HOUSTON — The division series round is upon us, and it’s a high-powered eight-team bracket — the most high-powered ever, in fact. The eight teams still in the running for the 2019 World Series won a combined 794 games during the regular season. That’s more than any other divisional round in postseason history, and four more wins than in 2002. A few more wins here and there and we’d be looking at an LDS round in which the average team won 100 games.
Even though we’ve never seen such fierce competition this time of the year, there is still one team that has risen above the rest in the eyes of the oddsmakers, prognosticators and MLB pundits: the Houston Astros.
That the Astros are a consensus pick is very different than saying they are a unanimous pick. Here at ESPN, we had 30 of our observers cast a ballot in our annual playoff picks poll. Twenty-nine of the 30 picked the Astros to win their ALDS matchup against the Tampa Bay Rays. Twenty-seven picked Houston to advance to the World Series. And 19 picked the Astros to win their second championship in three years. But it’s not just us — according to Caesars Sportsbook, the Astros are a 2-1 favorite to win the Fall Classic.
It’s certainly true that the Astros were historically powerful during the regular season. Their plus-280 run differential was the 13th-best of the modern era (since 1901) and the third-best since World War II, behind only the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners. No one disputes Houston’s dominance. But how could such a consensus emerge when so many other dominant clubs are around to block the Astros’ path, beginning with a Tampa Bay Rays club that is riding high?
“You gotta play the game,” Astros center fielder George Springer said on Thursday. “That’s a really, really good team over there. And every team that advances is gonna be even better.”
Exactly, but here’s something that Springer might not be aware of: He is a fixture on what might be the best postseason roster ever assembled. And while Mark Twain and others might accuse us of some unwieldy statistical wrangling in making that comment, the fact of the matter is that you don’t have to dig that deep to make the observation.
The genesis of this was a question: Someone asked me if there had ever been a better October collection than what the Astros have going for them in 2019. You scan the roster and it’s easy to see why someone might think this is the case. Jose Altuve. George Springer. Alex Bregman. Carlos Correa. Justin Verlander. Gerrit Cole. Zack Greinke. Rookie phenom Yordan Alvarez. It is, on the surface, awfully impressive, elite players with lustrous pasts and just-as-gleaming presents. But there have been lots of impressive teams assembled over the centuries. Does this one really stand out that much?
I decided to take two databases and merge them. One was the all-time, season-by-season WAR information from Baseball-Reference.com. The other was the season-by-season postseason game logs from the essential Lahman Baseball Database. The Lahman data was needed to identify each team’s postseason roster. It’s not a perfect approach — some players didn’t play and thus don’t count, thus the rosters of wild-card losers look small-ish, for example. But those teams weren’t going to end up on top of this analysis anyway; we’re just going for a proxy of year-by-year postseason rosters.
Using only the players who actually made a postseason appearance filtered out any player who might have made key contributions in the past but weren’t part of the picture in the relevant October. For example, the 1939 Yankees don’t get credit for the career performance of Lou Gehrig, who was in uniform for the World Series that year but was unable to play because he had already been diagnosed with the disease that now bears his name.
Here is the first thing I found: In terms of cumulative WAR — the total number of wins above replacement compiled by the players during their careers up to the season being measured — Houston ranks pretty high. The Astros are 42nd of 450 postseason teams since 1901. That’s impressive, but it wasn’t really answering the question.
The Astros’ position players are still a pretty young group, averaging 28.94 years of age. That ranks 306th among the playoff 450, so they haven’t had that much of a chance to accumulate career WAR. And having a bunch of old greats around isn’t what we’re looking for. The all-time leader by this measure is the 2007 Yankees, who didn’t even win their division or a playoff series. They top the list because they had a collection of aging greats such as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi.
