ALCS Preview: Redsox vs Astros

The World Series, in theory, is meant to determine who is the best team in baseball during a given season. That’s the narrative, at least. But if you’re interested in figuring out who really reigns supreme in MLB, then this year’s ALCS will be the matchup to watch.

It has been clear all summer that the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros are the best the league has to offer. They finished with 108 and 103 wins, respectively, and the two most lopsided run differentials in baseball. Their superiority was further proven in the opening round of the playoffs. Boston dispatched of the rival New York Yankees in four games, including an absolute beating in the Bronx for game three. Meanwhile, Houston outclassed the Cleveland Indians in three easy wins.

Photo credit: by  Keith Allison  on  /  CC BY-SA

Photo credit: by Keith Allison on / CC BY-SA

These two teams met seven times during the regular season with the Astros winning four and outsourcing the Red Sox by a total of three runs. Clearly, there isn’t much separating them. In a best-of-seven series, it will be the small things that make the difference.

Houston’s hurlers

This postseason has been, unsurprisingly, taken over by bullpens. According to Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer, relievers have thrown 48.8 percent of all innings in these playoffs so far. That’s a record. The Astros, however, are bucking that trend and asking their bullpen arms to toss just 35.8 percent of innings. The Red Sox have given 47.2 percent of innings to their relievers.

It’s no accident that the Houston starters are going deeper. By fWAR, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are four of the 17 best pitchers in the AL. Boston has just one starter (Chris Sale) in the top 17.  Verlander, Cole and Keuchel are three of only 13 pitchers in all of baseball to thrown more than 200 innings this season. The Red Sox had none such pitchers.

The idea of bullpenning makes sense because a fresh arm coming in relief is typically better than a tiring starter that may be seeing an opposing lineup for the second and third time in a game. When it comes to that Astros staff, that just isn’t the case.

Chart:  Baseball Savant  (Team Pitching - Opposing batting average & slugging percentage (2) or more times through the order)

Chart: Baseball Savant (Team Pitching - Opposing batting average & slugging percentage (2) or more times through the order)

 On top of the dominant starters, Houston also has the best bullpen fWAR (8.2) of any remaining team. The extended outings from that game’s starting pitcher paired with the couple of off days in a series this length allows A.J. Hinch to shy away from his “weak spots” and throw only his very best relievers.

Boston’s bats

Both offenses are supremely talented, but no team scored more than the Red Sox 876 runs this year. That’s an average of 5.4 runs per game. They put up 6.75 runs per game against the Yankees in the ALDS, buoyed by the 16 runs in game three, of course.

What makes them scary as a unit is the variety of ways in which they can score runs. Boston led MLB in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Their 208 home runs hit were only ninth-best in baseball, but they made up for it by hitting 33 more doubles than anyone else and stealing 125 bases at an 80.1 percent success rate.

Mookie Betts needs to show up for the Red Sox to have a real shot, though. He had an MVP-caliber regular season, and his defense in right field makes him valuable regardless of his batting line. But this Astros pitching staff is no joke and the AL East champs need more than the 3-for-16 performance Betts put together in the ALDS.

It is a classic battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object. Should one of Hinch’s starters falter, he can always go to the ‘pen for a similarly dominant arm. If the BoSox bats go cold, there’s nowhere else to turn. Advantage: Astros.