ASTROS vs. RED SOX
American League Division Series
Well, here we go. 101 wins don’t make a shit now, and let’s not kid ourselves: baseball’s best offense has no small challenge ahead, facing two 17-game winners right out of the gate and one of baseball’s best bullpens waiting to take the ball. And as far as I’m concerned, the Astros and Red Sox were 3-3 in games that “mattered” this year. Despite the differences in their win/loss records, these two teams could be very evenly matched.
Inasmuch as regular season records and stats can be indicators of what this ALDS might look like, here are some comparisons.
Team ERA: Houston 4.12 (11th), Boston 3.70 (4th)
Starter ERA: Houston 4.03 (6th), Boston 4.06 (8th)
Bullpen ERA: Houston 4.27 (17th), Boston 3.12 (2nd)
Quality starts: Houston 67 (18th), Boston 88 (2nd)
K/9: Houston 9.91 (2nd), Boston 9.59 (5th)
BAA: Houston .240 (6th), Boston .245 (9th)
OPS against: Houston .720 (9th), Boston .712 (7th)
One could fairly say that the Astros’ stats are skewed due to the mish-mash of unplanned contributions from players who would have otherwise been at AAA this season. Eight players who started the 2017 season in the Astros farm system combined to pitch 176 innings in ten starts and 115 relief appearances for the big club. Some of those players (e.g. Hoyt, Martes) probably would have found their way to Houston at some point anyway, but others (e.g. Gustave, Diaz, Jankowski) almost certainly would not have until September callups, if at all. Sure, every club deals with injuries, but I think many will agree that five full months of Keuchel-McCullers-Morton-Musgrove-Fiers would have resulted in much different stats, to say nothing of McHugh’s absence.
However, the main takeaway from the stat comparisons above should be that the Red Sox’s staff this year was very good, arguably the best in the AL that doesn’t rhyme with “Heaveland”. Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz were obviously the biggest part of their success, but David Price (when healthy) and Eduardo Rodriguez (his late September shelling by the Astros notwithstanding) were no slouches either. Boston was one of only five teams to get quality starts in over half of their games (three of the other four are still playing baseball). As for the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel’s and Joe Kelly’s seasons speak for themselves, combining for a 9-1 record and a 2.09 ERA. Price’s next earned run in relief will be his first.
At least on paper, the Astros may have a slight advantage in the overall rotation thanks to a glut of quality arms to choose from after the first two games. The Red Sox arguably own the advantage in the late innings. Either way, this looks to be a very well pitched series.
Runs scored: Houston 896 (1st), Boston 785 (10th)
Home runs: Houston 238 (2nd), Boston 168 (27th)
Extra-base hits: Houston 604 (1st), Boston 489 (22nd)
Batting average: Houston .282 (1st), Boston .258 (T-12th)
OBP: Houston .346 (1st), Boston .329 (T-11th)
Strikeouts: Houston 1,087 (1st), Boston 1,224 (8th)
Stolen bases: Houston 98 in 140 tries (70%; 23rd), Boston 106 in 137 tries (77.37%; 5th)
GIDP: Houston 139 (T-24th), Boston 141 (T-26th)
Not many surprises here. The Astros offense is better – if not much better – than the Red Sox’s good-but-not-necessarily-great lineup in nearly every offensive category. They get more hits of every kind, they score more runs, and they strike out less. The Astros have three regulars with a .900+ OPS and four more over .800; the Red Sox have zero and three, respectively. Houston has seven players with over 70 RBI; Boston has three.
The Astros may routinely start five middle infielders and two center fielders in this series. Suffice it to say, they have the capacity for outstanding defense as long as they don’t do any of the dumb shit they are sometimes prone to doing. I haven’t watched Boston much, but despite a slightly worse fielding percentage than the Astros all of the sabermetric defensive stats like Boston more. For whatever any of that is worth.
Boston’s regular Benintendi-Bradley-Betts outfield combined for 25 assists. Of Houston players that will be in the dugout this October (i.e. no Aoki, no Teoscar Hernandez), the Astros came close with 23, but it took the entire seven-headed monster (including Beltran, who turned in zero assists) to get there.
