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Oh Yeah, the Astros Have the Best Lineup in the Majors, Too

While dominant pitching steered Houston for the season’s first two months, the bats have woken up in June to propel the reigning champs to a lengthy winning streak and the chance at a historic feat

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We never really forgot about the Astros. Not after they won the World Series last fall and added Gerrit Cole over the winter; here at The Ringer, we’ve written about Cole and the rest of Houston’s overpowering rotation and reigning AL MVP José Altuve. At the start of this month, Michael Baumann ranked the Astros no. 2 and said they had a case for top billing in his leaguewide power rankings.

But amid ever-churning—and, this season, heightened for reasons both physical and strategic—Yankees–Red Sox drama, Shohei Ohtani mania, and, lately, budding Mariners excitement, Houston at least had the appearance of falling off the AL radar.

Even allowing that thought to disseminate was foolish. The Astros, fresh off a 12-game win streak, have loudly reasserted themselves in the national conversation. Alex Bregman walked off with a two-run double on Monday; Evan Gattis drove in five in consecutive games; Altuve decided to start reaching base like 2017 Altuve again. Despite a few mortal turns through the rotation, Houston’s staff is still the best in baseball, and the lineup has now joined its pitching counterparts atop the league leaderboards. The Astros’ soul-reaving offense is back, and the rest of the league should be very afraid.

The extremes of this current hot streak are noteworthy, but they were also somewhat expected. After splitting a two-game series against the Mariners on June 5-6, the Astros embarked on a stretch of potentially 36 consecutive games against teams without a winning record, and they took immediate advantage. The result is Seattle, despite winning eight of its past 12 games, falling from one game ahead of Houston to two behind in that span. After Tuesday’s streak-busting loss against Tampa Bay, the Astros’ overall record sits at 49-26.

Thanks in large part to a 7-13 record in one-run games, even that overall record, which puts Houston on a 106-win pace, understates the team’s dominance. The Astros’ plus-157 run differential is the best in the majors by more than 50, and they are on pace to outscore their opponents by 339 runs this year. Even scaling that number back to account for regression, Houston could easily become the 10th team in MLB history with a plus-300 run differential—and only the third (after the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners) to do so since 1939.

The pitching has remained indomitable. With a 1.60 ERA, Justin Verlander is the AL Cy Young favorite, the rest of the rotation has followed his lead, and the likes of Collin McHugh (1.13 ERA) and Héctor Rondón (1.67 ERA, plus four saves in the past two weeks) have stabilized the bullpen. At the moment, Houston’s teamwide ERA-, which adjusts ERA for ballpark and league environment and places it on a scale in which 100 is average, is just 72, which would be the lowest mark for any team in more than a century.

But the story of this month has been the awakening of Houston’s offense. As recently as May 21, smart analytical websites were running “what’s wrong with the Astros offense” pieces, yet less than a month later, the Astros have reclaimed their batting throne. Over the full season, Houston is tied for first in wRC+ (which adjusts batting statistics to account for ballpark and league context on a scale in which 100 is average) with the Yankees, who are also the only team to score more runs per game.

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The top of the lineup is just as fearsome as it was a season ago. George Springer retains historically atypical power from the leadoff spot; Bregman’s bat has continued to improve, as he now boasts a wRC+ one point higher than Kris Bryant’s; and Altuve and Carlos Correa, despite not quite reaching their highs of 2017, are still the most formidable double-play combination in the majors. (Since Michael Baumann wrote about Altuve’s superficially underwhelming start in mid-May, the second baseman is hitting .392/.449/.560.) Of the top four hitters in Houston’s lineup, Springer and Correa share the designation of worst batting line, yet their 132 wRC+ marks still rank them among the top 35 qualified hitters in the majors.

It’s possible that only one other lineup in modern MLB history featured a regular top four to match Houston’s. Entering Tuesday’s game, those Astros were all flashing an OPS+ (Baseball-Reference’s counterpart to wRC+) north of 135, and the Baseball-Reference Play Index reveals that only the top four hitters for the powerhouse 1976 Reds, who won 102 regular-season games and swept their way through the NLCS and World Series, can say the same. (The 1903 Cleveland Naps might also qualify, as they had four everyday players at that OPS+ or better, but they played so long ago that their batting orders are unavailable.)

