The Well-Rounded Astros Are a Handful on Both Sides of the Ball

© Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Runs have been hard to come by this postseason. Through Sunday’s games, pitchers have done an extremely effective job of limiting opposing offenses, holding hitters to a collective .213/.279/.361 batting line and a .283 wOBA. They’ve struck out 26.7% of batters faced, which would rank as the highest postseason rate of this strikeout-friendly era despite regular-season rates dropping nearly a full percentage point this year. The expected stats back up the offensive struggles – or, perhaps more appropriately, the pitching achievements — of playoff teams so far. Batters’ .220 xBA, .287 xOBP, .372 xSLG, and .292 xwOBA would all be the lowest of the Statcast era. Pitching staffs have managed to limit home runs to 3.1% of plate appearances – the lowest rate since 2018 – and held run production to 3.72 runs per team-game, over half a run lower than in the regular season. It remains incredibly difficult to hit a baseball.

And yet despite that harsh run environment, the Houston Astros have thrived, sweeping the Mariners and the Yankees en route to their fourth World Series appearance in six years. All but one of their wins have been by a margin of one or two runs, but as close as they might have come, Houston’s opponents have yet to figure out how to beat a team that seems to be doing just about everything right. Since Justin Verlander allowed six runs over four innings in an uncharacteristically bad ALDS Game 1 start, the Astros pitching staff has allowed just nine earned runs in 68.0 innings (a 1.19 ERA), while their offense has outscored their opponents 31-18 through seven games.

Much of Houston’s run production in the playoffs has come on the strength of the home run, which comes as no surprise for a team that made a habit of leaving the yard during the regular season. Astros hitters ranked second in the American League with 214 regular-season home runs, trailing only the Yankees’ 254; they scored 46.3% of their runs via the long ball. In the ALDS, it was more of the same. Three home runs powered a comeback in Game 1, culminating in an instant classic playoff moment from Yordan Alvarez. Alvarez would hit another go-ahead homer in Game 2, one of a pair on the night for the Astros. And in Game 3, it was a Jeremy Peña leadoff shot in the 18th inning that made the difference in the Astros’ clinching win. In the ALCS, Houston hit another six home runs, including game-winners in each of the first three games. The Astros have homered in 4.2% of their plate appearances this postseason, seemingly immune from the dip in home run rate experienced by their peers. We know home run hitting to be a recipe for success in the playoffs, and that is being borne out again this postseason, with the two top teams by home run rate headed to the World Series on Friday:

Team Playoff Home Run%
Rank Team PA HR HR%
1 Astros 283 12 4.2%
2 Phillies 386 16 4.1%
3 Yankees 318 12 3.8%
4 Braves 140 5 3.6%
5 Padres 443 15 3.4%
6 Mets 106 3 2.8%
7 Dodgers 148 4 2.7%
8 Blue Jays 77 2 2.6%
9 Guardians 271 5 1.8%
10 Mariners 221 4 1.8%
11 Cardinals 71 1 1.4%
12 Rays 84 1 1.2%

While the Astros are launching go-ahead home runs in their biggest games of the year, it’s easy to forget the role that contact plays in their offensive approach. In the regular season, Houston had the second-lowest strikeout rate (19.5%) and fourth-lowest swinging strike rate (10.2%) in the majors, and this skill set has been on display through their first two playoff series as well. Astros hitters have struck out in just 21.6% of their plate appearances, the lowest rate among the eight Division Series teams by a margin of nearly three percentage points. Led by Yuli Gurriel, who hasn’t struck out in 30 postseason PA so far, and Alex Bregman, who has done so just twice in 32 PA, they’ve put the ball in play in 69.6% of team plate appearances, the highest rate among Division Series teams. In the ALCS, Houston put nearly 30% more balls in play than New York, striking out 25 times to the Yankees’ 50. All this has come despite the struggles of Jose Altuve, typically one of the top contact hitters in the game, who has fanned in 11 of 35 postseason PA:

ALCS Batting Contact Stats
Statistic Astros Yankees
Strikeouts 25 50
K% 17.4% 35.2%
Whiffs 60 78
Balls in Play 103 80

There have only been six instances this postseason where a lineup has struck out six or fewer times in a game. The Astros have been responsible for three of those, including in Game 1 of the ALCS, when they became the first team to strike out as few as two times in a postseason game since 2016 (Verlander and the Houston bullpen struck out 17 Yankees). It’s an impressive facet of perhaps the most well-rounded offense in baseball – in the regular season, no other team hit 200 or more home runs while striking out less than 20% of the time. And their well-roundedness has become a bit of an organizational calling card – during the Astros’ six-year playoff streak, just eight teams have reached those milestones, including the Astros in each of five full seasons:

The 200/20% Club
Year Team HR K%
2022 Houston 214 19.5%
2021 Houston 221 19.4%
2019 Houston 288 18.2%
2018 Cleveland 216 18.9%
2018 Houston 205 19.5%
2018 Boston 208 19.9%
2017 Houston 238 17.3%
2017 Cleveland 212 18.5%

Of course, there’s more to the game than hitting, and what the Astros’ offense has done best, their pitchers have been particularly effective at keeping opponents from doing well. As effective as Houston’s offense has been at the home run, the pitching staff has been every bit as impressive in limiting their opponents’ power. Through seven games – four against the best home run hitting team in the majors in the Yankees, and three against the Mariners, a top-10 home run team in their own right – Astros pitchers have allowed just five home runs to 282 batters faced, good for the lowest home run rate (1.8%) among the eight Division Series teams. It’s a continuation of what Astros pitchers, led by Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and, when healthy, Lance McCullers Jr., did well in the regular season, when they led the AL with 0.83 HR/9.

