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The 2017 Astros Were Better

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Part II of the debate, was the 2018 or 2017 Astros team better?

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros
Jose Altuve with Justin Verlander after receiving the 2017 MVP award.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday Scottydouble ably argued that the 2018 Astros were a better team than the 2017 edition. Here I humbly offer my rebuttal in favor of the 2017 edition. If you haven’t already, you can read Scotty’s article here. Answer our poll at the end of this article.

They’re in the Pantheon

Of course the 2017 Astros were better than the 2018 Astros. Why, if you ask me, the 2017 Astros were probably the greatest team to ever wear leather gloves and wield wooden bats. Even the Great Bambino and the Iron Horse would have trembled before their majesty. The 2018 Astros? Really? Very good, yes. But they didn’t win the GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED, did they?

The 2018 Astros never had a celebration like this, did they?

The 2018 Astros didn’t bring home one of these, did they?

OK, I know the super smart readers of TCB are not falling for all this hype. I know, as you know, that the team that wins the championship isn’t always the best team. Sometimes it’s just the hottest team, or the healthiest, or the team charmed by fate and good fortune. Maybe the 2017 Astros were champions because they had those things, and the 2018 Astros were not because they didn’t. Maybe it had nothing to do with which team was really better.

So no more cheesy World Champion references. From now on, nothing but the facts, maam.

Oh damn. Sorry about the gifs. I promise to do better

The Facts, Maam

I have not read Scotty’s argument as I write this. But if I were him I would start with the fact I have already conceded: that a World Series Championship doesn’t prove which team is best. And then I would point out that the Astros 2018 edition had more wins, and even more to the point, had a greater run differential than the 2017 edition. Perhaps it was just the misfortune of the 2018 Astros that even though they were an improved version, the Red Sox improved even more, who unlike the Astros, didn’t have injured players at play off time.

Fair enough, I’ll add my own spin to that argument just to be fair. The Astros in 2018 had one of the best pitching staffs in History. Baseball Reference says the Astros had an ERA+ of 130, meaning the team ERA of 3.11 was 30% better than league average. For comparison the incredible 1997 Braves of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz fame, had an ERA+ of 131.

The 2017 Astros team ERA was 4.12.

On the other hand the 2017 Astros were among the best hitting teams in History. The team OPS+ was 123, just four points less than the fabled 1927 Yankees of the Bambino. The 1976 Big Red Machine was a “mere” 120.

I have devised a measure similar to run differential to compare two teams. Since a great baseball team must be proficient at both scoring runs and preventing opponents from doing so, by adding the points above 100 from the OPS+ statistic to the points above 100 from the ERA+ statistic you can get a rough estimate as to how much above league average a team is.

The 2018 Astros had a 109 OPS+ and a 130 ERA+. That would make them 39% above league average in hitting and pitching together. The 2017 Astros had a 123 OPS+, but only a 99 ERA+, only 22% above league average. Looks like Scotty wins. The advantage the 2018 Astros had in pitching overpowers the 2017 team’s advantage in hitting.

Here’s another way to look at it. The 2018 Astros had a an offensive fWAR of 24.8 and a pitching fWAR of 30.6, totaling 55.4. The 2017 Astros had an offensive fWAR of 33.3 and a pitching fWAR of 20.2, totaling 53.5. Scotty wins again, although it’s pretty close.

So how can I acknowledge these facts and still assert that the 2017 Astros were better than the 2018 version?

Here goes.

Injuries

One reason often given for the relative failure of the Astros in 2018 is injuries, mainly to Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer. But injuries took a bigger toll on the 2017 Astros than on the 2018 team. In 2017 Carlos Correa played in 109 games, in 2018 it was 110. Springer missed 22 games in both seasons. Altuve did miss sixteen more games in 2018.

(Note: Injuries may have accounted for some of the declined production of Correa and Altuve in 2018, but their pre-injury performances were already well below 2017 levels.)

But let’s look at the decimation that was the pitching staff in 2017. Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel pitched 90 fewer innings between them, 60 of those by 2017 All Star Keuchel. Ostensible #2 starter Collin McHugh did not pitch in 2017 until July 22. During June and July, when most of these injuries occurred, the team ERA was 4.79 and 5.08 respectively, despite unexpected clutch performances by Mike Fiers and Brad Peacock during this time of need.

How many runs to ERA this added to the team season average I can’t say, but if Keuchel alone had pitched as many in innings in 2017 as he did in 2018 as well as he did in 2017, that would have added 1.6 WAR, based on a calculation that Keuchel had one bWAR for every 37 innings pitched.

August

Every team, even the greatest, has a slump, but the Astros’ hitting slump in August was extreme. With a season average OPS+ of 123, in August the team hit only 91, a 32 point drop. For comparison the worst month for the Astros in 2018 was the 92 in July, only 17 points below the season average.

Despite the return of the aforementioned injured pitchers by then, the Astros won loss record in August was 11-17, after going 69 and 36 prior to that. The 2018 Astros had a winning record and a positive run differential every month of the year, but the 2017 Astros were outscored by 15 runs in August.

So what happened? Towards the end of August the distraction of Hurricane Harvey must have played a part, but no doubt another part was the decline of morale after the failure to upgrade the team’s struggling pitching staff after the July 31st trading deadline. In hindsight, anyone with basic, baseball common sense would have known that the Astros’ odds of going all the way through the playoffs with the existing starting pitching were long indeed. The team felt management had let them down. And in a subtle but significant way, the team let down too. Remember Keuchel’s comment?

But why do I get to exclude Houston’s bad August from my evaluation of the team’s overall performance? Isn’t that part of the season too? Here’s why.

Verlander

Maybe I’m cheating, Scotty, but the 2017 Astros team I’m talking about is not the demoralized August Astros, but the one the Astros took to the playoffs; the one with Justin Verlander. He did not begin pitching for the Astros until September that year, but in five starts he had five wins, a 1.06 ERA, and 1.8 bWAR. Imagine the effect that Verlander would have had on the team’s record and season stats, its run differential, its SRS, etc. if he had pitched the full season. How would 25 more games of Verlander starting instead of the assorted Mike Fiers, Francis Martes, David Paulino, Joe Musgrove etc. have affected the team ERA? He’s probably good for 50 runs saved and five more WAR.

After an abysmal August, upon the arrival of Verlander the Astros went 21-8 the rest of the season. His impact on the team warranted an entire chapter in Ben Reiter’s Astroball.

No, he wasn’t an Astro in April, but he was the Astros’ Mr. October, holding the Yankees to a shutout in 8 innings in the ALCS, just to cite one example. Does anyone doubt that Verlander was the difference between a World Series championship and an ALCS loss to the Yankees? Not Dallas Keuchel.

One Arm Tied Behind Their Backs

One argument made by my esteemed colleague in favor of the 2018 Astros is that the Astros of 2018 won more games against tougher competition. On the contrary, I believe that with tougher competition the Astros in 2017 would have played better and posted better regular season stats. Let’s face it, a part of the August swoon had something to do with being 15 games ahead in the Western Division, and 11 games ahead in the AL. In a 162 game season, and with an impregnable lead, it’s easy to lose your edge for a while.

If the 2017 Astros had to fight for a Division Title like the 2018 Stros, would Keuchel or Morton or McCullers have spent as much time as they did on the DL? Doubtful. And yet, because they did they were at full strength for the playoffs, and they were ready at the right time to help carry the team to the trophy.

These same players in 2018 hardly missed a game, thus padding team regular season pitching stats, until the end of the season. But Morton and McCullers, heroes of the 2017 playoff run, were at reduced strength and effectiveness for the 2018 playoffs.

In short, the 2017 Astros, with August included, did not look quite as impressive in the regular season as the 2018 Astros because they were able to hold back a little in the regular season and save that little extra for when it really mattered; the playoffs. The 2018 Astros pushed themselves to the limit to get to the playoffs, but their weaknesses were exposed in the ALCS.

Summary

It comes down to this: Did the 2018 additions to the Astros, Gerrit Cole, Ryan Pressly, Tyler White, Max Stassi, Tony Kemp etc, plus the emergence of Alex Bregman, offset the regression by almost every other key player of the team? I say no.

I’ve already compared the overall pitching and offensive WAR numbers of the two teams and 2018 won...barely. But that didn’t account for extensive injuries to the heart of the 2017 staff during the season, or the absence of Verlander until September of that year.

Let’s look at the key individuals. The 2018 players noted above contributed 12.8 bWAR. (Bregman adding 2.8 additional WAR from 2017) Let’s look at the regression in 2018 of the key individuals at the heart of the 2017 lineup:

Altuve: -3.1 WAR

Correa: -4.6 WAR

Springer -2.3 WAR

Gonzalez -1.8 WAR

Gurriel -.4 WAR

Reddick -2.5 WAR

For what it’s worth that’s a loss of 14.7 WAR. More than Cole, Bregman, et al contributed.

But that’s not the point. The point is that the players above were stars or superstars in 2017, the heart of the champion. They were mostly just between good to average in 2018. In 2017 these were the guys that hit game tying or go ahead home runs in the World Series, or homers and walk off doubles in the ALCS. I’m sure that you, the dear readers of TCB, don’t need me to recount all the post season heroics of these players. In 2018 that kind of spark, or rather explosiveness, just wasn’t quite there, not in the regular season, and not during the ALCS.

The 2017 Astros were something fresh, something unique, somehow fated, inspired and inspiring. In 50 years Astros fans, and History itself, will still remember the 2017 Astros.

Oh, sorry again. I broke my promise.

Poll

Who was better, the 2017 or the 2018 Astros?

This poll is closed

  • 75%
    2017 Astros
    (127 votes)
  • 24%
    2018 Astros
    (41 votes)
168 votes total Vote Now