Looking deeper into the Astros strong offensive start

May 9, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros left fielder Norichika Aoki (3) hits a single against the Atlanta Braves in the sixth inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
May 9, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros left fielder Norichika Aoki (3) hits a single against the Atlanta Braves in the sixth inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports /

Back in the day, a team’s success outside of the almighty win-loss record were judged based on a handful of counting measurements. I know I was certainly guilty of this transgression when I started to watching the Astros as a child.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, or reside in Arlington, you may have heard that the Astros are winning. And winning quite often. A .676 winning percentage to be exact. This is by no accident as the front office’s plan for this franchise has come together relatively well thus far in 2017.

But where are the Astros besting their opponents in the not-so-obvious statistical categories? You know, the numbers beyond batting average and RBI. Well, I have three interesting statistics for you!

Statistic #1 – Z-Contact %

The common theme with the Astros since joining the American League in 2013 was their propensity for striking out. This essentially means that they swung at lots of pitches. Their league-leading 11.5% swinging strike percentage from 2013-16 attests to as much. This correlates with the team’s dreadful performance in making contact with pitches thrown in the strike zone.

From 2013-16, the Astros were dead last in Z-Contact % with an average 83.1% over that time period. For comparison sake, the Tampa Bay Rays were 29th over the same time and finished 2.1% higher than the Astros.

Fast forward to 2017 with a bit of lineup reconstruction, and you see a different result as the Astros now lead the league in Z-Contact % at 88.4%. Well, this number was good before yesterday’s game.

Part of this improvement has been due to the offseason acquisitions. For example, Nori Aoki currently has a 98.1 Z-Contact %. Josh Reddick comes in at 91.3%. Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann are hovering around 88.5%.  In fact, the only Astros batter with a Z-Contact% lower than 85% is Jake Marisnick. Unfortunately, he was at 70% before yesterday’s afternoon game.

Statistic #2 – wRC+

One statistic that I feel does a decent job of capturing how good an offense truly has to be wRC+. Sure, it is not the be all, end all of offensive metrics. But it does provide a good starting point that is easy to understand. Think of it in a similar fashion to OPS+.

Anyway, the Astros offense has been slightly below average offense in terms of this metric from 2013-16. A 97 wRC+ if you want an exact figure. This isn’t surprising as the Astros did have a few weak links in the lineup.

The offense, though, in 2017 has been one of the best in the early going. In fact, the team’s 121 wRC+ before yesterday’s game was the second-best in the game behind only the New York Yankees. Yes, the team that Houston is about to embark on a crucial four-game series with later today.

You can attribute part of this success to the team’s newcomers. McCann, for example, had a 135 wRC+ yesterday morning. Then you have the established Astros like Marwin Gonzalez (190 wRC+), Evan Gattis (146 wRC+) and Jose Altuve (135 wRC+) leading the way. It is easy to see why that the offense’s cumulative wRC+ has been one the highest in the game this year.

Statistic #3 – On-Base Percentage

Alright, alright, I know that on-base percentage isn’t exactly an obscure metric. Most, if not all, baseball fans have a certain degree of awareness for it. But the Astros on-base percentage has been relatively solid this season as they are currently ranked as within the top-four as a team (.343 OBP). This a step up from their average OBP, .311, from 2013-16 in which they were ranked 25th overall.

Like the other statistics that I mentioned earlier in this post, the team’s latest additions have allowed the Astros to make positive strides. See Brian McCann (.381 OBP). Then you have the longer tenured Astros who have gotten off to strong starts. See Gonzalez (.381 OBP), Altuve (.373 OBP) and Gattis (.372 OBP).

Next: Astros offense has continued to live up to the hype

The offense as a whole has seem to be a more balanced unit this year. In seasons past, the Astros leaned heavily on a home run or bust approach. CTH’s own Eric Huysman details in his latest post on how the Astros have evolved in this regard. Anyway you slice it up though, the Astros have improved on offense in more ways than one. And some weren’t in the most obvious of fashions. So pay attention to even the obscure metrics. Those often tell a story that we may otherwise ignore.

**Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs**