This is the noble battle of this round. These are the confident, experienced, and eager warriors, the decorated champions who will wage an old-fashioned war on one another. Around every other Division Series matchup this year, there are so many questions, so much that feels slapdash or slipshod. Perversely, the first year of the protracted 187-day schedule seems to have left most playoff combatants more weary and warty by October, rather than rested and raring to go. There’s nothing especially dignified, or even ingenious, about the Rockies’ and Brewers’ unique pitching plans for their NLDS showdown. They’re just trying to survive a five-game war of attrition. The Indians and Astros, however, have been bearing down on each other for weeks, and they enter this series as prepared as they could possibly be.
That these two teams had missed each other in October until now is strange and has deprived us of a festival of great comparisons in which we now get to partake. Both teams have a diminutive second baseman who got no respect as a prospect, but who has risen to become one of the game’s most dangerous hitters. Both have shortstops with huge power, marvelous athleticism, and charismatic leadership oozing from every pore—and both guys, of course, hail from Puerto Rico, which deepens the meaning of that particular comparison point. That’s to say nothing of their late-blooming, once-unheralded former Cy Young winners or the fact that they employ both sides of baseball’s second-most famous personal feud or the controversially-acquired erstwhile Blue Jay on each roster.
The storylines write themselves, but they should be superfluous, as this figures to be the most crisply and tautly contested series of the first round.
SS-S Francisco Lindor (.277/.352/.519/.297)
LF-L Michael Brantley (.309/.364/.468/.286)
2B-S Jose Ramirez (.270/.387/.552/.321)
DH-R Edwin Encarnacion (.246/.336/.474/.280)
3B-R Josh Donaldson (.280/.400/.520/.303*)
1B-L Yonder Alonso (.250/.317/.421/.261)
RF-S Melky Cabrera (.280/.335/.420/.266)
C-R Yan Gomes (.266/.313/.449/.270)
CF-L Jason Kipnis (.230/.315/.389/.253)
*Numbers with Cleveland only.
Lindor and Ramirez form a truly transcendent tandem. Ramirez’s approach is incredible—maybe, right now, the best in baseball. He remembers how pitchers have attacked him in the past, uses that memory to ambush them if they do it again, sets pitchers up by feigning certain reactions to pitches. His power development over the last two seasons, given his size and without trading away contact or patience, should probably be appreciated even more than it is.
With Brantley as a bridge between Lindor and Ramirez, the Tribe can chain together positive offensive outcomes as well as any team in baseball. Since mid-June, they’ve scored 5.2 runs per game, and with a fully healthy Donaldson making the heart of the order just a bit deeper, they become even more dangerous. The bottom of the order is comprised of players who seem well past their peaks, but whose peaks were impressive and who can still do one or two things well at bat.
CF-R George Springer (.265/.346/.434/.283)
2B-R Jose Altuve (.316/.386/.451/.299)
3B-R Alex Bregman (.286/.394/.532/.330)
1B-R Yulieski Gurriel (.290/.323/.428/.279)
SS-R Carlos Correa (.239/.323/.405/.261)
LF-S Marwin Gonzalez (.247/.324/.409/.273)
DH-R Tyler White (.276/.354/.533/.328)
C-L Brian McCann (.212/.301/.339/.241)
RF-L Josh Reddick (.242/.318/.400/.265)
Altuve is as consistent as he is talented, and Bregman is downright unstoppable. That’s good, because a modest World Series hangover has dimmed the stars of Correa, Gurriel, Gonzalez, and even Springer this season. As a team, they make contact better than any other team in baseball, and draw plenty of walks. They get the ball in the air often, which makes them dangerous when they get a mistake or any pitch that’s easy to barrel up.
On moving fastballs, however, they’re one of the worst offenses in baseball. Sinkers and cutters eat them up, at least relative to all other playoff clubs. Given the repertoire favored by the Tribe’s ace, Corey Kluber, that weakness could be exposed during this series in a crucial way.
