We still have over two full days before the Astros begin their 2019 postseason run, and the better part of a day before we even know which team they’ll be playing. So why not take this relative moment of calm to reflect on the regular season that just was, and how incredible this team was this year? There’s a lot to get through, so let’s jump right in:
Let’s start with the most obvious: after setting the franchise win record last year, the Astros came back even stronger this year and one-upped that record. With 107 victories in 2019, literally only a dozen teams in history have won more games than the Astros did this season.
And not only that, but it marked the third straight 100 win season for Houston. Only five other teams have done that (the 1929-31 A’s, the 1942-44 Cardinals, the 1969-71 Orioles, the 1997-99 Braves, and the 2002-2004 Yankees), and with 311 wins since 2017, only one of those five (the Orioles) won more games in their three-year run than the Astros.
Other Team Bests that Made Those Wins Possible
Of course, you don’t’ win 107 games without doing a few other things right along the way. Among other highs Houston hit this year:
-They became the first team in history to lead in both strikeout stats; that is, the pitching staff had the most strikeouts, and their batters had the fewest.
-On top of that, the Astros became the first team in history to go through an entire season without issuing an intentional walk. The 2018 Astros were already the record holder, with just 4 free passes allowed, but this year’s team just decided to go the rest of the way and cut them out entirely.
-Of course, part of the reason they could do that was their overpowering staff, which racked up 1671 strikeouts on the season. That wasn’t just a league-leading total, it was the second-best total for a team in history, just 16 behind…the 2018 Astros.
-Not to be outdone, the Astros’ lineup also posted a .495 slugging percentage. That not only narrowly edged out the Twins for first in the league, it also beat the single-season team record of .491, set by the 2003 Red Sox.
-And much like the pitching staff finished second all-time in strikeouts, Houston’s bats finished second all-time in wRC+, at 125. That is, the team as a whole hit 25% better than league average; the only team since 1900 to top that mark is the 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees, at 126.
-As you can probably guess, the team led the league in all three triple slash stats, with a .274/.352/.495 line. On the pitching side, that historic K total was also good for the second-best K/9 rate of all-time; they also led the AL in BB/9 and ERA.
-The only teams in history to top their 288 home runs are this year’s Twins (307) and Yankees (306).
-And of course, their six All-Star selections once again set a franchise record.
Individual Performances, Pitchers (aka: Cole, Verlander, and Friends)
Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander this season combined this season to form one of the best 1-2 punches that the game has ever seen. Since the AL formed and created the modern two-league structure back in 1901, there have been just thirty-eight 300 K seasons. Cole and Verlander’s seasons are the two newest additions to that group, with Cole’s 326 finishing fourteenth overall. That also makes them the fifth and sixth 300 strikeout seasons Houston has seen, with J.R. Richard (twice), Mike Scott, and Randy Johnson the only other ones in team history to do it.
Having a duo like that on one team is extremely rare: only Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling of the 2002 Diamondbacks are the only other 300 strikeout teammates. Verlander and Cole’s 626 combined strikeouts this season were more than the entire rotations of the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Orioles recorded on the year.
On the non-strikeout side of things, both Justin and Gerrit also finished the season with 20 wins. Now, we know pitching wins aren’t everything, but it is still cool to see where they fall given the history behind that milestone, so indulge me for a second. This duo became the first 20-win teammates since the 2002 Diamondbacks (see above) and Red Sox (Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe), and only the fifth one of the Wild Card Era (1994-on). They’re just the second pair of Astros in history to reach 20 wins in a season, after Mike Hampton and Jose Lima did it back in 1999.
On that topic, were it not for Verlander finishing one win ahead of him, Cole would have picked up a pitching Triple Crown; as it is, they finished 1-2 in all three Triple Crown stats, well ahead of the rest of the pitchers in the American League, with Cole taking ERA and strikeouts but Verlander edging him out in wins.
And of course, there are the streaks of 10-strikeout games. Going back to 1908, (which is as far as Baseball-Reference’s Streak Finder will go), there had only ever been six times in history a pitcher had reached double digit strikeouts for seven starts in a row before this season. From July 19th to August 21st, Justin Verlander added his name to the list, falling one short of the record.
But then, his teammate outdid him. Starting on August 7th, Cole began a run of nine straight games with 10 or more strikeouts. On the final game of the season, he passed Pedro Martinez and Chris Sale to set the new record at nine games, and since the streak is still active, he can even build off his own record at the start of the 2020 season.
On top of all of those things, they managed to reach some other historic marks. Gerrit Cole set the all-time single season record in both strikeouts per nine and strikeout percentage (at 13.82 and 39.9%, respectively). Verlander, meanwhile, finished fifth in the latter of those at 35.4%, and also added in the third-best WHIP (0.80) and fifth-best opponent batting average (.171) recorded since the turn of the twentieth century.
In non-Verlander/Cole news, Ryan Pressly set a record out of the pen when he ended his run of 40 straight appearances without allowing a run, stretching from August 15th of last year all the way until May 24th this year.
And of course, there were the no hitters. In his first appearance with the Astros after the trade deadline, Aaron Sanchez (who came in last in the AL in ERA) threw six no-hit innings, with fellow newcomer Joe Biagini, Will Harris, and Chris Devenski picking up the other three innings.
