The Astros Have a Completely New Look

To whatever extent the Astros are going to have issues, they probably won’t have to worry too much about the lineup. As Mike Petriello recently wrote, said lineup looks to be incredibly deep. Based just on Steamer and our present depth charts, the Astros project to have easily the best-hitting lineup in the American League. The Red Sox come in second, but they trail by more than 30 runs. Steamer is just one system, and ZiPS will join it soon, but the point is made clear: The Astros offense looks good. They’ll score a bunch.

Yet something else has taken place, quietly. As the Astros have built a better order, there’s also been a rather significant side effect. I can’t tell you whether it’s been intentional, or whether it’s been a coincidence. But if you can believe it, the Astros are going to make contact. In fact, they project to be very nearly the best contact-hitting lineup in the game.

This is something that fell out of my research on the Royals Monday afternoon. I looked at all the team projections because I wanted to see where the Royals would rank in various stats, but that same process allowed me to evaluate all the other clubs. I already knew the Astros had made a number of offseason changes, but this particular change hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t normally associate the Astros with putting the ball in play.

My stat of choice here is non-pitcher strikeout rate. Shouldn’t be anything controversial about that, and it lets me put AL and NL teams on the same scale. For some background, Jeff Luhnow took over the Astros following the 2011 season. In 2012, the Astros had the second-highest team strikeout rate in baseball. In 2013, their rate was the highest, and in 2014, it was the highest again. In 2015, it went back to second-highest, and then in 2016, it was fourth-highest. That was their best contact-hitting lineup in years. In terms of making contact, on a relative scale, it sucked.

And 2017? Again, I looked at everyone. Again, I considered the Steamer projections. The Astros’ team strikeout rate projects to be the second-lowest. They’re actually more or less tied with the Red Sox for first place. Here’s what this looks like as a plot:

That covers the Luhnow era, and the plot here does the heavy lifting. It tells the story by itself, so there’s not really all that much for me to add. In terms of MLB rank, the Astros project to improve in this category by 25 slots. Out of 30 teams! In second place we find the Padres, projected to improve by 15 slots. And then the Indians are projected to improve by nine. There are a number of teams looking to make more contact in the season ahead, but for the Astros, this resembles a total team makeover.

In fact, here’s another way of looking at things. Non-pitchers for the Astros project to strike out about 17.7% of the time. Last year, they struck out 23.4% of the time. Therefore, there’s a projected improvement of 5.7 percentage points. Here’s where that would slot in the top 10 year-to-year team strikeout-rate improvements since 1950:

Biggest K% Drops Since 1950
Team Year 1 Year 2 Y1 K% Y2 K% Change
Astros 2016 2017* 23.4% 17.7% -5.7%
Brewers 2001 2002 22.1% 17.3% -4.8%
Rangers 2009 2010 20.4% 15.6% -4.8%
Mariners 1986 1987 18.6% 14.0% -4.6%
Diamondbacks 1998 1999 19.5% 15.2% -4.3%
Braves 2014 2015 21.5% 17.3% -4.2%
Orioles 1968 1969 15.0% 10.8% -4.2%
Diamondbacks 2010 2011 24.2% 20.0% -4.2%
Padres 2016 2017* 23.9% 19.8% -4.1%
Marlins 2014 2015 22.2% 18.3% -3.9%

First place, and first place pretty easily. The difference between first place and second is the same as the difference between second place and tenth. It’s worth acknowledging that Steamer projects a very slight league-wide improvement in contact hitting, and that would buck recent MLB trends. If Steamer is low on strikeouts overall, that would make the Astros look a little bit better, through this lens. But a little league adjustment alone wouldn’t erase the advantage in that table, not by itself. The Astros are probably going to make one of the biggest contact-hitting improvements in modern baseball history.

That table has a good number of recent teams. That’s not a coincidence — with strikeout rates rising every year, it’s become easier to move around by multiple percentage points. Changing by 5.7 points is more feasible now than it would’ve been 30 or 40 years ago. So for a different scale, the Astros are projected to trim their strikeouts by 24.2%. That’s percent, not percentage points — it’s an important difference. They’re projected to trim their strikeouts by almost a quarter. That would be the fourth-best rate improvement since 1950, and the single best rate improvement since 1987. We’re talking a few decades.

Projections are projections, and certain things could go wrong. We all know that. But it’s not like this is coming out of nowhere. Last year, 11 Astros hitters batted at least 250 times. This year, 11 Astros hitters are projected to bat at least 250 times. Five such players are holdovers. Last year, they struck out 20% of the time. This year, they’re projected to strike out 20% of the time. There is an improvement in there, in the decimals, but it’s less than one percentage point.

The real key is the other players. Last year’s six struck out a combined 27% of the time. This year’s replacement six are projected to strike out just 16% of the time. Jason Castro is gone, replaced by Brian McCann. Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez are gone, replaced by Josh Reddick and Nori Aoki. Carlos Beltran isn’t particularly strikeout-prone, and he’ll bat most days. Alex Bregman has an excellent minor-league record of contact. We know the least about Yulieski Gurriel, but in last year’s cup of coffee, he whiffed just a dozen times in 137 trips. It’s not that every single Astros player now is a contact hitter, but the projected group difference is huge. I don’t know if they intentionally prioritized more contact, but I can’t imagine they’ll complain.

It’s contact-hitting. It’s still somewhat unsettled, with regard to its importance. It lets the defense make more mistakes, but it also lets the defense try to turn more double plays. At the end of the day, a good offense is a good offense, no matter what. But, yesterday I wrote that the Royals will have a new team style. Clearly, the same can be said of the Astros’ batting order. Under Luhnow’s watch, the Astros haven’t seemed to care about contact at all. Now they’ll be taking a page from the Royals’ old playbook. I’ll be damned.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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JJWattsArmBrace
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JJWattsArmBrace

So much has been made about the need for a front line starter, but when you look at the Astros model, having one of the great bullpens of the last half decade last season coming back in full, and, obviously, the clear preference this offseason for contact oriented hitters, it’s hard not to get a Royals-y vibe from the team, which is even further reinforced by the fact that the Astros were 2nd in DRS last year, also a Royals hallmark. Who knows if this type of team was the objective from the get-go, but the similarities are pretty undeniable.