches that can be driven and the pitches that cannot is the industry standard. Every day, Luhnow said, the players get a score based on, as the GM put it, "whether they should have swung at every single pitch."

The score is tailored to each individual player's batting talents. And what Luhnow sees is that over time, when hammering home what he calls "good swing decisions," hitters will improve, some by a little and some by a lot.
"You can change behavior at the big league level," Luhnow said.
Luhnow, of course, would be happy to drown the hitters in the voluminous swing data they compile, because he can't get enough of it. But Luhnow has figured out that it's best to drown Hinch and the coaches with the data and trust them to figure out how to get it to the players. Some, like 23-year-old , want all of it. Others would prefer getting their information a few manageable, bite-sized nuggets.
When you put it all together -- acquiring players who put the ball in play, maximizing players' talents, matching up players in situations where they will not strike out as much and hit with more power -- the Astros have found themselves a few steps ahead of every other team in baseball.
"Actually, putting the plan into place on the field, it takes the player buy-in," Hinch said. "The players get a lot of credit for executing a plan of how to be a good offense, a good team offense, connecting that at-bats from one to another. … We have a really good offense, we have really good players and they all buy in to being a good hitter first."