You might have heard that Red Sox manager Alex Cora was the Houston Astros’ bench coach for their 2017 squad that won the World Series. You also may have heard that, after being hired to manage the Boston Red Sox in 2018, there has since been some controversy surrounding those teams.
The coverage leading up to this series always promised to focus on those years. But the fresh faces on both teams make this more than just a rehash of their 2018 ALCS matchup. It’s possible that Ryan Pressly will be the only Astros pitcher to appear in both series, and while most of the big names on this current Red Sox lineup are holdovers, neither 2018 ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr. nor 2018 World Series MVP Steve Pearce will have a shot at repeating.
Be ready to hear announcers continue to litigate the cheating scandals that have not kept either team from returning to prominence. But you should also prepare for huge offensive outputs from both teams — with both pitching staffs either missing key pieces or struggling for consistency, these star-studded lineups promise to take center stage.
#2 Houston Astros vs. #4 Boston Red Sox
Game 1: Thursday, October 15, 8:07 PM EDT, FOX — Sale vs. Valdez
Game 2: Friday, October 16, Time, 4:20 PM EDT, FS1 — Eovaldi vs Garcia
Game 3: Sunday, October 18, 8:07 PM EDT, FS1 — TBD vs. TBD
Game 4: Monday, October 19, FS1 — TBD vs. TBD
Game 5*: Wednesday, October 20, FS1 — TBD vs. TBD
Game 6*: Wednesday, October 22, FS1 — TBD vs. TBD
Game 7*: Wednesday, October 23, FS1 — TBD vs. TBD
The Red Sox and Astros first met in only 2003, and the Red Sox lead the all-time series 39-33. Both teams eliminated each other on the way to their most recent titles: the Astros won their 2017 ALDS matchup in four games, and Boston won the 2018 ALCS 4–1 after dropping the first game. The Astros are 9–4 in the matchup since then, winning five of their seven matchups this year and outscoring Boston 42–25.
Houston Astros (95 – 67)
Kyle Tucker may have entered the ALDS without the hype that his White Sox outfield counterparts have, but he certainly left it having left a lasting impression. Tucker belted a pair of home runs with seven total RBI to go with two stolen bases in what would arguably have been a series MVP performance. And, because these things are random, the Astros lost the one game that he didn’t bat seventh.
That something like that is even possible is a sign of just how overwhelming this Astros offense is. They led the league in runs scored (863), strikeout rate (19.8%, the only number under 20%), and wRC+ (116). They were the best in that stat against both righties (116) and lefties (117), and both at home (119) and on the road (113). No matter what’s been thrown at them, they’ve come out ahead.
That they’ve been so successful in all circumstances is itself an interesting footnote when you consider that they don’t platoon or even adjust their lineup to account for opposing pitcher-handedness. Manager Dusty Baker might not even have any choices to make this series — Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers have been battling for the center field job, but after Meyers left game 4 of the ALDS with a shoulder injury, McCormick should start throughout the series until we get more information. That’s not necessarily a loss — the two have been nearly identical this year — but if Meyers isn’t 100% as a pinch hitter or replacement, that does mean some lost flexibility late in games. The only real difference between the two is that McCormick throws lefty, making him one of the few active “backward” guys in the league. José Siri‘s broken pinky healed enough for him to act as a pinch-runner, but he’s probably still a doubt to appear otherwise, making Meyers’ health potentially important for the team. If McCormick needs to leave the game, Alvarez and Brantley are a precarious pair to play the outfield together. That said, the team must feel confident that their depth can get the job done: they chose to leave Marwin Gonzalez off the roster again, and this time, they’re also doing the same with Garrett Stubbs, a third catcher who can also play the outfield.
It is the eighth spot in the order that we’re worried about, though, and what separates Houston is just how massively productive they are in spots one through seven. Bregman’s 115 wRC+ in the third spot is below league average, but everyone else has the chops to be a top-third hitter for anyone else in the league. Jose Altuve filled George Springer‘s vacated leadoff spot, tying his playoff HR total at 19 (good for fourth all-time) and tying his own personal best for home runs at 31. Yordan Alvarez stayed healthy all year and appeared in 144 games, including 41 games in left field at just -1 OAA. Carlos Correa himself shook off his recurring (but unrelated) injury issues to play nearly the full season and should draw MVP votes after finishing fourth among AL batters at 5.8 fWAR. Even Yuli Gurriel was considerably better than league average in his own homer-averse way. Michael Brantley is the biggest question mark of sorts as the playoffs go on — he returned from the IL in the last week of the season and is still rotating in and out of the DH spot, so should anything recur for him, Baker will have to make some choices about whether Alvarez can play left field in Fenway.
