If the metrics provide any context, the Astros had one of the more unique offenses in baseball history.
The 2017 Astros had a truly memorable season. Anytime a team wins the World Series, well, it’s a season worth remembering. In fact, one could argue that the team’s offense was the primary reason why they performed so well in 2017.
If you research baseball metrics on Fangraphs, you are probably familiar with wRC+. In case you aren’t familiar, wRC+ stands for Weighted Runs Created Plus. It’s basically an attempt to quantify a player or team’s offensive value. The cool aspect about wRC+ is that it is park- and league-adjusted. This essentially permits us to reasonably compare players or teams regardless of the ballpark, league and different years.
To tie it back to the 2017 Astros, the team’s total wRC+ (121) is tied for eighth-best in baseball history. Out of the top ten teams in terms of wRC+ from 1871 through 2017, the Astros are one of only four teams in the top ten to not to play in the late 1800’s. The other three teams? Well, the legendary Yankees from the late 1920’s to early 1930’s. You know, the “Murderer’s Row” Yankees? That’s impressive company. Once adjusted for the dead ball era following the 1919 season, the Astros’ offense ranks in fourth place behind those Yankees’ teams mentioned above.
Alas, the wRC+ is only part of the uniqueness.
As you may be aware by now, the Astros finished with the lowest strikeout percentage (K%) in baseball this most recent season at 17.3%. This quite a stark reversal from the team’s then-record strikeout percentage in 2013.
Of course, the 2013 and 2017 teams were much, much different in terms of player personnel. The 2016 Astros and their 23.4% strikeout rate are a far better comparison for that very reason.
If you were to compare the two most current Astros on an individual basis on Fangraphs, you will notice plenty of 2016 hitters with a bit of 2017 littering the top of leaderboard when sorted by striekout percentage. Jake Marisnick, the usual backup outfielder, led all Astros in strikeout percentage – 34.7% – in 2017. Former Houston catcher Jason Castro is found with a 32.7% strikeout percentage in 2016. Carlos Gomez had a 31% strikeout percentage before the Astros cut him in the 2016 summer.
If you notice in the leaderboard, a notable quantity of high strikeout players in 2016 were no longer on the team in 2017. Alas, there were still plenty of players in 2016, such as Evan Gattis, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez and Alex Bregman that struck out a decent clip, who remained with the club in 2017. However, there was improvement from multiple players in this metric. Springer specifically comes to mind first and foremost as he experienced a 6.3% decrease in strikeouts. Now, that’s something. Combine this with the additions of Josh Reddick and Brian McCann, who do not strikeout as often as their Houston predecessors, then you can see why the team’s overall strikeout percentage dropped from one of the highest to one of the lowest.
Also, the Astros managed to increase contact by a notable amount.
For example, the 2017 edition of the offense finished with a contact rate of 81.2%. This was the third-best in Major League Baseball since 2016, trailing only the 2016 Red Sox at 81.6% and the 2016 Angels at 81.5%. The 2016 Astros, for comparison sake, finished with a 75.5% contact rate.
The Astros essentially experienced a 5.7% increase in contact rate and a 6.1% decrease in strikeouts. Normally one would conclude that the Astros sacrificed strikeouts for contact. This would imply that the team also sacrificed power for the sake of contact. After all, most of the teams that traditionally hit for more power also experience more strikeouts. The “Crush City” Astros of 2015 had a similar narrative.
However, the Astros in 2017 did not sacrifice power for the sake of contact and less strikeouts. No, Houston simply transformed into a more complete and efficient offense in general. They just didn’t surrender outs.
Take the team’s Isolated Power metric (ISO) as another example since this is a metric that calculates how often a team or player hits for extra-bases. In 2016, the Astros had a .170 ISO. This measurement was tied for 31st amongst all thirty teams in a two-season window. Coincendentally, the Astros also finished 31st in total home runs in the same period with 198. The 2017 Astros were much better in both categories with a .196 ISO – first overall – and 238 total home runs – third overall – in the same time period.
Teams do not usually gain plate discipline, power and contact at the same time. Take the Brewers as an example.
Milwaukee gained 34 home runs in 2017 over their 2016 counterparts. Their ISO raised from .163 to .180 in the same period. However, the Brewers’ strikeout rate barely climbed from 25.5% to 25.6%. The Astros gained 40 home runs along with a .026 raise on their ISO while dropping their strikeout rate by 6.1%. And once you account for the contact percentage, you will also notice that the Brewers in the past two seasons finished in the bottom five in contact percentage. The Astros raised their contact percentage, once again, by 5.7%. The Brewers gained more power and home runs, but saw their contact percentage and strikeout rate climb. Compared to the Astros progress and that’s just ridiculous.
In review, the Astros and their bats did something that is truly unique. First, they rank amongst the top ten best team offenses in terms of wRC+ in baseball history. This offense also managed to raise their Isolated Power, home run total and contact percentage while decreasing overall strikeout rates between the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Besides a decrease in walk rate from 2016 to 2017 by 0.7%, the 2017 Astros did something that isn’t likely in today’s baseball. If you didn’t know, today’s baseball is being further impacted by the three true outcomes: a walk, a strikeout or a home run. In a major way, the Astros’ unique offense helped drive them to their first World Series title. Let us hope that next season continues the trend.
**Statistics and data courtesy of Fangraphs**