As the Houston Astros try to parlay 101 regular-season wins into the franchise's first world championship, their strongest competition could come from a Cleveland Indians team with a stacked pitching staff and a lineup featuring Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and Edwin Encarnacion.
It would be a fitting matchup, given that the 2017 Astros have so much in common with an earlier version of the Tribe -- the 1996 Cleveland juggernaut featuring Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome.
The Astros dominated the American League West this season behind an offense that led the majors in on-base percentage and slugging while amassing the fewest strikeouts in the game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Houston is the first team since the '96 Indians to hit that statistical trifecta.
The Astros' rare blend of power and contact ability made their lineup a challenge for opposing pitchers to navigate during the regular season, and they're on a roll entering their AL Division Series against the Boston Red Sox. During a memorable four-day span last week, they outscored the Sox and Texas Rangers by a combined 49-8 to become the first team to win four straight games by nine or more runs since the Detroit Wolverines achieved the feat in 1887.
"This is the way our team is built,'' catcher Brian McCann said. "We've got 12 guys that work counts. We've got 12 guys that swing inside the strike zone. Our lineup flows from top to bottom. We put pressure on you up top, and the guys at the bottom can hurt you as well. There's no letup.''
The three All-Stars near the top of Houston's order lead the way. George Springer, Houston's leadoff man, has 34 homers and 286 total bases. Jose Altuve, the Astros' No. 3 hitter, just joined Harry Heilmann and Miguel Cabrera as the third right-handed hitter since 1900 to win three AL batting titles. And shortstop Carlos Correa, Houston's main cleanup hitter, was in the middle of the MVP debate until he missed six weeks because of a torn ligament in his thumb. Altuve, Correa and Springer are the first second base/shortstop/center field trio in AL history to each record a .500 slugging percentage.
But the Astros also owe much of their success to the contributions of McCann, Marwin Gonzalez, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman and Jake Marisnick at the bottom of the order. Two nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information best illustrate the depth of the Houston lineup and the challenges the Astros pose to opposing pitching staffs:
The Astros have eight hitters with at least 250 plate appearances this season and an OPS+ of 120 or greater. That's the most of any team in MLB history.
Houston's 7-8-9 hitters have a collective slash line of .268/.327/.477 and an OPS of .803. For the sake of comparison, the average OPS of a team's No. 3-4-5 hitters this season is .803.
General manager Jeff Luhnow didn't have the 1996 Indians or 1887 Wolverines in mind when he handed manager A.J. Hinch the keys to the lineup in spring training. Houston's high-octane batting order is a product of hitters who've grown up within the system and recent veteran acquisitions who've had a major impact.
In 2013, the Astros struck out a major league-record 1,535 times. Two years later, they ranked second in baseball with 230 homers, led the AL with 1,392 strikeouts and lost to Kansas City in the AL Division Series. While Correa, Springer and other young players were still developing at the big league level, Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena provided pop and lots of swings-and-misses in the middle of the order.
Despite his new-age sensibilities, Luhnow has never subscribed to the notion that the strikeout is just another out. It just worked out that way. Given the budget at his disposal and the Astros' losing ways, he was picking from a limited array of free-agent options.
"So much can happen when you put the ball in play,'' Luhnow said. "It could end up going through a hole or forcing the defense to make a play they don't make. I'm not a fan of strikeouts. But you have to look at the whole equation of what you're getting with those strikeouts. When you get a guy like Chris Carter, who is going to hit 30 to 40 home runs and strike out 200 times, is that worth it? For many years, that type of player was worth it to us because it was all we could really get until we developed our own and we had access to other types of players.
"We made the playoffs in 2015, but it was a bit of a feast-or-famine offense. When those guys were hitting home runs, we did great. When they weren't, we could go into extended slumps. That doesn't happen with this team. We had our offensive woes in August, but in general, we don't go into extended slumps. We have a lot of high-average, high-contact, damage-producing players up and down the lineup.''
The hitters acquired by Luhnow since the middle of the 2016 season have a different profile. Gurriel, who signed a $47.5 million contract as an international free agent 15 months ago, is the fifth-toughest player to strike out in the majors this season. Josh Reddick and Bregman have the 20th- and 21st-lowest swing-and-miss percentages in the game, and McCann has struck out only 38 times in 399 plate appearances.
