Batting average; it's an obvious gap in this new era of Astros baseball. It's been noted by many and debated by all. Does it matter? Does it not? Doesn't saber metrics say that there are more important things? Or will the lack of hitting for average come back to bite this team in the ass?
After 80 games played, the Houston Astros as a team, have a .240 batting average, second lowest in the AL. Their team BA matches the Chicago White Sox, a team with a 33-42 (.440) record to date. Behind them both are the Seattle Mariners with a BA of .230 and a record of 35-42 (.455).
The three highest batting averages in the AL belong to the Tigers, Royals and Jays at .275, .271, and.264, respectively. All three of those teams have winning percentages over .500 and the Kansas City Royals boast an AL-leading .595.
But does any of this really matter? We know there are plenty of other metrics by which to measure the progress of a team and batting average is just one small piece of the puzzle. I've always believed it mattered.
A quick look at the past tells us that the lowest batting average by an AL pennant winner was .228 when the 1906 Chicago White Sox nabbed the title. They made it to the World Series to face their cross-town rivals, the Cubs and stayed true to the their nick name, "the hitless wonders," hitting only .198 during the series but still managing to win it all. Despite this walk down memory lane, it doesn't seem likely that a poorly hitting team would pull this off in modern baseball.
How is Houston continuing to win? Well, the 113 home runs to date is a good start. Although the team as a whole struggles at the plate with consistency, they know how to clock a ball right out of a ballpark. Their home run total tops all of MLB by a hefty margin of 10 dingers.
To help that power hitting get wins, the team has demonstrated stellar pitching this season, a piece of the puzzle that has been missing in the 100-loss seasons. The team'a ERA of 3.50 is third best in the American League, but the bullpen looks even better with a 2.56 ERA, good enough for 4th in all of baseball. Everyone know that pitching wins ballgames, right?
It's not to say that there aren't some standout hitters in Houston this year. I'd be silly to ignore Jose Altuve and his continued dominance at the plate. An average of .292 is coupled with 32 RBIs and a team-leading 21 stolen bases. Impressive is not quite the word. He's followed closely by rookie Carlos Correa who has managed in just 22 games to put up a .287 BA and an .852 OPS, garnered by his 9 doubles, 5 homers, and 15 RBIs. Just for reference, those 15 RBIs occurred in 1/3 of the games that Altuve's 32 RBIs came in. Do the math. #Superman
Both Correa and Preston Tucker are in the top ten rookies in MLB this season showing off power and the necessary skill of knocking guys home. So the new guys are helping this team win ballgames whether it's with batting average or simply power. Even Chris Carter and Evan Gattis have both shown improvements at the plate as the season has progressed.
If you'd asked me last year if a team could sustain a winning record on power hitting alone, I'd have laughed at you. But here I sit cheering on a team with five players* who have home run numbers in the double digits and a winning percentage well over the .500 mark. Huh. Who'd have thunk? *Those five players are Valbuena (19), Carter (14), Gattis (13), Springer (13), Rasmus (10). And although Valbuena is the only of these five in the top ten home run hitters is baseball, it's working for the Astros.
I still think that despite it not being a perfect indicator, that batting average is a key piece to the winning puzzle in baseball, but this team is swaying me to have faith in a team with at best a mediocre batting average - as long as it's coupled with power hitting throughout the lineup, solid starting pitching and clutch relief pitching.
I don't have a crystal ball and I can't predict baseball, but it seems to me that this formula is working for the Astros. If the key elements stay healthy, if the bats keep waking up at the perfect time and if rookies keep proving themselves worthy, I think the Astros have a solid chance to kick Taylor Swift out of Minute Maid park October 13th because they'll need that field, regardless of their batting average.