With three World Series appearances in five seasons, the Houston Astros are once again the team to beat in the AL West. The only one of those five years the Astros failed to win the division was the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but they beat the Athletics in the playoffs when it mattered most. The Astros have won at least one round of the playoffs in five straight postseasons. Their closest competition during this run has been the Athletics, but Oakland cut costs this offseason. So the teams that will try to dethrone the Astros this season are the Mariners, who finished a distant second last season as the luckiest team in baseball, and the Angels, who have squandered the planet’s best player for a decade. The Astros are poised to not only win the division but again make noise in the playoffs.
Carlos Correa is gone, but everybody else remains from an offense that ranked second in wOBA last season at .336. The Astros led the league in batting average, OBP and K% while ranking third in SLG. They were also good enough defensively to lead the league in fWAR. Correa was a big part of that and led the team in fWAR at 5.8, but rookie Jeremy Pena, the son of former MLBer Geronimo Pena, looks poised to soften the blow.
What makes the Astros so good is that they have only one weakness in the lineup. The top six in plate appearances posted wRC + marks of 130, 134, 134, 138, 147 and 123 (100 is defined as average). Alex Bregman is not among that group after being limited to just 400 PA over 91 games. During last season, the Astros replaced Myles Straw with Chas McCormick, who was an offensive upgrade and provides a lot more power.
Martin Maldonado is awful with the bat but is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, so the Astros will take that trade-off. Maldonado shares time with Jason Castro, who is an above-average hitter. With few holes to fill, Houston had a quiet offseason but did acquire versatile bench player Niko Goodrum in free agency. Goodrum is a good bat on the thin side of the platoon against lefties.
As an organization, you don’t need to do a lot when you have three guys that hit 30+ home runs in Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, who emerged as one of the game’s most potent outfield bats with a .294/.359/.557 slash in his age-24 season. Tucker showed flashes as a part-time player in 2019 but really took over the job in 2020 and carried it over to 2021 with an outstanding season. He struck out less than 16% of the time, a rarity for a guy with power.
Altuve’s bounce-back season was a huge sigh of relief after posting a .219/.286/.344 slash during the COVID-shortened campaign. His 130 wRC + wasn’t on par with his MVP-caliber seasons in 2016 and 2017, but it was close enough to ease some concerns with three years left on his deal. Houston also got a healthy season from Alvarez, who played 144 games and had 598 plate appearances after dealing with chronic knee issues in 2019 and 2020. He put up strong numbers, as did Yuli Gurriel and the always-reliable Michael Brantley.
Teams have been willing to trade strikeouts for walks and home runs ever since “Moneyball” became a big deal about 15 years ago. What makes Houston’s lineup so special is the Astros don’t have to make that sacrifice. They still walk a lot but don’t have those empty plate appearances that end in a strikeout. They were the only team in baseball with a K% under 20% (19.4%) and it’s been that way in each of the last five seasons, as K% continues to increase.
The Astros are responsible for five of the 15 seasons with a K% under 20% dating to 2017. They were still 11th in BB%. Attacking this lineup is really hard. Even elite strikeout artists can run into problems because the Astros fight off tough pitches and won’t be run over. It’s why I had a piece of the Astros to win the World Series at 25-1 last season, even with some huge questions about the pitching staff. They didn’t win it, but they got there and it’s far from a stretch to see them getting there again.