Beyond the top of the order, the Astros’ depth elevates the lineup to historic levels. They were so impressive last year—running the best wRC+ for any team since the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees—in part because out of their 11 players with the most trips to the plate, 10 posted above-average offensive numbers; this year, that proportion is 10 out of 12. The Astros are a tough out one through nine, which further stresses pitchers who already have to worry about facing that gantlet at the top.

Ten out of 12 above-average hitters mean two are average or below-average, of course, but even there, Houston has ready-made replacements for its underachievers. Depth pieces Max Stassi (134 wRC+) and Tony Kemp (130) have effectively spelled Brian McCann (84) and Jake Marisnick (40), respectively, and Stassi in particular has been a revelation: The 27-year-old rookie backstop has been as strong a hitter as Khris Davis and rates as the majors’ best framing catcher.

The lineup has reached another level in June, scoring six runs per game, and the Astros haven’t relented once. Bashing from the designated hitter spot, Gattis alone has 23 RBI this month; the Royals as a team have 34. Here is the pitcher line of every opposing starter during Houston’s win streak, in chronological order:

  • 4 innings, 3 runs
  • 7 1/3 innings, 5 runs
  • 5 innings, 5 runs
  • 6 innings, 3 runs
  • 3 innings, 6 runs (5 earned)
  • 4 2/3 innings, 6 runs
  • 1 1/3 innings, 8 runs
  • 5 1/3 innings, 7 runs (5 earned)
  • 5 1/3 innings, 6 runs
  • 6 innings, 7 runs (6 earned)
  • 6 innings, 3 runs
  • 1 2/3 innings, 0 runs

Besides Rays opener Ryne Stanek in the most recent win, the most effective starter in that span still allowed three runs; seven of the 12 pitchers allowed at least one run per inning. The identities of those victimized pitchers suggest that Houston hasn’t been steamrolling the stiffest competition—not one would belong in the Astros’ own rotation—but even middling MLB starters don’t typically suffer those numbers outside of batting practice.

The Astros roster is so strong from top to bottom—at FanGraphs, Marisnick (-0.1 WAR) is the only position player who has been below replacement level, while no pitcher has been—that fretful Houston fans have resorted to worrying about the lineup’s lopsided home-road split that favors the latter. Except last season, the Astros posted a 121 wRC+ at home and a 121 wRC+ on the road, and nobody who watched all the fireworks in Game 5 of the World Series can reasonably suspect that Minute Maid Park will strain Astros hitters going forward.

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Even the bullpen, long derided because of its October mishaps and nominal closer Ken Giles’s continued volatility, has been sturdy overall and—there’s a theme here—one of the best in the league. Astros relievers rank third in ERA and are tied for the MLB lead with—who else—the Yankees in strikeout-minus-walk rate, with a 23.8 percentage point difference; the next-closest team is a full five ticks away.

Taken together, the Astros have a strong chance to finish the season with the majors’ fewest runs allowed and most runs scored. Given the rotation’s unprecedentedly scorching start, the former was a fait accompli as early as May, and Houston now leads the closest team—the Cubs—by nearly half a run per game. The latter will be more of a challenge, given the Astros’ current standing just behind New York, but it’s hard to imagine doubting a lineup that includes all the important pieces from last year’s dynamic group, plus reinforcements in cases of regression, and will benefit from another uninterrupted month of easy competition. If they accomplish the dual feat, they’ll join a list of just five other teams in MLB history—and only one (the 2001 Mariners) that has led the league in both categories since World War II.

Houston likely won’t win 116 games like those Mariners did, as it’s underperformed its run differential and is instead projected to win “only” 104 games, and fending off the 2018 Mariners is a more pressing concern, anyway. At the Astros’ current pace, though, it might not be long before they have carved out a week’s worth of breathing room atop the AL West. Seattle will be hard-pressed to keep up with Houston as the Astros trample through the dregs of the American League, but then again, it would be hard for anyone to keep Houston’s current pace. The Astros are that deep, and that talented, and that consistent on a night-to-night basis. They’re the defending World Series champions, and they’re probably even better than they were in their title-winning campaign.