Marge: “And the next man wants to hit the ball too. And he does. And there he goes off in that direction. And everyone is happy.”
Bart: “Uh..Mom, why don’t you let me call the game?”
Marge: “That’s alright dear, I can do it.”
The New York Yankees won the World Series four times between 1996 and 2000. It’s probably the only stretch in the last several decades that one might consider a “dynasty”. Going back further, the next-most recent is probably either the early 70’s Oakland A’s. If you’re the type that doesn’t think winning three consecutive World Series qualifies, it’d have to be the Yankees of the late 40’s and early 50’s. These stretches of dominance don’t tend to happen much anymore with baseball up to 30 teams and eight (and later ten) teams qualifying for the postseason, so it’s only natural that we reconsider what a truly “great” run is for a major league team.
The Houston Astros are coming off of back-to-back 100-win seasons, with the first of the two culminating in a World Series win. The 2018 squad was arguably even better than the championship team, with the +263 (!!!) run differential being the largest that baseball had seen in the last 17 years. The odd thing is that they didn’t accomplish that mark by running up the score on everyone, but rather by allowing just 534 runs on the strength of the league’s best pitching staff.
Three (Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers, Dallas Keuchel) of the five pitchers that comprised the formidable Astros rotation are not pitching for the team in 2019, but the team is on pace to match that monstrous run differential anyway. That’s a testament to not only the Astros’ depth, but also their ability to acquire and develop talent. It helps that the two guys that have stuck around are twin aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who both sport astronomical strikeout rates. Both are extreme flyball pitchers, as you might expect given Houston’s gospel of spin rate (in particular, Cole’s batted ball profile changed dramatically upon arrival in Houston), but both guys limit quality contact enough such that it’s not a problem.
The results for the three replacements in the rotation have been mixed. Brad Peacock has served as one of baseball’s best swingmen for a couple seasons now, and he’s now getting another shot as a regular rotation member. His slider’s not as lethal as a starter as it is as a reliever, but he’s still a better-than-average pitcher. Lefty groundballer Wade Miley has been much more effective at limiting base hits since switching to a cutter-heavy approach in 2018. He’s not going to blow anyone away, but he keeps opponents off the basepaths enough to provide midrotation starter production. Collin McHugh is back in the rotation after a sterling season out of the bullpen. He’s been the rotation’s weak point so far. McHugh uses his slider over 40 percent (!!!) of the time, but it’s been his only effective pitch, as he’s been otherwise blasted for his command problems.
While the starting staff hasn’t been as dominant as it was in 2018, the Astros have been able to compensate with a strong bullpen and a lethal offense. Houston’s hitters have easily been the best in baseball this season, with every regular member of their lineup except for Yuli Gurriel posting a wRC+ of 118 or better. With virtually no weak points, it’s a slog for pitchers to get through the Houston lineup multiple times. In addition to exceptional depth, the lineup boasts some serious star power. George Springer is having the best season of his career, as he’s only five homers away from his 2018 total of 22. Alex Bregman‘s wOBA of .396 matches that of his 7.6 fWAR season from a year ago. Bregman’s the full package at the plate, as he boasts big power and roughly even walk and strikeout rates.
Free agent import Michael Brantley has turned it up a notch in his debut season in Houston. White Sox fans are well aware of Brantley’s ability to hit for average, but he’s found another gear in the power department to put his production on bar with his 2014 season, when he finished third in the AL MVP race. Robinson Chirinos has always packed big power behind the plate, but his value has often been limited by strikeouts and/or poor defense. This season, neither of those drawbacks have manifested themselves.
With the star power around him, it’s easy to forget Josh Reddick is on the Astros. Reddick makes his bones by maintaining a sky-high contact rate, which has translated to a .324 batting average this season. He’s not the defensive asset he used to be, but he’s still average in an outfield corner at age 32. Speedy Jake Marisnick is very good at running them down in center field and usually swats enough home runs to remain playable despite a problematic whiff rate. His BABIP sits at .413 right now, so Marisnick is getting on base at an unprecedented pace.
Thus far, I’ve covered how great nearly every Astros hitter has been this season without even a mention of their envious double-play combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. These two could carry many offenses, but in Houston’s lineup, they’re just two more guys. Altuve’s having some struggles this season with infield pop-ups and is currently out with a hamstring injury, but is an excellent candidate to shrug off those setbacks and be his old mashing self the rest of the way. Correa quietly had a pedestrian 2018 that he’s safely put behind him, as he’s back to mashing the ball with authority; his hard-hit rate is 25th in baseball. With this level of ridiculous production up and down the lineup, the pitcher’s mound at Minute Maid Park might as well post a sign reading, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever consider the current iteration of the Houston Astros a true “dynasty”, but in the AL West, they’re the kings of the castle, and one of the chief reasons that an 89-win Seattle Mariners blew their roster sky high. They’re going to give opposing pitchers fits for a long time to come. Todd Kalas and Geoff Blum undoubtedly boast better broadcasting talents than Marge Simpson, but Marge’s minimalist commentary above feels like it just about sums up the Astros offense.
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Monday, May 20: Ryan Burr vs. Brad Peacock
- Tuesday, May 21: Dylan Covey vs. Justin Verlander
- Wednesday, May 22: Ivan Nova vs. Gerrit Cole
- Thursday, May 23: Lucas Giolito vs. Corbin Martin
- George Springer – RF
- Alex Bregman – 3B
- Michael Brantley – DH
- Carlos Correa – SS
- Josh Reddick – LF
- Yuli Gurriel – 1B
- Aledmys Diaz – 2B
- Robinson Chirinos – C
- Jake Marisnick – CF
- SP1: Justin Verlander – RHP
- SP2: Gerrit Cole – RHP
- SP3: Brad Peacock – RHP
- SP4: Wade Miley – LHP
- SP5: Collin McHugh – RHP
- CL: Roberto Osuna – RHP
- RP1: Ryan Pressly – RHP
- RP2: Hector Rondon – RHP
- RP3: Will Harris – RHP