Nothing is more tiresome in the world of sports cliches than star players on amazing teams looking fans and reporters dead in the eyes and saying, without a hint of irony, “No one believed in us.” Year after year we see this in pretty much every sport. Teams take any neutral-to-negative quotes, columns, or opinions and use them to construct an us-against-the-world mentality that, while perhaps internally effective, is fairly cringe-worthy externally.
We heard this from a (delightfully buzzed?) Xander Bogaerts during the Red Sox’s ALDS postgame celebration, in which he lamented that he stopped watching TV once he saw many analysts pick the Yankees as series winners. In a way, we also heard it from Alex Bregman, who somewhat playfully, somewhat seriously complained about the Astros not being on prime time after vanquishing the Indians. Two young, All-Star, World Series-winning infielders, complaining about the lack of respect shown to their 100-plus-win teams. Eye roll emoji.
It’s a tired trope for sure, but … the Red Sox might actually have an argument this time around. Here is the CBS Sports preview, in which five of six analysts picked the Astros. Here is the Sports Illustrated preview, in which four of five went Houston. MLB.com? Their postseason overview had five votes for the Astros and one for the Red Sox. Hell, even Vegas has the Astros as the World Series favorites right now.
The general baseballing world outside of Boston has a clear favorite for this series, and it’s not the team that won more games during the regular season. Is that fair? Let’s take a looksie …
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)
RF-L Josh Reddick (.242/.318/.400/.265)
C-R Martin Maldonado (.225/.276/.351/.224)
The Indians had a very good pitching staff. They finished third in the majors in DRA during the regular season (3.63, behind only the Astros and Dodgers) and featured one of the game’s very best starters in Corey Kluber. They had Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer and Andrew Miller and Cody Allen and Brad Hand; big-time names baseball fans know as devastatingly effective arms.
They couldn’t really slow the Astros down at all. Houston scored 21 runs in three games vs. the Tribe, hitting .327/.421/.615 with eight homers and six doubles in just 104 at-bats. Bregman is out of his friggin’ mind right now, hitting .556/.714/1.333 in the playoffs. There are no typos there—that’s really what he’s hitting, and he may be the scariest bat left in a playoff field that includes the presumptive AL and NL MVPs. Springer, Reddick, and Gonzalez also hit very well against the Tribe, and altogether this group poses a major challenge for Boston pitchers to try and navigate.
Look for Houston’s righty-heavy lineup to do damage against David Price and to a lesser extent even against Chris Sale; Houston hit .274/.344/.459 against southpaws during the regular season. They were worse against righties, hitting .246/.323/.410, but that’s not exactly an embarrassing line. The Stros are going to score some runs in this series, is what we’re saying. The only good news for Red Sox fan and neutral observers is that …
RF-R: Mookie Betts (.346/.438/.640/.359)
LF-L: Andrew Benintendi (.290/.366/.465/.289)
DH-R: J.D. Martinez (.333/.402/.629/.340)
SS-R: Xander Bogaerts (.289/.360/.522/.305)
1B-R: Steve Pearce (.279/.394/.507/.321)
2B-L: Brock Holt (.277/.362/.411/.273)
3B-R: Eduardo Nunez (.265/.289/.388/.236)
C-S: Sandy Leon (.177/.232/.279/.182)
CF-L: Jackie Bradley (.234/.314/.403/.254)
… this group will score plenty, too.
The Red Sox’s postseason stats are skewed, because they scored 11 runs combined in Games 1, 2, and 4, and 16 runs in Game 3. But in a way, that perfectly captures just how dangerous this squad can be, as well as how frustratingly inept they can look for brief periods of time. For the sake of comparison, we’ll note that Boston is hitting .279/.358/.429 in its four postseason games, slamming four homers and seven doubles in 140 at-bats. While their lineup may appear to lag behind Houston’s, the Red Sox actually scored more runs, got on base more, and slugged more during the regular season.
