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The Astros Have Brought the Murderers’ Row Lineup Back to Baseball

Houston rode a dominant offense to a World Series title in 2017, but this year’s lineup is even better. How good? We have to head back to 1927 for a comp.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Astros offense in 2017 was one of the best in MLB history. José Altuve won the AL’s MVP award, Alex Bregman excelled in his first full season, and a cast of other sluggers from George Springer to Carlos Correa to a career-year Marwin González led a group that, on the whole, hit 21 percent better than the league average. That was the fourth-best mark of all time, behind only three Ruth-Gehrig Yankees teams. It’s no wonder the Astros won the World Series.

The 2019 version is somehow even better. This year’s Astros finished with a 125 wRC+, meaning they hit 25 percent better than average after adjusting for ballpark and league context. That mark ranks second in MLB history, behind only a lineup so dominant that it earned the nickname “Murderers’ Row.” The top five single-season offenses in MLB history now belong exclusively to the old-time Yankees and modern Astros.

Best Offenses in MLB History

Team wRC+
Team wRC+
1927 Yankees 126
2019 Astros 125
1930 Yankees 124
1931 Yankees 124
2017 Astros 121

The 2019 Astros had the best offense in baseball against righties and the best offense in baseball against lefties. They were no. 1 at home—by a massive margin; the second-place Dodgers were as close to league average as they were to Houston—and no. 3 on the road. They were the best in batters’ counts and the best in pitchers’ counts. They were the best in day games and tied for the best in night games. They were best in the open air and the best under a retractable roof.

So while much of the focus this summer was on Houston’s outrageous top of the rotation, via the Zack Greinke trade and Cy Young showdown between Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the offense is just as impressive. It’s yet another reason the Astros are overwhelming favorites to win the World Series, even in a field loaded with talented playoff competitors.

Assessment of the Houston lineup in 2019 begins not with a holdover from the 2017 World Series winner, but instead with a newcomer and youngest member of the group. Designated hitter Yordan Álvarez came to Houston in a quiet trade at the 2016 deadline; the Dodgers signee hadn’t played an official game in the L.A. organization before leaving for Houston, in exchange for reliever Josh Fields. That deal now appears an absolute steal.

Álvarez bashed his way to the majors by this June, and he never stopped hitting after the promotion. Among all rookies in MLB history with at least 300 plate appearances, Álvarez finished with the second-best battling line, at 78 percent better than average. Shoeless Joe Jackson, a rookie in 1911, ranks first; Aaron Judge ranks third. And the big Cuban fits especially well on this Astros team, as he and fellow left-handed-hitting newcomer Michael Brantley have helped balance a lineup that had tilted right-handed at the top (not that that skew ever stopped the group from producing).

Álvarez is sure to win the AL’s Rookie of the Year award this season, likely by unanimous vote, and he might not be the only award winner in Houston’s lineup. (Given that either Cole or Verlander will win the Cy Young, the 2019 Astros might become the first team to win all three major player awards.) Whether Bregman deserves the MVP award ahead of the injured and playoff-absent Mike Trout is a debate for another column; what isn’t a debate is Bregman’s absolute dominance at the plate this season.

Once overlooked in an infield with Altuve and Correa, Bregman has matured into the Astros’ best position player, full stop. This year he led the majors in walks and was the only qualified hitter with more walks than strikeouts—and he had 43 percent more BBs than Ks. He also ranked ninth in both isolated power and strikeout rate, making him the rare player who has mastered all three true outcomes.

It also marks the continuation of a trend for Bregman. Across three full seasons, the Houston infielder has improved his walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power every year—as well as more traditional statistics like batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, runs, and runs batted in, all of which have mapped the same consistent upward trajectory. By wRC+, Bregman was the third-best qualified hitter in the majors this year—and for good measure, when he’s not manning third base, he can play a competent shortstop if Correa is hurt.

While Álvarez and Bregman are the awards fodder, they are still just the tip of the Astros’ slugging iceberg. Springer clubbed 39 homers—tying a record for a leadoff hitter—despite missing time due to injury, and enjoyed by far his best batting season by rate stats. Altuve bounced back from a slow start and missed month by hitting a typically Altuvian .320/.363/.581 following a return from injury in June. Brantley was a worthy All-Star in his first season as an Astro.

In sum, of the nine Astros likely to start in a playoff lineup, eight rated above average at the plate this season, and seven of the nine were at least 30 percent above average. First baseman Yuli Gurriel ranked seventh among the group in 2019 wRC+, and he still ranked in the top quartile of qualified MLB hitters.

