After the long and brutal grind of the regular season and the (relatively) short (but still brutal) grind of the Wild Card Games, Division Series and League Championship Series, we've arrived at the pinnacle of postseason baseball. The last teams standing are, perhaps surprisingly, two of the three 100-plus game winners from this season, and we get the first World Series between two teams in the over-a-hundred club since the 1970 meeting of the Orioles and Reds.
The Houston Astros became the first team to win a pennant in both the National and American Leagues when they clinched against the Yankees on Saturday. The joy came after an agonizing series against the Yankees where the Astros' league-leading offense seemed to all but disappear and the home team won every game. The clinching game was epic, featuring: (1) A probably ill-advised (but absolutely amazing) throw to home to preserve a 1-0 lead that one could argue saved the game and thus the season. (2) The starting pitcher tandem of Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combining for nine innings of shutout baseball, culminating with McCullers throwing 24 straight curveballs to complete his save.
The Dodgers' path through the Championship Series (and Division Series) was certainly easier than Houston's, as they handily defeated the Cubs in only five games and sent the reigning champs home packing last Friday. The Dodgers' clincher reflected the ease with which they've handled their entire postseason. Clayton Kershaw started and went six innings, only allowing a run. Things were never particularly stressful, thanks in no small part to Kike Hernández, who hit a grand slam to give the Dodgers a 9-0 lead in the fourth inning.
We're here to take a look at what to expect from both pennant winners and see what hits may come in the World Series. In some regards, there's less to work with than in the Division and League Championship Series, as we certainly can't look to the teams' records against each other for any insight this time around, as Houston and Los Angeles haven't met since 2015. A lot of the hitters and pitchers haven't faced each other enough to have meaningful amounts of data to work with, so we may have parse things out in other ways. Before we do that, though, let's take a look at the bigger picture.
As we've mentioned, and you will no doubt hear again, the Dodgers (104-58) and Astros (101-61) both notched over 100 wins this season. Houston had the slightly better run differential at +196, with Los Angeles clocking in at +190. By their expected records, however, the Dodgers were still a better team (Pythagorean: 102 wins; BaseRuns: 101 wins) than Houston (Pythagorean: 100 wins; BaseRuns: 100 wins). While this doesn't give us much insight into the coming series, apart from the fact that both teams were excellent in the regular season, it does provide us with one interesting fact: No matter what happens, this will only be the 4th time since the first Wild Card was introduced in 1994 that a 100+ winner goes on to win it all, despite the fact that there have been 23 teams to cross that line prior to the 2017 season.
Even if there were more in the way of regular-season, big-picture stats to work with, that wouldn't necessarily spell out what will happen in the craziness of a best-of-seven series. But, since we don't even have that to go on, we're going to take a spin through the different parts of the team and see if we can find any respective advantages.
By fWAR, we're getting a World Series between the best (Houston, 33.0 fWAR) and second best (Los Angeles, 30.1 fWAR) offenses in MLB this season. Houston led MLB in all three elements of the slashline (.282/.346/.478) and the team as a whole notched a remarkable 121 wRC+. They struck out less than any other team in baseball (17.3 K%) and punished pitchers for their mistakes, and were second in home runs (238) only to the Yankees.
Los Angeles took a different trajectory to the fWAR success of their offense, as their players worked their defensive prowess to pad their value. The Dodgers' 48 DRS was good for 2nd in baseball and, when combined with the 4th best wRC+ in MLB (104), that pushed their lineup into the upper echelons of fWAR this season.
Fortunately, we now have a slightly less small sample size of postseason appearances to work with than we did when we looked at these teams before the League Championship Series. This means we can take a spin through the different positions for each team and look at what they've done for their teams this season and what they've done for them lately, in order to figure out who has the edge at each position before we assign an overall advantage.
For the Dodgers, Cody Bellinger hit .267/.352/.581 (138 wRC+, 4.0 fWAR) on the season and put up 4.0 fWAR. He's a lock for NL Rookie of the Year and has continued to crush the baseball in the postseason, hitting .278/.316/.500 with a couple of home runs. He also plays excellent defense and runs the bases well, with 10 swipes in 13 attempts during the regular season.
