Red Sox vs. Astros prediction, tale of the tape: Boston's X-factor, Houston's huge edge and more on ALCS
If the Astros are going to return to the World Series, they'll have to figure out Nathan Eovaldi
The Red Sox and Astros have already made history, before a single pitch in this year's American League Championship Series gets thrown. Never before in baseball history have two LCS combatants racked up as many combined wins as Boston (108) and Houston (103) did in 2018.
Scanning the two teams' rosters, it's easy to see why. Both are flooded with All-Stars. One team employs the reigning MVP, the other this year's likely MVP. Justin Verlander would waltz into the Hall of Fame if he retired tomorrow, and multiple other players on these two teams could realistically have a shot at induction some time down the road.
Who will prevail? Let's dig in.
Red Sox offense: 110 wRC+* (t-2nd in AL)
Astros offense: 110 wRC+ (t-2nd in AL)
Red Sox defense: -26 Defensive Runs Saved (12th in AL)
Astros defense: 25 Runs Saved (5th in AL)
*wRC+ refers to Runs Created Plus, a stat that compares each team's offense to league average, with average being 100. (A score of 110 would thus be 10 percent better than league average.)
These are the kinds of lineups that give opposing pitchers nightmares. You've got great players in Mookie Betts and Alex Bregman breaking out to become MVP-caliber stars. Boston adds an elite power hitter with J.D. Martinez, whose 43 homers finished second in the league. Houston counters with an anyone-can-beat-you approach, with Bregman leading a pack of 10 players who finished with double-digit long balls.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox ranked third in the AL with 125 steals, with Houston's baserunning derring-do drying up in large part due to Jose Altuve's more conservative approach in 2018. To knock out the likes of Verlander, Sale, Cole, and Price, both clubs can lean on strong plate discipline: The Astros ranked second among AL teams in walk rate, while the Sox tied for third.
If you're looking for a potential difference maker in this series that's not pitching-related, it just might be infield defense. Season-long injury woes for steady second baseman Dustin Pedroia, along with weak showings by the likes of Xander Bogaerts, Eduardo Nunez and Rafael Devers, combined to make Boston's second base/shortstop/third base trio the worst in all of baseball with the glove. In today's shift-happy era, hitters are doing everything they can to swing for the fences and avoid grounders and soft line drives. But if the Astros do put the ball on the ground, they might reap unexpected rewards.
Red Sox rotation: 84 ERA-* (3rd in AL), 91 FIP-** (4th in AL), 25.4% K rate (4th in AL)
Astros rotation: 77 ERA- (2nd in AL), 79 FIP- (1st in AL), 28.2% (1st in AL)
Red Sox bullpen: 84 ERA-* (4th in AL), 92 FIP-** (3rd in AL), 25.1% K rate (3rd in AL)
Astros bullpen: 74 ERA- (1st in AL), 75 FIP- (1st in AL), 29.1% (2nd in AL)
*ERA- refers to park-adjusted ERA. A score of 100 is league average, meaning a score of 77 is 23 percent better than league average, and 84 is 16 percent better than league average.
**FIP- refers to park-adjusted fielding-independent pitching. This stat focuses on the factors a pitcher can best control, such as strikeout rate, walk rate, and home-run rate, and strips out the effects of defense and luck. It runs along the same scale as ERA-.
As great as Bregman, Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer are, the Astros MVP might not be a position player ... or even a human being. Thanks to a skilled group of scouts and analysts and the guidance of pitching coach Brent Strom, Houston has repeatedly turned decent pitchers into good ones, and good ones into great ones.
That's how Dallas Keuchel goes from seventh-round draft pick to 2015 Cy Young winner. And it's how the Astros built a supercharged rotation, taking a Rockies castoff and turning him into a lights-out swingman (Collin McHugh); a first-overall pick coming off a mediocre season and turning him into a strikeout machine; and a pitcher who went from MVP to a year and a half of injury-plagued struggles back to superelite form.
