Last Updated: 2018-10-11
We often think of the MLB playoffs as being full of variance. I know I certainly do. How else can we explain the 2016 Cleveland Indians winning the AL pennant with 2.5 starting pitchers thanks to injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar? How else can we explain the 2014 and 2015 Kansas City Royals? How about the even-year San Francisco Giants that won titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014?
Well, sometimes, there is no variance at all. The four teams with the better records were the four better teams in their respective Division Series rounds and they all moved on. This is the first time since 2009 that this phenomenon has occurred. The last time prior to that was 2007.
The two best teams from the regular season in the American League were pretty clearly the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox. One of them will advance to the World Series. This is the first time that we have had two teams with at least 100 wins in the ALCS since the 1977 series between the Yankees and the Royals.
The Astros had absolutely no problems with the Indians. The Indians did lead in the middle innings in two of the three games as the third time through the order came about, but Terry Francona didn’t make the right moves, in large part because the bullpen didn’t have many trustworthy options. After all, starter Trevor Bauer pitched in all three games in high-leverage. Houston hit home runs, played better defense, and got better pitching all around, including arguably the best playoff start in a very long time from Gerrit Cole.
The Red Sox didn’t have a whole lot of problems with the Yankees either. There were some dramatic moments courtesy of the Boston bullpen, but it never really felt like the series was hanging in the balance. Maybe that was just the optics of the 16-1 beatdown in Game 1. Whatever the case, the Yankees offense disappeared in key spots and the Red Sox advanced by beating their hated rivals.
One really intriguing side note to this series is that Red Sox manager (and soon-to-be AL Manager of the Year) Alex Cora was AJ Hinch’s bench coach for last year’s World Series winning team. He certainly knows the personnel well.
Will that matter? We’ll have to wait and see. The betting public certainly doesn’t seem to think so, as the Astros opened as low as -120 in the marketplace, but have been bet up as high as the -150 range. BetOnline is currently showing the price at -143, even though the Red Sox have home field advantage and are favored in Game 1.
Here is the schedule for the series and the pitching probables:
Game 1 @ BOS: Saturday October 13; Verlander vs. Sale; 8:09 p.m. ET
Game 2 @ BOS: Sunday October 14; Cole vs. Price; 7:09 p.m. ET
Game 3 @ HOU: Tuesday October 16; Eovaldi(?) vs. Keuchel; 5:09 p.m. ET
Game 4 @ HOU: Wednesday October 17; Porcello vs. Morton; 8:39 p.m. ET
Game 5 @ HOU: Thursday October 18; Sale vs. Verlander; 8:09 p.m. ET*
Game 6 @ BOS: Saturday October 20; Cole vs. Price; 5:09 p.m. ET*
Game 7 @ BOS: Sunday October 21; Keuchel vs. Eovaldi(?); 7:39 p.m. ET
We know that the first two matchups are set in stone and we saw Nate Eovaldi take the ball in Game 3 against the Yankees. That may have been expected to be more of an opener role for Eovaldi, possibly with Eduardo Rodriguez to piggyback, but Luis Severino imploded and Eovaldi got to coast through seven innings in under 100 pitches.
The Astros didn’t need a fourth starter, but Charlie Morton looks like the most logical option. That being said, Morton hasn’t pitched since September 30, so it’s tough to stay fresh.
The Red Sox hit right-handed pitching better than anybody and by a pretty decent margin, at least by wOBA. Boston posted a .349 wOBA against right-handed pitchers, which was eight points higher than the Dodgers. When adjusted for park factor, Boston was second to the Dodgers in terms of wRC+, but had the best SLG in the league by 15 points and the highest OBP by seven points, despite being middle of the pack in BB%.
Boston made a lot of contact and a lot of good contact against right-handed hurlers. Ironically, however, so did the Indians. The Indians were third in wOBA against righties and had the lowest K% in baseball against righties during the season at 18.8 percent. The Red Sox had the second-lowest at 19 percent. And, yet, the Astros righties sliced and diced through that Indians lineup like they were swinging toothpicks in the box.
The Red Sox lineup was quite a bit better than Cleveland’s, including a 28-point gap in SLG and a 12-point gap in OBP. It’s not a completely fair comparison. Furthermore, Boston played a much tougher schedule because the Red Sox didn’t have the luxury of beating the hell out of the AL Central for 76 games. This is simply to illustrate that the Astros aren’t your average run-of-the-mill right-handed heavy staff. Everybody throws hard with high spin rates and exceptional breaking stuff. There isn’t an organization in baseball that has maximized pitching talent better than the Astros.