On the Astros side of the ledger, Yuli Gurriel also had a fantastic "rookie" season, as the 33-year-old Cuban infielder hit .299/.332/.486 (118 wRC+). After a ridiculous ALDS (.529/.556/.706) performance that he was unable to repeat in the ALCS (.250/.308/.375), he still has one of the best lines of any hitter in the postseason (.366/.409/.512). Gurriel is a slightly below average baserunner and definitely a below average defender, so Bellinger gets the edge away from the plate.
This is one of the tougher calls of this exercise, as it comes down to which you trust more: the larger sample size of the full season or the "hot hand" approach. Overall, Bellinger is the probably the better player based on the limited data we have on both of them in one full season, so we'll give a slight advantage to the Dodgers. If Gurriel keeps hitting the way he has, though, all bets are off.
With Aaron Judge now out of the playoffs, there's only one likely MVP left in the mix: Jose Altuve. I've already written about his regular season (.346/.410/.547, 160 wRC+, 7.5 fWAR), but he's having an even more impressive postseason, hitting .400/.500/.775 with five home runs. He's almost impossible to get out, can punish baseballs and is an excellent baserunner. He already got my vote for regular season MVP and there really isn't much else to say.
Logan Forsythe, who started five of the Dodgers' seven postseason games, is having a much better postseason (.316/.458/.368) than his 2017 regular season would have predicted (.224/.351/.327, 90 wRC+), even if his regular season was a surprising disappointment compared to his prior body of work. While that certainly bodes well for the Dodgers' fate in this series, there is no way in hell that this position is going anywhere but to Houston.
Which Rookie of the Year do you prefer? The Astros have the 2015 Rookie of the Year, Carlos Correa, who hit .315/.391/.550 (152 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR) in the regular season and has hit .295/.340/.591 so far this October. Thus far, he hasn't quite shown the patience at the plate that has made him so valuable (6.4 postseason BB% vs 10.8 career BB%), but the extra power he's flashed (.295 postseason ISO vs. .210 career ISO) has almost made up the difference.
The Dodgers have the 2016 Rookie of the Year in Corey Seager. His .295/.375/.479 (118 wRC+) slashline, along with better defense, meant that he was actually a more valuable player (5.7 fWAR) than Correa on the season. Seager's postseason line (.273/.467/.455) isn't quite as impressive as Correa's, and that's before you even get to the fact that Seager was left off the NLCS roster due to a back strain. He's reportedly feeling better and going to be starting at shortstop in the series, but backs are fickle mistresses.
If Seager had been healthy and played in the NLCS, this section would require a bit more calculus. As it is, though, the Astros get the nod here just because of the certainty they're getting with Correa. These teams have two of the best shortstops in baseball, but one of them has theirs fully healthy.
Justin Turner just about made an MVP case for himself this season (.322/.415/.530, 151 wRC+, 5.5 fWAR). Had he put up that slashline over a full season, instead of the 130 games he appeared in, he would have likely taken home the award. He has, however, taken home one postseason award already in the form of an NLCS MVP and has a .387/.500/.677 line that makes him one of the best hitters in either of these lineups this postseason.
In his first full season, Alex Bregman (.275/.341/.464, 117 wRC+, 3.7 fWAR) became a very valuable part of Houston's lineup. Bregman has really struggled this postseason, though, with a .190/.244/.381 slashline that basically cuts his wRC+ in half (65). The ridiculous throw to catch Bird at home that might have saved the Astros' season notwithstanding, this is clearly a matchup that goes to Los Angeles.
Brian McCann has been a solid veteran presence behind the plate for the Astros and was slightly above average at the plate this season (.241/.323/.436, 103 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR). Perhaps as a result of being a 33-year old catcher who caught almost 100 games this season, he's struggled this postseason (.156/.270/.219). Those struggles culminated with McCann going hitless through the first five games of the ALCS, although he redeemed himself a bit in Games 6 and 7, with a couple of doubles for 3 RBIs in Houston's two elimination games.