Verlander joined the Astros mere seconds before last year's waiver-trade deadline, becoming the biggest August 31 acquisition in baseball history. Since then, he's flashed a 2.32 ERA and a preposterous 333 strikeouts in 248 innings across 39 outrageously strong starts. Those numbers contrast sharply against the 28 starts he made for the Tigers last season, in which he posted an ERA a run-and-a-half higher, with far less command over the strike zone. So how did this happen?
For more on Verlander, let's turn to Nick Pollack, our pitching analyst and running mate throughout this season, and proprietor of the excellent website Pitcher List.
Verlander's four-seam fastball has become the most productive pitch in the majors this season for any starting pitcher. Verlander has kept the ball elevated often, leading to a fantastic 13.7 percent swinging-strike rate on the pitch, while holding batters to a paltry .218 batting average against it. Of course, the success of any one pitch depends in large part on the effectiveness of other pitches, since hitters can sit dead-red if a pitcher's breaking pitches aren't working.
The good news for Verlander is that he's vastly improved his slider locations since becoming an Astro. Check out his slider locations with the Tigers last year, compared to how he's thrown them in Houston:
Same goes for his curveball:
As you can see from those charts, Verlander is throwing his breaking pitches far lower than he did during the tail end of his tenure in Detroit. That amplifies the effect of his four-seamer up in the zone. Changing eye levels with each pitch effectively makes batters squirm in the box, with compounding results for each pitch involved:
We already know the story with the top two pitchers in the Red Sox rotation. For staff ace Chris Sale, the question is if the shoulder injury that shelved him this summer and prevented him from making it through five innings until his ALDS start against the Yankees will impede him against the loaded Astros. For David Price, it's a quest to end a career-long winless streak in the postseason, one that's either a product of falling velocity and a predictable, breaking pitch-free repertoire (likely) or some sort of mystical inability to come through under pressure (unlikely).
That makes Nathan Eovaldi Boston's rotation X-factor. Here's Pollack on the Red Sox's potential equalizer.
Nathan Eovaldi has always had a great four-seam fastball. The pitch sat mid-90s in his early years, averaging better than 96 mph in 2015 and a tick higher this season. That's a remarkable feat considering he missed all of 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Despite his elite velocity, Eovaldi still had his struggles. Each of his three previous seasons returned an ERA well north of 4.00. The culprit was clear: he didn't have a strong secondary pitch. Eovaldi flirted with a slider, a curveball, and even a splitter across his first six seasons, but nothing clicked until 2018, when he learned a cutter.
In 2018, Eovaldi threw his cutter 32 percent of the time, propelling him to success: a 3.81 ERA with pitcher-happy Fenway Park as his home backdrop, and a career-best 22% strikeout clip.
Here's a great example of Eovaldi's command of the pitch, sneaking a back-door cutter to the outside corner for a called strike three.:
The cutter's heavy 93-mph velocity, paired with different movement from his 97-mph straight four-seamer, yields a strong second weapon that Eovaldi can throw in any count. The combination of getting swings off the plate at a high 35 percent mark and finding the zone nearly 62 percent of the time means Eovaldi can rake in strikes at any time with his cutter.
Having such faith in the cutter opened the door for his four-seamer to act as a weapon instead of an early-count pitch. His four-seamer earned career highs in swinging-strike rate (11 percent), strikeout rate (30 percent), and batting average against (.206).
This two-pitch mix of blistering heat upstairs late and hard, biting cutters early have given the Red Sox a strong No. 3 starter heading into the ALCS.
Even if you buy Eovaldi as a capable No. 3 option, the Astros are the only remaining playoff team with no apparent weaknesses. They'll mash you at the plate, dominate you with their rotation, limit you some more with their better-than-average defense, then finish the job with a bullpen that gained strength as the season wore on, with Roberto Osuna taking over the closer role and Ryan Pressly becoming the latest find to become a beast in Houston, thanks to a slider that might be the single-best pitch in all of baseball.
It's not often that a 108-win team looks overmatched, but the 2018 Astros are just that good. Good enough to return to the World Series, and good enough to win it again. For this round, we'll call it Astros in 6.
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