The Astros Are the New Royals

Did you hear the news? Last postseason, the Royals made quite a name for themselves. In the midst of their first playoff run in 30 years, Kansas City carved out their own brand of baseball. For the first time in a long time, “Royals baseball” meant something positive, something exciting, something worth watching. The Royals captured our hearts until the final out of Game 7, with their unique blend of speed, defense and a dominant bullpen — a postseason formula that had long lurked in the shadows of the traditional power pitching and power hitting approaches.

Did you hear the news? What’s written above still holds true, but there’s a new Royals in town. You might not have heard about them, because they haven’t yet made their feel-good World Series run that still only has something like a 1-in-3 chance of actually materializing. Also, the Old Royals are still here and they’re still quite good, and these New Royals don’t quite feel like the Old Royals, but that’s just on the surface. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the Houston Astros are the New Royals.

Speed

The Astros are the New Royals because of their speed. Did you know the Astros had speed? I’m not even talking about Triples King, Evan Gattis. No, I’m talking about real speed. Did you know the Astros stole 121 bases this year? Most in the American League and 17 more than the Old Royals?

We all know about Jose Altuve. Little guy stole 56 bases last year. The success rate dropped a bit this season and he wound up with “just” 38, but he’s still second in baseball over the last four years with 162 steals and — wait, why am I trying to justify Jose Altuve’s speed to you? Of course he’s fast. Everyone knows that. It’s the other guys that need talked about.

It’s Carlos Correa’s 14 major-league steals, which, when added to his 18 minor-league steals prior to his debut, make for an impressive total. It’s George Springer’s 16 steals, despite missing roughly one-third of the regular season. It’s Jake Marisnick being perhaps the sneakiest, most underrated base stealer in baseball. Say, did you know Marisnick stole 24 bases this year with just 372 plate appearances and a .281 OBP? That’s remarkable. For some context, I whipped up a quick leaderboard to help illustrate Marisnick’s ability. All I’ve done is take total steals, and divide it by the total number of times reaching base, with homers and triples excluded. A rough proxy of how often, upon reaching, one successfully swipes an extra bag:

Steals/Times reaching base:

  1. Billy Hamilton, 47%
  2. Dee Gordon, 25%
  3. Jake Marisnick, 25%
  4. Charlie Blackmon, 20%
  5. A.J. Pollock, 17%

Had you ever before thought of Jake Marisnick as a Dee Gordon-like base stealer? You have now.

Defense

The Astros are the New Royals because of their defense. Did you know the Astros play great defense? I sure didn’t. Rather, I sure didn’t expect them to. Before the start of the season, I previewed all 30 team defenses. Within that preview, the Astros are ranked as the 28th-best team defense. At the time, it wasn’t a controversial ranking. The Astros, for three years running, were among the league’s worst defensive teams by both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. This season’s Astros rank fourth in team DRS. This season’s Astros rank fourth in defensive efficiency. This season’s Astros are closer to the middle of the pack by UZR, but, point is, they’re at least a good defensive team, if not an elite defensive team, depending on what metrics you value.

The preseason preview assumed Colby Rasmus would spend lots of time in center, unable to foresee the extent of the role Marisnick would play, that he would post a +20.3 UZR/150, good for third-best among all MLB outfielders, or that the Astros would trade for Gold Glover Carlos Gomez. The preview assumed an underqualified Jed Lowrie would receive the bulk of the time at shortstop, unable to foresee that he’d be moved to third after an injury and a Correa promotion. The preview assumed Altuve would continue to be among the league’s worst defensive infielders, unable to foresee his apparent improvement in the field.

The preview assumed that the Astros wouldn’t have a great defense, unable to foresee that the preview would be wrong.

Bullpen

The Astros are the New Royals because of their bullpen. Did you know that the Astros had the best bullpen in baseball this season, by FIP? The sixth-best, by ERA?

Tony Sipp and Will Harris each finished the regular season as qualified relievers with ERAs that begin with a 1. Josh Fields struck out a third of all the batters he faced, and posted a top-10 FIP, one spot ahead of Wade Davis. And those are just the guys that get Houston to their closer, Luke Gregerson, who, despite a bit of a down season statistically, has a long track record as one of the game’s more effective relievers.

To be fair, none of those guys compare to a 2014 Davis, Greg Holland, or even Kelvin Herrera, who set a new bar for what the back end of a bullpen can look like. This year’s Astros pen might not have quite the dominant, eye-popping numbers, but what they lack in stuff, they help make up for in depth.

Unique Offensive Approach

The buzzword, with last year’s Royals offense, was “home runs.” The Royals didn’t hit any home runs. Their lineup had a unique, somewhat experimental construction, and some people weren’t sure how to feel about it. Ended up not mattering. Production is production, whether it comes with home runs, and the Royals got their production. It was fun to watch.

