Red Sox vs. Astros Series Preview and MLB Playoff Picks

Here we go again.

The Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros just played four games head-to-head to end the regular season. Houston took that series, winning three games at Fenway Park. This ALDS series will kick off at Minute Maid Park in Houston with the Astros looking to build off their 14-3 finish. The Red Sox, meanwhile, need to steal a win on the road before the series heads back to Boston.

Starting Pitching Matchups

The starting rotation is one area of concern for the Red Sox who, at least on paper, appear out-manned by the Astros.

Chris Sale gets the start for Boston on Thursday. The southpaw was the leader in the AL Cy Young Award race much of the season, though he may have fallen behind Corey Kluber in the final weeks. Regardless of where the voting falls, Sale was dominant and ended the year at 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA and 0.970 WHIP. Those numbers speak for themselves.
Boston can expect a strong starting performance in Game 1 behind Sale, but the lefty is not infallible. He’s already thrown 214.1 innings—the second-most of his career.

We’ve yet to see Sale in the postseason, but over his seven years in MLB, he’s shown himself to be a better first-half pitcher. The same rang true in 2017. He pitched to a 2.75 first-half ERA, which went up—albeit slightly—to 3.12 after the break. The numbers are worse, however, if you look at the last two months when he went 4-4 with a 4.09 ERA in 11 starts.

Sale is trending in the wrong direction, but he’s still an elite pitcher having struck out a league-high 308 batters.

Sale will match up in Game 1 opposite Justin Verlander in what may be the best pitching matchup of the Division Series round.

Verlander only started five games for the Astros after spending the first five months of the season in Detroit. He struggled a bit early for the Tigers, but he started to look like himself down the stretch. After the trade to the Astros, Verlander put it into a whole new gear. In his five starts for Houston, he went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA and 0.647 WHIP. He struck out 43, walked five and allowed 17 hits in 34 innings. While Sale staggered to the finish line, Verlander soared.

Over his career, Verlander has pitched to a 2.88 ERA against the Red Sox in 17 starts and, unlike Sale, has a ton of postseason experience, starting 16 games and going 7-5 with a 3.39 ERA and 1.088 WHIP. That said, his team has lost his last two postseason starts, with Detroit dropping a game against the Orioles in 2014 and an ALCS game against Boston in 2013. Despite the loss, he did hold the Red Sox to a single run in eight innings in that contest. The loss was not on him.

While we have a balanced matchup in Game 1, the pitching swings into Houston’s favor as the series progresses.
Dallas Keuchel and Drew Pomeranz start for their respective teams in Game 2.

Keuchel missed some time due to injury in 2017, starting only 23 games, but his numbers in those games are solid. He went 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA and 1.119 WHIP.

The lefty provides a nice switch from Verlander and finished the year strong with three straight quality starts, pitching 18 innings and allowing four runs in those three games. That finish was encouraging because he struggled a bit when he first came off the DL in August.

As a result of that adversity, his second-half numbers are not too inspiring. Overall, though, Houston is 17-6 when he takes the ball. As has been the case throughout his career, he’s lights-out at Minute Maid Park where he’ll throw in Game 2. He’s 6-3 with a 2.26 ERA there this season.

Pomeranz will start on the other side of this Game 2 matchup. He ended the year 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 173.2 innings. The lefty slowed down the stretch and saw his velocity diminish near the end. It ticked back up in his last start when he went six innings and allowed a single run against this same Astros team. That’s certainly an encouraging sign for the Sox. That was also the only game in the series Boston won.

Whether his velocity is up or not, control is a problem for Pomeranz. He’s walked 3.6 batters per nine innings this year and his WHIP is 1.353, which is a bit high given his ERA.

The rest of the Red Sox rotation for this series hasn’t been announced. Meanwhile, the Astros will look to Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. Morton ended the year 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA while Peacock was 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA. Both have outperformed any of the Sox’s options.

David Price figures to pitch out of the ‘pen, leaving John Farrell with Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Doug Fister. It’s possible—and maybe even likely—that he’ll look to Sale in Game 4 on short rest and then Pomeranz in Game 5. If that’s the case, only one starter is needed, but who? Porcello lost 17 games and had a 4.65 ERA. E-Rod has the best numbers, but he allowed five runs in 1.2 innings against Houston on Thursday and would be the third straight lefty. As for Fister, he’s gritted out his share of postseason appearances, but his stuff is diminished and he ended the year allowing 17 runs in 16.2 innings.

Positional Breakdown

No team in baseball scored more runs or posted a higher OPS than the Astros. Houston scored 896 runs, which were 38 more than the Yankees—the second-highest scoring team—and 111 more than Boston.

That’s not to say the Red Sox were a bad offensive club, because Boston did score the 10th most runs in baseball. However, the Red Sox were a significant step down from Houston. Looking at it a different way, the Astros posted a team OPS of .823 while Boston’s team OPS was .736. Much of the difference was in power. Boston gets on base at a reasonable clip—not up to Houston’s .346 OBP—but not too far off. Power wise, however, the Red Sox hit the fewest home runs in the AL. The Astros, on the other hand, belted 238 homers, which were 70 more than Boston.

The Red Sox were able to find ways to score without the homer. That’s an important skill in the postseason when the pitching is better. Of course, Houston can score without the long ball, too.

Jose Altuve figures to be the best player on the field. He hit .346 with 24 homers, 32 steals and a .410 OBP. He does it all. Meanwhile, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick and Marwin Gonzalez each ended the year hitting over .300. Yuli Gurriel batted .299 for the season. At the same time, the team had 10 players with at least 250 plate appearances and an OPS+ north of 100. Boston only had five such players.

One of those players was Eduardo Nunez, who is nursing a sore right knee. He’s expected to play in the series, though. That’s a huge boost for this team. He and Rafael Devers were major midseason additions to spark a lackluster offense. Outside of them, Mookie Betts is the only other Sox batter to have an OPS over .800.

Across the diamond, Houston has the advantage. Behind the plate, the duo of Brian McCann and Evan Gattis trump Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon. In the infield, Devers and Nunez are nice players, but Xander Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland have disappointed. Meanwhile, no team can match up with Altuve, Correa, Gurriel and Alex Bregman, who’s had a big second half.

In the outfield, the combination of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts provides great defense and should be one of the better offensive trios in baseball, too. All three underperformed this year, particularly Bradley, so the Astros at least keep pace. George Springer is the best of the outfield bunch this year, putting up a season most expected from Betts, hitting .283 with 34 homers and an .889 OPS.

Bullpen Analysis

Most pundits have been talking up the Indians and Yankees bullpens as being difference-makers for those two teams. They are both great, ranking first and third in baseball in ‘pen ERAs, respectively. The team that ranks second, however, is the Boston Red Sox.

Boston’s relievers are often underappreciated. There are concerns around bridging the gap to Craig Kimbrel, but this team has done well in that area all year long. Joe Kelly doesn’t strike out enough batters given his velocity, but he has a 2.79 ERA. Addison Reed had a rough patch in the middle of last month, but he’s allowed only 16 hits in 27 innings since coming over from the New York Mets, and he gives the team a closer for the eighth inning.

Price will also be in the ‘pen for Boston. His role is a bit uncertain, though. Some view him as a possible Andrew Miller, but he doesn’t have experience warming up quickly. Instead, he’ll be protection for the third and fourth game in case the starter cannot go deep. He can help bridge the gap to Reed in the eighth.

There are some questions about the middle innings should the ‘pen get over-exposed there, but the Sox are basically a sure thing if they have the lead going into the ninth. Kimbrel has been ridiculous all year. He’s struck out 126 in 69 innings while posting a 1.43 ERA and 0.681 WHIP.

Houston has the advantage over the Sox in the rotation and in the lineup, but the bullpen edge goes to Boston. The Astros rank in the middle of the pack in bullpen ERA.

Chris Devenski could be a real difference-maker in this series, though. He was 8-5 with a 2.68 ERA in the regular season as he was used in a variety of situations. Houston will need someone to take that role in the postseason. Having a reliable arm that can pitch early, late or anywhere in between can give the Astros a nice advantage. With Luke Gregerson and Tony Sipp having less-than-stellar seasons, Devenski will be huge. Will Harris will also need to be instrumental in setting up for Ken Giles.

Giles was brought in a couple years ago because his fastball was dominating. The hope was he could be a lockdown closer in the postseason. He’ll get that chance now. He was good—though not Kimbrel good—during the season. That should carry over.

Quick Pick: Astros over Red Sox in Four

The Astros are the better team. Then again, Boston was the better team in the ALDS against the Indians last year and was swept away in three games. Anything can happen, but for the Sox to win, they’ll need to keep the games close and hope a couple contests are decided by the ‘pens.

In the end, the depth in the Houston rotation gives the team an edge. The Astros also have a few more ways to score on offense than the Red Sox do, which will help them secure enough of a lead to come out victorious. The Astros won three of four to end the season, all in Boston, and they should be able to do the same with the first two games of this series at Minute Maid Park.

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