With the NLCS all covered and set to begin tonight, we’re on to the American League, and it is a thing of beauty. In one corner, the 108-win Boston Red Sox. In the other, the 103-win Houston Astros. Two regular-season behemoths fighting for a spot in the World Series. Without further ado, here’s some things to keep in mind during the series, some thoughts on who might have the upper hand and some ramblings from one writer who is extremely excited for the games to begin.
There isn’t a rich history of postseason matchups between these two teams, given that Houston switched leagues in 2013, and has only made it as far as the World Series twice. But we might have something starting. After all, Houston defeated Boston 3-1 in the ALDS just last year en route to their first championship.
And a potential postseason rivalry isn’t the only narrative currently under construction. The Red Sox have long since reversed the Curse of the Bambino, winning three titles in the span of a decade. Another World Series appearance (much less a victory) would no doubt further cement their elevation to villain in MLB’s cast of characters. Houston, on the other hand, only won it all for the first time last year, but they’re already comfortably adopting the kind of swagger that will no doubt feed the haters, thanks in no small part to contributions from Alex Bregman.
Conjecture regarding these teams’ future place in the baseball’s pantheon of evil aside, we turn to their regular-season record against one another, in which Houston took four of seven. The first series was a 2-2 split in Boston in which the Sox outscored Houston 19-18, before Houston took 2 out of 3 on the road, outscoring them 16-12, bringing total scoring to 34-31 in favor of Houston.
Thanks to their better actual record during the regular season, Boston will enjoy home field advantage, although it’s not clear whether that will help or not. Houston had one of the best road win records in baseball history, going 57-24 away from Minute Maid Park and, as we already mentioned, Houston took two out of three in Fenway.
One storyline I’m pretty sure I’m required to mention by the Baseball Sportswriters’ Convention: the relationship between the opposing managers. Boston’s Alex Cora was the bench coach in Houston last year, so he and Houston manager A.J. Hinch are quite familiar with each other. It was apparently not without some turbulence, even if they respect and admire each other. Expect to hear far too much discussion of this over a seven-game series from announcers with plenty of time to kill.
This is where things start to get really fun. Boston’s 108 wins set a franchise record for a team that dates back to 1901 and they had an impressive run differential of +229 during the regular season, with 5.41 runs scored per game versus 3.99 allowed. While Houston “only” won 103 games, their ridiculous +263 run differential was a bit better than Boston’s. While Houston scored less frequently, 4.92 runs per game, they also only allowed 3.30 runs per game.
If you’re into the nerd stats, you know what’s coming. By Pythagorean records, Houston was actually a 109-win team, while Boston drops to 104. By BaseRuns, Houston sticks with 103, but Boston drops to 99. Does this matter for a best-of-seven series? Probably not, inasmuch as anything can actually matter in a single extended series, but it’s certainly worth noting that Houston was probably an even better team than their 103-win record suggests.
Returning to the subject of actual records, the total win number for both of these teams, 211, is the second highest win-count for any postseason series in MLB history and falls just one win short of the record. That would be the 1998 World Series, in which the win-total was skewed by the 114-win Yankees, who swept the 98-win Padres. In conclusion, we’re looking at a series with two extraordinarily good teams.
In terms of their offense, the Red Sox are certainly not the same team that Houston sent packing in the first round last October. In 2017, Boston’s lineup hit .258/.329/.407 for a 91 wRC+. That tied the Rangers and the Royals for the worst mark in the AL, and their 168 home runs was last in the league. This year, however, they’ve hit .268/.339/.453 for a 110 wRC+ and placed a much more respectable 6th in home runs (208). Much credit goes to new-signee J.D. Martinez for their improvement in the dinger department, as he hit 43 of them and put up a .330/.402/.629 slashline for a 170 wRC+ and 5.9 fWAR. Boston has, at least temporarily, finally found a replacement for Big Papi. But Martinez wasn’t even the best hitter on the Red Sox this year.