I’ll talk about a lot of different things in this preview, but this series literally comes down to one thing. How will the Red Sox fare against Houston’s right-handed pitchers? That’s pretty much it. We saw that the Boston pitching staff has some depth concerns, even though Rick Porcello and Nate Eovaldi pitched well. Porcello and Eovaldi are not Morton and Keuchel. Maybe Chris Sale is on par with one of Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander, but David Price isn’t really in that same stratosphere, even though Price has been great in the second half and struggled once again in his Game 2 start.
The Red Sox ranked first by a decent margin in average exit velocity against right-handed pitching. Their average exit velo was 90 mph. Toronto was second at 89.3 mph. That may not seem like a huge gap, but the gap between Boston and Toronto really gets magnified over the sample sizes we are talking about. Boston had 3,351 balls in play against righties and Toronto had 2,929. Houston, for what it’s worth, was 20th, but that didn’t seem to have a big impact on the series against the Indians.
When we flip pitcher handedness to lefties, the Astros rated much better in that department with their right-handed-heavy lineup. They were seventh at 88 mph, trailing the Athletics, Yankees, Brewers, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Dodgers. This is relevant because the Astros will draw two lefties right away in Sale and Price and the Red Sox will have to use Rodriguez at some point in this series just because it is a seven-gamer and they’ll need to keep some back-end arms fresh.
The Astros very clearly had the best offense in baseball last season, but ranked sixth in wOBA this year at .326. They were still 10 percent above league average offensively. Carlos Correa has been playing through injuries and Jose Altuve had a disabled list stint. It was during that time that the Astros looked human. Altuve was out from July 25 to August 21. From August 21 through the end of the regular season, the Astros were 25-8 and they haven’t lost in the playoffs. They were five games under .500 in Altuve’s absence.
It is fair to point out that the Astros were very top-heavy during the season. Alex Bregman, who is the best player on this team and a top-five player in baseball (go ahead and @ me), accounted for 7.6 fWAR. Jose Altuve missed a month and accounted for 4.8 fWAR. George Springer was the only other guy above 1.6 fWAR. The Red Sox, on the other hand, had superstar Mookie Betts at 10.4 fWAR, JD Martinez at 5.9 fWAR, despite being a horrible defender, Xander Bogaerts at 4.9, Andrew Benintendi at 4.3, and Jackie Bradley Jr. at 2.8.
I think these two offenses are both really balanced and very solid. The Red Sox do stack up about as well as any team can against this elite Houston Astros pitching staff. Houston will probably hit for a little bit more power in the series, which is important because there is a pretty noticeable correlation between hitting for power and success in the playoffs. If you read my previous set of previews, you know why. The highly-specialized run environment plays a big role and manufacturing innings is much harder to do.
I’m not sure that there’s a clear cut edge here, but you’re going to find one from me in the next section.
In terms of average exit velocity against, Astros right-handed pitchers ranked seventh at 87.3 mph, trailing the Mets and their elite rotation, the Cardinals, Dodgers, Cubs, Phillies, and Nationals. Even with a bunch of hard-throwers, Houston limited high exit velocity contact by locating well and using an assortment of plus breaking pitches. That’s one of the problems with using general platoon splits. The Astros had the best pitching staff in baseball by a large margin.
That isn’t hyperbole. They had 30.7 fWAR. Nobody else had more than 26.6 fWAR. The Astros had a 3.11 ERA. Nobody else was lower than 3.40. They had a 3.23 FIP. Nobody else was lower than 3.60. They had a 3.36 xFIP. Nobody else was lower than 3.52. Houston, as a team, had a 28.5 percent K%. The Yankees were second at 26.6 percent. The Dodgers were third at 25.7 percent. For good measure, the Astros also had the fourth-lowest BB%. Houston also only allowed 0.94 HR/9, which was second to the Cardinals.
Across the board, Houston was far and away the best pitching staff in baseball. The Red Sox got to hit against quite a few bad right-handers in the AL East and around the league. You can only play the teams on your schedule and it’s hard to hold that against Boston, but it is very important to realize that Houston’s pitching staff wasn’t just on another planet, it was in another galaxy relative to the other 29 teams. That’s not likely to magically change.
