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Why the 2018 Astros were Better

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MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first of a two-part series that will continue Monday.

As we await the first big move of the offseason for the Houston Astros, bilbos and I decided to have a little fun and revisit one of the great debates from last season: Which team was better, the 2017 or 2018 Astros? As you likely guessed by the title of the article, today I will present my argument for the 2018 Astros. Bilbos will present his half of the debate after the weekend, with a poll included so we can get a clear idea of what you, the fans, think.

I’ll start with some of the numbers.

Standings

Here’s a general look at the team’s results the last two seasons.

Standings

Team W-L Win % Home Road Expected W-L Expected Win % Pythagorean W-L Pythagorean Win % Run Diff .500 or Better 1-Run SOS SRS RPI
Team W-L Win % Home Road Expected W-L Expected Win % Pythagorean W-L Pythagorean Win % Run Diff .500 or Better 1-Run SOS SRS RPI
2017 101-61 0.623 48-33 53-28 101-61 0.623 99-63 0.611 196 18-15 19-13 0.501 1.2 0.531
2018 103-59 0.636 46-35 57-24 112-50 0.69 109-53 0.673 263 41-38 24-24 0.506 1.5 0.539

The 2018 Astros have the edge over the 2017 club in nearly every team standings category, even though they played a lot more games against teams at or above .500 and more one-run games than a year ago. The 2018 Astros had more wins, a greater Expected Win %, Pythagorean Win %, and a much greater run differential—all despite having a slightly more difficult strength of schedule—than the 2017 team.

And here’s a sampling of some franchise records the Astros set in 2018:

  • Wins – 103
  • Road wins – 57, second-most in MLB since 1961;
  • Run differential – +263, third-most since Divisional Era (1969);
  • Winning streak – 12, tied for franchise-high in a single season

Simple Rating System (SRS) shows how many runs per game better (or worse) a team was than the average team that year. The Astros were 1.5 runs better than the average team in 2018 (best in MLB; ranked 3rd with SRS of 1.2 in 2017). The Relative Power Index (RPI) was extracted from ESPN. Although the Astros had the best RPI in baseball in 2017, their RPI in 2018 was even better (0.539).

Starting Pitching

Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 K-BB% HR/9 WHIP BABIP fWAR
Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 K-BB% HR/9 WHIP BABIP fWAR
2017 899.2 4.03 3.95 3.81 9.31 3.09 16.4% 1.15 1.26 0.299 14.8
2018 955.1 3.16 3.28 3.37 10.37 2.81 20.6% 0.94 1.12 0.284 22.5

Houston’s starting staff was by no means bad in 2017, but again we see better results across the board for the 2018 Astros. Last season, Houston’s starters led MLB in ERA, FIP, K/9, K%, K-BB%, LOB% and were second in IP, xFIP, WHIP, HR/9, fWAR.

Bullpen

Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 K-BB% HR/9 WHIP BABIP fWAR
Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 K-BB% HR/9 WHIP BABIP fWAR
2017 546.1 4.27 3.84 3.69 10.91 3.51 19.4% 1.27 1.28 0.303 5.4
2018 499.2 3.03 3.14 3.33 10.56 2.47 22.3% 0.94 1.06 0.281 8.2

Nearly a clean sweep again. The bullpen may have been even more improved in 2018 than the rotation, though it didn’t always feel like it. Astros relievers led baseball in a number of categories last season, including ERA, FIP, xFIP, LOB%, and BB/9. In 2018, Houston relievers also permitted the least amount of hard contact in the Majors (28.6%) and had the lowest batting-average against (.212) and WHIP (1.06) by a large margin. In comparison, the 2017 squad allowed hard contact on 31.4% of batted balls (19th in MLB), had a batting-average against of .232 (7th in MLB), and a WHIP that ranked 10th. Astros relievers stranded runners at the highest rate in MLB (78.8 LOB%) last year but were middle-of-the-pack in 2017 (73.1 LOB%).

Offense

Team AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ wOBA wRC+ Runs/Gm K% BB% fWAR
Team AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ wOBA wRC+ Runs/Gm K% BB% fWAR
2017 0.282 0.346 0.478 0.824 123 0.349 122 5.53 17.3% 8.1% 33.3
2018 0.250 0.329 0.425 0.754 109 0.326 110 4.92 19.5% 9.2% 24.7

There’s no denying the Astros’ offense was better in 2017. Some of that can be explained by injuries to star players in 2018, but we saw regression from a few Astros that had career-bests in 2017. This is where the debate truly begins.

Pitching vs. Hitting

To me, the argument about which team is better essentially boils down to whether offense or pitching is valued more greatly. It seems just a few years ago, there was no argument. Good pitching always beats good hitting. But the last three teams to win the World Series were probably considered the most prodigious offenses in their crowning season. For example, the Astros scored about 100 fewer runs in 2018 than 2017 (when they led baseball). Conversely, the Astros allowed about 150 fewer runs in 2018 (when they led baseball) than 2017. Even though the prevailing rule has seemingly been broken in recent years, I contend the 2018 Astros were better than the 2017 version, and there’s two main reasons for that.

Beyond the Numbers

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The first reason is the addition of Gerrit Cole, whose career-year took the World Series champions to another level. His presence, and a staff that was able to stay healthy for a majority of the year, resulted in an all-time great starting rotation that allowed the Astros to overcome injuries to the position players.

The second, and maybe more important, reason is the ascension of Alex Bregman from an outstanding supporting piece to an MVP-caliber player and clubhouse leader.

The team chemistry the Astros had in 2017 produced a World Championship. It’s easy to turn to cite that fact as the reason the 2017 Astros are the best, and I wouldn’t really blame anyone for that. That team will always be the most memorable because it captured the franchise’s first title, the city’s first major sports championship in 20+ years, and all that Houstonians endured in 2017. Although it’s tempting to label the team that won it all as the best, it’s not always justified because so many circumstances can intervene (looking at you, Joe West).

Being pushed by Oakland and Seattle all season, unlike in 2017 when Houston essentially had the division title within sight in early June, kept the Astros more focused and sharper. Even minus some of their best hitters and without the same potent offense as a year ago, the Astros had the fewest blowout losses (five runs or more) of all the teams in the 2018 postseason. In a year in which we saw a much-improved AL West, the starting pitching was a stabilizing force that kept the Astros in ballgames throughout the season. Bregman’s ability to come up with big at-bats all season helped the Astros win those games. And I have to believe his attitude and mindset had a strong impact as well.

”Not to be, like, cocky at all, but it’s really, really tough to blow us out,” Bregman said. “I don’t remember those eight times, but it must have been, like, the [worst] day of all time for us.”

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For me, the 2018 team had the chemistry of 2017 and then some. I’d even venture to say the team had more fun in 2018. I’m sure part of that is revelry in being World Champions, but another chunk of that is because of Bregman, who shared his opinion on the matter after the Astros beat the Indians in this year’s ALDS.

”To be honest with you,” Bregman said, assessing these 2018 Astros, “[Jose] Altuve goes down, [George] Springer goes down and [Carlos] Correa goes down, and we win 103 games. If those three don’t go down and play a full season, you’re looking at the most wins in the history of the game. We’re going to be honest. You are.”

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

So we know where Alex stands. Were the 2018 Astros the better than the 2017 World Champs? State your case in the comments as to which Astros team you think was best and come back on Monday for bilbos’ side of things.