Christian Vasquez and Sandy Leon both ranked in MLB’s top 20 in throwing runners out, combining for 39. McCann and Gattis together totaled just 12, a potential problem area given Boston’s relative success stealing bases. Houston has the edge in passed balls, though, with 10 compared to Boston’s 18.
After seeing numerous pitchers and several position players go down with injury at various points in the season, the Astros are knock-on-wood-throw-salt-over-shoulder-while-nursing-a-bucket-of-chicken remarkably healthy. At the time of this writing, Reddick’s back is better and he is expected to play in the series, so Marisnick stands to be the only regular who will not be on the roster. McCullers is the only remaining injury-related question mark among the pitchers, but whether he makes the ALDS roster will likely be more related to performance than health.
The Red Sox lost several players to season-ending injuries throughout the season, most notably pitchers Steven Wright and Robbie Ross. Eduardo Nunez is a question mark due to a knee injury that caused him to miss most of September; he reportedly had a good simulated game on Monday but no decisions have been reached at the time of this writing. A couple other Sox players (Pedroia, Vazquez) sat out at least one game of the season-ending Astros series to nurse nagging injuries, but they are expected to be ready.
Everything in this series comes down to the Houston lineup and what it can muster against Sale and Pomeranz, both of whom have pitched the Astros very tough in recent years. I know there are obviously a number of other factors at play, but in my opinion the Astros’ road to the ALCS goes through Sale and Pomeranz.
If the Astros win this series, it will be because the May/September lineup showed up and vaunted enough in games 1-2 to head to Boston with no worse than a 1-1 tie. If the Astros lose the series, it will be because Sale and Pomeranz stymied the offense, even if the Astros take the Fenway games and force a game 5.
“Good pitching beats good hitting,” or at least so says the old adage. We’re about to find out.
ALDS GAME 1
Thursday, October 5, 3:08pm CDT – Minute Maid Park
Chris Sale (17-8, 2.90) vs. Justin Verlander (15-8, 3.36)
After seven years of sitting at home in October while on the White Sox, Sale is making his first postseason start of his career. It goes without saying that Sale had an excellent year – in the entire months of April and July he allowed a total of nine earned runs in ten starts. If there are any chinks in the armor here, they are that he closed the season looking somewhat human. The Indians torched him twice in August (13 ER in 8 IP total), and in September he allowed nine home runs. However, even these aberrations occurred in the midst of dominant outings; in August and September he pitched three scoreless games of seven innings or more.
Sale’s work against non-100-loss Astros teams is surprisingly limited; they never faced him during both the 2014 and 2017 regular seasons. The small sample size is pretty impressive for him, though: in one 2015 start and two 2016 starts, he is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA, 2 BB, and 32 K in 24 innings.
Where Sale is the postseason newcomer, Verlander has 16 postseason starts under his belt and is 7-5 with a 3.39 ERA. His best overall postseason was 2013, which saw him allow just one run over 23 innings as the Tigers lost the ALCS to eventual champion Boston.
Verlander’s brief success thus far as an Astro is well-documented, and he has been extremely effective against the Red Sox. Since 2015 he is 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA against Boston in six starts.
Select pitcher/batter matchups:
Altuve vs. Sale: 21 AB, .381/.409/.571
Springer vs. Sale: 12 AB, .250/.250/.333
Reddick vs. Sale: 14 AB, .214/.214/.286
Correa vs. Sale: 10 AB, .200/.200/.200
Maybin vs. Sale: 14 AB, .143/.143/.143
Marwin vs. Sale: 9 AB, .111/.111/.111
Moreland vs. Verlander: 29 AB, .345/.406/.552
Nunez vs. Verlander: 15 AB, .333/.353/.467
Bogaerts vs. Verlander: 15 AB, .267/.267/.400
Benintendi vs. Verlander: 7 AB, .143/.125/.429
Pedroia vs. Verlander: 27 AB, .111/.161/.111
Betts vs. Verlander: 13 AB, 0-fer