Is Houston The Best Hitting Team Of All-Time?

When baseball fans think of the greatest lineups of all time, they often list, in some order, New York’s Murderers’ Row, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine or the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates who scored over 20% more runs than any other team that season. But the 2017 Houston Astros have entered the discussion with an offense featuring Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and…Marwin Gonzalez?

Photo by Keith Allison

This year, while the media was (rightly) enamored with the 91–36 start by the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians’ record-setting 22-game winning streak, the Astros’ batters have quietly produced numbers that have not been seen in decades.

During the regular season, Houston led MLB in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In fact, their 127 OPS+ (on-base plus slugging, adjusted for ballpark, where 100 is the league average) was tied for the best in baseball’s modern era*. How dominant is that figure? The next-highest teams this year were the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees at 105.

As baseball enters its postseason, the Astros’ lineup features six batters with an OPS+ above 120; no other American League team has more than two such players. And that doesn’t include superstar shortstop, Carlos Correa (158 OPS+), who missed time with a torn thumb ligament and finished the season just 22 plate appearances short of qualifying.

Fangraphs.com prefers Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+; a measure of total offensive value, measured in runs, adjusted for ballpark and league environment) to OPS+. Houston’s wRC+ of 121 is the highest in the modern era of any lineup that did not include Babe Ruth.

Over the years, there have been teams that have clubbed more homers, scored more runs and reached base more often than the 2017 ‘stros. But OPS+ and wRC+ both help to provide an apples-to-apples comparison of offensive numbers across different eras and stadiums.

For example, in 2000, likely due to the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport, MLB teams scored an average of 5.14 runs per game and the league OPS was .782. This year, those numbers were 4.65 and .750, respectively. But because so many teams were putting up huge batting stats in 2000, the top team in OPS+ that year (San Francisco, 115) was nowhere near as dominant as Houston was in 2017.

Perhaps most impressively, this year’s Houston team led the league in most major offensive categories while playing in the toughest stadium for hitters in all of baseball.

Yet, as well as their lineup has hit this year, the Astros’ offense could have been even stronger. In the 2013 draft, the team took pitcher, Mark Appel, first overall. Third baseman, Kris Bryant, was selected by the Chicago Cubs with the subsequent pick. While Bryant went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and the NL MVP in his second season, Appel has yet to throw a pitch in the majors and has since been traded to the Phillies.

Regardless of that missed opportunity, Houston may be on its way to duplicating the accomplishments of the 1927 Yankees. Those two clubs currently hold the top two OPS+ ratings and (likely) produced their respective season’s MVPs in Lou Gehrig and Jose Altuve (the Astros’ second baseman led the AL in WAR, hits and batting average). Now as the playoff field is set, can Houston, like New York, also ride their historic offense to a World Series title?

* 1901–2017

Unless otherwise noted, all stats above are from Baseball Reference.

Originally posted on my site, Numericsports.com on October 2, 2017.

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