The Astros are baseball’s ultimate Buzzsaw

No one has won a World Series without losing a postseason game since 1976. Of course, Major League Baseball’s playoffs were smaller back then: the ’76 Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies in a three-game National League Championship Series, then swept the New York Yankees in a four-game World Series. The playoffs were an even more exclusive affair before that, as the World Series were the only playoff series until MLB added its two championship series in 1969. Twelve teams made World Series appearances between 1907 and 1966, defeating the other playoff team the opposite league.

Then the currently undefeated Houston Astros would be approaching uncharted waters even if baseball hadn’t extended its postseason one more time this year. They won 106 games during the regular season and thus managed to miss the league wild card round, starting their playoff run with a three-game series victory over the Seattle Mariners and an unceremonious four-game sweep of Aaron Judge and New York Yankees. Knocking off the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series would make the Astros 11-0 in the playoffs, a postseason record unlike anything MLB has ever seen — though even winning a five- or six-game series would safely rank them among the playoffs’ most dominant teams ever. Their only recent peers would be the 2005 Chicago White Sox and 1998 Yankees, who went 11-1 and 11-2, respectively, en route to hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy (or, as the guy called it, the after whom it was named, “piece of metal”).

Domination of one kind or another is nothing new for the Astros. The last time they didn’t make at least the ALCS was in 2016, a few weeks before Donald Trump was elected president. Their success is also portable: It didn’t end when MLB made them stop cheating, or when manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Lunow went into exile after that scandal. That didn’t end when various stars (Gerritt Cole, George Springer and Carlos Correa) left the team in free agency. But if there’s anything unique about the 2022 Astros, it’s how quietly they’ve achieved their success. They are not as high-flying as they have been in other seasons. Their 2019 World Series runner-up had an .848 OPS, the highest in MLB from 2017 to 2022 by 16 points. Their 2017 series winner it wasn’t far behind. (This year’s team had a 111 OPS+, down from 123 in 2017, which again led any team from 2017 to 2022.) The 2019 team had a plus-280 run differential, which beat any other MLB season in that span through 2022, the Dodgers posted a plus-334 margin. The Astros were loud, not only when they were pounding the trash cans, but also in the way they filled up the stat sheets. Now they’re something else: the most relentless, boring saw in baseball.

Despite turnover and upheaval in the front office and dugout, the Astros have enjoyed great continuity. Second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman have led the way for their entire post-2017 streak, but the roots run deeper than that. Every starting pitcher has been a part of the organization since at least 2019, and every starter since 2017, but often longer. The Astros’ player development tastes probably changed somewhat when Dusty Baker and James Click replaced Hinch and Luhnow as manager and GM, respectively, but there are obvious remnants of how the Astros play and what they do well.

The Astros’ offensive identity for years has revolved around putting the ball in play. In the league’s 180 individual team seasons since 2017, no Astros team has ranked in the top 30 in exit velocity, nor in the top 15 in launch angle. They’ve hit a lot of home runs, but only their 2019 team, which hit 1 in 4.5 percent of plate appearances, is in the top 25 in dinger rate over that span. Where the Astros are really special is in getting wood over leather. The three highest-ranked teams from 2017-2022 in contact percentage — how often a batter gets the ball — are all recent Astros teams that have made contact between 79.5 and 78.9 percent of the time. (At 76.8 percent, the 2022 team is 23rd.) It helps to be picky, and the Astros have long done a good job of not faltering on bad pitches. They have thrown just 26.8 percent of balls out of the strike zone over that span, the fifth-lowest percentage in MLB. Overall, they had a lower fielding percentage during those years (45.7) than any franchise except the Yankees and Dodgers.