Mookie Betts is having an MVP-level season and hit .346/.438/.640 (185 wRC+) to lead both leagues in AVG and SLG, with his OBP and wRC+ only second to Mike Trout. He might have struggled against the Yankees, only hitting .188/.316/.250, but if you’re loudly voicing opinions about it, you’re likely either a concern troll or could use a xanax prescription to get you to November. And it’s not just a one-two punch in the lineup for Boston. Xander Bogaerts (.288/.360/.522, 133 wRC+, 4.9 fWAR) and Andrew Benintendi (.290/.366/.465, 122 wRC+, 4.3 fWAR) both had career years and make the navigating the upper part of Boston’s lineup a task of epic proportion.
While Boston’s lineup as whole improved dramatically this season, Houston’s has taken the opposite path. But that comes with the caveat that the Astros basically had nowhere go but down, hitting .282/.346/.478 (122 wRC+) in 2017. Given that that was the best wRC+ since the 1927 Yankees, it was going to be tough to top.
This year, the lineup has hit .255/.329/.425 (110 wRC+), which is still pretty darn good (and the same mark as Boston). The biggest issue for Houston all year was health, with three of their superstars, José Altuve (137 games), George Springer (140) and Carlos Correa (110), all missing significant time, often in tandem.
But the fact that we’re talking about Altuve’s .315/.384/.449 slashline, 135 wRC+ and 4.8 fWAR as a bit of a disappointment speaks to how fantastic he’s been for years. The same goes for Springer, who hit .265/.346/.434 for a 119 wRC+. He showed he was back in the ALDS, though, slashing .429/.429/1.071 with three home runs.
Correa (.239/.323/.405, 101 wRC+) is the only player of those three that hasn’t seemingly recovered as the season went on, and he continued to do so against the Indians in the ALDS. But he’s also been buoyed by the emergence of the aforementioned Bregman as a possible MVP candidate, hitting .286/.394/.532, for a 157 wRC+ and 7.6 fWAR, during the regular season. His insane .556/.714/1.333 line against the Indians in the ALDS serves as further notice that the top of the Astros lineup is unbelievably dangerous.
In terms of the defense, there are mixed opinions on who wins that part of the equation. Boston gets a clear win by UZR, with 25.3 to Houston’s -12.5, whereas Houston gets an easy victory by DRS, with +20 to Boston’s -46. Teamwide defensive stats can be difficult to parse and are subject to lots of variation, but if we use Fangraphs’ Def stat, the edge clearly goes to Boston, who scored a +8.1, whereas Houston came in with -26.2, giving the lineup an fWAR win for the Red Sox with 29.6 compared to the Astros’ 24.7. Whether you want to give Boston a bonus for defense or Houston a bonus for finally being mostly healthy, one thing’s clear: these are two of the best offenses in baseball this year.
Houston’s rotation has been ridiculous all year long. When they added Gerrit Cole over the offseason, it certainly portended good things, and those prophecies have manifested. Houston’s starters come in 2nd by fWAR (22.5), but only to the team that they just obliterated in the ALDS, and that’s only because they pitched approximately 40 less innings than Cleveland. Houston starters collectively lead all of MLB in ERA (3.16), FIP (3.28) and K/9 (10.37), and come in 2nd in HR/9 (0.94).
I know that we’re living in an era of increased strikeouts, but the fact that the entire Astros rotation is striking out over 10 batters per 9 IP is ridiculous. We have to go back to... (plays around with Fangraphs)... the 12-game season of the 1884 Brewers to move the Astros into second place. But restricting things to a slightly more modern era of baseball, the Astros’ rotation has the 5th best FIP since the Wild Card was instituted in 1995.
Leading the charge have been Justin Verlander (2.52 ERA, 2.78 FIP, 6.8 fWAR, 12.20 K/9), who is having one of the best seasons of his lengthy career, and Cole (2.88 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 6.3 fWAR, 12.40 K/9), who is certainly rewarding Houston’s decision to trade for him. Dallas Keuchel (3.74 ERA, 3.69 FIP), Charlie Morton (3.13 ERA, 3.59 FIP) and Lance McCullers (3.93 ERA, 3.57 FIP) have all been more-than-positive contributors as well, as those aren’t the kind of numbers one expects from your 3rd through 5th starters. While the big story of the postseason last year was how good their offense was, this year they’ve got the best rotation left standing.
