In the 1990s, the Yankees had a pretty fantastic offense. They won three World Series trophies, and would win a fourth to kick off the aught’s. Everyone remembers their great offense. But what might get lost in the weeds a little bit is just how fantastic the Astros’ offense was in the ‘90s, because they were pretty great too. They had the best offense in the National League for the decade, and they would really hit their stride in 1998, when they put up the best offensive team performance in the wild card era.
The decade would start a little slowly. Craig Biggio started to hit his stride in 1991, but didn’t take off until 1994. Jeff Bagwell was great right away, but he wasn’t the superstar we remember until 1993, and didn’t make his first All-Star team until ’94. The 1990 squad saw Bill Doran and Glenn Davis both post 135+ wRC+ marks, but they each missed a large chunk of time, which muted their impact. In 1991, Bagwell would debut, both Ken Caminiti (77 wRC+ in ’90, 97 in ‘91) and Luis Gonzalez (just 23 plate appearances in ’90, 113 wRC+ in ’91 as full-time player) broke out, and the team also added Steve Finley to the mix as well. It was still a modest bunch — the team’s 93 wRC+ in 1991 as an offensive unit (ie — removing pitchers from the mix, which I’ll be doing throughout the article) ranked only 23rd out of 26 teams, but the foundation was built. They wouldn’t post a wRC+ under 100 for the rest of the decade, and starting in ’93, their offense became and remained a top-10 unit:
|1990||91||24 of 26|
|1991||93||23 of 26|
|1992||100||17 of 26|
|1993||108||6 of 28|
|1994||115||2 of 28|
|1995||110||3 of 28|
|1996||104||7 of 28|
|1997||109||5 of 28|
|1998||121||1 of 30|
|1999||107||7 of 30|
Plenty of good hitters cycled in and out of the organization during the decade. In addition to those already mentioned, the team also featured Moises Alou, Derek Bell, Carl Everett, Richard Hidalgo, Dave Magadan and Bill Spiers, to name a few. You’re probably thinking, ‘Uh, what about Lance Berkman?’ Technically, Berkman did suit up during the ‘90s, but it was for just 106 PA in ’99, during which he hit a paltry .231/.321/.387. Berkman’s era of domination didn’t start in earnest until the aught’s.
Back to the chart, you might notice that one of the years sticks out. That’s right, 1998, that fanciful year when the pack of fickle mush heads known as America fell in love with the national pastime all over again. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire stole most of the spotlight, and while the Astros would dominate the NL Central with a franchise-best 102 wins, they would be unceremoniously dropped in the NL Division Series by the Padres, three games to one. Though the Padres won 98 games themselves that season, Houston seemed to be the clear favorite at the time, and looking back that bears out. The two teams finished with nearly identical pitching stats as a team, but then the Astros probably had a little bit of an edge entering the playoffs thanks to Randy Johnson and his general on-fire-ness. And on the other side of the coin, San Diego was not in Houston’s league in terms of defense and hitting. In fact, no one was in Houston’s league that year or in the wild card era when it came to putting the bat on the ball. Here’s the list of the best offenses since 1995:
The team was led, as it was for a very long time, by Bagwell. For a five-year period, Bagwell hit more than 50 percent better than the league average, and he was smack dab in the middle of that streak in ’98. That season, he hit .304/.424/.557, for a .421 wOBA and 162 wRC+. The numbers aren’t even career bests, nor were the 34 homers he socked, but they were obviously numbers anyone would die to have. During the first four years of this run, ’96-’99 to be precise, Bagwell also walked more frequently than he struck out. In the surrounding years, a lot of this could be attributed to his high intentional walk totals. In 1996, he was given an intentionally free pass 20 times, and that number went up to 27 in ’97, and he got the four fingers from the dugout 16 times in ’99. In ’98 though, he was skipped around just eight times. As good as Bagwell was, pitchers kind of just had to take their lumps with him, because the team just hit that well that year.
The player who hit behind Bagwell for the majority of the season was Alou, who had arrived in the offseason during the Marlins’ hideous original fire sale. The Marlins received some nice pieces when they sold off their World Series-winning club, but they received exactly nothing for Alou. But Alou delivered plenty to the Astros. He had the best season of his 17-year-career in ’98, as he hit .312/.399/.582, good for a .415 wOBA and 158 wRC+. Together, Alou and Bagwell were the only teammates to finish in the top 10 in wRC+ that season:
Biggio didn’t too shabbily himself. With a .395 wOBA and 145 wRC+, he was one of the 25 best hitters in the game, and handily the best hitter at the keystone, with only Jeff Kent within shouting distance of him. Just on the strength of those three guys, the Astros had an offense that would stack up just fine. But wait, there’s more!
Patrolling right field that season was Bell, who was still a couple years away from “Operation Shutdown,” and he had his career year in ’98 as well. Bell was worth less than one win in six of his 11 major league seasons, but he managed to turn in 5.7 WAR in ’98 — a career year in nearly every category. In center field for the majority of the year was Carl Everett, himself a couple years away from letting us all know that Derek Jeter is not a star and that dinosaurs didn’t exist, had his breakout season in ’98. His 125 wRC+ was the first of a good three-year run, but it was good for just fifth among qualified Astros’ hitters.
They didn’t stop there though, as the team also had a few part-time players who came through with large contributions. In his 102 games and 342 PA, Sean Berry tallied 2.7 WAR thanks in large part to a .387 wOBA and 140 wRC+. Hidalgo played great defense in his 66 games, mostly filling in for Everett in center, but he also hit to the tune of a 122 wRC+ in 234 PA. Spiers played more frequently than both of them but not enough to qualify for the batting title. And while his .273/.356/.396 line, good for a .337 wOBA and 107 wRC+, wasn’t spectacular, his wRC+ placed 15th among third basemen that season (min. 400 PA), which fits nicely given the production elsewhere. Even an aging Jack Howell chipped in 42 PA of 130 wRC+ action early in the season.
Not everyone hit, of course. Regulars Brad Ausmus (93 wRC+) and Ricky Gutierrez (84 wRC+) weren’t exactly assets offensively, but they weren’t the worst either — among those with 400 or more PA, Ausmus’s wRC+ ranked eighth of 14 catchers and Gutierrez’s ranked 16th out of 27 shortstops. So even they could have been worse. Reserves Tony Eusebio (73 wRC+ in 203 PA), Tim Bogar (9 in 169) and Dave Clark (52 in 146) were also liabilities, but hey you can’t have everything, right?
Teams like the 1998 Astros don’t come around too often. Not only were they so mashtastic that no one has bested them during the wild card era, but their season stands in the top 10 since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Led by two should be hall of famers and a charter member of the hall of nearly great, and flanked by a number of other guys breaking out all at the same time, Houston had — when context is applied — a historically great offense. Hopefully, when we remember the great teams of the ‘90’s we won’t forget this squad just because they only won one postseason game nor had a player engage in a nation-swooning home run chase.
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