The Dodger's have turned the majority of catching duties over to Austin Barnes this postseason, who started five of their seven games so far. That's not surprising, as Barnes had a fantastic season (.289/.408/.486, 142 wRC+) and was worth 2.7 fWAR in 102 games, although he got into quite a few of his games off the bench at second base. If Yasmani Grandal (.247/.308/.459, 102 wRC+) were starting all these games for the Dodgers, this would be a different beast, but with Barnes doing most of the work at home plate, Los Angeles has a clear advantage.
Marwin Gonzalez was a somewhat unsung hero of the Astros this year (but not here, of course), as he was lost a bit among the higher profile players like Altuve and Correa. But he broke out and hit .303/.377/.530 (144 wRC+, 4.1 fWAR) on the season and led the team with 90 RBIs and played almost every position for manager A.J. Hinch. He's struggled mightily this postseason (.162/.244/.216), but has still played excellent defense in left field.
For the Dodgers, they've rolled out a motley crew in left, although the most recognizable name at the moment would be Kike Hernández, whose Game 5 home runs helped to seal the deal for the Dodgers. While Hernandez (who. Like Gonzalez, played almost everywhere) hit just .215/.308/.421 (92 wRC+) in the regular season, he's hitting .417/.533/1.250 in 15 PAs this postseason. Hernandez, however, hit .159/244/.255 against RHPs this season, so his value is limited in that department.
While Hernández has been huge for the Dodgers this October, we're going to trust the bigger body of work on the season. That means that Houston gets the nod in left, but, as with the Gurriel vs. Bellinger debate at first, this could change in a hurry.
The situation for the Dodgers in center is another position that's largely affected by the health of Seager. If he's healthy, then we can expect Chris Taylor to start there. Taylor's breakout 2017 (.288/.354/.496, 126 wRC+, 4.7 fWAR) has certainly carried over to October, with a .281/.410/.594 line through the postseason. His .316/.458/.789 line during the NLCS earned him co-MVP honors along with Turner. However, if Seager suffers any sort of setback, we'll likely see Taylor taking over at shortstop and see some at bats from the Joc Pederson (.212/.331/.407), who might have just struck out while I was typing this, or Curtis Granderson, who has looked helpless since the Dodgers acquired him (.161/.288/.366).
Houston doesn't have those sort of question marks in center field, as leadoff hitter George Springer, who has had his best hitting season to date (.283/.367/.522, 140 wRC+, 4.5 fWAR) this year, will be continuing to field it for them. While he hasn't quite lived up to those expectations over the postseason (.233/.327/.349), that's due to an abysmal ALCS after a ridiculous ALDS (.412/.474/.706). He's still put up some highlight reel defensive work and probably won't continue to slump as badly as he did in the League Championship Series.
We have another hot-hand quandary here in center. If you're buying Springer's recent struggles and Taylor's recent success, then you easily give this to the Dodgers. But if you want to focus on the bigger body of work, then you would call it a draw. The issue of Seager's health, however, acts as a convenient tiebreaker, though, so we'll give Houston a very, very narrow advantage here.
Had we no postseason stats to play with, this section would look quite different. Houston's Josh Reddick regular season (.314/.363/.484, 127 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR) did not portend what was coming in the postseason (.171/.227/.171). That line is even more confounding when you consider that Reddick hit .375/.444/.375 in the ALDS, but that's what a .040/.077/.040 in the ALCS will do to you. One hit (a single, no less), with one walk and six strikeouts over 26 at-bats, will really screw up your stats. While we're playing a game of small sample sizes here, it was hard not to see Reddick pressing and the resultant frustration.
Another thing it's been hard not to see in the postseason thus far: The Yasiel Puig Show. Puig improved quite a bit this season (.263/.346/.487, 117 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR) after a couple of disappointing ones. He's really been going for it since October rolled around though, not just with his super aggressive bat flipping and his tongue, but, most importantly, with his bat (.414/.514/.655).