3B-R Yandy Diaz (.312/.375/.422/.268)
OF-R Greg Allen (.257/.310/.343/.233)
OF-R Brandon Guyer (.206/.300/.371/.237)
OF-R Rajai Davis (.224/.278/.281/.213)
C-R Roberto Perez (.168/.256/.263/.196)
Davis’ inclusion is noteworthy, and not just because of his October track record. His presence means Erik Gonzalez’s absence. During the modern regular season, with benches artificially shortened and teams wary of needing to make roster choices based on minor injuries, teams favor versatility on their benches. In October, though, utility still rules. Davis’ value as a pinch-runner and spare outfielder outstrips that of Gonzalez as a backup shortstop, especially since Ramirez can easily handle shortstop in a pinch, and Kipnis could then slide back to the infield.
Speaking of Kipnis, there’s a pretty strong argument that manager Terry Francona should bench him in favor of Allen for at least a game or two in this set. As noted above, Kipnis has slid to the bottom of the batting order anyway, and Allen’s defense is far superior to Kipnis’ out there. In 141 plate appearances since his last call-up at the end of July, Allen is also hitting .310/.379/.405, making more contact and making the most of his athleticism.
Given that they’re carrying both Allen and Davis, it’s hard to imagine what value Guyer can provide, unless they desperately need a batter to be hit by a pitch. Diaz will be a more valuable bench bat in any imaginable pinch-hitting scenario, although he poses a double-play risk.
DH-R Evan Gattis (.226/.284/.452/.262)
OF-R Jake Marisnick (.211/.275/.399/.245)
OF-L Tony Kemp (.263/.351/.392/.269)
OF-R Myles Straw (.333/.400/.667/.350)
C-R Martin Maldonado (.231/.257/.398/.218)*
Straw is a fun story, an electrifying pinch-runner who could change a game late. As Francona did, A.J. Hinch chose not to sweat versatility much, with the flexibility already provided by Bregman, Gonzalez, and Springer in the starting lineup.
Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
Bauer is slated to be available out of the bullpen early in the series, and Shane Bieber might be the real fourth starter. Bauer didn’t get fully stretched back out after the fracture he suffered when a line drive hit his leg in August. Otherwise, though, this is one of the most formidable playoff rotations in recent memory, and the only one that can credibly claim to be the equal of the Astros’ this season.
Since a mid-August change to his mechanics, Clevinger has tapped more acutely into his overpowering stuff. Like Kluber, Bauer has the kind of repertoire that matches up well with the Astros’ collective approach. Carrasco is the wild card, and his extraordinarily consistent surface-level numbers since he became a full-time starter have hidden an impressive maturation into a pitcher with enough command and confidence in a deep enough arsenal to dominate even against a lineup like this one.
Every now and then, a team does something so impressive and valuable (and so obviously rooted in an organizational skill, rather than luck) that the rest of the league would do well to drop whatever it’s doing and figure out how it was done before focusing on anything else. Five years ago, the Cardinals won the pennant with a roster dotted with late-round draft picks, because they were beating the pants off the league in both fusing scouting and analytical data, and developing players once they entered the fold. That was one of those moments; this is another.
Verlander had already made a significant and vital adjustment to his stuff before the Astros traded for him last summer. He’d adjusted the grip on his slider, and the pitch’s effectiveness had skyrocketed. Still, once the Astros brought him in, they won his confidence by demonstrating that they could identify that change from the outside, and then they armed him with tools to improve the rest of his repertoire, too. Well into his mid-30s, Verlander was better than ever this season.
Ditto (minus the age caveat) for Cole, whose talent the Pirates were wasting by having him throw so many sinkers and so few sliders. The Astros fixed that, ramped up his spin rates, and turned him into the true front-of-the-rotation starter he always had the potential to be.