Justin Verlander followed that up not even a full month later, no-hitting the Toronto Blue Jays on September 1st. It marked his third career no-hitter, making him just the sixth pitcher in history to record three of them. Not only that, but with 14 strikeouts and just one walk, it earned a game score of 100, just the fifteenth nine-inning performance in history to do so.
This made the Astros just the fifteenth team in history with multiple no-hitters in a season. And had Zack Greinke managed to get two more outs against the Mariners in his final start of the season before allowing a hit, it would have made the 2019 Astros the first team in history with three no-hitters in one season.
Individual Performances, Hitters
The biggest record among the hitters has to be Yordan Álvarez. After getting called up in June, Yordan put up a 1.067 OPS over 87 games, breaking Shoeless Joe Jackson’s 108-year-old record for rookie OPS.
His biggest milestone along the way was probably August 10th in Baltimore. In the middle of the biggest win in team history, a 23-2 thrashing of the O’s, Air Yordan hit three home runs. That gave him the Astros’ thirteenth-ever three-homer game, and the first since Carlos Lee did it back in 2007. It took just over a month for the fourteenth occurrence to happen, when George Springer did it against the Angels on September 22nd.
Speaking of home runs, Alex Bregman hit 41 of them, making it just the seventh 40-homer season in Houston history, as well as the first since Lance Berkman back in 2006. Springer fell just shy of the mark at 39, so the Astros didn’t get to become the 31st team in history with two 40-homer players. If you want to get technical, though, since we’re dealing with arbitrary cutoffs anyway, they are the 46th team in history with two 39-home run players.
Massive home run totals were something of a recurring theme, which makes sense given the Astros’ historic slugging percentage. Springer, Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Michael Brantley all set personal bests in home runs this season (so did all of the rookies, technically, but Yordan’s 27 is the one of them that reached double digits).
That many players matching their career best leads to some other cool combinations. For example, Altuve, Bregman, Gurriel, and Springer became the fourteenth quartet of teammates in history with 30 homers each. Of those fourteen teams, only this year’s Twins have topped that mark, with a fifth player reaching 30 dingers.
Those four, plus Yordan, Brantley, and Carlos Correa all reached 20 homers; only eleven teams have had seven or more players reach that mark, with this year’s Twins again the only ones to reach eight.
Lowering the cutoff even more, eleven players on the Astros finished with double digit home runs: the aforementioned seven, plus Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick, Robinson Chirinos, and midseason acquisition Martín Maldonado. Only thirteen teams can claim that. Had Aledmys Díaz managed one more, it would have moved them into a tie with the 2018 Yankees for third-most all-time, although they’d still be trailing both this year’s Yankees (14) and Blue Jays (13).
Milestones and Awards
The Astros look like they’ll be doing pretty good come Awards season. Alex Bregman passed Mike Trout for the AL lead in Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, and he’s a close second in Fangraph’s version. Yordan seems to have locked up the Rookie of the Year, and it seems like a safe bet that Verlander and Cole will finish 1-2 in Cy Young voting, which would make them the first pair of AL teammates to finish first and second for the award (only the 1956 and 1974 Dodgers and the 2001 and 2002 Diamondbacks can boast that in the NL). I’m a big supporter of A.J. Hinch getting Manager of the Year consideration, and although that one probably won’t happen, it does mean there’s an outside chance Houston could run the table in the offseason.
On the monthly award front, both Alex and Yuli won AL Player of the Month this year, which is fairly impressive. Not as impressive as Álvarez taking home three player of the month awards, though; he’s just the eighth player in history to do that dating back to the start of the award in 2001, and only Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Trout, and Aaron Judge have won the award more times.
But the most impressive player in this regard is Gerrit Cole. The Pitcher of the Month Award is about two and a half decades older than Rookie of the Month, yet only six pitchers have won it three times in a single season, and only Pedro has gone the extra step and won a fourth one back in 1999. Cole won the award in June, July, and September, which is another sign he might have the edge over Verlander in the voting.
And then, there are the personal milesteones. Verlander famously reached 3000 strikeouts, just the eighteenth pitcher to do so. But there were a few smaller ones as well: Zack Greinke recorded his 200th win, Jose Altuve picked up his 1500th hit, and Alex Bregman fell one homer shy of reaching 100 homers (which is an early milestone, but still impressive given how quickly he’s done it and how few players have done while playing third and shortstop like he has).
And lastly, there’s A.J. Hinch, who again moved up the franchise’s win leaderboards on the strong season. He now sits second in team history at 481 wins, just 63 behind team leader Bill Virdon. It also situates him in 120th all-time, only 94 wins shy of moving into the top 100. If the team can pull that off next year, he’d be the only manager in the top 100 with fewer than nine seasons managed (and that’s in spite of his first two seasons with the Diamondbacks being partial affairs that saw him miss over 100 games). It’s a little less flashy than some of the other milestones, but I still think it’s interesting.
There’s a lot to cover here, and I am absolutely certain I missed some things, despite how long this is. If you know any other bits of trivia or history the Astros accomplished this year, please feel free to share them below!