While it's always a tempting to side with the bigger sample size, Puig seems to have really solved some of his biggest problems. Reddick is a better player than he was in the ALCS, but Puig looks like the player we loved (or hated, if you hate fun) back when he was breaking out, which is not a good thing for the Astros over the next seven games.
In conclusion, we're looking at two of the best offenses in baseball, which is no surprise, given that both teams won over 100 games. Los Angeles' hitters have looked pretty scary in the postseason and a number of Houston's hitters have struggled throughout the postseason, and especially in the ALCS, but Houston still has the offense I would pick were I forced to choose.
Overall Advantage: Houston
As with the offense, we'll start on general terms with fWAR: The Dodgers' rotation had the fifth best in baseball (16.7) and the Astros had the 6th best (15.2). Dodger starters combined for a 3.39 ERA/3.74 FIP on the season and Astros starters put up a 4.03 ERA/3.95 FIP. Of course, that fails to account for the fact that both teams added aces (Yu Darvish for the Dodgers, Justin Verlander for the Astros) later in the season. There are plenty of unknowns when it comes to the starting pitching in the postseason, and we'll get to that in due time. For now, though, let's at least start by working our way through the knowns: the Game 1 and Game 2 starters.
Unsurprisingly, Clayton Kershaw will start Game 1 for the Dodgers. Kershaw heads into his first World Series appearance, unsurprisingly, with the best regular season stats (2.31 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 10.39 K/9, 1.54 BB/9) of any of the starters on either team. The only thing holding him back from his 4th Cy Young Award is the fact that he failed to crack 175 innings. But we've all known that Kershaw is one of the best pitchers alive for years. The question has been whether he can actually cut it in October.
So far, this postseason, he's continued to be less than his regular-season self, albeit in a different way than usual. His 3.63 ERA and 6.68 FIP are actually the reverse of the ERA-FIP splits we've grown accustomed to, with his ERA dwarfing his FIP. His strikeouts are down (8.31 K/9), his walks are up (2.60 BB/9) and the balls are leaving the park an alarming rate (3.12 HR/9), all while he's running an extremely low .146 BABIP.
This is all happening while Kershaw is enjoying his first postseason without "enjoying" short rest starts ala Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Kershaw is still arguably the best pitcher on Earth, but the question of whether that comes with an "in the regular season" caveat is still up for debate. In terms of matchups to watch out for, Kershaw, like almost every pitcher in MLB will need to pitch Altuve carefully, as he's hit .400/.400/.667 against him in 15 ABs.
Houston will counter in Game 1 with their own Cy Young winner in the form of Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel, like Kershaw, also failed to put in a complete season (145.2 IP), but he was also excellent when he was on the mound, at least in terms of results (2.90 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 7.72 K/9, 2.90 BB/9, 0.93 HR/9). Unlike Kershaw, Keuchel has been even better since the calendar turned to October, posting a 2.60 ERA/1.14 FIP so far this postseason, with 12.98 K/9, 2.60 BB/9 and zero home runs. Thanks to his time spent with the Rays, Forsythe has 20 ABs against Keuchel and a .350/.350/.450 line to show for it, so expect some careful pitching when he's at the plate.
For the Dodgers, Game 2 will start with Rich Hill on the mound. Hill had some trouble with the curve this season, as it led to more blisters and him only pitching 135.2 innings. When he was on the mound, however, he was great (3.32 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 11.01 K/9). While the results have been there in his two postseason starts (3.00 ERA), he's walked 4.00 per 9 and his 4.71 FIP doesn't bode well in terms of the opposing pitcher the Astros will call upon.
Verlander will make his third World Series appearance in Game 2, after taking home the pennant with the Tigers' 2006 and 2012 but failing to win it all. Having another chance at winning a title is the reason why Verlander waived his no-trade clause at the last possible moment, and he's more than rewarded Houston, who has yet to record a loss in a game he's started.