To answer the question at hand, I created a derivative metric called “Active WAR.” This takes the average WAR for the previous five seasons for each player (or, for younger players, the average of however many seasons they played), adds the WAR total for the season being measured and divides by two. Here is one example:
Dizzy Dean’s 1938 Active WAR calculation
1938 bWAR: 2.53
Average for 1933 to 1937: 6.96
Active WAR: 4.75 (6.96 plus 2.53 divided by 2)
Why Dizzy Dean? I like Dizzy Dean, that’s all. Who doesn’t like Dizzy Dean? Anyway, I made this calculation for 10,030 players who either showed up in those Lahman postseason game logs or in my projection of this year’s 25-man playoff rosters. The idea is to capture a measure of both track record and right-now performance at the same time.
Here then are the top 10 postseason rosters in terms of Active WAR since 1901. Some teams that strung together several postseason runs show up multiple times — such as those Jeter-era Yankees teams — so rather than listing a bunch of Jeter-Posada clubs, I picked the high-water mark for each team’s era.
1. 2019 Astros (Active WAR: 65.71)
2. 2002 Yankees (61.81)
3. 2008 Red Sox (56.37)
4. 1932 Yankees (54.59)
5. 2011 Phillies (53.83)
6. 1953 Dodgers (53.68)
7. 2017 Dodgers (53.42)
8. 1990 Athletics (53.13)
9. 1977 Yankees (52.61)
10. 2000 Braves (52.57)
Now, there are some complaints that might spring to mind, such as roster sizes through time. I ran a version of this that focused only on the top nine hitters and top six pitchers on every team and took a per-player average to account for teams that didn’t use 15 players, such as wild-card teams or early World Series clubs. The Astros finished atop the leaderboard by that adjusted version, as well.
This year’s Astros are loaded, perhaps more loaded than any playoff team we’ve seen. They are loaded not just because of the terrific careers of their players, but also because of their collective right-now performance. This isn’t a 1928 Athletics roster, which was great but also featured tail-end Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins.
What might be the most impressive thing about this version of the Astros is how balanced they are. Their hitters rank 11th among the postseason 450 by Active WAR; the pitchers are 13th. No other team, even those recent-vintage Yankees clubs, has both units in the top 20. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Houston’s combined OPS+ and ERA+ (246) is tied with the 1910 Athletics (the “$100,000 Infield” club) as the second-best ever, behind only the 1927 Yankees.
“There’s no doubt that their starting pitchers are dominant,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of the Astros on the eve of his team’s matchup against Verlander. “We’re going to face a guy that’s arguably the best pitcher for the last decade and a half, two decades. But their offense is right there with them.”
There are only six players in this year’s postseason with an Active WAR of 6 or better. Houston has three — Bregman, Verlander and Greinke. Bregman is a top candidate for this year’s AL MVP, Verlander might win the Cy Young, and if he doesn’t, it’ll be Cole. That feeling — that there is something different about the Astros — is warranted. That feeling is what convinced so many of us that the Astros were destined to win it all before the games actually began.
Yet we know, and the Astros know, such a lofty résumé doesn’t guarantee a thing. But it helps — among the top 50 teams in Active WAR, 25 went on to win a pennant and 15 won the World Series.
“I think, actually, this year’s team has a lot of similarities to the team in ’17,” Bregman said. “I just think there’s only one thing on our mind, and that’s to win. Nothing else.”
For the rest of us, our minds will be on the fact that we are watching a great team trying to validate itself as a historical entity, a 21st century dynasty that we will remember for a run of seasons involving multiple titles, and not just one. Either way, whether the Astros stomp their way to another championship or get knocked off by any one of seven other worthy challengers, we’ll know we’ve seen something special.
For the Astros, this is all insolent noise. All that matters is Friday’s game against the Rays at Minute Maid Field, and what’s come before has no bearing on what will happen. That’s been their attitude all along.
“The Rays have a better record,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch quipped on Thursday. “They’re 1-0. In the postseason, they’re beating us. We’ll be the underdog and try to keep up with them.
“I don’t think [being the favorite] is a big deal. I just want to win Game 1 tomorrow. I don’t want to talk about the World Series or favorites or odds or who has more talent, who doesn’t. I want to win Game 1. And that day-to-day mentality has served us really well.”