If you had to pick one position player in the MLB Playoffs right now to be the star of your club, who would you take?
Would it be the always-smiling Fransisco Lindor? Or what about the human giant that is Aaron Judge? Some might even pick the powerful Bryce Harper, who, with one swing of the bat, sent 43,860 Washingtonians into a frenzy Saturday night, reviving a whole franchise.
But there is only one right answer to this hypothetical and seemingly rhetorical situation. You probably looked over him… literally. He’s only 5’6”, but he is carrying the 4th most populated city in the U.S. on his back, all the way towards a deep postseason run.
Jose Altuve is the best centerpiece any team could ask for to make a run at the World Series.
After an MVP-deserving-season where he logged another 200 hits, Altuve and the ‘Stros faced a daunting task of having to hit Chris Sale in Game 1 of the ALDS. It is safe to say that Sale’s first postseason start did not go as expected. Altuve hit 3 homers, including 2 off of the Cy Young frontrunner.
Jose Altuve, are you serious!? He hits his THIRD home run of the game. It's 8-2 Astros over the Red Sox in the seventh. pic.twitter.com/MyCo4Ey4nk
— SI MLB (@si_mlb) October 5, 2017
Houston followed up this impressive offensive output with another 8 spot on Friday. Except this time, even though he reached base 4 times, Altuve did not steal the headlines. Instead, his numbers 2 and 3, Correa and Springer, went deep as H-town roared with excitement.
Perhaps the reason that Houston’s offense is so potent is because of how deep they are. Let’s analyze this offensive juggernaut.
It is obvious that the game of baseball has changed from, say, 100 years ago. But, one of the more subtle changes that has only occurred in the last decade is the use of a prototypical lead-off hitter. While some teams still pencil in that speedster atop their lineup every game (see Trea Turner), others are revolutionizing the ideal table-setter.
Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch can confidently place George Springer, the gas that fuels this offenses’ engline, atop his order. Springer does what a typical lead-off hitter should do: he gets on base at a solid rate, along with a high batting average and good speed on the base paths. However, unlike most leadoff men, Springer adds the power of a clean-up hitter to his arsenal, giving him a unique skillset atop the lineup.
This is part of what makes the Astros so great- most teams would happily take 6’3” George Springer and his 30+ homers and put him in the middle of their order as an elite power threat. The Astros don’t NEED Springer here, due to their power capability in the heart of their lineup- we’ll get into this later.
SPRINGER DINGER! Another @astros home run.
3-1 over the Red Sox in the 3rd. https://t.co/H8CcCnxXiU
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 6, 2017
Depending on the opposing pitcher, Hinch will either slot lefty veteran Josh Reddick or rookie Alex Bregman into the two hole. Both of these two have low strike out rates which is ideal for a two hitter. Obviously they are welcomed to drive in runs themselves, (see Reddick’s 82 RBIs) but their primary job here is to set the table for the heart of their order.
Both Bregman and Reddick excel at this. Whether it is advancing Springer into scoring position, getting on base themselves, or working the count, they simply do their job.
Or, sometimes they do a little more .
— D R Parker Sports (@DRParkerSports) October 9, 2017
Altuve and Correa
Now if a starting pitcher should somehow navigate through the top two hitters in the lineup unscathed (something Red Sox pitchers couldn’t through 3 games of the ALDS), they get the grand prize of… having to face arguably the best one-two punch in all of baseball: Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.
If Altuve’s .345 average and 20+ homers don’t do anything for you, maybe his 8/11 start to the playoffs will. Or his three-homer game. Or his third straight batting title.
Altuve isn’t one of those flukes anymore, or a guy that just had a nice season. He is a bad man who is a perennial MVP candidate. His excellence is capable of making a bad team average, an average team good, and a good team elite- all of which the 27-year-old, with the height of a 13-year-old pubescent boy, has done in his young MLB career.
The four and five hitters are what makes the Astros lineup. Many teams around the MLB have a guy, or even two, that are feared by the opposition. But one of the keys to an elite lineup is having protection behind the elite hitters so they are not pitched around. The Red Sox have intentionally walked Altuve twice in key situations this series.
The guy behind Altuve? Meet Carlos Correa, who would be in the MVP conversation had he been injury free, and has two homers in the first three games of the series.
Correa couples above average defense at a premium position with an elite offensive skill set. Correa’s large frame allows him to drive the ball to all fields while his hand skills help him stay on the ball, leading to a batting average over .300 and a low strikeout rate.
Correa and Altuve are, for lack of a better term, each other’s foils. For those of you that are like myself and do not specialize in literary terms, this basically means that they make each other better. Correa often bats with more runners on base because of Altuve, and Altuve gets pitched to more than he would if he did not have an all-star right behind him.
Bottom Half of the Lineup
After this point, there is really no set structure in the Astros’ lineup. Special utility man Marwin Gonzalez ended the season with the numbers of an all-star player. Except unlike most all-stars, Marwin played 7 different positions for the ‘Stros throughout the year. He also is switched up and down the order at Hinch’s pleasure. All offensive powerhouses need a player with this role (an upgraded Ben Zobrist?).
One last piece that makes the offense elite is its veteran presence. The aforementioned Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann all provide veteran leadership to the team’s young core. This leadership does not come with a lack of production- Reddick’s .314 average, Beltran’s 14 homers, and McCann’s 109 OPS+ say otherwise.
More homers were hit this season than any other one in MLB history. This increase in power came with an all-time record for strikeouts as a league.
Houston got the best of both worlds. In a year with such a strong correlation between these two statistics, Houston finished second in the MLB in homers and last (having the least) in strikeouts.
Astros hitters have 3 strikeouts today. This all power without Ks offense might be the new blueprint. All the taste without the fat.
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) October 6, 2017
Having done this, Houston’s offense is in rare company regarding the most prolific ever. And this was without many integral pieces for extended periods of time.
Why are they successful?
After examining this Houston lineup, it is easy to see why they were so successful. They rely on a young core that has a contact- first approach and have more recently developed elite power numbers, and a group of veteran role players that provide crucial knowledge to the young core while simultaneously contributing.
Is Hinch’s ball club the model for the modern day offensive juggernaut? When will it next be replicated?