On paper, this might be the most lopsided of the four Division Series. That’s no knock on the Red Sox, who are well above the typical threshold for playoff caliber. It’s merely a reflection of the astounding quality of all eight remaining teams. It's also a perception thing, shaped by the arcs of the long season and of the past few years for each team. The Astros have built toward this for five or six years, and while their progress hasn't been perfectly linear, they're on the precipice of their destiny here, a destiny laid out for them by a Sports Illustrated cover that looked for a while like it could be a punchline generator.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, seem to be stumbling into the playoffs. Their rotation has been hot and cold all year, and comes into this series cold. They're not the Epstein-era take-and-rake Papi Sox, and they don't seem to have replaced that identity with a concrete one. Of course, if they win this series, they're already on their way to establishing a new one: giant slayer.
Xander Bogaerts – SS – R – .273/.343/.403/.259
Eduardo Nunez – DH – R – .321/.353/.539/.305
Andrew Benintendi – LF – L – .271/.352/.424/.262
Mookie Betts – RF – R – .264/.344/.459/.276
Mitch Moreland – 1B – L – .246/.326/.443/.260
Dustin Pedroia – 2B – R – .293/.369/.392/.266
Rafael Devers – 3B – L – .284/.338/.482/.275
Christian Vazquez – C – R – .290/.330/.404/.244
Jackie Bradley, Jr. – CF – L – .245/.323/.402/.257
The Boston lineup is full of well-balanced, platoon-insulated, contact-hitting, underachieving guys. They can hit for average, a few of them can hit for power, they run the bases pretty well, and the top half of the lineup gets on base consistently, regardless of who they’re facing. What they lack, however, is the thing that has become synonymous with overall offensive potency in 2017: dynamic sluggers who can score in the blink of an eye.
The home run surge left the Red Sox behind, and that’s unlikely to change against the Astros’ staff. There's an argument that the Sox have faced tough, high-velocity pitching more often than most of their fellow playoff teams this year, and that their approach keeps them from struggling to adjust to high-end stuff. Still, in October, it's nice to be able to put up a crooked number over a short sequence, and Boston isn't great at that.
George Springer – CF – R – .283/.367/.522/.297
Josh Reddick – RF – L – .314/.363/.484/.296
Jose Altuve – 2B – R – .346/.410/.547/.322
Carlos Correa – SS – R – .315/.391/.550/.320
Marwin Gonzalez – LF – S – .303/.377/.530/.303
Alex Bregman – 3B – R – .284/.352/.475/.282
Carlos Beltran – DH S – .231/.283/.383/.233
Yulieski Gurriel – 1B – R – .299/.332/.486/.282
Brian McCann – C – L – .241/.323/.436/.262
The Astros, meanwhile, have all that power, plus a bunch of guys who work counts and can hit line drives to all fields. The Red Sox’s left-handed hurlers will help neutralize Reddick and McCann, but Evan Gattis jumps into the lineup versus southpaws and there are way too many weapons here to project that Boston will keep the Astros down altogether.
Obviously, starting Beltran is not a sabermetrically wise choice, and in Game 1 at least Gattis gets the nod at DH. A.J. Hinch has shown great feel for his clubhouse this season, though. The Astros look to Beltran as a leader, and feel they benefit from the savant-like reads he gets on opposing pitchers. The offense might be more dangerous without him, but it has typically been more efficient and alive with synergy with him.
Sandy Leon – C – S – .225/.290/.354/.226
Hanley Ramirez – 1B – R – .242/.320/.429/.253
Rajai Davis – OF – R – .250/.289/.306/.208
Chris Young – OF – R – .235/.322/.387/.247
Brock Holt – UTIL – L – .200/.305/.243/.214
Neither team has ideal depth, but the Astros have a lot more modularity, and their bench pieces have clearer purpose. Gattis and White will shield them from having to send Reddick to the plate in big spots against any southpaw. He can get Beltran or McCann off the field when needed, in the same spots. Meanwhile, Centeno might play only the late innings of games in which Houston leads. His arm should help offset the fact that the Astros are the worst playoff team at holding and stopping runners. Defensively, too, the Houston bench gives them flexibility. Maybin is a plus in either center or left field. Marwin Gonzalez’s ability to slide to the infield allowed them to build their bench the way they wanted to, rather than slotting in guys according to potential emergency need.
The Red Sox, without quality options outside their starting nine and with nagging injury concerns, just need backups at a number of spots, and are plugging the best of what’s around into those roles. No matter who they choose for those slots, they're not getting significant help late in games, or heroic rescues if key players go down, although Nunez's return from injury makes Ramirez a big-name bench bat.
Neither team is sure to start all four of the guys listed for them, and neither team seems likely to let either their third or fourth starters go very deep into whichever games they do start. We’re going to see bullpen-heavy games from each manager as the series goes back to Fenway, and in the meantime, it will be interesting to see how the marquee pitching matchups go. Game 1 figures to be the pushback to the short-start theater to which we were treated during the Wild Card round. This is why each team acquired an erstwhile AL Central ace, at considerable cost. Even in 2017, Justin Verlander and Chris Sale aren't here to set up anyone. They're here to pitch deep and to dominate.
Beyond the aces, a mixture of health, skills, roster construction, and managerial tendencies points toward a whole lot of pitching churn and some multi-inning relief outings that matter a lot. Drew Pomeranz has been four different pitchers this season, and the latest edition is not an encouraging one. Thus, Dallas Keuchel offers Houston a clear advantage in Game 2, but he still hasn't been Dallas Keuchel since returning from his summer sojourn to the DL.
No matter who loses the series, the losing manager is going to be answering tough questions about the guys to whom he hands the ball in the latter contests.
So much of what we always thought we knew about relievers isn't true. Here's one thing that still seems to be, though: it's impossible to predict which of two relief units will perform better over a short series of games. In this case, there are guys who are still reestablishing their health, guys who have to demonstrate that they can handle changing roles, and guys who will be asked to do more this week than they've ever done in relief before. Volatility is everywhere, and as we mentioned earlier, the middle games of this set figure to be decided by those volatile pieces.
Houston’s lack of a quality lefty in the pen is a storyline worth watching. Remember, they tried to add Zach Britton at the deadline, but were thwarted by the intervention of Orioles owner Peter Angelos. It helps, for now, that they're facing a team without a left-handed slugger who needs to be totally neutralized for one plate appearance per game. If that version of Mitch Moreland shows up, blame God, not Angelos.
Both of these teams are built to dominate the pitcher-batter encounter, more than to make a ton of plays in the field or on the bases. That said, the Red Sox have stellar defense across the outfield, and that could come in handy as the Astros try to find the gaps.
Houston hurlers induce a ton of ground balls, and the team’s infield defense is solid. That spells trouble for the Red Sox, with their relatively slow and ground ball-prone lineup. The Astros’ creative shifts should have a muted effect against the spray-hitting Sox, but every bit helps. Once runners reach base, the weak arms of Houston’s primary catchers and the inattentiveness of their pitchers conspire to make them vulnerable to the running game.
The Astros should win this series. They're a much better team, with a much better October roster and a more flexible game plan for getting to three wins. If the Red Sox’s young hitters suddenly find their power, though, or if John Farrell can break out of his full-season mindset and get his lesser starters out of games before their heads are knocked in, the landscape changes. For now, it’s Astros in four, but the games should all be taut and engaging. If it comes back to Houston for a Game 5 that rematches Sale and Verlander, it's a toss-up.
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