The one area where Houston can look to exploit the Red Sox is in how “short” their lineup in; namely that it sort of drops off a cliff after the five-spot. Alex Cora can mitigate this to a certain extent thanks to a deep bench, but he’ll want to consider being more aggressive pinch-hitting in this series than he was in the ALDS. Then again, apparently Cora can just put Holt into a game if he needs runs, and the scrappiest utility player in the league will generate offense himself.
One area where the Sox might be able to edge out the Astros? On the bases. Houston’s lineup may seem more athletic than Boston’s, but the Sox stole many more bases and stole them at a higher clip. The Sox’s baserunning was a factor vs. the Yankees, and while it should be harder to steal against the Astros than it was against Gary Sanchez, it’s still worth noting.
As postseason benches go, this one is actually pretty uninspiring. Gattis should get get some big pinch-hit opportunities and Kemp could start against some right-handers. Other than that, we’re really just looking at a backup catcher and a (very good) defensive replacement in Marisnick. It’s not a huge weakness for Houston given how versatile many of the players in their starting lineup are, but this is hardly a strength, either. Also of note: A.J. Hinch opted to drop super-speedy Myles Straw from his ALCS roster in favor of carrying another reliever. We’ll see if that matters.
C/1B/OF-S: Blake Swihart (.229/.285/.328/.217)
C-L: Christian Vazquez (.207/.257/.283/.197)
1B-L: Mitch Moreland (.245/.325/.433/.262)
2B-R: Ian Kinsler (.242/.294/.311/.208)
3B-L: Rafael Devers (.240/.298/.433/.252)
Leon and Vazquez are an excellent defensive pairing behind the plate, but if Cora is going to carry two-and-a-half catchers this deep into the postseason, he’s going to need to be more liberal with his pinch-hitting. Thankfully, the rest of the bench should allow him to do so. Moreland may not start much thanks to a balky hamstring, but he’s a great pinch-hitter to have against righties and he could start down the line if he recovers.
Based on the way he finished the season and what he did to the poor Yankees during Game 3, Holt may make it tough for Kinsler to get a ton of playing time, though one expects Kinsler will start vs. Dallas Keuchel. Devers vs. Nunez is also worth a discussion, but for the sake of time we’ll simplify it by saying the former should start vs. righties and the latter vs. lefties. No matter how you slice it, this is a deep group.
Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
Keuchel and Morton are fine pitchers in their own right, capable mid-rotation arms who could easily silence the Red Sox’s potent offense for a several innings at a time. But that’s not what you came to see: you came to see us talk about the scariest 1-2 punch left in the postseason (and maybe in all of baseball, period): Verlander and Cole.
In Game 1 of the ALDS, Verlander was vintage Verlander, notching seven strikeouts through 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball. Honestly, that almost seems like a good outcome for the Tribe given how dominant Verlander has been at spots this year. He may be the headliner, but Cole is arguably the scarier guy to face right now. He went seven strong, allowing just one earned run and striking out 12 in his Game 2 masterpiece. The prospect of having to face this duo twice apiece in a seven-game series has to be keeping some Red Sox fans up at night.
With the very, very notable exception of Price, Boston’s starters were the unsung heroes of their ALDS victory over New York. In my ALDS preview, I spoke at length about how Sale’s health was likely to be the determinative factor for the entire series. Fortunately for Red Sox fans, the ace looked to be about 90 percent of the way back to his normal self. That will need to continue if the Sox are going to push Houston to its limits.
