An all-time great offense in 2017 is yielding to what’s shaping up to be an all-time great pitching staff in 2018.
The Astros bludgeoned their way through Major League Baseball last year on the back of a historically great offense. You likely already know this, but please indulge me: it’s FUN to recount just how truly dominant they were.
They led baseball in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. Looking for more advanced metrics? You got it. They were also first in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), weighted on-base average (wOBA), isolated power, contact rate, and offensive fWAR.
They ascended to the top of all these categories (and several more) while recording the fewest strikeouts in baseball, perhaps their most incredible feat given the rocket-like rise in strikeouts across baseball.
Altogether, you could argue, quite definitively, that the 2017 Astros were one of the five greatest offenses since the end of the dead-ball era.
Seasons that good are often rooted in one-year wonders, flukes and career years, and prove difficult to repeat. Sure enough, the Astros’ offense thus far in 2018 is making its way back to planet Earth.
Don’t misread that as criticism.
This is still a very good offense. However, the team is on pace to hit nearly 70 fewer home runs, strike out almost 400 more times, and their team OPS is down more than 80 points. Looking for more advanced metrics? You got it. Their wRC+ is down 12 points, and their wOBA is off by 20.
Despite the, well – drop-off (I’m using that term VERY loosely), the 2018 Astros are a game better (16-8) than their record-breaking 2017 counterparts (15-9) through 24 games and currently boast a +56 run differential, the second-best in baseball behind Boston.
The surge is due in large part to the pitching staff, which, after watching the offensive fireworks last year, has kindly asked the offense to hold its beer.
The Astros’ pitchers are in the midst of putting together their own historically great season.
Their current team ERA of 2.21 leads baseball and would rank as the best figure since 1967. Their K/9 (10.60) and strikeout rate (29.4%) are also on a historically great pace, and would each represent single-season MLB records. Additionally, they lead baseball in skill interactive earned run average (SIERA) and expected independent fielding pitching (xFIP), and their 1.04 WHIP (which is currently second behind Cleveland) would break the Major League record of 1.10.
Anchoring the team’s rise has been an otherworldly starting rotation. Three starters – Charlie Morton (0.72), Justin Verlander (1.10) and Gerrit Cole (1.29) – rank among the top six in ERA with Morton (2.33) and Cole (2.59) landing top seven in xFIP. (Lance McCullers. Jr., at 2.76, joins them in the top ten.) Cole (12.60) and McCullers (12.33) are top ten in K/9 with Morton (11.88) just missing (he’s 12th) while Verlander (10.74) is 18th. Only one other team (Atlanta) has as many as two pitchers in the top 20; the Astros have four.
And we haven’t even mentioned former Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel who, you know, started game one of the World Series, and all…
Since an uncharacteristically ugly McCullers start April 11 in Minnesota, the Astros’ starters have taken it up a notch. Over their last ten starts, they’ve totaled 75 innings and posted a 1.44 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 2.78 FIP and struck out 89. They’ve yielded 43 hits to the 279 batters faced – a rate of just 15% – while striking out 32%.
Best part? It may be contagious. The much-maligned Ken Giles has been lights out in his last five outings (0 earned runs, 0 walks, one hit in four innings) while Colin McHugh, who has not seen regular season bullpen action since 2013, has a 2.56 FIP and 0.72 WHIP in 9.2 innings of relief. He’s teamed with Chris Devenski (one earned run, 11 strikeouts in ten innings) and Hector Rondon (1.36 FIP; ten strikeouts in 9.1 innings) to provide some much-needed bullpen stability while Giles, Brad Peacock, and Joe Smith have struggled to get their footing.
Together, the bullpen has posted a 2.49 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 65 innings.
There were some early season worries that this 2018 version of the Houston Astros did not look like the 2017 version we all fell head over heels in love with, which was inevitable given the offense was almost certainly not going to be that good again.
But into that history-making void has stepped a pitching staff that is on pace to rank as one of the best the game has ever seen.
It’s kind of nice to be an Astros fan these days…