Lance McCullers Jr. has been the ace of the Astros’ rotation over the last two years, but forearm tightness following his second start in the ALDS are keeping him off the ALCS roster and threaten to end his postseason even if the team advances. That leaves Houston needing to trust to options that either haven’t had the chance to earn it or who have shown they don’t deserve it at this point.
Jose Urquidy is arguably the closest thing to a proven thing on the roster. After making his debut in 2019, he dominated Game 4 of the World Series, striking out four and allowing only two hits over five innings. He’s since battled injuries and hasn’t secured his status as the team’s second starter, though the other competition that has emerged since is a large part of that. Framber Valdez battled command issues before breaking out in 2020, and despite allowing a ton of hard contact, his extreme groundball tendencies (and Houston’s friendly park dimensions for pitchers that keep the ball low) have helped him finish the year with a sparkling 3.14 ERA, which has earned him his role as Game 1 starter. And this year, Luis Garcia arguably outpaced both of their breakout seasons, although both his success and fastball velocity have tailed off in the later months of the season.
Finding a plan for Game 4 is where things will get tricky. Both Zack Greinke and Jake Odorizzi were sent to the doghouse for the ALDS: Greinke pitched just one inning in relief with Game 3 somewhat out of reach, and Odorizzi didn’t make the roster. It’s entirely possible that some combination of the two pitches six innings in the same game, but the more likely case is that we see about 18 batters’ worth of Odorizzi before Cristian Javier takes over. Greinke certainly hasn’t earned his place in the team’s plans; his strikeout rate fell to a paltry 14.7% since the All-Star break — that’s 35 strikeouts against 238 batters — making his 5.34 ERA in that time more than deserved.
This has to be the strangest matchup in terms of home park dimensions possible, doesn’t it? Both the Crawford boxes in Minute Maid and the Green Monster in Fenway are fantastic targets for righty fly ball hitters. Framber Valdez gets by as a lefty by keeping everything on the ground, but both Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez allow slightly more fly balls than MLB average. They’ll have to keep Houston’s veteran core in check — almost all righties — if they’re going to survive.
What to watch for
Because Houston doesn’t platoon or make many lineup adjustments day-to-day, they make for a stable team to plan against. That puts the pressure on Boston to make adjustments as the series goes on, or even in advance. Houston punished Chicago’s fastball-heavy pitchers, especially Lance Lynn, but they also chase outside the zone less than any other team. It’s worth watching whether Boston’s strikeout arms change their typical pitch mixes and approaches to try to generate weak contact or instead continue to go for the kill.
Houston takes both of its home games behind strong-enough performances from its starters and then struggles somewhat on the road, only taking one of three in Fenway. They close the door on the first opportunity at home. Correa is the ALCS MVP, and Greinke doesn’t pitch a meaningful inning. Astros in 6.
– Alexander Chase
Boston Red Sox (92-70)
This has been a fantastic ride for the Red Sox so far this postseason, beating two division rivals on their way to a date with the Houston Astros to determine the American League pennant winner. While beating the Yankees was quite an achievement in itself — especially after being swept at home by the same team just more than a week earlier — moving past the Rays is something no one expected. Tampa Bay won 100 games, had a stable of high-octane relievers and starters, but also scored the second-most runs in the junior circuit this season, which is something they did not have in seasons past. It was a mismatch, but Boston delivered.
They did it by scoring runs at will, particularly when J.D. Martinez got back into the lineup for Game 2, where the team scored 14 runs. Then came two thrilling games at Fenway Park, where Hunter Renfroe’s hip came in the clutch before Christian Vázquez delivered a game-winning two-run home run in the 13th inning in Game 3 before a walk-off sacrifice fly from Kiké Hernández in the bottom of the ninth to move the Red Sox on to the American League Championship Series.
Now against Houston, Boston will have their hands full with the Astros’ star-studded lineup that will produce plenty of runs of their own. In a series that will profile as Boston’s offense against Houston’s, will the Red Sox have enough pitching to get themselves through to their fifth World Series appearance in the 21st century?
To understand the dominance of the Red Sox offense in the ALDS, there are several statistics we’ll need to go over.
Boston was easily the best in most of those categories amongst the eight teams in the divisional round. But then consider the Red Sox posted a 9.6% swinging strike rate, which was easily the lowest, and their phenomenal .256 average (.244 xBA) with two-strikes and the team they did it against — Tampa Bay! It was a thoroughly dominant performance and gives the Astros nightmares over their current staff, sans Lance McCullers Jr., and how they’ll stop the red hot Red Sox lineup.
