Astros’ 2B Jose Altuve and 1B Yuli Gurriel; Photo via Keith Allison
The clock still has not struck midnight for the Cinderella story that is the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite firing Joe Girardi before the All-Star break, Philly Rob somehow righted this uber-talented ship and got them into the postseason against all odds. As for the Astros, they have been on cruise control since the Angels fell apart. That brief two-week stretch was maybe the only time the Astros had to try to retake their division. The Mariners had an outstanding second half, but that does not matter, since the Astros were quietly the best team in baseball not named the Los Angeles Dodgers.
This is a story of two very different postseason runs. The 6th-seeded Phillies have scratched and clawed their way into and through the postseason. In the Wild Card Round, they handily beat the St. Louis Cardinals, winner of the NL Central. After the Cardinals, the Phillies went to Atlanta to play the Braves for a 5 game set. In the regular season, the Braves won 11 of 19 matchups against the Phils, but the regular season means nothing in the postseason. The Philly offense came alive, and the normally outstanding Braves’ pitching staff was no match. The Phils steamrolled their division rival. In the Championship Series, it was the battle of the underdogs. Both teams were supposed to lose in the round before to teams that were “head and shoulders” better, according to the nerds. Philly Rob told them to shut up and went on to dominate the San Diego Padres, taking 4 of 5 games from the Padres in the 7-game series. The Phillies are a tough team to pitch to, especially when it seems like there are no soft spots in the order.
The Astros are chasing history, trying to become the first team in the Wild Card era to go undefeated throughout the entire postseason. For reference, the last team to go undefeated in the MLB postseason was the 1976 Cincinnati Reds (Wild Card started in 1995). Despite being in close games, even one that went 18 innings, the Astros have not lost a game thus far. Unlike their opponent, the Astros were the number 1 seed in the American League and had a bye during the Wild Card Round. In the Divisional Round, they mounted two late-game comebacks and played one of the longest games in postseason history to round out the series. In the Championship Series, they dominated the Yankees. At no point in this 4 game series did the Yankees seem to be in control. The Astros shelled the “Bronx Bombers,” continuing their trend of being New York’s daddy in the postseason. Since 2017, the Astros have ended the Yankee’s postseason dreams 3 times. Going into the World Series, they look well-rounded and very difficult to beat.
How do these teams match up?
Well, it is hard not to say that the Astros are the more complete team, but that does not matter in the postseason. Philly’s offense is hot right now, which is a scary thought for any opposing pitching staff, no matter who it is. The biggest concern for their offense is whether or not it stays hot after 4 days off, which is the longest period they have gone without a game in this postseason. Bryce Harper is on fire, hitting .419 with a wOBA of .564 and wRC+ of 271 in the postseason. Translation, he is mashing. The scouting report says don’t throw to him. As for the rest of the team, no one else is lighting the world on fire quite like Bryce, but timely hitting has defined their postseason run. Sluggers Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, and J.T. Realmuto all have momentous postseason homers that have altered the momentum of games. Schwarber nearly hit one 500 feet in Petco Park on a cool night, which is not advantageous for hitting; it was cool. Bryce Harper’s face afterward was very relatable.
That being said, the Astro offense is no joke; they bang. They have had meaningful production from all aspects of their lineup throughout the postseason. Yordan Alvarez powered them through the ALDS against the Mariners, while rookie sensation Jeremy Peña and veteran Alex Bregman led the way past the Yankees in the ALCS. Not to forget, Yuli Gurriel is hitting .367 this postseason with a .403 wOBA and 168 wRC+. Despite not showcasing his immense power, Yordan is still one of the most dangerous bats in professional baseball, if not the best left-handed power bat.
So what does this all mean? Who has the advantage? The Phillies have more power but do not have the same plate discipline as the Astros. Despite that, the Phils are red hot, which one cannot quantify in a spreadsheet. The Astros do a lot right and have the unique ability to hit for average and power. Philly’s aggressive plate approach results in higher strikeout rates, which is something the Astro pitching will try to capitalize on. In the playoffs, however, the Astros at times have struggled with timely hitting, unlike the Phils. Advantage, Phillies.
