The Houston Astros' Offense Is Relentless
Just about any way you slice it, the 2017 season has already been a successful one for the Houston Astros.
While the Cleveland Indians used an incredible second half to capture the American League's best record, Houston manager A.J. Hinch steered his club to a 101-61 record, which is their best regular-season performance this century. It was the first time Houston produced a team with 90-plus wins since 2004, and if we use win-loss record as the barometer, the only other Astros team that performed better than this group during a regular season was the 1998 squad, which produced a 102-60 mark.
Furthermore, with their recent victory over the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series, this is also the deepest they've gone into October since winning the National League pennant and reaching the World Series in 2005. But for a club that's only reached the Fall Classic that one time (and got swept by the Chicago White Sox, to boot), these guys likely have a championship-or-bust mentality at this point, and rightfully so.
We're still waiting to find out whether they'll be facing the Indians or the New York Yankees in the ALCS, but either way, Houston's dominant offense will be waiting to do damage against any opponent.
Excellence in the Regular Season
The Astros boasting a terrific offense heading into the postseason shouldn't be any surprise. After all, they were easily the most productive group throughout the 162 games they played beforehand. Their team wRC+ of 121 and team wOBA of .349 were far-and-away the best marks produced by any team in baseball this season, but it goes beyond just 2017. While that team wOBA falls a little short, the wRC+ Houston produced is the best we've seen since 2000, just barely edging out the 2003 Red Sox (120 wRC+) and 2007 Yankees (119).
They accomplished this because of an incredibly deep lineup. The below table shows a projected lineup, per Roster Resource, with each player's Isolated Power (ISO), fly-ball rate (FB%), hard-hit rate (Hard%), and wRC+ from the regular season. As a frame of reference, the league averaged a .173 ISO, a 35.5% fly-ball rate, a 31.9% hard-hit rate, and a 98 wRC+ in 2017.
Carlos Beltran is the clear weakness in this particular lineup, but it's worth noting that his numbers against left-handed pitching (34 wRC+, .092 ISO) were much worse than they were against right-handed pitching (94 wRC+, .172 ISO). This group also doesn't include Evan Gattis -- he typically faces those southpaws, and while his 92 wRC+ seems a little low, his .207 ISO ain't too shabby.
There are two other things in particular that makes this offense so impressive. One is that they blended a mixture of power (their team .192 ISO ranked fifth-best in baseball) with the league's lowest strikeout rate (16.8%) and the most runs scored (853). The other is their consistency -- Houston's active roster produced a 118 wRC+ against southpaws in the regular season (tied for the highest in baseball), while their 123 wRC+ against righties was easily the league's best.
Dicing Up the Red Sox
While the Astros were riding a top offense into October, postseason baseball is usually filled with elite pitchers, whether we're talking about the starting rotation or the bullpen. The Red Sox were no different in this regard and proved to be an interesting challenge.
Chris Sale got a lot of attention, which made sense due to his 17-8 record, 2.90 ERA, 2.58 SIERA, and 36.2% strikeout rate. However, Boston boasted one of baseball's best pitching staffs in 2017, evidenced by an ERA (3.61), fWAR (22.8), SIERA (3.68), and strikeout rate (26.3%) that all ranked no lower than sixth. And what did the Astros do in this situation? Well, they did what we've seen all season -- they mashed.
The Astros hit .333/.402/.571/.973 in this ALDS. That's a better OPS than Jose Altuve's regular season.
— Tim Britton (@TimBritton) October 9, 2017
If we want to further put this line in perspective, there were only six hitters qualified for the batting title who produced an OPS higher than that .973 mark (Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Joey Votto, Giancarlo Stanton, Charlie Blackmon, and Freddie Freeman). That's pretty good.
And despite playing just four games (spanning a total of 147 at-bats), Houston is among the postseason leaders in runs scored (24), doubles (9), homers (8), and RBI (22).
Looking Ahead to the ALCS
The two AL clubs that were consistently either on par with or better than Boston's production on the mound during the regular season were, in fact, the Indians and Yankees. Here's how their regular-season numbers match up against one another in the metrics we talked about in the previous section.
No matter which team the Astros play, even if Houston can knock out a starting pitcher in the early innings, they'll still have to deal with one of the two best bullpens in baseball with regard to SIERA and strikeout rate. It's not going to be easy, but nobody ever said that advancing to the World Series would be a cakewalk, ya know.
However, based off a full season of excellence and more of the same against a good pitching staff in the ALDS, the Astros should feel confident about continuing to score a bunch of runs in the ALCS, regardless of who they face.