Last week, my colleague Sam Fels outlined the parallels between the Cubs and Astros: their recent success, their methods to get there, and where the two teams stand at the moment. Sam’s ultimate conclusion was somewhat optimistic, ending on this note:
When you total it up, the Cubs have won more games than the Astros over the past four seasons. They’ve made more playoff appearances, and more LCS appearances.
Sam’s right, of course, and the above are uncontestable facts. The Cubs have been more consistently successful than any other team since 2015, and one is foolish to dismiss that. However, I think there’s some analysis regarding the two teams’ post-title maneuvers that is germane to the Cubs’ future. After all, Sam mentioned how the Astros (before falling 4-1 to the Red Sox in the ALCS) were better poised to repeat as champions than the Cubs were in 2017—or to return there this season, for that matter.
First, a strong similarity: the Astros’ hitters took a big step back in 2018 from their 2017 peaks, as many of the Cubs hitters did in 2017 after their impressive 2016 campaigns. I’ve selected the key hitters from each team and laid them out in the following table so we can take this in all together.
|CUBS||2016 OPS+||2017 OPS+|
|ASTROS||2017 OPS+||2018 OPS+|
It’s apparent that both teams experienced a dip in offensive production in the season following their World Series championship, at least from the core contributors who played both seasons. It’s also apparent that the Astros’ hitters all had career years in 2017, save Alex Bregman, and that, on the whole, the Cubs’ hitters really didn’t see much change.
Notable, though, is that the Cubs had many more players exit following 2016: Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, Miguel Montero, David Ross. Those plate appearances went to Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ, and Albert Almora in 2017. The Astros experienced little change from 2017 to 2018, with seven of the eight hitters with the most plate appearances staying the same (the only change was at DH, with Carlos Beltrán leaving for Evan Gattis, an overall improvement).
These are interesting data points, and illustrative of how the two teams have retooled during their contention windows. The Cubs shed veterans and inserted their young hitters into the vacated roles; a drop in production followed, a trend picked over dozens of times already this offseason. But what about the Astros? Have they followed a similar trend, handing spots previously occupied by veteran hitters over to their graduating prospects? In short, no.
The Astros’ hitters are, on the whole, older than their Cubs counterparts. It’s nice to see that represented visually, though, so here are the median and average ages of the two teams’ hitters over the last four seasons, minimum 200 plate appearances (note: average ages are not weighted by the number of plate appearances given to each hitter).
|Astros, median||Astros, average||Cubs, median||Cubs, average|
Honestly, this was surprising to me, even though I expected the Cubs to skew younger. The Cubs’ median and average ages went up in 2016, but for 2015, 2017, and 2018, there were virtually identical. This tells us what we knew about the Cubs’ strategy: graduate young prospects, insert them into roles previously filled by veterans. It keeps the team’s average age down, which isn’t necessarily a first-order priority for the Cubs—but, younger players are cheaper players, which certainly is a priority for the Cubs.
The Astros, on the other hand, have had their median and average ages fluctuate across these four seasons. This season, the Astros’ hitters with 200 or more plate appearances were, on average, two years older than the Cubs’ hitters fitting that same criterion. That’s a huge difference! Sure, the Astros had the luxury of carrying a 40-year-old Carlos Beltrán as their DH for all of 2017, but they have also bucked the Cubs’ strategy and acquired several veterans to fill roles, mostly via trade. The young players they have graduated from the minors rarely have received 200 plate appearances or more, which is why the above cutoff is significant.
Things get hairy when making one-to-one player comparisons across these teams, but there are a few more points I’d like to highlight. First, the Cubs’ “core” of Bryant, Rizzo, Báez, and Contreras is comparable to the Astros’ “core” of Bregman, Altuve, Springer, and Correa in terms of production and age. That’s good for both teams. When expanding the scope to the team’s next tier of players, though, one sees the differences. The Cubs have trusted Albert Almora, David Bote, Victor Caratini, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber with filling out the offense (alongside Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist) while the Astros have played their comparably young players (J.D. Davis, Derek Fisher, Tony Kemp, Jake Marisnick, A.J. Reed, Max Stassi, Tyler White) much less often. Those young guys have complemented the veterans Marwin González, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick instead of supplanting them. Almora, Happ, Russell, and Schwarber all received 462 plate appearances or more in 2018; not one of the Astros listed received more than Kemp’s 295 in 2018.
The Astros have even jettisoned a few young players over the past few seasons. Teoscar Hernández, Colin Moran, Jon Singleton, and Preston Tucker have all found themselves in other uniforms. The Cubs did trade Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler—and, of lesser importance, Jeimer Candelario and Matt Szczur—but have generally given their young players much longer leashes at the major-league level. That’s finally expected to change this offseason, with one of Almora, Happ, or Schwarber likely part of a trade, but such a plan has yet to materialize.
There’s a clear philosophical difference between the two teams regarding these players, then. A young player on the Cubs is expected to graduate from the minors, perhaps receive a half-season to slide into a small role on the big-league club (à la Almora, Contreras, and Happ), and then take on a full-time job almost regardless of performance. A young player on the Astros is expected to graduate from the minors, receive 100-200 plate appearances for a season or more, and then either play themselves into a bigger role, content themselves with being an up-and-down bench player, or become a trade chip. As Theo Epstein put it, the Cubs have evaluated and filled roles based on talent; the Astros have done so based on production.
Part of this difference stems from the generally superior pedigrees of the Cubs’ young players—Almora, Happ, Russell, and Schwarber are all former first rounders—but that alone doesn’t explain the discrepancy. The Astros have hedged their bets much more successfully, and their more consistent offensive output has reflected that strategy. Considering the two teams’ contention windows and their goals for sustained success and multiple World Series titles, one must analyze the efficacy of these divergent strategies in realizing those goals. Sure, the Astros were bounced by the Red Sox in the ALCS, but their offense hummed all season long. The same can’t be said for the Cubs in the two seasons since their championship.
The Cubs are poised to sign either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado this winter, and that will go a long way toward fixing their “broken” offense. But, even before considering such a splash signing, it’s useful to wonder…
Would Ian Happ have received 462 plate appearances for the 2018 Astros?
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports