ALDS Series Preview: Astros vs Indians
This matchup of the American League’s two most recent World Series representatives could prove to a be a unique beast in these playoffs. How managers handle their pitching staffs changes drastically in the postseason, and that can be amplified in this era where starters are being asked to get fewer and fewer outs. The Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians represent a different strategy.
These two teams had the two most valuable rotations in all of Major League Baseball in 2018. Cleveland finished the year at the top of the pile with a 22.9 fWAR while Houston was right behind them with a 22.5 fWAR. Their starters finished in the top three in baseball in ERA, xFIP and strikeout rate to name a just a few categories.
Justin Verlander leads the line for the Astros. He may not win the AL Cy Young, but he will certainly be in the discussion after leading the league with a 0.902 WHIP and 290 strikeouts in 214 innings of work. He is backed up by another 200-inning horse, Gerrit Cole. The former Pittsburgh Pirates ace had the highest K/9 rate of qualified pitchers in baseball (12.4). Dallas Keuchel is a Cy Young winner, and he is only the third best pitcher on his own team. His speciality is keeping the ball in the park; he allowed 0.79 home runs per nine innings pitched. Manager A.J. Hinch can then opt for either Charlie Morton or Lance McCullers Jr. if necessary with the other one headed to the bullpen. Both had xFIPs under 3.50 as members of the rotation, but a repeat of last year’s playoffs, where they both pitched effectively in relief, is possible as well.
Not to be outdone, the Indians could very well have a stronger playoff rotation. Corey Kluber is the defending Cy Young winner in the AL, and he made a heck of a case to win it again this season with a league-leading 215 innings. In this ALDS, he will be supported by Carlos Carrasco and his team-best 2.92 xFIP, as well as Mike Clevinger, who tossed 200 innings for the first time in his career this season while earning himself some fringe Cy Young consideration.
A noticeable absence from the Cleveland starter discussion is Trevor Bauer. Had a mid-summer leg injury not derailed his season, the right-hander was on pace to turn in a brilliant campaign. He only just returned to game action in late September, and his manager Terry Francona was very conservative in reacclimating his star hurler, allowing him to toss just 9.1 innings over three outings. Francona has a different role in mind for him this postseason: go-to reliever.
Once a strength for the Indians, the bullpen has become a problem in 2018. The group’s 0.4 fWAR is by far the lowest of any playoff team. Former stud Andrew Miller has battled multiple injury issues this year. Cody Allen had the worst season of his career (0.0 fWAR, 4.55 xFIP, 1.48 HR/9). The team had to cough up one of their best prospects in exchange for the top reliever on the trade market when it acquired Brad Hand from the Padres a few months ago. The lefty has been very good since the trade, striking out 41 batters in 27.2 innings and notching eight saves. But a playoff bullpen needs to be more than one-man deep. Bauer should help there.
Relief pitching is not a problem for Houston. The controversial trade for Roberto Osuna has worked on the field (1.99 ERA, 12-for-12 in save opportunities). Collin McHugh has been the club’s best (1.4 WAR) bullpen piece throughout the season. Ryan Pressly has been an under-the-radar contributor with his 0.77 ERA over the 23.1 innings he has pitched since coming from the Twins in a July trade. On top of that, expect to see either McCullers or Morton trot in from the ‘pen at some point this series. A rock solid relief corps coupled with a ridiculously deep rotation could be enough to give Houston the edge in this series.
However, an area where the Indians may have an unexpected advantage is on offense. The AL Central champs started this season slow as they ranked 25th in MLB in runs scored through the month of April. Then, they caught fire as they scored more runs than anyone else in May and July, eventually finishing behind only the heavy-hitting Red Sox and Yankees in runs scored for the entire season. Jose Ramirez (.272/.388/.555, 8.1 fWAR) and Francisco Lindor (.277/.352/.519, 7.6 fWAR) make up the best left side of the infield in baseball. And there is speed throughout the lineup: 34 steals for Ramirez, 25 for Lindor, 21 for Greg Allen, 21 for Rajai Davis and 12 for Michael Brantley.
The Astros are no slouches with the bats themselves. Alex Bregman came alive at the plate this season, launching 31 bombs while slashing .286/.394/.532, and defending MVP Jose Altuve is still a pain to deal with (.315/.384/.449). But George Springer, Carlos Correa and Marwin Gonzalez were simply solid rather than outstanding like they were a year ago. Their lineup lacks the depth that the Indians have.
So, who wins? Houston has home field advantage and Cleveland has been mediocre on the road (42-89 away record). Houston will also have their full complement of starters, whereas Bauer has been reduced to a bullpen role for Cleveland. The Cleveland offense has the chance to be more explosive, but will need to deal with an unrelenting barrage of arms from Houston. It’s a close call, but the smart money is on the AL West champs to continue their World Series defense and move on to the ALCS.