Not that Boston’s rotation ranks particularly poorly in the aggregate. They rank 6th by fWAR (15.7) and 8th by both ERA (3.77) and FIP (3.80). Chris Sale (2.11 ERA, 1.98 FIP, 6.5 fWAR) has certainly helped prop up those numbers with another ridiculous season, and the only question around whether or not he’ll win the AL Cy Young has to do with whether or not voters will look past his innings-count.
David Price (3.58 ERA, 4.02 FIP) has been good, but not great, and Rick Porcello (4.28 ERA, 4.01 FIP) is looking more like the Rick Porcello we’ve known for most of a decade, rather than the 2016 Cy Young Award-winning version. But when you consider that Price will match up against Cole, and then compare the 3rd and 4th starters from there, you can see that Houston pretty clearly gets the on-paper win for their rotation.
There’s also the issue of handedness, as both Sale and Price are southpaws. The Astros hit lefties to the tune of .275/.344/.459 for a 123 wRC+, the best mark in baseball this year. While we aren’t 100% sure what the Red Sox are doing with their roster, LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (3.79 ERA, 3.66 FIP) means another of their best starting pitching options from the regular season will have to deal with a bunch of lefty-mashers.
But the starters aren’t the only group of pitchers in Houston who, at least on paper, appear to get the better of Boston. Houston’s bullpen has the edge in ERA (HOU: 3.03 /BOS: 3.74), FIP (3.14/3.85), K/9 (10.56/9.62), BB/9 (2.47/3.75) and fWAR (8.2/4.9).
While Boston’s closer Craig Kimbrel still got the job done in terms of saves (42) and K/9 (13.86), his walks are up again (4.48 BB/9). His ERA (2.74) and FIP (3.13) are certainly solid, but he hasn’t looked like the shutdown Kimbrel of yore. Matt Barnes (3.65 ERA, 2.71 FIP) has been great and Ryan Brasier (1.60 ERA, 2.83 FIP) has been a smashing success since returning from Korea. But the fact that Cora actually complied with Sale’s request to come in and pitch in relief in Boston’s Game 4 clincher against the Yankees is certainly telling.
The Astros, on the other hand, are probably pretty confident with their bullpen situation. Gone is Ken Giles via trade this season, after his 11.74 ERA/7.59 FIP showing in the postseason last year that caused Hinch to have to find creative ways to close out games. The new closer is Roberto Osuna (2.37 ERA, 2.45 FIP), who the Astros acquired via trade from the Blue Jays while he was still serving a suspension under MLB’s domestic violence policy. Regarding the organization’s decision to do so, I’ll just say that I would have preferred otherwise and move along. Limiting the conversation to “on the field,” he’s a really good pitcher and has done quite well since moving to Houston (1.99 ERA, 2.72 FIP).
Fortunately, there are a bunch of great pitchers in the Astros’ bullpen that do not require asking difficult questions. Ryan Pressly has been having a career year (2.54 ERA, 2.47 FIP) and has been even better since coming to Houston (0.77 ERA, 1.49 FIP), thanks to his unhittable slider. Then there’s converted starter Colin McHugh (1.99 ERA, 2.72 FIP) and Will Harris (3.49 ERA, 2.44 FIP) to name just a couple of options, and that’s before you get to the fact that the Astros’ rotation riches let them push someone like McCullers to the bullpen.
Whatever happens, we’re in for a treat, with two teams of this caliber fighting for a spot in the World Series. When you combine two Wild Cards and the utter craziness that is postseason baseball, we don’t often get a meeting of two juggernauts like this in an LCS, so let us savor it for all it’s worth.
As for who will win? Boston had the better record in the regular season. Houston looks like the better team right now. The Astros have a group of starters that are more likely to take them deeper into games throughout the series and, then, what appears to be a more trustworthy group of relievers. I’ll take Houston’s pitching for the duration in the series, even if there is no such thing as certainty in the joyous world of a single postseason series’ sample size.
- Astros over Red Sox in 6