The phenomenal performance from the Red Sox lineup starts with Kiké Hernández, who was 9-for-20 with three doubles, two home runs, and six runs batted in against Tampa Bay, including a run of seven consecutive hits spanning Games 2 and 3. Then there was Rafael Devers, who despite suffering from a right arm issue that has hindered his ability to hit high fastballs, found a way to be productive by getting six hits in 18 at-bats, with two long balls and six RBIs. Finally, J.D. Martinez’s presence was felt when he returned to the lineup in Game 2, with his ankle just healthy enough to go 7-for-15 including a home run off Matt Wisler in his first game back as Boston took an 8-5 lead that they would only add to.
As Boston looks to face Astros southpaw Framber Valdez in Game 1, Bobby Dalbec (.877 OPS v LHP) should find a way into the lineup at first base. This could either prompt Martinez to sit entirely if he’s unable to play the field, or Schwarber moves to left field with J.D. in right with Alex Verdugo on the bench (as they did in the first game of Boston’s final regular-season series against Washington).
Red Sox manager Alex Cora tabbed Chris Sale to start Game 1, a surprising decision given the left-hander’s recent form, including his start against Tampa Bay in Game 2 of the ALDS, getting hammered for five runs in his lone inning of work. Coming off of Tommy John, Sale has not had the feel for his pitches at times — which, of course, is completely normal — and it showed particularly with his changeup through the regular season. Against Tampa Bay, Sale decided to ignore his changeup almost entirely. He threw it once, resulting in a Yandy Diaz RBI single, but that still did not change his fortune since his fastball zero whiffs on seven swings against the pitch (13 thrown), including a grand slam off the bat of Jordan Luplow that was at his eyes. The good news is that Game 2 starter Nathan Eovaldi noticed some mechanical deficiencies in Sale’s delivery that should hopefully help the Red Sox going forward.
Of course, for a pitcher that has undergone Tommy John surgery twice in his life, Eovaldi is not only the perfect pitcher to empathize with Sale, but also is now reaping the benefits of staying healthy for a lengthy period. His 182.1 innings pitched this season was the second-highest total he’s ever thrown, and his 5.6 fWAR and 4.6 bWAR were easily the highest marks of his career, highlighting a career renaissance for the righty in 2021. Add in that Eovaldi’s postseason ERA now sits 1.93, the Red Sox now have a bonafide ace to top their rotation and he’s easily the best pitcher in the series for either side.
Games 3 and 4 are currently undecided, and the Red Sox currently have three potential options for those spots. The best of the three is Tanner Houck (34% CSW), who was brilliant following Sale in Game 2, striking out five over as many innings while only giving up the lone run en route to a win. But a couple of days later, Nick Pivetta (34% CSW) had a lights-out performance of his own, keeping the Rays silent over four innings before getting a victory of his own following Christian Vázquez’s dramatic game-winning home run. Then there’s Eduardo Rodriguez (19% CSW), who rebounded fantastically from Game 1’s poor performance by pitching into the sixth inning in Boston’s series-clinching Game 4 win, giving up two earned runs while punching out six. Given that Rodriguez has struggled the most against Houston (8.53 ERA in six starts) in his career, including two outings earlier this season which yielded six earned runs in each, it seems most likely that Houck and Pivetta will get the call for Games 3 and 4, in that order.
*Note: All statistics reflect the pitcher’s results as a Red Sox reliever besides Rodriguez, whose stats are in a starting role.
In four games, the Red Sox only got 12.2 IP (7.81 ERA) out of their starting pitchers, meaning the bullpen had to get the remaining 26.1 IP and pitched to a sublime 3.08 ERA. The biggest performances mostly came from starters in the regular season, namely Nick Pivetta (8.2 IP, 3 ER, 11 K) and Tanner Houck (6 IP, 2 ER, 6 K). As we alluded to in the previous section, both Houck and Pivetta could find themselves starting in this series given Eduardo Rodriguez’s numbers against the Astros lifetime (8.53 ERA in six starts).
While having starters in the bullpen offers much-needed flexibility, Boston still needs some of their normal relievers to deliver and they got that from Garrett Whitlock (3.1 IP, 0 ER, 3 K). Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Hansel Robles (1.2 IP, 2 ER, 3 K) and Ryan Brasier (2 IP, 2 ER, 4 K), as both blew eighth inning leads in Games 3 and 4, respectively. Since Tampa Bay only had Randy Arozarena, Wander Franco, and Nelson Cruz as their true offensive threats, it meant that Whitlock could be reserved for those spots and the rest would fall into place. But against the Astros, the first seven hitters are all lethal and it will require at least two, but most likely three, relievers to be on point to hold late leads. To get there, it seems Josh Taylor will need to step up with Brasier and Robles to help out Whitlock late in games.