The mechanical adjustments that Verlander has made since coming over have paid dividends aplenty, as his ERA has dropped from 3.82 to 1.06, his FIP from 4.02 to 2.69 and his WHIP from 1.279 to 0.647. Verlander, who snagged the ALCS MVP, has looked as good as he ever has and it makes talking about the Dodgers' collective line against him (.229/.282/.406 in 96 ABs) a bit moot.
If you want to give the edge to the Astros in the first two games, that changes with Game 3. Scheduled to start for the Dodgers is their mid-season acquisition in the form of Darvish, who had an excellent regular season (3.86 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 10.08 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 1.30 HR/9). Like Keuchel and Verlander, though, he's been better in the postseason (1.59 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 11.12K/9, 0.79 BB/9, 1.59 HR/9). And, like Verlander, Darvish has benefited from some post-move adjustments and he has a 0.87 ERA over his last five starts, so that's a concerning trend for the Astros here that extends back before October rolled around.
As an ex-Ranger, Darvish has plenty of innings pitched against Houston, and things don't look particularly good for the Astros in that regard, as he's held them to a .190/.249/.288 slash line. He's even managed to quiet Altuve's bat (.219/.342/.281 in 32 PAs) and Reddick (.160/.185/.240 in 35 PAs), in particular, is probably not looking forward to facing Darvish.
Game 4 for the Dodgers is currently slated to go to Alex Wood (2.72 ERA/3.32 FIP) struggled later in the season. That carried over into the postseason, as Wood's lone start resulted in the Dodger's sole postseason loss, a 4.2 inning outing where he gave up 3 home runs.
Houston's situation in Games 3 and 4 is a bit more complicated. While the rotation hasn't been announced yet, Charlie Morton seems likely to start Game 3. Morton was excellent in Game 7 against the Yankees, but his prior start in Game 3 of the ALCS (3.2 IP, 7 ER, 10.12 ERA) was a clunker. Morton was terrific for Houston during the regular season (3.62 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 10.00 K/9, 3.07 BB/9, 0.86 HR/9). One matchup to watch out for: Justin Turner already has a .400/.571/.400 line against him (albeit in only 5 ABs), so expect Morton to tread lightly when he's at the plate.
What happens in Game 4 for the Astros likely depends on what happens in Game 3. We aren't even to the discussion of the bullpen yet, but (spoiler alert) the Dodgers' bullpen is definitely better. There's a reason that Hinch had McCullers throw a 54-pitch, 4-inning save for the Astros, and it's that he has minimal trust in his bullpen.
McCullers has been great this postseason for Houston (2.08 ERA, 3.31 FIP) but he's also sporting a .179 BABIP. His regular season results (4.25 ERA) aren't quite as impressive, but the underlying numbers were there (3.10 FIP, 10.01 K/9, 3.03 BB/9, 0.61 HR/9). He also wasn't able to throw infinity curveballs as a starter. If McCullers was going to start, the rotation might tilt in the favor of Houston. But Hinch's lack of trust in the bullpen might force McCullers into a game where one of the starters struggles.
That means we might see Brad Peacock starting a World Series game. While that would have been totally unthinkable prior to 2017, he turned in the best season of his career (3.00 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 10.98 K/9, 3.89 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9) this year. He's been hit very, very hard (9.00 ERA, 3.60 HR/9) this postseason and, while that's certainly scary for Houston fans, his .500 BABIP suggests that we're dealing with small sample size shenanigans.
Going into October, the advantage would have pretty clearly gone to the Dodgers. With a couple of postseason series behind us, however, and with Kershaw's continued October struggles and Verlander's rejuvenation, it's probably a tossup at this point.
If the starting rotation is a little too close to call, the same is not true on the relief side of things. The Dodgers bullpen was third in MLB by fWAR (7.5) and 4th by RE24 (51.68), with a 3.38 ERA/3.55 FIP on the season. The bullpen was the 9th best in baseball during the regular season by fWAR (5.6) and but fell down to 20th by RE24 (-15.46), with a 4.27 ERA/3.84 FIP. Those numbers, however, don't really do justice to the tale of two bullpens we've seen in the postseason.