Astros Position Players in 2019

Player Position Total wRC+ wRC+ in Second Half
Player Position Total wRC+ wRC+ in Second Half
Yordan Álvarez DH 178 172
Alex Bregman 3B 168 197
George Springer CF 156 157
Carlos Correa SS 143 151
José Altuve 2B 138 161
Michael Brantley LF 133 126
Yuli Gurriel 1B 132 163
Robinson Chirinos C 113 110
Josh Reddick RF 94 81

The core was just as hot, if not hotter, after the All-Star break, from which the most absurd statistic about the Houston offense emerges: In the season’s second half, the Astros had five of the top 11 qualified hitters in the majors. No other team had more than one such player that high up the leaderboard.

That count doesn’t include Correa, who missed too much time in the second half to qualify. In his absence, the other Astros fared so well that Correa, one of the team’s foundational stars and a player who hit better than every American League shortstop this season except Bregman, might have been Wally Pipped from his lineup spot: When he returned from injury midway through September, he hit seventh in Houston’s batting order. It was his first time starting a game anywhere lower than sixth; he’s spent most of his career batting third or fourth, helping anchor the middle of a competitive lineup. And yet, who was he going to bump down? Everyone else had been crushing the ball for months.

From a team-building perspective, one fascinating angle about this indomitable lineup is that of the nine players listed above, Bregman is the only one to arrive in Houston directly via the Astros’ multiyear tank. For reference, GM Jeff Luhnow joined the front office after the 2011 season, at which point Altuve (an amateur free agent signed in 2007) and Springer (a first-round pick in 2011) were already members of the organization. Correa was Luhnow’s first draft pick with the Astros, but they “earned” that no. 1 pick by losing 106 games the year before Luhnow took control. Chirinos, Gurriel, Brantley, and Reddick all signed free-agent contracts with Houston. And Álvarez joined in a trade.

That split speaks to Houston’s ongoing player acquisition and development efforts even after the tank concluded and the team’s fortunes flipped. The Astros have targeted the right players and helped develop others, and they have succeeded particularly by reducing team strikeouts while retaining other offensive gains. Four of the top nine qualified hitters in lowest strikeout rate this year play for the Astros, and the club has both acquired hitters—like Brantley and Gurriel—who don’t strike out and pushed its own draftees to limit their strikeout totals. Bregman’s strikeout percentage has fallen by half since his rookie season, from 24 percent to 12, and Springer’s has dropped from 33 percent to 20.

The Astros are thus the first team in MLB history to lead the majors in both most strikeouts as a pitching staff and fewest strikeouts as a lineup. For the last three seasons, since they became annual 100-game winners, the Astros have dominated both categories.

Astros’ Leaguewide Strikeout Ranks

Year Batting Pitching
Year Batting Pitching
2017 1st 2nd
2018 2nd 1st
2019 1st 1st

These assorted advantages all conspire to make the Astros a clear World Series favorite. Before this postseason began, FanGraphs’ playoff odds gave Houston a 35.2 percent chance of winning the title—an astounding number with so many teams left in contention. The second- and third-place teams by that measure, the Dodgers and Yankees, had combined odds lower than Houston at 32.9 percent. An archive of these playoff odds dates back to 2014, and Houston is by far the greatest favorite in that span.

World Series Favorites Entering the Playoffs, 2014-19

Season Team Odds Playoff Result
Season Team Odds Playoff Result
2014 Tigers 23.7% Lost ALDS
2015 Dodgers 22.9% Lost NLDS
2016 Dodgers 23.5% Lost NLCS
2017 Indians 22.1% Lost ALDS
2018 Astros 24.0% Lost ALCS
2019 Astros 35.2% ???

As that chart demonstrates, though, preplayoff favorites are no sure thing, and even the overwhelming Astros’ odds mean they have a two-thirds chance of not winning the championship. The recent history of the best lineups is no more encouraging: From the start of the wild-card era through 2018, 22 teams had a wRC+ of 115 or better (not counting pitchers, to allow National League teams to compete on an even field), and just five won the title. Of course, the 2017 Astros were one of those five, but even they required two Game 7 victories along the way to the championship.

Playoff Outcomes for Teams With Elite Offenses, 1995-2018

Result Number of Teams Percent
Result Number of Teams Percent
Missed playoffs 1 5%
Lost wild card game 1 5%
Lost division series 8 36%
Lost league championship series 3 14%
Lost World Series 4 18%
Won World Series 5 23%

Funnily enough, the Astros will have to navigate through a thicket of other elite offenses if they are to secure another title. Both the Yankees (117 wRC+) and Twins (116) rank among the top 25 offenses in league history, and they both outscored Houston this year, despite the Astros’ advantage in rate stats. That’s largely because those teams hit better than Houston with runners on base and in high-leverage situations and thus did a better job “clustering” their hits together to score runs, and we shouldn’t expect them to retain that boost going forward.

But they certainly have imposing offenses too, and Houston will have to beat one of them in the ALCS, if they first advance past the Rays. Then they might have to play the Dodgers, who turned in a 118 wRC+ (excluding pitchers) this season. So it’s a good thing that—oh, yeah—the Astros have a terrifying pitching staff too.