During the World Series, a Fangraph article referred to the Houston Astros as a “Machine.” That description has stayed with me. This Astros team was built to roll through the regular season, flattening teams in its path, and then continue grinding it way through playoff opponents. The Astros’ performance negates any narrative about “random variation.” This Astros team was just remarkably consistent in 2022.
Let’s talk consistency:
- The Astros league-leading record of 106-56 is exactly the same as its Pythagorean Record, which means the Astros converted runs and runs allowed into wins and losses exactly as expected.
- The Astros Pythagorean Win Percent for the season (65.4%) is nearly the same as the Astros’ Pythagorean Win Percent over the 13 playoff games (68.4%).
- The Astros longest losing streak during the season was 4 games. The Astros had no back-to-back losses in the playoffs.
Playoff offensive performance tends to be lower than in the regular season. On average, offensive performance declines by 16% in the playoffs. A number of factors are likely the reason: elite opposing pitching, rarely seeing the worst bullpen pieces, repeated starts by front-line starting pitchers, above-average defenses in the playoffs, and heavy usage of high-leverage relievers.
In this context, the Astros offensive performance in the World Series is relatively consistent with regular season performance:
Astros Batting Average / OPS (Regular Season vs. World Series)
Regular Season .248 / .743 World Series .240 / .641 Difference: BA 3%, OPS 12%
The World Series offensive performance is expected to be lower than the regular season, but the Astros’ difference between regular season and World Series OPS and BA is smaller than the average experience in playoffs. By comparison the Phillies’ difference between regular season and World Series offensive is larger than expected (OPS 27% lower and BA 50% lower in the World Series).
Pitching and Defense
All season the Astros pitching and defense put the team in a position to win. The elite Astros’ run prevention was even more dominating in the World Series. Separating the pitch value from team defense is not possible. Clearly, though, the Astros’ defense played a significant role in the team’s run prevention in the World Series.
Astros ERA / WHIP (Regular Season vs. World Series)
Regular Season 2.89 / 1.092 World Series 2.83 / 0.981
The World Series run prevention was similar to—but even better than—regular season pitching and defense. The team ERA and WHIP both improved in the World Series over the regular season. This is quite an accomplishment, considering the quality of World Series offense compared to the regular season, which included both good and bad teams.
The overall point here is that the Astros’ team construction enabled the Astros to achieve consistent winning performances from start to finish. The playoff performance was predictable based on the team’s regular season performance. The Astros are in the enviable position of having a winning formula in place, which at its core should produce a winning season in 2023. Sure, a few changes in the team composition are inevitable, but the formula is not only in place, but may be enhanced in 2023.
One Theory About the Playoff Success of the Astros’ Lineup
Esteban Rivera at Fangraphs put forth a theory about the Astros’ hitters playoff success. He suggests that the Astros’ lineup’s swing path diversity may be a factor in the team’s ability to come through with timely runs scoring. He hypothesizes that pitchers are challenged by a lineup with a variety of different swing paths from both sides of the plate, because they must manage multiple game plans, which becomes more difficult as the pitcher faces the batters a second and third time through the order. He uses Vertical Bat Angle (VBA) Variance to measure swing path diversity. It turns out that the 2022 Astros are No. 1 in swing path diversity based on this measure. As he states:
Starting at the top, Chas McCormick and Tucker have similar angles at impact but from opposite sides. A little below them is Alvarez. After that, the swings become flatter through the group of righties including Jose Altuve, Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel. Other than a lefty with a super flat swing, the Astros are covering their bases. Some teams might have decent variance, but does that variance encompass All-Star hitters from each end of the spectrum? I highly doubt it.
This analysis is only suggestive, rather than definitive. The author doesn’t mean to imply (in his words) that this is the “secret sauce” of hitting, instead concluding that the Astros seem to have a degree of intentionality to producing a balanced variety of hitters.
As the Astros lineup changes next year and succeeding years, perhaps we should pay attention to how the Astros replace a player with a particular swing path, and whether the team maintains a similar diversity in swing paths going forward.