The Astros’ Staff Is the Best Ever*

*Or would be, if the season ended today.

We know the Astros’ pitching staff has been absurdly dominant.

The truth is, they’re historically dominant at the moment.

Just a season after the Indians became the first team to strike out 10 batters per nine innings, set a record with a 27.5% strikeout rate, and finish with the highest pitching WAR total of all time (31.7), the Astros are a threat to top those marks.

The Astros have already recorded 11 WAR this season, while the next closest pitching staff, that of the Red Sox, has 7.9. The Astros are on pace to shatter the Indians’ WAR mark, and their 10.35 strikeouts per nine and 29.6% strikeout rate would also be records. Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Justin Verlander — who was outstanding against Wednesday — all have sub-2.00 ERAs.

(The Astros and Indians met last weekend, with the Astros taking two of three games, and Houston travels to Cleveland for a four-game series beginning Thursday. Get your popcorn ready.)

The Astros rotation alone has accumulated 8.9 WAR. With just over one quarter of the season played, they are on pace to surpass the 1970 Cubs and 2011 Phillies rotations, which have the all-time WAR record of 26.0.

Of course, WAR is an imperfect way to compare eras, as it is an accumulative measure and there are more games played today. If you’re trying to compare starting pitchers, for instance, they have a lesser workload in the modern game. A better way to compare pitching staffs of different eras is to employ a measure like ERA-, which adjusts for park and run-scoring environments.

Here’s the most remarkable Astros pitching fact: by ERA-, the Astros are the best staff of all time at the moment. Let’s think about that. Since 1901, there have been 2,512 team seasons, and the Astros currently have the top ERA- mark in history.

To Date, The Astros Are The Best Staff Ever
Team Season ERA WAR ERA-
Astros 2018 2.39 11.0 59
Cubs 1906 1.75 17.6 66
Cubs 1909 1.74 22.4 68
Cubs 1905 2.04 17.2 69
Cubs 1907 1.73 17.8 70
Athletics 1910 1.79 16.4 73
Cardinals 1944 2.67 22.5 74
Athletics 1926 3.00 21.1 74
Indians 2017 3.30 31.7 74
Yankees 1939 3.31 14.6 74

Their FIP- of 69 would also stand as another MLB record.

By more traditional measures, the Astros’ 2.39 team ERA stands as the best of the Live Ball era and the best mark since the 1919 Cubs and Reds. The 1967 White Sox posted a 2.45 mark and the 1968 Cardinals posted a 2.49 ERA.

In 1969, baseball lowered the pitching mound. Perhaps baseball will have to lower the Astros’ mound when they are pitching.

The top 39 starting rotation ERAs of all time occurred prior to 1920. Ranking 40th? This Astros rotation.

How they’ve arrived here is remarkable in its own right. No one has spun gold like the Astros.

Last season, Houston turned Verlander and Morton into ace-level performers in the second half en route to a World Series run. This winter, they acquired another pitcher not maximizing his talent in Cole, a former No. 1 overall pick, and have turned him into Pedro Martinez circa 1999. The cost for the Astros was spare parts.

As you might have heard, the Astros are one of the teams that has seemingly focused on increasing fastball spin rate. Houston leads baseball in four-seam fastball spin rate at 2,377 rpm, about 100 rpm above average.

But the Astros have also made adjustments to the pitch type and location of arms with like Cole, Morton, and Verlander (as Jay Jaffe noted noted). Cole’s spin is up, but he’s also shelved his two-seamer, located his slider better, and pitched more up in the zone.

With the Astros, Morton elected to start throwing harder and stop throwing to contact. The Astros lead baseball in fastball velocity at 94.8 mph.

As Morton went away from a softer approach, the Astros have abandoned the changeup, throwing an MLB-low 450 changeups entering play Thursday.

Dallas Keuchel has been and remains one of the better starting pitchers in the game. Lance McCullers took his game to another level with extreme curveball usage last fall and has found ways to be effective without a great feel for the pitch early this season, as May resident Jake Mailhot explored. And this author is not even digging into the bullpen in this post, which still houses Ken Giles and Chris Devenski.

The Astros have acquired talented arms at discount prices and extracted a ton of value out of them. They’ve done it all without the help of a natural first-round selection — McCullers was selected 41st overall in 2012 — or a big-dollar free agent signing. That’s a pretty good model.

There is a copious amount of amazing Astros pitching facts. They have the lowest zone-contact rate (82.2%) in the majors. In fact, it is the lowest zone-contact rating as a staff in the pitch-tracking era. When opponents do make contact, they do so at the fourth-weakest rate in the majors, with an average exit veto of 87.2 mph. We could go on and on, but the point has certainly been made.

Maybe the Astros won’t keep this up. It is unlikely that they will. It’s an outlier of a level of performance. Still, to pitch this way for more than a quarter of a season is remarkable. Since the Astros didn’t arrive at this success primarily through the draft or high-dollar free-agent signings, more teams are going to become curious and attempt to copy their success. It will be interesting to see how long the Astros can hang onto their value-extracting competitive advantage. They’ve already created tens of millions of surplus dollars in added performance value and won a World Series title. We’ll have to see if others can catch up, but for now, the Astros have a chance to make some history.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

After the best offense ever last year. Houston isn’t fair

5 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

I’ll bet you they don’t win the WS this year. They were very fortunate to win it last year as they were down to their last game several times. Houston is playing well, but they are not some historic juggernaut… these historic claims are absurd.

5 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

They can be a historically great team, particularly in some specific facet of the game, while still not being likely to win the WS. Winning the WS is hard.