While it may not be obvious at first glance, this divisional series is actually a playoff rematch for these two teams, who last met each other in the World Series in 2005, when the then-National League champion Houston Astros were swept by a White Sox team that won 11 straight games in order to claim that title. The Astros may have had more recent playoff success, but revenge could certainly be in mind for them.
#2 Houston Astros vs. #3 Chicago White Sox
Game 1: Thursday, October 7, 3:07 PM CST, FS1 — Lynn vs. McCullers
Game 2: Friday, October 8, Time, 1:07 PM CST, MLBN — Giolito vs Valdez
Game 3: Sunday, October 10, 7:07 PM CST, FS1 — Cease vs. TBD
Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, October 11, TBD — TBD vs. TBD
Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, October 13, TBD — TBD vs. TBD
Houston took five out of seven regular-season matchups in 2021, sweeping the White Sox at Minute Maid Park in June and winning the first game in Chicago a month later before dropping the final two games of their season series. The White Sox have a one-game lead in the all-time series at 39-38.
Houston Astros (95 – 67)
What does that the Astros have the qualified hitter with the 7th highest wRC+ in the league batting seventh? While Kyle Tucker’s budding superstardom hasn’t quite been recognized on the national stage, placing someone who has been just fractionally less productive than Aaron Judge in the bottom third of the order would be a fireable offense for 29 other MLB managers. But for Dusty Baker’s side, everyone else has been good enough that it’s almost defensible.
In spite of this, Houston has been by far the most potent offense in baseball. They scored the most runs (863), were the only team with a sub-20% strikeout rate (19.8%), and led the league not just in overall wRC+ (116) but also against both right-handed and left-handed pitching (116 and 117, respectively). If you need to find a knock against them, the best argument might be that they don’t hit as many home runs as the other super-elite offenses, but they trail Tampa by only one among the remaining AL offenses.
Manager Dusty Baker is known for consistency with his lineups, and while injuries have forced him to experiment more this year, the bones of what he does have not changed. The Astros do not platoon, and they largely do not shake up their batting order based on opposing lineups. The only meaningful drama before their lineup card comes out will be whether Chas McCormick or Jake Meyers will start in center field, and their numbers being almost eerily identical this season makes even that decision somewhat unimportant. Both bat right-handed (McCormick throws lefty, making him one of just a handful of active “backwards” guys and easily the most successful of them). The team will have to make some cuts to trim the 28-man September roster to 26, and that decision should center on whether José Siri’s broken pinky is healed enough for him to act as a pinch-runner. If it is, then Marwin Gonzalez is probably left off.
Besides the obvious storylines — don’t hurt yourself thinking about what Joe Kelly would do in a World Series rematch against the Dodgers — the Astros lineup also brings with them a few things worth following. Carlos Correa’s down-ballot MVP season comes in what could be his last games with the team if he doesn’t choose to re-sign with them in free agency. Game 2 of the series could be his last if the team has a poor showing and doesn’t win at least two games in total. Correa is also arguably the fastest of the qualified players who have not attempted to steal a base this year — don’t bet on that changing, but if it does, make sure to bask in the feeling that you’ve witnessed something special.
Correa and Tucker aren’t the only ones to have exceeded expectations. Jose Altuve matched his career-high in home runs with 31, not quite matching his MVP-level production but clearly affirming him as deserving of George Springer’s vacated leadoff spot. And Yordan Alvarez exceeded health expectations, avoiding any time on the IL for injuries (he did spend some short stints on the precautionary COVID IL) and playing 41 games in left field with a very respectable -1 OAA. Even Yuri Gurriel managed to produce a highly productive season that justified his place in the heart of the order, even if his production shape wasn’t all that home-run centric. The Astros will enter the postseason with questions about the health and productivity of Michael Brantley, who was only activated from the IL in the last week of the season, and Alex Bregman, who has only shown shades of the power that he had in his 2019 campaign. Both are contact-first players that the de-juiced ball has clearly affected; whether Houston can pounce on starters early and set the tone might be on them.
Since losing Gerrit Cole to free agency and Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery on the heels of their 1-2 Cy Young finish in 2019, Lance McCullers Jr. has had to step into the role as the Astros front-line starter. And barring one inning in 2020, he’s essentially done that. His introduction of a slider to his repertoire has given him more weapons than ever, and at 28, he’s finally put together a full dominant season — and just in time.
