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Could current Astros lineup top the '17 edition?

James sees increase in velocity during latest appearance
@brianmctaggart
May 9, 2019

HOUSTON -- The Astros entered Thursday’s game against the Rangers leading the Major Leagues in OPS (.841) and batting average (.275) and leading the American League in on-base percentage (.348) and hits (344). They also ranked second in the AL in slugging percentage (.493) and home runs (65). Houston did

HOUSTON -- The Astros entered Thursday’s game against the Rangers leading the Major Leagues in OPS (.841) and batting average (.275) and leading the American League in on-base percentage (.348) and hits (344). They also ranked second in the AL in slugging percentage (.493) and home runs (65).

Houston did all of this while All-Star second baseman José Altuve was hitting .236.

With four players ranked in the top 10 in the AL in OPS -- Michael Brantley (.988), George Springer (.982), Alex Bregman (.963) and Carlos Correa (.941) -- and two in the top three in batting average -- Brantley (.340) and Josh Reddick (.339) -- the Astros could have an even better offense than in years past.

In 2017, the year the Astros won the World Series, Houston led the Majors in runs (896), was second in home runs (238) and had the fewest strikeouts (1,087). The Astros also had the highest batting average (.282) and slugging percentage (.478). Houston also led baseball in Weighted On-base Average (wOBA, .349) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+, 122).

According to FanGraphs, the 2019 Astros’ current 127 wRC+ would be higher than any other team in the live ball era (the iconic 1927 Yankees were at 126). The 2017 Astros are fifth on the list at 122 wRC+, which measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average after controlling for park effects.

“We do have a chance to be better,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I don’t know any manager that doesn’t stake claim of the current team he has and want to always push that team to be better than a previous team. Offensively, we do have a chance. We haven’t fully gotten [going] yet, but we’re still performing at an elite level, and that’s a good sign.

“We’ve got some players in our lineup that are going to get better and more productive, and we also have some guys who have returned to form when you see Correa, and even George’s at-bats have taken a step forward from last season and previous seasons.

"Ultimately, in this industry nowadays, we’re in a race to label teams. At the end of the year, we’ll compile all the wins and compile all the stats. Ask me then and I’ll give you the firm answer.”

The Astros entered Thursday's game averaging 5.1 runs per game this season, which trails the 5.5 they averaged in 2017.

James takes potential step forward
Relief pitcher Josh James took a step forward with an impressive two-inning outing in Wednesday’s win over the Royals, in which he struck out five. It was easily the best performance of the season for James, who enters Thursday with a 6.11 ERA over 13 appearances.

James, who made his Major League debut last season and had his fastball top out at 101 mph in the postseason, has seen an uptick in his velocity of late. He averaged 97.5 mph on his four-seam fastball on Wednesday and touched 99.6 mph -- the hardest he’s thrown this season. James has thrown 23 pitches at 98 mph or higher this season.

“He’s had a hard time repeating his tempo and delivery and that sort of stuff,” Hinch said. “I like the aggression the last two times out. He’s been in the upper-90s, which is a good sign. He’s thrown some good secondary pitches and got some swings and misses. We need to see more of that, and maybe more innings will help him.”

James came to spring camp competing for a spot as a starter but was slowed by a quad injury. The Astros still see him as a starter down the line, the same with Framber Valdez.

“I don’t see us considering it right now with them, but you never know,” Hinch said. “Both of them are pretty resilient arms. Making a transition out of the bullpen and into a rotation spot, even a spot starter, is really difficult, especially with 12 pitchers.”

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.