Although the Astros’ lineup didn’t exactly live up to the (unrealistic) expectations, the 2018 iteration did a fantastic job in one category.
Let’s cut right to the chase: the Astros‘ lineup was one of the best about generating contact last season. At a rate of 79.9%, Houston only trailed the Indians in the same category by less than one percent. What about the season before, you know, the championship one? Houston finished with a 81.2% contact rate, which was the best in baseball. While a high contact rate doesn’t necessarily translate into an above-average offense, generating contact is one of the primary goals of a hitter.
The amazing part about the Astros last season was the high contact in spite of the notable absences from Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, who are among the club’s best hitters. And don’t forget about regression and various slumps that affected the club throughout the season. While the club won a franchise-best 103 games last year, there is no doubt that the Astros were far from full health.
The additions of Michael Brantley and Robinson Chirinos along with a few departures somewhat changes the construction of the Astros’ lineup in 2019. However, the lineup should still generate notable amounts of contact next season. For one, Brantley led all qualifying hitters in contact rate at 90.9%. If you include Brantley from last season, the Astros now have four of the top-thirty — Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and Altuve — in last season’s contact rate leaderboard. In case you’re wondering, the likely departure, Marwin Gonzalez, finished 87th on the list.
If everyone is healthy by Opening Day, in theory, the Astros shouldn’t have a problem replicating their high contact approach from recent years. For a lineup, a high contact rate might lead to terrific offensive production. Key word: might. Yes, a high contact rate lineup doesn’t always translate into an average or above-average offense. Here is an example where two similar contact rates can have different results when compared to total offensive production.
Giants: 75.9% contact rate, 82 wRC+
Yankees: 75.7% contact rate, 111 wRC+
Similar contact rates, but a wide difference in offensive quality that hinges on so many other factors. The Astros were not too far off their collective contact rate when you compare 2018 numbers to 2017, but the offense as a unit wasn’t quite as potent. Not exactly a thorough analysis or anything, but out of all clubs (12) with at least a 100 wRC+ in 2018, the average contact rate was 77.7%. It all depends on what kind of contact is generated (ground ball, line drive) along with a wider range of factors. In shorter terms, contact rate is a color of paint in a work of art, not the entire portrait.
That said, I do expect to see the Astros’ lineup rebound to a degree next season. I do believe that the ball wasn’t quite as “juiced” in 2018, which led to a decline in offensive performance, especially in the power department. But Houston should continue to generate a fair share of contact next season as they make one more run at postseason glory.