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Dorktown: The 1979 Astros were a team from baseball’s stone age

In 1979, the Houston Astros hit home runs like they were playing in 1879. We’ll probably never see another team like them.

Because the Houston Astros haven’t been talked about at all in 2020, the time has come to give them some attention. Here is every MLB team’s game-by-game home run progression throughout the 1979 season, with Houston in green:

They finished having failed to hit even 50 round-trippers. With the Mets excepted, you can see every other team’s home run total approached or exceeded double that of the Astros — and even New York still hit over 50 percent more homers than Houston.

Since all teams started playing 162 games in 1962, no one’s hit fewer than 55 homers in a full season. And in only three of the other 1,465 team-seasons did a squad fail to hit more than 60:

But here’s where it gets really wacky: if you take another look a that line chart, you’ll see it didn’t start out so bad for ‘em. They were just regular bad at hitting homers for the first chunk of the year — they’d even hit more homers than a few other teams about a month into the season — not historically bad.

Things started going sideways in early May where you’ll notice a nine-game homerless streak encompassing games 28-36. They rebounded with a two-homer outing in game 37 vs. the Giants on May 16. That represents an extremely fun inflection point, because tracking the rest of their season thereafter along that green line, they never again had a similar single-game bump.

Let that sink in for a second: from May 17 on, a period encapsulating their final 125 games of the 1979 MLB season, the Houston Astros didn’t hit multiple home runs in even one of them. Of the other 25 teams, the average club had more than 26 such games and every other team had at least 12:

To try and give that a bit of perspective: 88 individual players combined for 141 such games in that same time frame:

From May 17 on, the Astros hit a total of just 32 homers. Five of the above 88 individual players (Dave Kingman, Mike Schmidt, Gorman Thomas, Jim Rice, and Bob Horner) had more post-May 17 homers. Compared to other, yanno, teams, here is how pitifully that stacked up:

They also had homerless streaks of both 15 (games 100-114) and 20 (games 136-155). No one else that season had a single homerless streak last more than 10 games.

Their streak of 125 consecutive games with either zero or one home runs is simply magnificent. No one else in 1979 had such a streak last more than 35 games, and across the entirety of the integration era (since 1947), none of the other 1,789 team-seasons had a streak reach even 70 consecutive games of failing to hit multiple homers:

To shine a light on the individuals, here are the 1979 home run totals of every Astro compared to every Red Sock, plotted by plate appearances:

One man, first baseman Bob Watson, even played for both teams that season — with his respective points larger than the others to easily identify the apples-to-apples comparison on the change of scenery’s impact. He was traded to Boston midway through the season after hitting just three homers for Houston, then proceeded to hit more homers over the remainder of the season for his new club than any Astro had all season.

Perhaps you were alarmed had you noticed every single green dot there resides south of 10 home runs. And for good reason. Not only were they the first team in a quarter-century to fail to have a single player mash double-digit dingers (1954 Orioles), but by ‘79 the rest of MLB’s teams averaged five such players:

The Astros did have the best pitching in MLB that season, propelled by Joe Niekro and J.R. Richard — the National League’s top two starting pitchers in Cy Young voting — which helped them win 89 games. But their complete inability to goose their offense with the long ball, especially from mid-May on, did them in. It resulted in a unit so anemic that ultimately none of their incredible pitching mattered as they finished just behind the 90-win Reds for the division title and berth in the NLCS.

Small ball will only take you so far. At a certain point, you just gotta give the chicks some of what they dig.