The Astros are baseball’s most businesslike buzzsaw

Since 1976, no one has won a World Series without losing a postseason game. Of course, Major League Baseball’s playoffs were smaller back then: The ’76 Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies in a three-game National League Championship Series and then swept the New York Yankees in a four-game World Series. The playoffs were an even more exclusive affair before that, as the World Series was the only playoff series until 1969 when MLB added their two championship series. Twelve teams won the World Series between 1907 and 1966, defeating the other playoff team from the opposing league.

So the currently undefeated Houston Astros would be approaching new territory even if baseball hadn’t extended its postseason yet again this year. They won 106 games during the regular season to skip the league’s new wildcard round and started their playoff run with a three-game Divisional Series win against the Seattle Mariners and a four-game rout against Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees. A win over the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series would win the Astros 11-0 in the playoffs, a postseason record the likes of which MLB has never seen — although even winning a five- or six-game series certainly has them would make the most dominant playoff teams of all time. Their only recent rivals have been the 2005 Chicago White Sox and the 1998 Yankees, who went 11-1 and a piece of metal, respectively.

Dominance of one kind or another is nothing new to the Astros. The last time they didn’t get at least the ALCS was in 2016, just weeks before Donald Trump was elected president. Her success was transferrable, too: It didn’t end when MLB got her to quit cheating, or when manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow went into exile in the wake of that scandal. It didn’t end when various stars (Gerrit Cole, George Springer and Carlos Correa) left the team in free hands. But if there’s anything unique about the 2022 Astros, it’s how quietly they’ve approached their success. They are not quite as soaring as in other seasons. Her 2019 World Series runner-up had an OPS of .848, the highest in MLB from 2017-2022 by a 16-point margin. Your winner of the 2017 series wasn’t far behind. (This year’s team had 111 OPS+, a far cry from 2017’s 123, which again led every team from 2017 through 2022.) The 2019 team had a plus-280 run differential that broke every other MLB- Season-batting Dodgers posted a plus-334 margin. The Astros used to be loud, not just when they pounded trash cans, but in how they filled out stat sheets. Now they’re something else: the most relentless, boring buzz saw in baseball.

Despite turnover and turbulence in the front office and dugout, the Astros enjoy plenty of continuity. Second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman have been lynchpins for their entire run post-2017, but the roots run deeper than them. Every hitter on the starting lineup has been part of the organization since at least 2019, and every starting pitcher since at least 2017, but often longer. The Astros’ development tastes may have changed somewhat with Dusty Baker and James Click replacing Hinch and Luhnow as manager and GM, respectively, but there are obvious holdovers in the way the Astros play and what they do well.

The Astros’ identity on offense has revolved around putting the ball in play for years. Of the league’s 180 individual team seasons since 2017, no Astros team ranks in the top 30 in exit velocity or in the top 15 in launch angle. They’ve hit plenty of home runs, but only their 2019 team, which hit one in 4.5 percent of plate appearances, is in the top 25 by Dinger rate in that span. Where the Astros really stood out was in bringing wood to leather. The top three-ranked teams for the 2017-2022 period in contact percentage — how often the bat gets on the ball — are all newer Astros teams, who were in contact between 79.5 percent and 78.9 percent of the time. (At 76.8 percent, the 2022 team ranks 23rd.) Being selective helps, and the Astros have a long history of doing a good job of not swinging on bad pitches. During that period, they chased just 26.8 percent of balls from the batting zone, the fifth-lowest rate in MLB. Overall, they’ve swung a lower percentage of pitches (45.7) than any franchise except for the Yankees and Dodgers during those years.

This year, the Astros have been more aggressive. They swung at 48 percent of pitches, the 15th-highest rate in the league. However, their highly coordinated batsmen still put wood on the ball as their contact rate was second only to the Cleveland Guardians. Not coincidentally, Houston had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the league and the eighth-highest walk rate. The Astros were one of those at least happy teams in baseball in terms of what happens to their batted balls once they’re in the game. Their in-game batting average was 25, though the Astros ranked 13th in average exit velocity and 11th in the percentage of their contact that Statcast defined as “hitting hard,” or exceeding 95 miles per hour came from the racket. The Astros exct The batting average was a .249, the fifth best in MLB. In fact, Houston was 12th at .248.

The biggest confirmation of Houston’s offense might be that they were fundamentally unlucky and still finished sixth in baseball in the wRC+ (112). It also helped that the Astros hit 214 home runs, the fourth most in the league. If you’re looking for a change in Houston’s approach since the Luhnow and Hinch shots, here it might be: Beginning in 2020, Astros hitters began swinging with an uppercut they didn’t have before. The team’s starting angles have been around 14 degrees over the past three years, up from 11-12 below those of Luhnow and Hinch. (The league average is about 12 degrees.) The Astros aren’t hitting more homers than they used to, but swinging for the fences likely helped weather losses from Correa and Springer, who average 28 and 36 homers per 162 games, respectively to have. or during their career. Also helping is the revolutionary strategy of “having Yordan Álvarez,” the 25-year-old designated hitter who hit a career-high 37 bombs that year.

In terms of pitching, the Astros have found a relatively simple formula: Pour in the heat and throw in a few treats for balance. They threw fastballs 51.7 percent of the time, a significant jump from the numbers in the 40s over the past three years. Staffwide, her average fastball was 94.2 mph, led by a few fireball assists (Ryne Stanek, Bryan Abreu and Hunter Brown) at 96+. But the Astros’ starters are also throwing extremely hard: Justin Verlander (95.1) leads a crew of others sitting in the 93-94 range. The Astros’ staff have also made many outs with a mix of sliders, curveballs, and cutters, all courts that have had positive run stats over the course of the Astros’ season. Verlander’s fastball, unsurprisingly, was the most valuable pitch of anyone on the Houston staff, worth 24 runs better than average throughout the year. (Verlander throws a harder fastball in 2022 at age 39 than he did in 2012 at age 29.)

The pitching staff makes it easy enough for the defense. Houston’s employee strike rate was 26 percent, just a hair behind the New York Mets at the top of the league. But defense also held their end, producing the third-lowest average allowed for balls in play (.268). The Astros are one of baseball’s most shift-obsessed teams, putting it full-on half the time. The Astros finished fifth in defensive runs saved (67). Of those saved runs, 34 were from infield shifts and another 13 were from outfield shifts and not from anything a player was doing in particular. The Astros have some brilliant defenders, including shortstop Jeremy Peña (15 saves) and right fielder Kyle Tucker (13). But Houston is primarily what happens when an elite pitching team meets ideal defensive planning behind them. The result was a 2.90 personal ERA that placed second behind the Dodgers. And they’ve usually been stingy in the postseason, with opponents only putting down 2.6 runs per game against them.

One thing that has not being held up in the playoffs is the offense. At least somehow. The Astros are averaging 4.4 runs per game, down slightly from the 4.6 they hit in the regular season. Some of their best thugs (Peña and Bregman in particular) still rake, but some had brutal stretches. Tucker has a .634 playoff OPS and Altuve has all three hits in 32 at-bats. The Astros’ chilling conceit all year was that no matter how good they were, if a few balls bounced their way, their offense had room to grow. You can assess the likelihood of Altuve continuing to hit .094 against the Phillies.

When you add it all up, Houston has built an unassumingly dominant regular season and playoff run built on being good at almost everything. But for such a skilled team, it will be difficult for the Astros to fly under the radar as they finish the task at hand with a sweep and wrap up an unbeaten postseason. And it will be even harder to deny these Astros their place in history as one of the greatest teams in baseball history.

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