Additionally, Darwinzon Hernandez and Hirokazu Sawamura made the roster over Matt Barnes and Austin Davis, with both Hernandez and Sawamura making their playoff debuts this upcoming series. Neither reliever should be integral to Boston’s success, but it would be nice if at least one of the two had a breakout series.
How They Got Here
The Red Sox and Astros squared off for a pair of series at the end of May and in early June. In what totaled seven games, Boston was only able to win two of them and was outscored 42-27 in favor of Houston. While the Astros undoubtedly dominated the regular-season series, there are a couple of reasons why the Red Sox should not put too much stake into that record.
Firstly, this Red Sox team is much different than it was back then. Martín Pérez started two games in the season series — Garrett Richards also started one — and neither of them will be pitching meaningful innings this series. There is also the addition of Kyle Schwarber that has shored up the offense and made it more well-rounded. But going into this postseason series, the Red Sox now can put in one of their excess starters into the bullpen or re-use a previous games starter into relief roles on scheduled bullpen days during the series, again adding depth to a former weak spot.
Secondly, there’s the experience. As we all know, now Red Sox manager Alex Cora was the bench coach during Houston’s 2017 championship season and was able to draw on his experiences of his former club to beat them in the 2018 ALCS in five games. And since Boston has completely changed the core of the team since then, while Houston has mostly kept their same team besides George Springer and Gerrit Cole (Justin Verlander is also out this time around due to Tommy John), Cora could once again push his team over the top.
Potential Breakout Star of the Series
Christian Vázquez went 6-for-16 in the ALDS with a home run and four RBI’s. His walk-off home run in Game 3 and a leadoff single in the ninth inning of Game 4 are the biggest reasons why Boston finds themselves playing in Houston and four wins away from a World Series berth.
Vázquez is finding ways to get on base and it’ll be incredibly important that he continues to do so. Both lineups are relatively even through the first seven spots of the order, with Houston owning the slight edge. But if Boston’s catcher — and Christian Arroyo, I might add — can continue to hit well and turn the lineup over with runners on base, it’ll put big time pressure on Houston and should result in a series win.
If the Red Sox win, it’s because…
Chris Sale regains past glory. In the previews for both the Wild Card game and Division Series, I highlighted the importance of playing fundamental defense. That’s still important going forward, in addition to the offense continuing its torrid pace, but Sale absolutely needs to get back to being at least a solid starter going forward. Boston will only need Sale to throw four or five innings at a time for success, and that is exactly what needs to happen for the Red Sox to punch their ticket to the World Series.
What To Watch For
In baseball, there are theatrics on and off the field and this series will be no different.
On the field, Rafael Devers against the Houston Astros pitching staff should be the battle of the series. Devers was notably challenged by fastballs in Houston in the first series between the two teams, with 61 of the 62 pitches faced being either four-seamers or sinkers. Devers corrected the issue through the rest of the season, but the 24-year-old star is currently suffering from right arm pain and it’s once again hurting his ability to hit high fastballs. Of course, any struggle from Devers would greatly hurt Boston’s offense, giving critical importance to this matchup.
Off the field is where things get interesting. Both teams thrive on outside noise and using it as motivation to beat the opposition. With Boston, there was Aaron Judge playing “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra on a boombox while walking past the Red Sox clubhouse after the Yankees won Game 2 of the 2018 ALDS. Boston ensued to crush the Yankees with a 16-1 win in Game 3 and then eliminating the Bronx Bombers in Game 4. There was also a report that, with the potential four-way tiebreaker for the AL Wild Card, that the Yankees would prefer going to Boston to play the Red Sox rather than going to play the Blue Jays in Toronto. Of course, Kiké Hernández revealed that the team knew about that and, no surprise, Boston won. You could even point to the Rays eating popcorn in the dugout during the ALDS and then ordering champagne for their supposedly inevitable series-winning celebration at Fenway Park. The same can be said of Houston, who thumped the White Sox 10-1 in Game 4 after White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera made comments about the Astros possibly still cheating.
The human element will be a major point to the series and will have the teams performing far beyond the numbers, so trash talk in either direction could seemingly boost the other team.
Boston’s offense is cooking at just the right time with Alex Cora pushing all the right buttons with the bullpen. With Lance McCullers Jr. out, the Red Sox should continue scoring runs at a high clip and the pitching should be just enough for a World Series berth. Red Sox in six.
– Jai Correa
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)