The Astros were more aggressive this year. They turned on 48 percent of their passes, the 15th-highest percentage in the league. However, their highly coordinated forwards still handled the ball as their contact rate was second only to the Cleveland Guardians. Not coincidentally, Houston had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the league and the eighth-highest shutout rate. The Astros were one of the least lucky teams in baseball in terms of what happened to their batted balls after they were in play. Their average on balls in play was 25th, though the Astros were 13th in average exit velocity and 11th in their contact percentage, which Statcast defined as “hard hit,” or coming off the bat with more than 95 miles per hour. Astros expected batting average was .249, fifth best in MLB. In reality, Houston was 12th at .248.

Perhaps the biggest endorsement of Houston’s offense is that it was fundamentally unlucky and still finished sixth in baseball in wRC+ (112). It also helped that the Astros hit 214 home runs, fourth most in the league. If you’re looking for a change in Houston’s approach since the firings of Lunow and Hinch, it might be here: Since 2020, Astros hitters have started swinging an uppercut they hadn’t before. The team’s launch angles have been around 14 degrees over the past three years, compared to 11-12 for Luhnow and Hinch. (The league average is about 12 degrees.) The Astros aren’t hitting more home runs than they used to, but swinging for the fences likely helped offset the losses of Correa and Springer, who averaged 28 and 36 home runs per 162 games, respectively, during of your career. Also helpful is the revolutionary strategy of “having Jordan Alvarez,” the 25-year-old designated hitter who hit a career-high 37 bombs this year.

From a pitching standpoint, the Astros have come up with a relatively simple formula: pour on the heat and throw in a few extras for balance. They threw fastballs 51.7 percent of the time, a noticeable jump from numbers in the 40s the previous three years. For the entire staff, their average fastball was 94.2 mph, led by two relievers (Ryan Stanek, Brian Abreu, and Hunter Brown) at 96-plus. But even the Astros’ starters are throwing extremely hard: Justin Verlander (95.1) leads a crew of others who are in the 93-94 range. The Astros pitching staff also got plenty of strikeouts with a combination of sliders, curveballs and cutters, all pitches that have posted positive numbers over the course of the Astros’ season. Verlander’s fastball, it will surprise no one, was the most valuable pitch of anyone on Houston’s staff, costing 24 runs better than average on the year. (Verlander is throwing a harder fastball at age 39 in 2022 than he was at age 29 in 2012.)

The targeting staff makes things easy enough for the defense. Houston’s slugging percentage was 26 percent, just a hair behind the league-leading New York Mets. But the defense also held its own, producing the third-lowest batting average allowed in play (.268). The Astros are one of the most shift-obsessed teams in baseball, going all out in halftime. The Astros were fifth in Defensive Runs Saved (67). Of those runs saved, 34 came from inside shifts and another 13 from outside shifts, not anything specifically done by a player. The Astros do have some brilliant defenders, including shortstop Jeremy Peña (15 saves) and right fielder Kyle Tucker (13). But more than anything, Houston is what happens when an elite team on the field meets perfect defensive planning behind it. The result was a 2.90 staff ERA, which ranked second behind the Dodgers. And they’ve been typically stingy in the postseason, as opponents are scoring just 2.6 runs per game against them.

One thing that is not holding in the playoffs is the offense. At least somewhat. The Astros are scoring 4.4 runs per game, down slightly from the 4.6 they scored during the regular season. Some of their best forwards (Peña and Bregman in particular) are still struggling, but some have had brutal stretches. Tucker has a .634 playoff OPS and Altuve has all three hits in 32 at-bats. The Astros’ appalling conceit all year has been that as good as they’ve been, their offense has had room to grow if a few balls bounce their way. You can judge how likely it is that Altuve will continue to hit .094 against the Phillies.

Add it all up, and Houston built an unassumingly dominant regular season and playoff run on the pillars of being good at just about everything. But for such a working team, it will be hard for the Astros to go under the radar if they finish the job ahead with a bang, completing an undefeated postseason. And it’s going to be even harder to deny these Astros’ place in history as one of the greatest teams in baseball history.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Leave a Comment