Carlos Beltran is the outlier in the group, with 33 walks, 102 strikeouts and a .283 on base percentage. But Beltran's diminished numbers are more a product of age and declining bat speed than a free-swinging mindset. Beltran's clubhouse and batting-cage tutorials drum home the importance of plate discipline and a grounded approach, and he has been instrumental in the continued development of Houston's young hitters.
Hinch insists the Astros' governing philosophy has never wavered; the team just has a group of players better-equipped to execute it now.
"Analytical organizations get a bad rap that we don't care about strikeouts," Hinch said. "People seem to think we didn't care about strikeouts in 2015, and in 2017 we do. The reality is, the answer is somewhere in the middle. We didn't have a change of philosophy where all of a sudden we said, 'We're going to try not to strike out.' It's more about playing to the strengths of your team. In 2015, the strength of our team was the three-run homer. Now it's quality plate appearances. And the byproducts are good offensive players and a ton of run production."
It takes commitment to keep churning out those high-quality plate appearances, day after day. Houston's hitters talk routinely about the importance of getting a good pitch to hit and putting the ball in play with authority. Simple as that concept might sound, it's a challenge to put into practice.
"You have to put in the preparation beforehand," Bregman said. "You have to know what pitches the pitcher is going to throw in certain situations, what his ball does and how it moves. The good pitchers in this game make pitches that start as strikes and end as balls, or start as balls and end as strikes. So you have to put in the proper preparation and be able to execute a good swing on a pitch in the zone. It's difficult."
The Astros defy characterization because they can be an aggressive or a patient team depending on the circumstances. They're second in baseball with a 1.073 OPS on 0-0 counts, and any pitcher who approaches their lineup on autopilot and tries to seize the initiative with a garden-variety, get-ahead fastball is pushing his luck. The Astros led the majors this season with a .301 batting average against fastballs.
"We swing early and often," pitcher Mike Fiers said. "We jump a lot of guys early. I think pitchers kind of get caught off guard, maybe coming in and trying to throw a first-pitch strike. The guy hits a double and you're already in trouble."
The Houston hitters maintain that aggressive mindset even when they're behind in the count. The Astros' .199/.273/.323 slash line with two strikes is the best in baseball. They've thrived while disdaining the conventional, defensive two-strike approach.
"A good two-strike approach is about knowing the strike zone from pitch one," Hinch said. "The ability to put the ball in play comes with that. People think of a two-strike approach as, 'Choke up, spread out, just touch the ball and put it in play.' That might be a way to not strike out, but it's not the best way to be offensive and not strike out.
"We try to train our guys to know the strike zone, and they do a lot of work in commanding it. There's no panic when we fall behind, because we know the strike zone."
Springer is the poster boy for persistence. As a rookie in 2014, he swung and missed 18.6 percent of the time and made contact with 68 percent of pitches in the strike zone. This year, his swinging strike percentage has dropped to 9.5 percent and he's making contact with 86 percent of pitches in the zone.
Springer's improvement is traceable to physical adjustments he has made to address holes in his swing and the patience to lay off borderline pitches and get into more advantageous counts. Like his fellow Astros, he has the concept drilled into his head each day by hitting coaches Dave Hudgens and Alonzo Powell.
"We focus on making good swing decisions," Luhnow said. "There's a lot of feedback. It takes years for players to change how they make those swing decisions. They have to be made instantaneously, so it takes a lot of time for that to happen."
When Springer and his friends in the Houston lineup are in sync, ERAs take a pounding. The Astros set franchise records with a .282 team batting average and a .479 slugging percentage this season.
"Hitters are just running to the bat rack," Fiers said. "Say a guy is 3-for-3 and you're 0-for-2 on the day and you're coming up, you're like, 'I've got to get a hit.' Everybody is pushing each other and trying to top each other."
Will that combination of plate discipline, contact ability and power be enough to propel the Astros on a long postseason run? The 1996 Indians, who bashed their way to 99 regular-season wins before losing to Baltimore in the AL Division Series, serve as a cautionary tale.
Boston ace Chris Sale awaits in the opening round, and the Astros will soon find out if the production that carried them from April through September continues to play in October.