They got Morton throwing his four-seamer and curve, spinning at elite rates, practically all the time. They sold Keuchel on the value of their defensive shifts, which allowed him to become a vocal leader and evangelist for the practice. As Aaron Gleeman documented earlier this year, the Astros are now the only team apparently immune to the shift’s biggest drawback—more hitter’s counts and more walks—because their pitchers pound the strike zone just as consistently in front of a shifted defense as in front of a traditionally-aligned one. They’re running circles around the league.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
LHP Brad Hand (28, 2.28, 3.47)
LHP Andrew Miller (34, 4.24, 3.08)
RHP Cody Allen (67, 4.70, 3.61)
RHP Shane Bieber (115, 4.55, 3.32)
RHP Adam Cimber (20, 4.05, 6.17)
LHP Oliver Perez (32, 1.39, 2.61)
RHP Dan Otero (59, 5.22, 4.26)
Miller and Allen looked unsteady early. Miller battled injuries for the majority of the season. Allen briefly stabilized, but then both pitchers scuffled over their final appearances last week. Hand has been a vital addition, though he’s not going to overwhelm opponents the way a typical closer might, and that’s likely to make for an uneasy ninth inning if the Indians have a narrow lead.
Cimber’s matchup value should be considerable, especially against the heavily right-handed Astros offense, but he’s more gimmick than goods of late. He’ll be used strictly in that matchup context, opposite Perez. The series might hinge on how many effective innings Bauer and/or Bieber can provide in relief.
RHP Roberto Osuna (23, 1.99, 3.54)
RHP Ryan Pressly (23, 0.77, 1.73)
RHP Collin McHugh (72, 1.99, 2.70)
RHP Lance McCullers, Jr. (128, 3.86, 3.30)
LHP Tony Sipp (39, 1.86, 2.69)
RHP Will Harris (57, 3.49, 2.32)
RHP Joshua James (23, 2.35, 3.20)
This isn’t the composition of this unit anyone would have forecasted 10 weeks ago. However, it’s almost certainly the best bullpen in the playoff bracket. Osuna’s presence is icky, and nothing about the recent legal disposition of his case makes it less so, but he’s certainly a solid closer. What really makes this unit exceptional, however, is the number of prodigious middle relief arms here.
Pressly was an underrated star even before coming to Houston, but they adjusted his pitch mix in a way the Twins ought to have done themselves, and he’s become the ace of that relief corps. The McLongmen, with their remarkable curveballs and ability to slice all the way through an opposing batting order without worrying about platoon splits, minimize the risk associated with any particular starter being unable to go deep in a game. Harris’ surface-level numbers never seem to quite match his peripherals, but there’s no doubting his stuff. James’ triple-digit heat is just an afterthought, something to be busted out when no better option is at hand, which is almost unimaginable.
With Kipnis in center field and aged bat-first guys in each corner, the Cleveland outfield is very weak. Mid-game changes will likely shore this up in at least a few contests, but it can’t erase the entire effect. Strikingly, despite the presence of Lindor and the sturdy defense of Ramirez, the Indians also haven’t been great at converting ground balls into outs this season, as they were in each of the last two campaigns. This is the unit Cleveland needs to see step it up if they want to win the series.
The Astros are much better situated. Their aforementioned shifting, and their pitchers’ approach thereto, yields plenty of outs on hard-hit balls. Bregman is a game-changer at third base, just as Lindor is at shortstop. Houston, too, will try to get a better outfield defense on the field during the game, swapping out Gonzalez or Reddick for Marisnick. This is an area of clear advantage for Houston.
The least important words in this piece, and even in this paragraph, will be the last ones. The important prediction here is that we’ll see excellent baseball, played by two teams that have boatloads of talent and plenty of compelling characters. There’s not a starting position player or a pitcher on either team who isn’t certifiably October-caliber. These are the two best managers in baseball. These are the two best rotations in baseball. These are the two deepest teams in baseball. They’ll fight it all the way out, and at the end, small things done well will make big differences. Indians in five.
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