Los Angeles came into the postseason with arguably the best closer in baseball in Kenley Jansen, and nothing has changed since then. His ERA (1.32), FIP (1.31) and fWAR (3.5) led all relievers in the regular season and he was second in K-BB% (44.1%) and BB/9 (0.87). In 8.0 IP this postseason, he's only allowed 2 hits and a walk (with one hit-by-a-pitch) and has struck out 12 of the 28 batters he's faced. While the Dodgers haven't asked (or needed) him to dig super deep for a save yet in terms of hitters faced, he showed that he could during the regular season.
But, while the conversation has to start with Jansen, it certainly doesn't end there, as the bullpen as a whole has only allowed one home run, two walks and 12 hits in 28.2 innings, to go along with 32 strikeouts. It almost doesn't matter where you look in the Dodgers' bullpen, the results have been amazing.
Kenta Maeda's move to the bullpen has, shall we say, worked out. His 4.22 ERA/4.07 FIP in the regular season didn't indicate that he'd have a 0.00 ERA with zero walks and 12.60 K/9 in the postseason, but limiting his exposure to left-handed hitting has paid off. The Dodgers enjoyed a reinvented Brandon Morrow (2.06 ERA, 1.55 FIP, 10.3 K/9) during the regular season and itt's carried over to the postseason, where he's pitched 8.1 innings and allowed only one run, three hits and one walk. The two Tonys, Tony Watson (2.70 ERA, 3.86 FIP) and Tony Cingrani (2.79 ERA, 1.86 FIP) provide further depth and, honestly, I could keep going, butI don't know what else to say: The Dodgers have a deep bullpen.
For the Astros, if you didn't catch the drift in the starters section, the same isn't true. Ken Giles notched a 2.30 ERA/2.39 FIP with a 11.93 K/9 and a 0.57 HR/9 in the regular season, but he's been untrustworthy as of late, with a 4.50 BB/9 and and 3.00 HR/9 causing his ERA to balloon to 7.50 (with a 6.66 FIP) in the postseason. He hasn't looked comfortable on the mound and, while some closer problems might not be that big of a deal (if you have bullpen depth), that isn't the case for the Astros.
Chris Devenski got the 8th inning nod during the regular season (2.68 ERA, 3.49 FIP), but he's allowed four runs in three innings this postseason. While we could dig deeper into Houston's relievers, Hinch barely has, which doesn't bode well for them. He only has one lefty to work with (Francisco Liriano), and the less said about that, the better and he can only count on so many McCullers curveballs to save the day.
Houston has done this before. They got past the best regular-season bullpen when they put away the Yankees. Now they just have to get past the best postseason bullpen courtesy of the Dodgers, but they're going to have to do it with a pretty shoddy bullpen on their part, which doesn't bode well in this department.
We've mentioned the prior postseason dominance on the part of Los Angeles. It's allowed them to set up their rotation, not start Kershaw on short rest and give everyone a breather. Houston had to dig deep against the Yankees and, while their bullpen is well rested at this point, that may or may not be a blessing, based on what we covered previously.
There's also the facts that (1) the All Star Game didn't determine home-field advantage and (2) the home team is 23-8 this postseason. Both the Dodgers and Astros are undefeated at home in the postseason, but there's an extra game in Los Angeles. Tack on the fact that manager Dave Roberts has done a better job in the postseason and you have to give the extracurricular nod to Los Angeles.
Regardless of who comes away with the four most important wins of the season, there's going to be a very happy fanbase. The Dodgers are currently in the midst of a 29-year championship drought and the Astros are eyeing their first championship in their 55-year history. These are both two analytically minded teams who have drafted well and made smart signings to get them to this point and it's as tough as it's ever going to be to pick a winner in this series. On the one hand, we have Las Vegas and present-day Sports Illustrated telling us the Dodgers are the favorites. On the other, we have Taylor Swift and the ghost of Sports Illustrated past. How do you decide?
- Dodgers over Astros in 7