When the Houston Astros assembled in spring training as the defending World Series champions, their manager, A.J. Hinch, was curious to see how the players would respond to last season’s success.
No team had successfully defended a World Series title since the Yankees won their third in a row in 2000, and Hinch was looking for reassurance that his players would not succumb to overconfidence or simply hit the reset button and do everything the same way, hoping for the same result.
Hinch saw something different, something better.
“In the spring, there was great humility in how we were going about our work,” Hinch said. “That helped us kick-start the year with, ‘If we’re going to do something special, we’re going to need to attack it differently than we did.’ It wasn’t just, we’re going to hit copy and paste from the year before.”
The key, Hinch said, was that whenever his players were pushed, they pushed back harder. That approach has worked. Now, as the Astros enter the American League Championship Series this weekend, they are even better than last season. They are a more complete team.
In 2017, on their way to winning their first World Series, the Astros won 101 games in the regular season, beat the Boston Red Sox in four games in their American League division series, then won the ALCS over the New York Yankees and the World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers, both in seven games.
This year, the Astros won 103 games and swept the formidable Cleveland Indians in three games in the divisional round. In the first postseason sweep in franchise history, Astros pitchers allowed 13 total hits.
So the defending champions are already improved from the same point last year as they prepare to play the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday night in Boston.
The Red Sox won a draining series against the Yankees in four games. It was seen as the marquee matchup of the first round. But after Cleveland was eliminated, Terry Francona, the Indians’ manager, said the Astros would present an even bigger challenge to whichever team faced them next.
“They’ll be a handful,” Francona said.
Beyond Houston’s impressive win total, which was second only to the 108 games won by the Red Sox, the Astros had the best run differential in baseball: a staggering 263, much better than last year’s 196. Run differential, the difference between runs scored and runs allowed, is seen by many as a leading indicator of a team’s true quality and a predictor of its success. (The next-highest total this year was Boston, at 229.)
George Springer, the center fielder who set a Houston record with his ninth and 10th postseason home runs Monday, used three words to sum up his team’s approach: “Resilient. Relentless. Confident.”
In reality, Houston did not hit as well this year. The Astros scored 99 fewer runs than they did in 2017, perhaps a result of games lost to injury by Jose Altuve (knee), Carlos Correa (back) and Springer (thumb). The real change was they pitched better.
The Astros allowed an average of 3.30 runs this season, the best figure in baseball and more than a run better than the league average of 4.45. They also had the best ERA (3.11) and allowed the second-fewest home runs (152). And they did it despite playing in a stadium with a left-field wall that stands only 315 feet from home plate.
The most obvious pitching improvement came with the addition of Gerrit Cole, the right-handed starter whom the Astros acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a January trade. Cole was 15-5 with a 2.88 ERA in the regular season and backed that up in his first postseason start, allowing three hits while striking out a dozen in seven innings.
Cole joined Justin Verlander, who was 4-1 in last year’s postseason, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to form the core of a starting staff whose performances effectively ruled out any consideration of the 2018 concept of bullpen games, or openers — the strategy in which a team intentionally uses a relief pitcher to start a game and then cycles through a line of other relievers to finish it. Other teams have experimented with the tactic, but the Astros, who embrace analytical data streams as much as any team, have reminded people just how valuable a group of talented starting pitchers can be.
“In a year where it’s shifting a little bit in people’s belief in starting pitching,” Hinch said, “I think our guys are showing you can have great belief in great starting pitching.”
Critically, Hinch has also enjoyed a much deeper bullpen this season. A year ago, he improvised his way through many postseason pitching decisions, using Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. for extended relief appearances in both Game 7s.
Now he has Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Tony Sipp and Collin McHugh, who was strictly a starter for the previous five years in Houston. McHugh pitched in 58 games this year, all in relief, and recorded a 1.99 ERA.
“I think when you look down my card, I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve got something for everybody in different areas of the game,’ ” Hinch said. “It’s comfortable. These games aren’t comfortable, but it’s a comfortable feeling knowing I’ve got a couple of cards to play when the time matters the most.”
On Monday, after the Astros closed out the Indians, Alex Bregman, Houston’s 24-year-old third baseman, could hardly contain his pride in his team amid the Champagne spray and cigar smoke in the clubhouse. Bregman argued that if not for all the injuries to key players, the Astros might have broken the major league record for wins in a season (116).
He also noted that many of his teammates were still aching as they closed out the Indians. But they were also still winning.
“If anyone thinks we’re healthy, we’re grinding,” Bregman said. “The boys are grinding every day. But when the lights come on, we’re ready to go.”