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October 22, 2005

Prospectus Today

The Series

by Joe Sheehan

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James Click did a terrific job of analyzing the Astros/White Sox matchup in his World Series preview, so good that I'm left wondering what I can add. Here are five things worth mentioning about this year's Fall Classic:

  1. This is a significantly bad offensive matchup. The Astros ranked 12th in the NL with a .254 EqA; the White Sox, 10th in the AL with a .251 mark. No team ranking in the bottom half of its league in offense has reached the World Series since the 1999 Braves did so as the #9 team in the NL; one below-league-average team usually sneaks in every four or five years. We haven't seen two teams like this meet since--and isn't this special--1959, when the Go-Go Sox, sixth in the eight-team AL in EqA, took on the fifth-ranked Dodgers from the NL.

    These World Series games will be low-scoring because the teams pitch much better than they hit, but also because both teams like playing for one run, despite being more geared to hit three-run homers. You've heard me pound on the White Sox about this all year, but the Astros, with their offense concentrated in fewer players and comparable OBP issues, have even less incentive to waste outs. They need to put runners on for Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg and hope the two hit baseballs a long way.

    Forget littleball, smallball, smartball…you want a key to this series? The team that hits the most home runs with runners on base will win.

  2. The gap between these two starting rotations is much bigger than you think. The four straight complete games the White Sox threw at the Angels are prominent in our minds, but when you look at the pitchers who will be starting in this series, it's clear that the Astros will have an edge, and not a small one, in six of the seven potential games.
    
    Game    Astros      VORP    White Sox      VORP
    1       Clemens     80.6    Contreras      41.5
    2       Pettitte    72.5    Buehrle        54.2
    3       Oswalt      65.5    Garland        50.1
    4       Backe       11.0    Garcia         45.6
    5       Clemens     80.6    Contreras      41.5
    6       Pettitte    72.5    Buehrle        54.2
    7       Oswalt      65.5    Garland        50.1
    
    The White Sox have a very good rotation. A lot of their seasonal edge over the Astros comes from vastly superior fourth and fifth starters, and that edge pretty much disappears in the World Series.

    The Astros have a historically great rotation, especially when you let them reduce it to three of the five best pitchers in the league. They will have the better starting pitcher in every game but the fourth, and that gets you a long way towards a championship. The gap between these two teams' starters is being understated because of the ALCS. However, it's unlikely that the Astros will make things as easy on the Sox as the Angels did; the Halos saw just over 12 pitches an inning last week, showing less patience than a 17-year-old boy on prom night.

  3. The designated-hitter rule won't matter at all. There's not going to be a "who plays, and what impact will it have?" controversy this year. The White Sox will be forced to sit the inadequate Carl Everett (.251/.311/.435) when playing at Minute Maid Park. It affects their balance--they start six right-handed batters--but won't impact their offense significantly.

    The Astros don't have a great choice to take DH at-bats in Chicago. We'll likely see Mike Lamb (.236/.284/.419) tonight, and perhaps Chris Burke (.248/.309/.368) against Mark Buehrle tomorrow. Jeff Bagwell would seem the obvious choice, but it's not clear that his shoulder will allow him to take four at-bats a game.

    It's worth mentioning that the two best players for these teams over the past 15 years, two players connected by a birth date, will have virtually no impact on this World Series. Bagwell is on the roster but won't play much, while Frank Thomas is done for the year. The series is a little bit less for their absence.

  4. Far too much is being made of the "will anyone watch" angle. I've been asked a variant of the question, "Without the Yankees or Red Sox involved, why should people care?" about a dozen times this week. It's as if everyone in the media is a panicked Fox executive, looking for reassurance.

    First of all, this isn't Milwaukee and Minnesota getting together. This World Series features teams from the third- and fourth-biggest media markets in the country. (I think Houston is #4; if it's not, it's close). [Ed. Note: fourth-largest city, tenth-largest media market.--JSS] This series is going to do fairly well in the ratings for that reason alone. Beyond that, you have terrific storylines, from the White Sox' from-nowhere run to the Astros' Bagwell and Craig Biggio playing in a World Series. Ozzie Guillen is a lot of fun, and an excellent handler of pitchers. The Astros' rotation is a reason to tune in all by itself.

    Because of the good pitching/lousy hitting combination, the games should all be close. If anything, the one concern I'd raise is that the lack of offense may lead to a sameness in the games; we saw a little of this in the League Championship Series, where an early lead was usually enough to lock up a win.

  5. There's no result that will be a surprise. These two teams are evenly matched for a short series, with the White Sox' biggest edge, their pitching depth, being neutralized in a best-of-seven. The games are all likely to be close and low-scoring, and who wins each will be determined by good bounces, timely performances and, heaven help us, umpires' decisions. We'll hear a lot about the winners' grit and guile, but in reality, we're looking at a coin flip, not a test of character. The winner will be the team that plays better and catches more breaks, and over seven games or less, it could be either of them.

    With the caveat that either team winning in any number of games wouldn't be a shock, I've been going with the Astros in seven. Having the better starting pitcher in almost every game is a big edge to overcome, and while I think the White Sox can pitch and defend with any team in baseball, this is a matchup that will make it even harder for them to score the runs they need to support that pitching and defense.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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