Astros pitchers have also limited contact generally, perhaps best illustrated by that ALCS Game 1 performance, after which’s Sarah Langs noted that the 17-to-2 strikeout margin was the broadest in postseason history. Houston’s staff was among the very best in the majors at limiting contact during the regular season, leading the AL with 1,524 strikeouts, a 9.49 K/9, and a 12.5% SwStr%, becoming the first team in modern major league history to strike out more than nine batters per nine innings while allowing as few as 0.83 HR/9. On the road to the World Series, they led the eight Division Series teams with a 31.6% strikeout rate, averaging 11.13 K/9. And in the ALCS, many of the strikeouts came with huge impact – of their 23 highest-leverage plate appearances, the Yankees went a remarkable 1-for-23 with 13 strikeouts and no walks, scoring just twice. By comparison, in their 11 highest-leverage trips to the plate, the Astros went 5-for-10 with a walk, two homers, nine runs, just one strikeout and the crucial error from Gleyber Torres on a potential double-play ball in the seventh inning Sunday that played a role in swinging Game 4 for Houston, adding 7.0% to their win probability:

Astros Pitching in Top Leverage PA
Rank Game Score Event Inn RoB Out LI Batter Pitcher
1 ALCS 4 up 6-5 Out b9 0 3.41 Jose Trevino Ryan Pressly
2 ALCS 2 up 3-2 Out t8 1– 1 2.9 Aaron Judge Bryan Abreu
3 ALCS 2 up 3-2 SO t8 -2- 2 2.9 Giancarlo Stanton Bryan Abreu
4 ALCS 2 up 3-2 SO t9 0 2.83 Anthony Rizzo Ryan Pressly
5 ALCS 2 up 3-2 SO t9 1– 2 2.76 Matt Carpenter Ryan Pressly
6 ALCS 1 up 4-2 SO t8 12- 2 2.68 Matt Carpenter Ryan Pressly
7 ALCS 4 up 6-5 Out b9 1 2.55 Harrison Bader Ryan Pressly
8 ALCS 4 up 6-5 SO b8 0 2.46 Josh Donaldson Rafael Montero
9 ALCS 1 tied 1-1 SO t3 -23 2 2.27 Matt Carpenter Justin Verlander
10 ALCS 2 up 3-2 Out t8 0 2.15 Oswaldo Cabrera Bryan Abreu
11 ALCS 3 up 2-0 Out b5 1– 0 2.14 Josh Donaldson Cristian Javier
12 ALCS 2 up 3-2 SO t9 1 2.07 Gleyber Torres Ryan Pressly
13 ALCS 4 tied 0-0 1B b1 12- 1 1.94 Giancarlo Stanton Lance McCullers Jr.
14 ALCS 4 up 6-5 Out b7 0 1.91 Anthony Rizzo Bryan Abreu
15 ALCS 2 up 3-0 Out t4 -23 0 1.88 Anthony Rizzo Framber Valdez
16 ALCS 4 up 4-3 SO b3 1– 0 1.83 Josh Donaldson Lance McCullers Jr.
17 ALCS 4 up 6-5 Out b8 1 1.82 Oswaldo Cabrera Rafael Montero
18 ALCS 4 up 6-5 Out b9 2 1.75 Aaron Judge Ryan Pressly
19 ALCS 1 tied 1-1 SO t3 -23 1 1.75 Josh Donaldson Justin Verlander
20 ALCS 2 up 3-2 SO t7 0 1.73 Josh Donaldson Framber Valdez
21 ALCS 3 up 2-0 SO b2 1– 0 1.66 Matt Carpenter Cristian Javier
22 ALCS 3 up 2-0 CS b5 1– 1 1.65 Oswaldo Cabrera Cristian Javier
23 ALCS 4 up 4-3 SO b3 –3 2 1.64 Isiah Kiner-Falefa Lance McCullers Jr.

After 162 games, the margins that separate teams like the Astros and Yankees over a seven-game series can seem thin. These were the two best home run-hitting offenses in the American League – the Yankees led the league with 254, followed by Houston’s 214, and at the end of the regular season, the Yankees had a 115 team wRC+, while the Astros boasted a 112 mark. Their pitching staffs also separated themselves from the rest of the AL, allowing the fewest runs and home runs of all AL teams and finishing first and second in ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/9, and HR/9, albeit with the Astros leading the field in each category. Particularly in the tight run environment of this year’s playoffs, the ALCS was set up to be a competitive series.

But ultimately, the Astros wholly outperformed the Yankees, and thanks to timely home runs supported by a complete offensive approach, as well as effective power and contact management by the pitching staff, they’re headed back to the World Series hot off their second consecutive sweep and fourth straight advancement in playoff meetings with New York. Houston’s two-headed snake – their homer-happy, contact-rich offense and power-suppressing, whiff-inducing pitching staff – has made for a winning combination, and the Phillies will have their hands full in the Fall Classic. That said, the Phillies have had their hands full for three rounds in the crapshoot that is the postseason, and after going 10-2 against three higher seeds, they seem to be rather comfortable in that position. We’ll see what playoff randomness has in store.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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mike sixelmember
1 year ago

Good stuff. Very well written!