One probably can’t expect another outstanding performance from Eovaldi, but we can at least expect him to hang tough against yet another homer-happy lineup. Porcello is who he is, and a six-inning shutout and three-inning drubbing seem equally likely when he takes the mound. That brings us to Price, who … yikes. The boo birds were louder than ever after his Game 2 meltdown against the Yankees, and things could get ugly for him fast in Fenway if he struggles out of the gate. Expect Cora to have a quick hook for his much-maligned no. 2 starter, and look for the Sox to perhaps move him to a super-reliever role if he struggles as a starter once more.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
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 (128, 3.86, 3.30)
LHP Tony Sipp (39, 1.86, 2.69)
RHP Joshua James (23, 2.35, 3.20)
RHP Hector Rondon (59.3, 3.19, 2.82)
RHP Joe Smith (46.0, 3.72, 4.49)
The Astros’ relievers may not be as scary as the Yankees’ on paper, but it’s a damn fine group. The circumstances surrounding Osuna being allowed to pitch right now are pretty gross, but he’s a talented reliever, albeit one the Sox used to be able to hit around a bit back in his Blue Jays days. But it’s the meat of this group that really makes it stand out from its Red Sox counterpart, with Pressly, McHugh, McCullers, and the recently re-added Rondon all capable of getting swings and misses from Boston’s talented right-handed hitters.
Look for Sipp to be used to neutralize Benintendi, Devers, or Holt in big spots. Hinch also replaced Will Harris with Joe Smith in a battle of two dudes with the most boring names ever. Really, the Astros aren’t even screwed if one of their starters struggles, as McHugh and McCullers can pitch multiple innings. It’s a very dangerous group—one that posted the best bullpen ERA in the majors during the regular season—and a clear point of differentiation between these two squads.
RHP Craig Kimbrel (62.3, 2.74, 2.58)
RHP Matt Barnes (61.7, 3.65, 2.21)
RHP Ryan Brasier (33.7, 1.60, 3.57)
RHP Brandon Workman (41.3, 3.27, 6.21)
RHP Joe Kelly (65.7, 4.39, 4.56)
RHP Heath Hembree (62.0, 4.20, 3.87)
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (129.7, 3.82, 3.77)
Boston’s much-maligned bullpen had an up-and-down ALDS vs. New York. A shaky Game 1 performance gave way to strong showings the rest of the way from most of the squad. Barnes was very effective, throwing two shutout innings against the heart of the Yankees’ order. Brasier settled down nicely after his bad postseason debut. And even Joe Kelly and his Great Stuff were effective in limited usage.
There are two big exceptions, though: Rodriguez and Kimbrel. The former looked like a potential secret weapon at one point, but it’s clear he’s not completely healthy right now, and the Yankees batted him around good. There would be a fair argument for leaving him off the roster altogether, and at this point he may just be a mop-up man/long reliever. And then there’s Kimbrel, who sent about 8,000 people into cardiac arrest with his near-meltdown in Game 4. While that’s not the norm for one of baseball’s all-time great closers, it did illustrate the command issues Kimbrel has had all year long. He’s still very capable of getting outs, yes, but one can’t imagine the Astros are terribly intimidated by him at the moment.
We could get really nuanced here, or we could sum it up as the Red Sox have a mild advantage in the outfield while the Astros have a mild advantage in the infield. Really, the only truly weak link for either of these teams may be at third base for the Sox, but it’s not as if Nunez and Devers are total disasters there (usually). Expect lots of good, crisp defensive play, especially from true defensive studs like Bregman, Betts, Bradley, and Kinsler.
Between my introduction to this piece and my well-known allegiance, it may seem as though I’ve been setting up this preview just to make the surprise pick and go with Boston at the end. I want to, friends. I really do. It should be noted that a much worse Red Sox team nearly pushed the (Cole-less) Astros to a Game 5 in the ALDS last year, and that Boston’s high-end talent and deep bench are capable of winning any series at any time. I do think the Red Sox are being overlooked in this series, and it would not shock me if they won.
But if I’m forcing myself to be honest, the pick is Astros in six. The prospect of having to face Verlander and Cole two times each is incredibly daunting, and the Red Sox don’t look to have a similar Robin to Chris Sale’s Batman unless what we saw from Eovaldi was real. Add in the Astros’ substantially better bullpen, and it just seems like one or two late rallies from Houston will be the difference.
Don’t expect the Red Sox to roll over, though, and if Boston can force it to a Game 7 in which Sale is available for a substantial number of outs, all bets are off.
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