The buzzword, with this year’s Astros offense, is “strikeouts.” The Astros strike out a ton. Their lineup has a somewhat unique, experimental construction, and some people aren’t sure how to feel about it. Ended up not mattering, at least for the regular season. Production is production, whether it’s littered with strikeouts, and the Astros have gotten their production. It’s fun to watch.

Good for the Game

It’s undeniable that last year’s Royals were great for the game of baseball. The team had been through hard times, what with their three-decade playoff drought and all, and it was refreshing to see them defy the odds and play exciting baseball. They were also good for baseball because they highlighted the importance of some potentially undervalued aspects of the game — notably speed, defense, and non-traditional lineup construction and bullpen deployment — for the common fan on a national stage.

Though you might hear this year’s Astros described as “one-dimensional,” the narrative being that they live and die by the homer, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Astros run, play defense, and can wrap games up with a lead after six innings with their bullpen, as did last year’s Royals. And, like that same Kansas City team, a deep postseason run by Houston would be great for the game. A compelling turnaround by a team that was considered the laughingstock of the MLB just a couple years ago, led by an unconventional approach that could help shift the public perception of strikeouts, home runs, and teams built around the extremes.

This isn’t meant to persuade the rooting interest of you, the reader. When you don’t have a horse in the race, every team is interesting and worth rooting for in some way. It’s also not meant to serve as a death sentence to Kansas City. They’re still a great team, a fun team, and a very-much-alive team, though last night’s Game 1 loss to the New Royals did drop the Old Royals to the bottom of our World Series odds, with the New Royals pacing the American League. It’s simply meant to point out that the Astros, like last year’s Royals, are a fresh, unique, and fun team, who aren’t as one-dimensional as you might think. Lucky us for getting to see them play one another. It’s too bad only one can move on.

We hoped you liked reading The Astros Are the New Royals by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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frankieknuckles
Guest
frankieknuckles

Half of fun of the Royals was their storyline as well: historically terrible franchise with a rebuild so long last year’s success felt more like a fluke than a foregone conclusion. (And their rise to playoff qualification and WC heroics set them up as the epitome of an underdog on the postseason alone: KC being a good team was only half-discussed throughout most of the regular season.)

HOU doesn’t quite have that same charm. Similar to the Cubs, they were a surprise only in that no one thought their heralded rebuild would pay off quite yet; their franchise’s pain isn’t quite so deep; and coverage of HOU as coming out of left field was tapped months ago. Which isn’t to say they’re not a fun team to root for (though I’d guess Jacob Nix won’t be cheering too loudly), just to appreciate how much the stars aligned for KC last year.

Jeremy Moore
Guest
Jeremy Moore

“their franchise’s pain isn’t quite so deep”

I know right! We don’t know the pain of actually winning a World Series…

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

“their franchise’s pain isn’t quite so deep”

The Houston Astros have never won a World Series. In 53 years, they have won 1 pennant.

ElJimador
Guest
ElJimador

It’s not just that they’ve only been to 1 World Series in 53 years (only to be swept). It’s how they’ve lost. Losing in ’80 to the eventual champion Phillies w/4 of 5 of those games going to extra innings. Losing in ’86 to the eventual champion Mets despite a 3-0 lead in the 9th of game 6 and Mike Scott on deck for game 7. Getting upset by Kevin Brown and the Padres in ’98 despite a team that won 101 games and Randy Johnson as ace. Even the World Series sweep was torture. Everyone of those games was close with half of them decided by a Brad Lidge meltdown at the end. Not to mention the even more painful memories associated with Astros fandom: J.R. Richard, Don Wilson, Dickie Thon. Even Caminiti and Darryl Kile, though they were with other teams at the end, are part of that sad legacy for Astros fans who grew up watching them.

Of course fans of other teams have their litany too. But trust me on this, for any longtime Astros fan, the only other fans they’re going to feel sympathy for when it comes to comparing franchise pain are the Cubs’.

Dag Gummit
Guest
Dag Gummit

To be fair, at least the Astros have been to the World Series and have been to the ALCS with a legit team multiple times.

Sincerely,
A Mariners Fan

P.S.: There is no spite in that, of course. I know it can be easy to forget about us. After all, we’ve never had a single WS appearance in 37 seasons and have had all of 4 — count ’em; 4 — playoff appearances. We may be able to debate which is a more futile franchise, but I’d rather share a beer and mope together about our shared futility.

Crush City Commentator
Guest
Crush City Commentator

The Astros have never been to the ALCS…they were a National League team until the last few years, forced to move despite Milwaukee previously playing in the AL. However, I think the move has been excellent for the Astros!