The Astros are doing it again. Not cheating—we’ll get to that in a bit. No, the Astros are once again posting one of the best offensive seasons in MLB history. Welcome back to Houston’s sluggers.
That return wasn’t necessarily the expectation heading into this season. Even though they reached the 2020 ALCS, the Astros went just 29-31 in the regular season, qualifying for the playoffs only because of the expanded field. Injury depletion to the pitching staff was the main culprit, but the Astros’ offense didn’t help: After years at or near the top of the league, Houston ranked just 14th in the majors in runs and 17th in wRC+.
Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa didn’t hit; Alex Bregman regressed from an MVP-worthy hitter to a merely pretty good hitter; José Altuve suffered through his worst season at the plate. In the first (mini-)season following the revelation of their sign stealing during their title-winning 2017 campaign, the Astros’ offense was merely average—and then George Springer, the team’s best hitter in 2020, departed in free agency.
Now, however, 2020 looks like a blip. The 2021 Astros, winners of 10 games in a row, lead the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. They lead in runs per game (5.64) by such a wide margin that the second-place Dodgers are closer to 10th place than first. And that all-around performance elevates them beyond merely best-this-season status into best-of-all-time range.
This chart shows the best lineups in MLB history, as measured by wRC+, which adjusts for park and league context; teams from the shortened 2020 season are excluded here. (As a reminder, wRC+ is measured on a scale in which 100 is average and, say, 120 is 20 percent better than average, while 80 is 20 percent worse than average.)
Best Offenses in MLB History
|2003 Red Sox||120|
The Astros clearly aren’t strangers to the top of this list, but after all of their drama, the 2021 version’s presence registers as the largest surprise. The team’s deep lineup manifests in two key ways. First, the Astros don’t waste as many trips to the plate as any other team this season. Just 21 percent of the Astros’ total plate appearances in 2021 have gone to below-average hitters; the Dodgers, at 25 percent, are the only other team below one-third. (L.A. does match the Astros’ 21 percent figure if pitcher plate appearances are stripped away.)
Second, the Astros aren’t just avoiding below-average batters, but rostering almost enough well above-average batters to fill out a lineup. Seven of their eight qualified batters have a slash line more than 20 percent better than average.
Qualified Astros Batters
That tally of seven qualified hitters with a 120 mark or better ties the MLB record (with the title-winning 2009 Yankees), as does the team’s five qualified hitters with a 140 mark or better (with the 1953 Dodgers). Correa is finally healthy and productive at the same time as he prepares to enter free agency after this season. Gurriel is enjoying a career year. Michael Brantley remains an offensive metronome, and Yordan Álvarez and Altuve are back from injury and an apparent 48-game slump, respectively.
Yet the most remarkable stat about these Astros demonstrates their extreme strikeout avoidance relative to the most strikeout-happy season in MLB history. Houston’s hitters have struck out in 18.9 percent of their plate appearances this season—a full 3 percentage points better than second place. Look at the tremendous gap between the Astros and every other team.
The Astros are the league’s best team at avoiding strikeouts in essentially all situations: They have the lowest K rate against lefties and righties; in leverages low, medium, and high; with the bases empty and runners on; at home and on the road. They make the most contact on pitches inside the strike zone, and the most contact on pitches outside the strike zone. Their swing-and-miss rate on all pitches is just 8.5 percent—no other team is in single digits. (The Padres, Dodgers, and Giants rank second, third, and fourth, respectively, in lowest swing-and-miss rate; there’s a reason the NL West race is such a thrill.)
Compared against the broader league context, Houston is striking out 21 percent less than average, tied for no. 6 among all teams in the live-ball era. And the Astros are the only team in the top 10 to post above-average power numbers in the season when they struck out so infrequently—a rare feat specifically because homers and strikeouts often go in tandem.
Strikeouts don’t have to be a drag on the offense; on the other end of the historical spectrum, the 1927 Yankees struck out an astounding 63 percent more than the league average, tied for the third-highest mark ever. Among qualified hitters in 1927, the three highest strikeout rates belonged to Babe Ruth, Tony Lazzeri, and Lou Gehrig—three future Hall of Famers who anchored the Murderers’ Row.
But in a league overrun with whiffs, Houston is scoring runs, and winning games, a different way. Like with their overall offensive production, the Astros have resided at this level for years now—even in 2020, as they struggled to generate the same kind of walk and power numbers as they had in the past, and are this season. Here are the Astros’ strikeout figures by season dating back to 2015, when they first returned to the playoffs after their long tank and rebuild:
Astros’ Offensive Strikeout Rate
As a team, the 2021 Astros are not as dominant as their recent predecessors; both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project that they’ll finish with a win total in the mid-90s rather than the 100s they managed each year from 2017 through 2019. The rotation could use another reliable starter, and the bullpen especially needs an extra shutdown arm or two.
But this offense is just as spectacular as the 2017 and 2019 versions that came before it and propelled Houston to the World Series. And either the Astros figured out a new, undetectable way to cheat amid heightened scrutiny—it’s impossible to prove a negative—or else they’re slugging clean, powered by years of shrewd player acquisition and development.
Here’s where the sign-stealing elephant enters the room, especially given that this weekend, the Astros play a four-game set against the Tigers and old friend A.J. Hinch, who was fired as their manager and suspended from MLB for a year after the scandal emerged. But here’s also the place to acknowledge that the switch flipped in 2017 in part due to personnel changes, not trash-can chicanery alone. As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote in the offseason before the 2017 season, the Astros projected—without any consideration of sign stealing—to vault up the strikeout-rate leaderboard because they exchanged high-K hitters like Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gómez for low-K bats like Bregman and Gurriel, who both played their first full seasons in 2017.
Blatant cheating is blatant cheating, no matter how effective, and the Astros deserve all manner of scorn and derision thrown their way. The 2017 title will live forever with an asterisk. To say that various pieces of inferential evidence suggest the banging scheme didn’t actually work all that well—as numerous other analyses already have—does not remove any of the tarnish that stains their trophy.
Yet if anything, the team’s continued success on offense generally and strikeout avoidance more specifically after the sign stealing stopped makes the scandal look even worse. The Astros didn’t need to cheat, but did so anyway. They’re Richard Nixon, ruining his legacy by spying on the Democratic National Committee even though he would have routed George McGovern in the 1972 election without breaking the rules.
Stats through Tuesday’s games.