- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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I’ve decided there’s no team in baseball that fascinates me more than those 2015 Houston Astros.
We knew before they played a game this year that they just might whiff at rates rarely before seen by humankind. And sure enough, they lead their league in striking out.
We also knew they were going to do enough trotting this season to qualify for the Hambletonian. And sure enough, they lead their league in home runs too.
But now here’s where this team gets itself into really rarefied territory -- by adding a third top-of-the-charts category to its unique niche in baseball lore:
The Astros, in case you hadn’t noticed, also lead the American League in stolen bases.
So think about this trifecta: First in homers. First in strikeouts. First in steals. One of the most unique triple threats of modern times.
OK, so how rare is this? Glad you asked. With the help of Lee Sinins, inventor of the incredibly handy Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, here’s all you need to know:
• In the entire expansion era, just one team has ever homered, whiffed and burglarized more than any team in its league -- and it was a pretty memorable team: The 1976 edition of the Big Red Machine.
If you’re old enough, you’ll remember that juggernaut winning 102 games and going unbeaten in October. I have a feeling almost nobody remembers that all eight regulars racked up double figures in stolen bases. And even Johnny Bench, the catcher, swiped 13 of 15.
• Meanwhile, over in the American League, this gets even more unusual. For one thing, in the DH era, only one AL team has ever even led the league in both home runs and steals. And that would be the fearsome 1995 Indians team that went 100-44 and had 14 players steal at least one base -- including Tony Pena, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jim Thome and Ruben Amaro Jr.
• But to find the last (and only) American League team to top the league in all three of those categories, you have to travel back 77 years to the mighty 1938 Yankees. Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio swiped six bases apiece for that team, if you were wondering.
• For the record, only two other teams in modern history have ever hit this unique trey -- Jackie Robinson’s 1951 Dodgers and Creepy Crespi’s 1940 Cardinals. Their seasons didn’t end as happily as the ’76 Reds and the ’38 Yankees. But that’s a tale for another time.
• OK, and now one more thing. Just to add to their already high degree of difficulty, these Astros are actually last in the AL in batting average, with a team average of .229. Naturally, no team has ever led its league in homers in a season in which its team average was that low. And no team has ever led in steals, either, with a batting average that low.
So if you get the feeling that their formula for how to score doesn’t fit the mold of pretty much any other team we’ve ever seen, I’d say, well, BINGO. But when I ran this research past the manager, A.J. Hinch, he enjoyed seeing the other names on this list as much as he enjoys watching his team do its one-of-a-kind thing every night.
“In some ways, I think it is a great way to put the most pressure on the [other] team,” he said, via email. “When we have the right runners on base, the other team has to account for both our speed and our power. Those two fit together well on days we can apply pressure on the pitcher.
“The strikeouts are a byproduct of hitting deeper in counts, some strike-zone discipline or lack thereof, and walks,” he went on. “We actually walk quite a bit, too, [and] that helps our speed and power. Fun team for sure. We battle and compete. That's all a manager can ask for.”
So even if he didn’t ask to get mentioned in the same note as the Big Red Machine, I have a feeling A.J. Hinch just might take that too.
And now, in other news
Strange But True Feats of the Week
• Until they ripped off their first three-game wining streak since August over the past three days, the Phillies were on pace to get outscored by 314 runs this season. Yeah, 314. So how many National League teams in the past 70 years have had a minus-300 run differential? Exactly one. The legendary ’62 Mets (minus-327). Yikes.
• Jeremy Guthrie has faced 179 hitters this season and gotten 124 outs -- and struck out 15 all season. Corey Kluber faced 26 hitters Wednesday, got 24 outs -- and struck out 18. On one incredible night. What a sport.
• And thanks to loyal Twitter follower Justin Goldman for pointing out that Kluber’s insane box-score line (8-1-0-0-0-18) was also a palindrome. For the record, so was the date he unfurled that line (5-13-15).
• I think it’s safe to say the 2015 Rockies are having a slightly different kind of season than the 2007 Rockies. This year’s Rockies went 2 1/2 weeks -- from April 27 to May 14 -- without winning. The 2007 Rockies went 25 consecutive days (Sept. 28 to Oct. 24) without losing -- and lost once in a span of 38 days, with some slight help from a stretched-out postseason schedule. But whatever. A great note is a great note.
• The Braves got two hits against the Reds on Wednesday -- and both of them were pinch hits. So their starting lineup went 0-for-26 that night, while their pinch-hitters went 2-for-3. ESPN Kernel collector Doug Kern reports they’re the first team to get at least two pinch hits in a game, but no other hits, since Tony Gwynn, Dave Magadan and Bubba Trammell helped the Padres pull that off on Aug. 19, 2001.
• I’m not sure how he missed going 5-for-5 on Cinco de Mayo, but Yunel Escobar just had two five-hit games in a week (May 4-11). How many five-hit games had he had in his career before that? None. Of course. Last player before him to have two games of five-plus hits that close together? Ichiro Suzuki -- who else? -- July 29-Aug. 3, 2004.
• Pablo Sandoval hit a go-ahead, extra-inning home run in the Bay Area on Monday night, but not in San Francisco. This one came in Oakland, in his very first game there with the Red Sox. And how many extra-inning homers did he hit at AT&T Park in seven seasons with the Giants? That would also be one (off Yunesky Maya in 2013).
• Finally, let’s roll out the mind-boggling Miguel Cabrera Strange But True Feats of the Week. Before he homered as part of a three-hit game Friday night, he had three multihomer games this year, but only two one-homer games. But that couldn’t beat this feat, the most inexplicable stat of 2015. Before that three-hit game Friday, his day/night splits looked like this:
Cabrera during day games this season: eight home runs (in 68 AB).
Cabrera during night games this season: nine HITS (in 57 AB).
So if Matt Harvey is the Dark Knight, what’s Miggy? Otis Day (and the Nights)?