ALCS Preview: Red Sox vs. Astros
A rematch of the 2018 ALCS sets the stage for a slugfest of a series between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros.
Flashback to October 17th, 2018, the Red Sox and Astros were playing Game 4 of the ALCS at Minute Maid Park with the Red Sox leading the series 2-1. Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a go-ahead home run in the top of the sixth inning to take a 6-5 lead and entering the bottom of the ninth, the Astros were down by two runs, preparing to face fearsome closer, Craig Kimbrel. The season was seemingly on the line. Only 14 teams dating back to 1925 have ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit.
Kimbrel walked the bases loaded with two outs and Alex Bregman, who had a 1.178 OPS in the 2018 playoffs, stepped up to the plate. He jumped on the first pitch, sending a line drive into left field that looked destined to drop and score two runs to tie the game. Andrew Benintendi had other plans, teleporting 40 feet in the blink of an eye to make one of the most clutch catches in recent memory.
The Red Sox would go on to beat the Dodgers in the World Series for their fourth World Series title in the 21st century, but much has changed since then, with the Red Sox completely overhauling their roster. Chaim Bloom was hired as General Manager before the 2020 season, replacing Dave Dombrowski. Bloom’s mission was to build the Red Sox for present and future success, something Dombrowski completely ignored. His first move as GM was trading Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers in exchange for Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong. A move that no one except Red Sox ownership was comfortable doing. Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. among others also departed, leaving a new look Red Sox in 2021.
The Astros have gone through a transition of their own. After the 2019 season, a report came out accusing them of sign stealing during the 2017 season, the worst cheating scandal since the Chicago Black Sox purposely lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 World Series.
It was a direct attack on the integrity of baseball and even as a new regime tries to move on from the scandal, many fans still feel that the Astros escaped with merely a slap on the wrist. Regardless of Commissioner Manfred’s lax punishments, it is time to move on and appreciate the current Houston Astros for what they are: a team full of budding stars.
The Red Sox and Astros played each other seven times with the Astros taking five of seven games, while out-scoring the Red Sox by 17 runs. Calling it a lopsided affair doesn’t even give credit to how well the Astros played against the Red Sox, but the Boston team they faced in May and June is much different than the one they are about to face.
Martin Perez, Garrett Richards, Danny Santana and former Astro Marwin Gonzalez were getting regular playing time back in June. The return of Chris Sale and acquisition of Kyle Schwarber has improved the Red Sox tremendously, making this series much more even than in June. ZiPS, a player projection model developed by Dan Szymborski, gives the Astros and Red Sox each a 50% chance of winning this series.
Say what you will about the effect momentum plays in winning in the playoffs. Some believe it doesn’t exist, but I for one will tell you it absolutely does, and currently, the Astros have lost a lot of momentum within their rotation.
Lance McCullers will be left off of the Astros ALCS roster and will not be available to pitch as he deals with forearm tightness that hindered him in Game 4 of the ALDS against the White Sox. This is a massive blow for the Astros. McCullers had a masterful season, throwing 162 innings with a 3.16 ERA, solidifying himself as the ace of the staff. There is an outside chance that McCullers returns later in the series, but even then, he will likely not be 100% healthy.
In his place, Framber Valdez, who has also been outstanding this season, will take the ball in Game 1. Valdez is a sinkerball pitcher that gets 70% ground balls. For context, Logan Webb ranks second in ground ball rate at 60%, so it’s nearly impossible to elevate the ball off of Valdez.
In two starts against Boston this year, Valdez gave up two runs while striking out 18 over 14.1 innings. He has dominated the Red Sox before, and there is no reason to think he cannot do it again tonight.
Beyond Game 1, the water gets a bit murky for the Astros. Luis Garcia, a rookie sensation, will get the ball in Game 2. He carries a 3.30 ERA across 155.1 innings into the ALCS, but got roughed around the the divisional round against the White Sox, giving up four runs over 2 2/3 innings of work. It’s a tall task to ask a rookie to save the season after throwing a career-high in innings. The Red Sox will have a big opportunity to score in Game 2 much like they beat up on Tampa Bay rookie Shane Baz in the ALDS.
Game 3 will present an even tougher challenge for the Astros as they travel to Boston without a starter left in their rotation. Zack Greinke would usually be the man for the job, but after dealing with injuries to end the year, and finishing the last two months with a 5.80 ERA, the Astros will likely hand the ball to Jose Urquidy.
Urquidy had a 3.62 ERA in 20 starts and held the Red Sox scoreless over six innings this season. He does not have overpowering stuff and despite struggling against him earlier in the year, the Red Sox will have yet another opportunity to put up runs early. In Game 4, the Astros will either opt for a bullpen game led by Brandon Bielak, or give the ball back to Framber Valdez on short rest. Both options are equally as unappealing.
As for the Red Sox, they will be deploying a more traditional bunch with Chris Sale in Game 1, Nathan Eovaldi in Game 2, and Eduardo Rodriguez in Game 3. Despite a poor outing against the Rays in the ALDS, in which he gave up a five earned runs and a grand slam, Sale has looked like his usual dominant self, striking out 28% of batters and carrying a 3.16 ERA into the playoffs. The Astros are the best team in baseball against lefties though, so it will be a tough matchup for Sale.
