Last season, the Astros were awful. There aren't enough negative words to describe what went wrong with that team's offense, up to and including Lance Berkman's spring training injury and a couple other players struggling mightily. Through the first three weeks, there were on a historically awful pace. I know I sometimes use hyperbole, but they really were on a 400-run, historically bad pace.
But, this season has been different. The Astros are not awful offensively, but it's hard to tell whether the change is permanent or just a product of some bad stretches of pitching. I thought it'd be productive, then, to look at where the Astros are sitting right now, how they compare to last season, how they compare to a 3-year average of Houston offenses and where they rate in relation to the rest of the league.
First things first. Let's look at where Houston is sitting right now. Through 22 games, the Astros are hitting .266/.318/.389 with 63 extra base hits and 97 runs scored. They have struck out 171 times and walked 51 times. They're fourth in the National League in batting average, 11th in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage, second in doubles and second-to-last in home runs. They're also fifth in runs scored.
Last season, Houston played 22 games in April, so we have the perfect sample size to compare things to. In April 2010, the Astros hit .236/.280/.329 with 70 runs scored, 45 extra base hits, 39 walks, 139 strikeouts. They were last in doubles, home runs, runs scored, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and second-to-last in batting average.
So, immediately, there is marked improvement in walks and power hitting. Not so much on home runs, but Houston hit as many doubles this month as they did all extra-base hits last season. The strikeouts were up, but that's not a completely terrible thing. In every facet, the offense was much, much better than last April.
But, we knew that. And, looking at the numbers, this offensive output in 2011 is almost identical to what the Astros put up in the second half of 2010. In the second half, Houston hit .259/.311/.379 and scored 4.1 runs a game. Houston is a bit better so far this season, with .3 more runs and slightly higher slash lines. But, at the same time, we're comparing a 22 game sample to 73 games last season.
I guess the point I'm trying to show is that this offense is doing exactly what it did in the second half. We shouldn't be surprised by that, but is it good enough to be considered an improvement over recent history?
If we look at the three years previous to last season's apocalypse, Houston had an average line of .261/.324/.409. 2010 marked the first season since 1996 that Houston had a slugging percentage under .400 for an entire season. This team obviously has some work to do on that score. Also, the on-base percentage is still too low. 2009 was the first season since 1992 that the OBP was below .320.
There's something to be said for incremental improvement, but Houston is still not good enough in a historical sense. In comparison to the current National League, Houston still has the lowest walk rate, but is sitting in the middle of the pack on weighted On-Base Average.
That fifth-place setup in runs scored is no mean accomplishment either, but what's very worrisome about this Houston offense is that it's second in the National League in batting average on balls in play. The only team with a higher BABiP is the Cubs, which means this success may not last. Houston is still not getting on base enough nor hitting for enough power to win consistently.
If there is a silver lining, it's that the World Series champion San Francisco Giants had a line of .257/.321/.408 with a walk rate just 1.7 percent better than Houston's right now. I'm not comparing Houston's rotation to the Giants, but that offense helped them win a title.
Look for improvement in the coming months to come in the form of home runs and walks. Without that, Houston won't win any more games than they're expected to.