Now to the lovely white bump. Both teams feature great starting staffs. Philly’s top three of Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and Ranger Suarez have been shut-down, stifling opposing hitters this postseason. Their performances have been dominant and have taken a huge burden off their lackluster bullpen. Aaron Nola is consistently pitching at an elite level, and it is exciting to watch him take the mound in every outing. Wheeler is doing Wheeler things. He should have won the NL CY Young last year for a reason, and he is continuing his dominance and demonstrating that he is a top 5 pitcher in the NL. How is the Philly bullpen? EHHH… Aside from Jose Alvardo and Zach Eflin, there are valid concerns regarding their ability to shut the door in big moments. Thus far, the bullpen has not been so bad it loses them games, but there is a drop-off once the starters get pulled.
Ah yes, the Astros and their 7-men deep starting staff. It is crazy that they are this deep in starters and not one is truly a weak link. Future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander captains the core, which also features the likes of Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers, Christian Javier, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy, and Hunter Brown. The construction of this starting staff alone is enough to give them a leg up on every team in the majors, but to complement the dynamite starting staff, they also have the best bullpen in baseball. Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, and Ryan Pressley have all been automatic in October.
It is hard to say that this is a toss-up. When it comes to the front-line starters, the Phillies and Astros are very even, but what separates the Astros is the depth in both their starters and relievers. This series will come down to which bullpen can stop the bleeding fastest, considering how deadly both offenses can be. Advantage, Astros.
After watching the previous rounds, the importance of good defensive play became quite clear. Unearned runs can be the last nail in the coffin that kills momentum. Looking at you, New York Yankees. The Phillies struggled with defensive miscues in their series against the Padres and Braves. Unfortunately, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos both have to play in the outfield because of Bryce Harper’s thumb. Despite these miscues, the team has been able to use their bats to get back into the game and has not let errors derail them.
In the other dugout, the Astros are one of the best defensive units in the league. They consistently rank in the top 7 across all major defensive metrics: DRS, UZR, OAA, RAA, and dWAR (Fangraphs). Their infield features Alex Bregman, Jeremy Peña, Jose Altuve, and Yuli Gurriel, who are all above average at their position. Defensively, their weakest link is in the outfield. Yordan can make the routine plays, but the Astros rely on Chas McCormick to patrol the gaps, which is difficult considering the gaps are going to be bigger at Citizens Bank Park.
This is a one-sided conversation. Philly fans hold their breath on balls hit to half of their infield, whereas the Astros have no doubts. Advantage, Astros.
The playoffs aren’t able to be predicted easily because of the pure chaos and random x-factors that make the biggest difference. For example, Jorge Soler was the MVP of the last World Series, which would have seemed unlikely considering the other star power on the Braves. Who or what will it be this year? Philadelphia has an edge at home. Their crowd is unmatched. But their crowd will not play in every game. On the other hand, J.T Realmuto and Kyle Schwarber do. Both serve very different purposes. When Kyle is feeling it, he is electric and offers something not many can, lineup protection for Bryce Harper. Kyle has serious pop and the ability to get red hot. J.T. Realmuto is important because he will be in charge of navigating the ever-dangerous Astros lineup. It is rare for teams to win a World Series with an inexperienced catcher. Plus, he can hit for average and power, unlike most catchers.
For the Astros, they need Yordan to look like Yordong and start mashing as he did against the Mariners. His bat is arguably the most important one in their lineup because of the high ceiling of his capabilities. To win this series, the Astros have to avoid Philadelphia putting up crooked numbers in innings, especially late in games. When the Phils start an inning by putting on two baserunners with one or two out, the Astros need someone to come in and shut the door in Philly’s face. That man is Rafael Montero. If he can stop the bleeding and get out of the big spots, he will be a hero. Otherwise, it will be hard to quiet the boisterous bats of Philadelphia.
This is an interesting matchup. Both teams are similar yet so different. Philadelphia has the strongest chance to win if they do it in 5 games or less. The longer the series goes, the more it swings to the Astros because of their starting pitching depth. Who should you bet on? It is anyone’s guess at this point. In line with the chaos that has been this postseason, do not be surprised when the Phillies pull this one out in 5 games.
This has been one of the best postseasons in recent memory. There have been massive upsets, and the Yankees lost, so what’s not to love? Enjoy the series, unless your team is playing in it. If your team is still playing, have fun with the emotional ride you’re about to go on and remember, at least your team made it this far, unlike many.
“Jose Altuve, Yulieski Gurriel” via Keith Allison licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0