Last Updated: 2017-10-04
For a while, it looked like the Houston Astros were going to coast to home field advantage throughout the American League playoffs as the #1 seed. Well, despite winning 101 games, that isn’t the case. Houston will still host the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series, but is not assured of being at home in the next round, if they advance. That’s a bridge to cross further down the line because the Red Sox, despite finishing eight games behind the Astros in the standings, are going to be a very difficult team to top in this best-of-five round.
At BetOnline Sportsbook, the Astros are a -160 favorite over the Red Sox, with the takeback at +140 on the underdogs.
Here is the schedule for the series and the pitching probables:
Game 1 @ HOU: October 5, 4:08 p.m. ET; Sale vs. Verlander
Game 2 @ HOU: October 6, 2:05 p.m. ET; Pomeranz vs. Keuchel
Game 3 @ BOS: October 8, TBD; TBD (Peacock? McHugh?) vs. TBD (Fister/Porcello)
Game 4 @ BOS: October 9, TBD; TBD (Morton?/Verlander) vs. TBD (Porcello/Fister/Sale)
Game 5 @ HOU: October 11, TBD
As you can see, both rotations are up in the air as things currently stand. The Red Sox would need to go back to Chris Sale on short rest if they are facing elimination. The Astros may not have to use Justin Verlander in the same spot since they have better rotation depth than Boston. The managers have only released the rotations for the first two games at time of writing, but the picture should be clearer as we move along.
The Astros hold an enormous advantage offensively per the 162-game samples, but, as we know, anything can happen in a five-game series. Still, the Astros blew away the rest of the league with a .349 wOBA, which was 13 points higher than the Indians, who finished second. Houston finished about average in the Fangraphs baserunning metric labeled BsR, which takes into account a little bit of everything, ranging from stolen bases to extra bases taken. Houston’s .282 team batting average was the best in the bigs and the team’s .478 SLG was the best in baseball by a significant margin. Their 121 wRC+, which means that the Astros were 21 percent better than league average as a team, was the best in baseball by 13 points over the Yankees.
Perception and reality are not the same thing about the Red Sox offense. Boston’s offense finished 20th in wOBA at .316. In a season when hot dog vendors were coming down from the stands to jack home runs, the Red Sox only hit 168. Throughout the season, they were one of the biggest laggards in HR/FB%. This is a big deal in the playoffs because you’re facing highly-specialized arms more often than not and stringing together hits to score runs becomes even more difficult. A lot of scoring this postseason projects to be done with the long ball. The Astros had 11 guys with 10 or more home runs. The Red Sox had five. Boston was a bit more efficient on the basepaths, but the offense just isn’t where it needs to be.
As mentioned, this is a big advantage to the Astros.
Having Chris Sale is the biggest equalizer in this series. Barring a sweep, Sale should pitch twice in what could very well a Cy Young-winning season for the southpaw. Sale has a 2.90 ERA with a 2.45 FIP and a 2.65 xFIP. He has struck out 36.2 percent of opposing batters, which is downright absurd. The Astros have had issues with premier lefties when they have faced them, so this is the matchup that concerns me for Houston. It would concern me with any team, but given the inherent variance of the playoffs, two dominant starts from Sale would put the Astros in a position where one game of things not falling their way will send the Red Sox forward.
I’m not sure people realize how good Drew Pomeranz has been this season for the Red Sox. Pomeranz wrapped up the year with a 3.32 ERA, a 3.84 FIP, and a 4.15 xFIP. The high xFIP will be cause for concern with some, but it doesn’t worry me, given that it was a crazy year for HR/FB%. Pomeranz is a solid #2 here, but I do wonder how long his leash will be, with a 9.3 percent BB% and the quick trigger finger for managers. Beyond Pomeranz, it is a clusterf-. Rick Porcello has spent the season allowing tons of hard contact. Doug Fister is a journeyman and the Astros have a really good book on him since he was there last season.
Quietly, the Astros have a pretty decent rotation with everybody healthy. Justin Verlander has been an outstanding addition. In five starts, Verlander was worth 1.1 fWAR for the Astros. With his high-spin-rate fastball and big hammer curve, he has the right type of arsenal to have postseason success. I knew this was a great fit from the start and the numbers back it up. Verlander had 43 strikeouts in 34 innings with just four runs allowed on 17 hits. The Astros are deep into advanced metrics and Verlander seems like a guy that would embrace that type of stuff. Despite my hatred of the Tigers as an Indians fan, Verlander has always been a dude whose arsenal and demeanor I have respected.
