The 2019 Houston Astros have the best offense since the 1927 Yankees. That’s what the headline says, so there is no risk here of burying the lede. Really, there’s not much more to add. It’s true. The Astros have been that good.
OK, I’ll elaborate, since you look skeptical.
It all started way back in yesterday, when I scanned team batting stats on Fangraphs and noticed that the Astros’ 125 weighted runs created plus, wRC+, was the highest value of the past ten seasons.
Giddy with my findings, I immediately posted that fact in the Astros Talk slack channel, which you should totally join. Then, I went back to Fangraphs, and realized I might be cheating the ‘stros. I changed my search parameter to twenty seasons. Still on top. Thirty. Still number one. So I said, “Heck with this,” and searched the entire live ball era of Major League Baseball, which began in 1920.
Lest we forget, here are a few notes about wRC+ that are relevant to the discussion:
- wRC+ is a decently all-encompassing stat for measuring offense, as it includes components of hitting, power, plate discipline, and base running.
- wRC+ is a comparison stat, where 100 is a league-average performance. So the Astros’ 125 means their offense has been 25% more valuable in creating runs than a league average offense
- wRC+ is confined to that year only. So the Astros’ 125 is a comparison to a league average 2019 team, whereas the Yankees’ 126 is a comparison to a league average 1927 team.
OK back to the list. I see you down there at #5, 2017 Astros. Not too shabby.
Anyway, comparing any club to the 1927 Yankees is looked on as fairly taboo. It’s like trying to convince somebody that anybody can be as good as Michael Jordan, or Michael Phelps, or Michael Jackson. Numerically, it should be possible, but hahahaha, no.
For those of us who weren’t actually, you know, cognizant way back in the pre-Depression roaring 20’s, here’s a refresher on the 1927 Yankees:
The “Murderer’s Row” lineup, according to Wikipedia and probably other good sources that I am far too lazy to research, “is widely considered to be the greatest baseball team in MLB history.”
Babe Ruth (212 wRC+) batted .356/.486/.772 that season, hitting 60 home runs and scoring 158 times while knocking in 164 teammates. Yeah, this is the team with the Sultan of swat. The king of crash. The colossus of clout (the colossus of clout)…the Great Bambino!
Lou Gehrig (209 wRC+) hit .373/.474/.765 with a mere 47 home runs, 149 runs, and 175 RsBI. He won the AL MVP award that year.
Earle Combs (141). Tony Lazzeri (125). Bob Meusel (134). Pat Collins (112). But mostly Ruth and Gehrig.
That club, out of all 16 MLB clubs, led in runs over the 2nd place team by almost 130. They led in RBI by over 140. They led in home runs by 50 over the Rogers Hornsby-led New York Giants. They had the highest walk rate in the majors, comfortably over 10% (“The business of America is Moneyball” —Calvin Coolidge).
While the 1927 Yankees built their team-wide gaudy wRC+ largely on the efforts of five batters, the Astros of this season are nearly matching their greatness through ridiculous depth.
The Bronx Bombers featured six batters who reached 300 plate appearances with each performing at above a league-average level, but Ruth and Gehrig were so far beyond the output of any other player on the club, including Combs and his 141 wRC+, that it skewed the team average way upward.
The Astros feature eight players with more than 300 plate appearances and a wRC+ greater than 100. Four of those players have performances that equaled or bettered Combs’ 141, though only Yordan Alvarez’ 183 comes within spitting distance of Ruth or Gehrig.
Side note: If Alvarez actually had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, he would have the highest wRC+ in baseball this year, ahead of Mike Trout by a comfortable margin. That’s like saying, “if things were completely different, that would be awesome,” but still, it’s awesome.
Let’s compare lineups, to see how the Astros matched a legendary club.
Now, there is an obvious caveat to make. The ‘27 Yankees managed their world-beating 126 team wRC+ while batting a pitcher every time through the lineup. Presumably, Josh Reddick’s 92 wRC+ is a whale of a lot better than whatever the Bombers were trotting out as their “other” batter. But since every club in baseball at that time was hitting their pitcher 9th, wRC+ is still a valid comparison*.
*Yes, for those of you wrapped up in semantics, I do know that the DH rule can have an affect by propping up AL wRC+’s compared to NL wRC+’s, because the pitcher is likely to drag down a team’s average to closer to league average than a DH is, but work with me here.
Anyway, as noted above, after the Yankee’s best two batters, the advantage is all Astros. Similar overall result, very different lineup construction.
But there’s more. The dirty little secret to the Astros’ recent success isn’t really tanking for high picks, as most national pundits would have you believe. No, the true magic to the Astros of the late teens is roster depth. Compiling a roster of regular stars is quite a feat. But filling out the rest of the club with high-quality players that could be regulars on many/most other teams is the extraordinarily-underrated factor in team building that most other clubs and analysts can’t seem to grasp.
Like with 2017 (and 1927, for that matter), if this year’s version of the Astros manages to win a World Series, the names remembered will be Altuve, Bregman, Alvarez, Springer, Correa, Brantley, perhaps even Tucker…not Marisnick, Diaz, Straw, Toro, or Maldonado. But due to the Astros’ attention to the bottom half of their roster, there is no “weak spot”. There is no point of attack for opposing pitchers.
It may be a very long time before we see another player season like Ruth’s or Gehrig’s 1927. But the Astros, this year, are close to matching the offensive firepower of the game’s most celebrated lineup.
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