You’ve got Verlander and Cole at the front of the rotation. You’ve got a former Cy Young Award winner in Dallas Keuchel who had a much better second half than first half. Charlie Morton has one of the highest spin rates on his curveball and plus velocity. The bullpen for the Astros has a bunch of converted starters like Lance McCullers Jr., Collin McHugh, and Brad Peacock. The Astros bullpen is so deep that guys like Hector Rondon, Joe Smith, and Chris Devenski weren’t even a thought for this series, whereas youngsters like Josh James were.
Boston has Chris Sale, but we don’t really know what to expect from Sale. Sale threw 5.1 quality innings with two runs allowed on five hits and eight strikeouts in his Game 1 start. He also worked a relief inning in Game 4. Sale hadn’t worked past the fifth since July 27 because of various injuries. He’s not going to be a short rest option in the ALCS for Game 4 or Game 7, so he’ll only pitch twice in the series. Velocity has been a concern for the lanky left-hander with these various injuries.
It was good to see him get extended for a second straight start, but he’s not the Chris Sale we know and love.
David Price had a great second half and then it all evaporated by lasting just 1.2 innings in his playoff start. Maybe there is something more to it than just the mental side when it comes to playoff problems. Price has had plenty of them. Price now has a 5.28 ERA in 75 career playoff innings. His command has completely gone away, as he’s allowed 14 HR in those 18 appearances.
One saving grace for the Red Sox may be that the Astros only posted a .316 wOBA against pitches of 95+ mph. That means that Sale’s velocity will be critically important, but also the velocity of somebody like Nate Eovaldi could play up. Boston, on the other hand, was second against high velocity with a .356 wOBA. If you specifically look at hard-throwing righties, Boston was at .362.
The Astros still have a starting pitching edge, but the bullpen is where the greatest edge lies. Craig Kimbrel looked extremely shaky in his two outings, as he did secure saves, but allowed three runs on a couple of hits with four strikeouts and two walks. Matt Barnes was solid, but he was the only reliever to amass more than 1.0 fWAR during the season. Ryan Brasier became a fun high-leverage option with a 2.83 FIP, but he doesn’t miss a whole lot of bats and those are guys that are hard to trust in the pen in the playoffs.
Outside of Kimbrel, Barnes, and Brasier, the next lowest FIP belonged to Hector Velazquez at 3.53, but he also doesn’t miss any bats. Joe Kelly was at 3.57.
The Astros have a bunch of multi-inning weapons and also bolstered their bullpen with the addition of Roberto Osuna. Ryan Pressly was a huge add from the Twins and he was the first guy out for AJ Hinch in the series against the Indians. Collin McHugh reinventing himself as an elite reliever was an interesting development this season and now Lance McCullers’s plus stuff is part of the equation. Waves of hard-throwing, strikeout-heavy arms make me giddy and that’s what the Astros have in their pen.
Houston has a clear advantage in the pitching department all the way around. The Astros have better elite options, especially with Sale in the situation that he’s currently in. Houston also has the better bullpen. Kimbrel is an elite weapon, but he’s a single-inning weapon. Alex Cora knows the importance of leverage and is a very smart manager, but Kimbrel’s limited in that regard and I think that could play a role at some point in this series.
As mentioned above, it’s kind of fun that Alex Cora was AJ Hinch’s bench coach last year. He was also excellent in the Division Series and completely managed circles around Aaron Boone. The Yankees fired Joe Girardi because the players didn’t like him and he wasn’t a great communicator overall, but the guy was a strong in-game manager. Boone is not. Cora is. Hinch is. It’s no surprise that those two are here.
The Astros rated better defensively than the Red Sox in defensive runs saved, but the Red Sox did improve with the trade for Ian Kinsler and some of the other moves that they made in the second half. Boston actually rated well in the range metrics, while Houston did not.
Pick: Houston in 5
One of the things I talked about in the series between the Red Sox and Yankees is how the Red Sox were something of an overachiever for a large portion of the season. Their BaseRuns record was actually 99-63, so they did really well in high-leverage situations during the season like spots with runners in scoring position. In terms of Pythagorean Win-Loss, Boston was more like a 104-58 team, while the Astros were more like a 109-53 team.
In the much tighter run environment of the playoffs, I have to side with the better pitching staff and the better overall team. That is the Astros. If Chris Sale was 100 percent and could possibly make three starts in this series, maybe I would see things a little bit differently. A healthy Astros team is the best team in baseball and only the Dodgers come close. That will be your World Series matchup.
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