If you’re looking for gutsy performances in the postseason, look no further than Nathan Eovaldi. After carrying the Red Sox to a World Series in 2018 with a 1.61 ERA across 22.1 innings, Eovaldi has backed that up this postseason with a 2.61 ERA across two starts against the Yankees and Rays. Among qualified starters, Eovaldi ranks third in FIP, a stat that attempts to take batted ball luck out of the equation by rewarding pitchers for strikeouts and dinging them for giving up walks and home runs.
Eduardo Rodriguez, or E-Rod as he’s often called, will be an X-factor for the Red Sox in this series. On paper, his numbers look abysmal. He had a bottom-barrel 4.74 ERA in the regular season, but his FIP of 3.34 ranks 13th in all of baseball and his second half ERA was 3.71, suggesting that E-Rod got almost every hop to fall against him early in the year. He’s the definition of a cherry bomb, and after a strong start in the ALDS, he will look to put together a quality star in Fenway, a place where he has struggled this season with a 5.95 ERA.
With the mid-season acquisitions of Phil Maton, Yimi Garcia and Kendall Graveman, the Astros hoped to shore up their struggling bullpen that had a 4.09 ERA in the first half. Unfortunately, the moves did not pay off as they had hoped.
Over the last two months, the Astros pen had a 3.91 ERA, while Maton and Yimi Garcia blew up, giving up 27 earned runs over 46.2 innings. Luckily for the Astros, they have not had to hold on to close leads, outscoring the White Sox 31-18 over four games.
When the Astros do find themselves in high leverage situations, they call on Ryan Pressly, Kendall Graveman, Ryne Stanek and Christian Javier, another rookie. Pressly has been the anchor all year, compiling 26 saves and holding opposing batters to a .207 batting average. Unlike in their last series with the Rays, the Sox will have a chance to score once the Astros turn to their pen, that is if the Astros don’t already have a massive lead.
Much like the Astros, the Red Sox have a plethora of bullpen issues, which have led to a 4.64 ERA since the trade deadline. Starting at the very top, Matt Barnes, who was signed to a hefty extension mid-season, was left off of the ALCS roster after struggling mightily in the second half. Hirokazu Sawamura, who has a 3.06 ERA in 51 innings, will take Barnes place.
In high-leverage situations, Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck and Josh Taylor will be called on to get the job done. Whitlock, who had a 1.96 ERA this season, will need to be at the top of his game for the Red Sox to have a chance in this series.
For all of the holes that the Red Sox and Astros have pitching wise, they’re able to conceal them with truly elite offensive production. It’s simple, both teams are offensive juggernauts, with the Astros and Red Sox ranking first and sixth in full season wRC+.
Each team consists of 10 players that have a wRC+ over 100, meaning above league average at the plate, making the Astros and Red Sox two of the deepest lineups in the league. Only the San Francisco Giants have more players above 100 wRC+ with 12 such players. This series should turn into an offense-driven affair, with no lead being too big to overcome, especially with two suspect bullpens.
For the Astros, they’ll rely on a big five of Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, and Yordan Alvarez, each of whom have at least a 130 wRC+, meaning they are 30% above league average in terms of providing run value. Kyle Tucker has been the story of the second half, trailing only Juan Soto and Bryce Harper in wRC+. The Red Sox will not have any opportunities to pitch around Tucker or any of the other Astros sluggers for that matter.
The Astros pitchers will be in the same boat though, as the Red Sox boast a historically deep lineup as well. Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Kyle Schwarber, JD Martinez and Kike Hernandez will be the focal points at the plate. Hernandez is coming off an insanely hot ALDS, and for the postseason, Kike is hitting .435 with a 228 wRC+. Look for him to stay hot at the top of the Sox lineup.
How the Astros Win The Series
For the Astros to win this series, they will need to jump out to big leads as they have all season. In one-run games, the Astros are 21-19 (.525), but they have won 36 games by more than five runs this season.
For reference, the Red Sox have only won 25 such games. With Lance McCullers out for the series, the Astros will have to rely on their bats more than ever and jumping on Chris Sale in Game 1 will be key to winning this series for the Astros.
How the Red Sox Win The Series
As for the Red Sox, the tale of the tape is similar to their last series against the Rays. They must grab leads early in the ball game and expect their bullpen to give up runs. It’s going to take late game heroics to once again move on from the ALCS into the World Series. If the Red Sox can escape the first two games in Houston with a win, they will be on their way to winning this series.
DISCLAIMER: I am a Red Sox fan, but one that tries to stay unbiased.
The Red Sox will lose Game 1 in Houston as they will struggle to score runs off of Framber Valdez, but will bounce back in Game 2 against Luis Garcia. They will then win two out of three games in Boston before returning to Houston with a 3-2 lead. With Nathan Eovaldi likely pitching in Game 6, the Red Sox ace will shut down the Astros as the Red Sox will move on to their fifth World Series this century. This is going to be a very back-and-forth series and it will not surprise me if we make it to a winner-take-all Game 7.
Aram Leighton: Red Sox in 7
Clay Snowden: Astros in 5
Derek Johnson: Astros in 7
Will Cohen: Red Sox in 6
Ben Bilotti: Red Sox in 6
Peter Appel: Astros in 7