Dallas Keuchel will start Game 2. He’s a tough matchup because of his command from the mid-thigh down. He can pound the bottom of the zone. Like any ground ball hurler with his batted ball distribution, he can be subject to variance and batted ball luck. On the year, 66.8 percent of Keuchel’s balls in play were on the ground. We’re not in an era when teams string hits together to score. They hit dingers. Keuchel doesn’t allow many. The Red Sox don’t hit many.
Beyond Keuchel, the Astros have options. Charlie Morton led the rotation with 163 strikeouts in 146.2 innings. Brad Peacock had 161 K in 132 innings. Lance McCullers hasn’t looked right with some injury issues, but he has swing-and-miss stuff as well.
The Astros have a clear depth advantage here, but in a five-game series, seeing Chris Sale twice does close the gap substantially.
Those that watched the AL Wild Card Game may have been fascinated with Joe Girardi’s decision to use David Robertson in the third inning, but that could very well have won the Yankees the game. Managers are ultra-aggressive with their bullpens in the postseason and, to me, bullpen advantages are the absolute biggest indicator of playoff success. Both of these teams had good bullpens during the season.
One thing that concerns me in this series is how John Farrell will deploy Craig Kimbrel. He had times throughout the season to use Kimbrel for a multi-inning save in high-leverage and insisted that he needed to save his closer until the ninth inning. Well, you can’t do that in the playoffs. Kimbrel is an elite bullpen weapon. After all, he struck out nearly half (49.6%) of the batters he faced. The Red Sox were fourth in bullpen fWAR and Kimbrel accounted for 3.3 of the 6.9 fWAR.
David Price is the new wild card in this series. Price isn’t going to start, but could be used in an Andrew Miller capacity. I’m not sure how that will work with a guy that has never done it before, but Price’s talent is undeniable. Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly have both been solid arms, though they are largely unproven in this format. Kelly throws an effortless 100, but he only worked 54 games and didn’t have the type of strikeout rate you’d expect from a dude pumping triple digits in there. Heath Hembree is another good right-handed option. Fortunately for the Red Sox, who don’t have a lot of great left-handed options, the Astros are a pretty right-handed-heavy bunch.
Only the Yankees had a higher K/9 this season than the Astros. On the other hand, only the Padres and Reds had a higher HR/FB% allowed than the Astros bullpen. The Astros have a lot of options in the bullpen. Whichever starters don’t make the rotation, like Collin McHugh or Charlie Morton or Brad Peacock can be effective in short bursts. My favorite weapon in the game is Chris Devenski, who had a 2.68 ERA during the season with 100 strikeouts in 80.2 innings of work. Devenski is a multi-inning, right-handed version of Andrew Miller and his usage will be fascinating to watch. Ken Giles will also be used in late-inning high-leverage.
We’ll have to see how AJ Hinch deploys his assets. How much trust is there in Luke Gregerson? What spots will he find for Will Harris? Can Francisco Liriano be an effective LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY)? The multi-inning capacity of the Astros bullpen gives them a slight edge in my mind, as well as my personal beliefs that Hinch will manage his bullpen better than Farrell.
The Red Sox finished third in defensive runs saved with 45 and led the Major Leagues in UZR. The Astros were 21st in defensive runs saved and 28th in UZR. In the vacuum of a five-game sample size, I’m not sure how much this means, but the Red Sox are vastly superior on defense to the Astros. As a unit, Astros catchers only caught 12 percent of runners attempting to steal. The Red Sox caught 39 percent of attempted runners. Boston has to play like the underdog here. Because they don’t hit home runs, the risk/reward of stealing bases is increased a little bit. They need to be aggressive on the bases and put pressure on the Houston defense and pitching staff.
While I don’t really trust John Farrell much here, he is more experienced in pressure cookers like this. AJ Hinch has five playoff games under his belt and the Astros blew the ALDS in epic fashion the year that the Royals went on to win the World Series. This is a more experienced group of players now, but Hinch will need to push the right buttons.
Series Pick: Houston Astros -160
There are a lot of people out there that have questions about the Astros and have had concerns for a while now. But, the Astros are getting the best possible matchup in the first round. The Indians have a harder route with the Yankees, despite what the regular season records will tell you.
Facing Chris Sale twice is a challenge to say the least, but Houston easily has the better offense and the deeper starting staff. Those are two things that I cannot overlook when the bullpens are relatively similar. If you’re looking to take the series price, I would look at the Astros.