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The World Series Hangover: Was it a Thing After All?

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Almost every player who started the Astros season on the 2017 roster had a big decline in 2018. And it was usually more than just regression to the mean.

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

OK. I know what you’re going to say. If the Astros had a World Series hangover, why did they win more games in 2018 than in 2017, taking a team record 103? Not only that, why did they have a much better Pythagorean record and run differential in 2018, in fact, the best in the league?

Sure, the Astros lost in the ALCS, but in a short series even the best teams can, and often do, lose. The Stros got no breaks, played injured, and the Sox were playing out of their minds. Losing the ALCS doesn’t prove the Astros had a World Series hangover.

I understand these objections.

I’ll even throw in a few more you probably didn’t know. Since the Wild Card era (1995) only five World Series winners have improved their records in the following season. With the Astros make that six. On average World Series winners lost 8 more games the next year, although to be fair, a few of them tanked. No World Series winner since 1995 has followed with a +100 win season.

Here’s the problem. To the extent that the Astros were a better team in 2018 it is almost entirely due to the performances of players who were not on the team in in 2017, or were very late arrivals. The vast majority of the players who brought the Astros into the playoffs in 2017, many of whom had career years, had significant declines in 2018, not just regression to average, but below career averages, many even at or close to career worsts .

In other words, the Astros got more wins in 2018 because they added new players. If that had not happened, there would have been a considerable let down in the club’s season record. The vast majority of players on the roster for all of 2017 and 2018 had “World Series hangovers.”

Let’s look at team level stats first and then we’ll break it down by player.

The Astros achieved excellence in the years 2107 and 2018 by two very different paths. The 2017 Astros were one of the most prolific hitting teams in history with adequate pitching. The 2018 Astros were by far the best pitching team in baseball, but not so dominant or preeminent in hitting.

The Astros scored 896 runs in 2017, 99 more than they scored in 2018. But the Astros staff only allowed 534 in 2018, 166 fewer than in 2017.

The team’s offensive WAR in 2017 was 167.9. In 2018 it was only 64.2. per Fangraphs. The team wRC+ in 2017 was 122, in 2019 it was only 110. The team’s production in 2017 was 14% better than the next best team, one of the highest differentials in history. The 2017 production was 12% better than 2018. By comparison, the 2017 Cubs only dropped 5% from their championship level of 2016. And, after all, “we’re not the Cubs,” supposedly.

The pitching staff, on the other hand, was almost a complete reversal. The 2017 hurlers were an entire run per game worse, 4.12 ERA in 2017, compared to 3.11 in 2018. This was about a half run better than the next best team in MLB. The 2018 staff contributed 30.7 WAR to the team’s success, about 50% more than the 2017’s 20.2 WAR.

So what happened to the hitting? That is the $1,000,000 question. The only major difference in the Astros lineup was the departure of Carlos Beltran, whose numbers only hurt the 2017 averages. As almost every player was playing in his peak years or earlier, aging does not seem to answer our question.

But as to why there was improvement in pitching is an easy question to answer. Justin Verlander, September acquisition in 2017, and Gerrit Cole, class of 2018, added 13 WAR directly to the pitching production. (12 if you subtract the 1 WAR Verlander contributed in 2017) Other 2018 additions, Carlos Rondon, Ryan Pressly, and Roberto Osuna added about 3 more wins.

The 15 wins doesn’t account for the indirect effect of having two new starters who ate over 200 innings each, thus relieving stress on the bullpen.

Of course, the 2017 staff was more afflicted by injuries than the 2018 staff, accounting for some, but not much, of the reduced WAR and higher ERA.

So, I believe it’s pretty clear that the Astros improved during the regular season due to the pitching of new team members, and despite an almost universal decline in the performance of the batters.

Let’s compare the statistics of the pitchers and hitters who were both rostered in 2017 and 2018.

