Let it never be forgotten that in order to beat the Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan to advance to the AL Championship Series presented by Camping World, the Astros first had to beat the best pitchers the game has to offer: They had to tie the game off AL Cy Young Award candidate Chris Sale, who'd entered in relief, so they did. (After beating him in Game 1, too.) They then had to take the lead off of Craig Kimbrel -- who was arguably the most dominant reliever in baseball this year -- so they did that, too.
For all the talk about how adding Justin Verlander in August would give the team a boost, the story of the 2017 Astros is one about their bats. It's about how the best offense in baseball is the best in team history, and one of the best in baseball history, and, for the moment, maybe the best in postseason history.
• Dress for ALCS: Get Astros' postseason gear
That's a lot of high praise, so let's go right ahead and back all that up. Houston led the Majors in runs (896), batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.346), slugging percentage (.478) -- you know, the simple things. The Astros were second in home runs (238), yet had by far the fewest strikeouts (1,087, or 17 percent of their plate appearances), an extremely rare combination. (The Indians had the next-fewest whiffs with 1,153.) Put all that together, and they were also first in advanced stats like wOBA (.349) and wRC+ (121). They were, simply, the best.
:: ALCS schedule and coverage ::
Now, this wasn't allJose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer, and this wasn't all unexpected. Last season, the Astros had a league-average offense overall, but last offseason, looking at the additions of Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran, plus expected progression from second-year players Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman, and the departures of Jason Castro and Colby Rasmus, we expected more. In January, we noted that Houston was projected to have "baseball's deepest lineup," pointing out it could have eight average or better hitters get 300 plate appearances.
Good job, projections. As it turns out, the Astros ended up with nine such hitters, the most in the Majors, plus 259 more very good plate appearances from Jake Marisnick (.243/.319/.496). Beltran disappointed, but that was made up for and then some by Marwin Gonzalez (.303/.377/.530), who broke out in a big way. In addition to a potential AL MVP Award winner in Altuve, we're talking about enviable depth up and down the lineup. Gonzalez, for example, hit as well as Nelson Cruz did this year, and he was hitting eighth in the first two games against Boston.
When you're that dominant in a single year, it's only natural to see how it compares to other teams and other seasons. So let's do that. But how? Obviously batting average isn't a good enough tool to do this, and even if it was, the game has had so many ups and downs over the decades, from the "Year of the Pitcher" in 1968 to the high-flying homer days of the late 1990s. Hitting 30 homers this year is a lot different than doing so even three years ago, so we need a way to compare within each season.
So that's why we turn to an advanced tool like wRC+, which sets "league average" as 100, and accounts for the different effects of parks and eras. For example, that allows us to say that Larry Walker in 1999 Coors Field (.379/.458/.710), maybe baseball's best-ever hitting situation, was as productive as Stan Musial in 1957 (.351/.422/.612). Despite Stan the Man's lesser numbers, they both had a wRC+ of 167 -- that is, 67 percentage points above league average.
We can do that for teams, too. The Astros, as you already know, were the best hitting team this year, with a 122 wRC+, meaning that they were 22 points above average. But why stop with 2017? Of the 2,162 team seasons dating to the beginning of the live ball era in 1920, Houston was tied for the 10th best. That's in the top one-half of one percent of nearly a century of baseball.
And look, for a moment, at the other teams on this list, which is largely dominated by the Ruth/Gehrig legends of the 1920s and '30s. There's the Cincinnati "Big Red Machine" of 1976. There's the Jackie Robinson/Duke Snider '53 Dodgers; there's Frank Robinson fueling both the '65 Reds and the '71 Orioles. The point is, you don't get on this list by accident. You only do it if you're truly special, and these Astros are.
Now, it almost seems unfair to compare what happened over six months of baseball to what's happening in the playoffs. The series are shorter, much shorter, and the competition is better, much better. Even now, we're talking about all of four of Houston's postseason games, all against the same team. We know that it's premature to invest too heavily in the partial numbers of the 2017 postseason, and yet that's what we have to go on at the moment.
But with that caveat in mind, we can still pass along this note: Baseball's best offense is having a postseason that lives up to the name. In Major League history, there have been 414 teams who have had at least 100 plate appearances in a single postseason, and (switching back here to raw OPS, as that's what's available for the postseason), the 2017 Astros are off to the best start, with a .974 OPS -- and now we've added the champion 2002 Angels, 2007 Red Sox, 1989 A's, and 1970 Orioles to the mix as well.
For Houston, that's a combined .333/.402/.571, which is basically the line that Freddie Freeman put up this year. It's close to what Paul Goldschmidt hit. It's four games, again, but four really good games, from a great hitting team. The Astros haven't done anything that their season-long performance didn't earn.
This isn't predictive, of course. It doesn't guarantee that they're going to keep hitting like this, and it's more likely than not they won't. In the ALCS against the Yankees, they'll be facing Sonny Gray, Luis Severino and Albertin Chapman. It's not going to get easier, anyway.
Then again, you might say that for the Yankees' pitchers, too. After all, they're the ones who are going to have to try to figure out how to stop this group. So far, no one has.