Among pitchers from both seasons a number improved in 2018 and a number declined. Among the biggest improvers were Charlie Morton, whose ERA dropped a half run in 21 more innings, Lance McCullers, who likewise improved a half run in 10 more innings, and Tony Sipp, who improved 4 runs in the same number of innings, more or less.

Those who declined outnumbered those who improved. Dallas Keuchel’s ERA increased almost a run, although he contributed almost 60 more innings. Will Harris’ ERA increased about a half run, Chris Devenski’s almost a run and a half, and Ken Giles’ increased more than one and a half runs.

It is hard to compare Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh 2017 vs. 2018, since they switched roles, starter to relief. McHugh’s statistics definitely improved, which one would expect for a pitcher who doesn’t have to face batters a second or third time, but Peacock’s ERA went up almost a half run. And in limited time as a reliever Peacock had a 1.77 ERA in 2017, 3.46 in 2018.

But as we’ve already seen, it was the batters that declined most conspicuously in 2018. Every batter but Alex Bregman hit worse than he did last year, and most of the rest hit below their career averages. Let’s look.

Alex Bregman: 2018 wRC+ 157.......2017 wRC+ 123 (in second half 2017 his wRC+ was 142)

The rest of the team declined in 2018: In order to discount the effect of injuries on the performances of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, I am only including their pre-injury wRC+. If I included season statistics for these players, they would look much worse.

Astros hitters by wRC+ and WAR, 2017, 2018 and career

Player wRC+ 2017 wRC+ 2018 wRC+ career WAR 2017 WAR 2018
Player wRC+ 2017 wRC+ 2018 wRC+ career WAR 2017 WAR 2018
Jose Altuve 160 139 123 7.6 4.8
Carlos Correa 152 123 128 5.2 1.6
George Springer 140 119 129 4.6 2.9
Yuli Gurriel 119 107 only 2 yrs 1.8 1.2
Josh Reddick 128 99 107 3.4 1.1
Evan Gattis 106 99 110 1 0
Marwin Gonzalez 144 104 103 4 1.6
Jake Marisnick 118 85 78 1.4 1

Except for Bregman every other batter who spent significant time on the 2017 and 2018 rosters declined . Five of these players hit below their career averages. Altuve and Gonzalez hit above their career averages, but that’s because in their first few years neither belonged on a major league team other than the abysmal Astros of those years, and therefore their awful first few years unfairly skew their career averages downward. But Altuve’s 2018 season was his worst in three years and worse than all but one since 2013. Gonzalez’ season was his worst in five years except one.

Altuve’s average wRC+ for the last five years was 141. In the last two years it averaged 156. This year before his injury it was 139.

Gonzalez’ average wRC+ over the last 5 years was 112. This year it was 104.

Even before his injury, Carlos Correa was having the worst season of his career. George Springer, even before his thumb injury, was having the worst season of his career, as did Evan Gattis. Josh Reddick had the second worst season of his career.

Looking at WAR stats, the 15 WAR added by the new pitchers is almost exactly offset by the 15 WAR these position players lost in 2018. Add the additional WAR of Alex Bregman in 2018 to that of the new pitchers, with a little help from Tyler White and Tony Kemp, and you are roughly accounting for the improvement of the Astros in 2018.

Something happened to the bats, the same bats, between 2017 and 2018. Something known as World Series Hangover. It is a well known phenomenon, though loosely defined, and dimly understood. Some even say it doesn’t even exist, like a specter. But if it does, I do not believe in the case of this team it is due to complacency or lack of drive, but something more subtle that changes the chemistry of a post championship team. Normal regression in this case is only part of it.

For the Astros could losses in the coaching staff; Alonzo Powell, Alex Cora, and or player/coach Carlos Beltran account for it? No one knows, and no one can prove this true or false.

But if there was a World Series Hangover, causing hitters to hit below their career averages, then it is good news for 2019, as regression means improvement. Remember the up and down three championships in five seasons record of the San Francisco Giants 2010-2014? If that happened to the Astros I could live with that.