The absence of those top-line starts has left a void, but Houston’s ability to identify and develop Latin American pitching talent has been their pathway to filling it. Jose Urquidy, a 2015 free agent signing from Mexico, burst onto the scene during the team’s run to the World Series in 2019 and, despite some injury setbacks along the way, has proven to dependably control the zone and the number of baserunners he allows. Framber Valdez, who signed in the same class as Urquidy from the Dominican Republic, broke out in 2020 as a lefty groundballer based on a sinker-curveball combo with huge drop. And this year, the team successfully promoted Luis Garcia, a 2017 Venezuelan signing, and saw him produce arguably the best debut pitching season in recent history. His deep arsenal helped him with consistency, but his devastating cutter has been the pitch that’s helped him to put up CSW% numbers on par with fellow rookies Alek Manoah and Shane McClanahan, as well as established stars such as Walker Buehler and Jack Flaherty.
That ability to successfully promote an above-average starter each year has led to enough depth that both Zack Greinke and Jake Odorizzi will likely operate out of the bullpen this postseason. The latter has been confirmed to move there, and while Baker hasn’t yet confirmed that Greinke will follow, his performance this year should all but confirm it. Greinke’s strikeout rate slipped again and was just a paltry 14.7% since the All-Star break — that’s 35 strikeouts against 238 batters. His 5.34 ERA in that time is well deserved.
Chicago White Sox (93-69)
The lineup’s sky-high ceiling also makes it one of the more frustrating in baseball when things aren’t going well. Among the regular starters—including Adam Engel and Andrew Vaughn, who figure to get a sizable share of starts and at-bats along their run—only Grandal and Yoán Moncada can be described as having even average plate discipline. Excluding those two, the team’s walk rate falls from fourth overall (9.6%) to 24th (8.1%). They chase bad pitches at a higher rate than any playoff team save the Red Sox, and the league has taken advantage of it to varying degrees of success, throwing the ball in the zone against the White Sox less than any other team in the AL. When the team’s best hitters can lay off outside breaking balls and low changeups and force pitchers to come over the plate, they might be the most frightening lineup in the game. When they can’t, expect to see frustrating, over-aggressive swings and outs early in the count, which could wind up as an issue against a Houston pitching staff that this season has relied more on sequencing and inducing subpar swings than overpowering stuff.
As far as lineup construction goes, the team’s top-six is more or less set in stone after waiting nearly the entire season to get healthy. The Anderson-Robert-Abreu-Grandal-Jiménez-Moncada sextet rattled off a six-game winning streak to cap off the season and ought to be a fixture as long as this team stays alive in October. However, that calculus has been complicated with reports that José Abreu may miss at least the series’ opening game with an undisclosed illness, with his status being essentially a game-time decision:
José Abreu will travel to Houston tonight after battling flu-like symptoms over recent days. He is feeling better & his symptoms are improving. Multiple tests have confirmed that his illness is not Covid-related. A decision on his avail. for ALDS Game 1 will be made tomorrow.
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) October 6, 2021
Should Abreu miss time, first base will probably be occupied by whoever of Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets isn’t already in the lineup, bumping everybody else up a spot in what would nonetheless be a critical loss for the team.
The bottom three spots in the batting order, typically representing right field, second base, and designated hitter, will likely remain matchup dependent throughout the series. Given his play as of late, García ought to find his way in the lineup on a close to daily basis: against right-handers, he typically winds up in right field with Hernández occupying the keystone, and with fourth outfielder Adam Engel continuing to mash lefties in his sporadic playing time this season, the intuitive move is to shift García to second base, pushing Hernández to the bench.
At the DH slot, Sheets appears to have played his way into the lineup against right-handed pitchers—more on him in a moment—while Vaughn, who dealt with leg and back issues in September, takes on the role against lefties, which he pummeled for a 159 wRC+ this season. Either is capable of manning the corner outfield (albeit not particularly well) should Eloy Jiménez require a day in the dugout.
Rodón spent much of the year looking like he’d challenge for a game one start, but after bookending Tommy John surgery with barely 40 total innings in 2019 and 2020, fatigue and soreness almost entirely sapped his velocity and durability by September. That opens the way for Dylan Cease to make his first-ever playoff start for the South Side’s first home playoff game since 2008. Cease concluded his second full season by delivering five-plus innings with three or fewer earned runs in fourteen of his last sixteen starts, including eleven in a row from July 18th to September 5th. Excitingly, he finally made good on his positively electric raw stuff, striking out 226 hitters in just 165.2 innings, the highest strikeout rate in White Sox history. That being said, Cease’s control remains subpar, and those numbers all belie the game-to-game volatility inherent in walking as many hitters as he does (3.7 BB/9). If Cease is spotting up, he’ll be hands-down the best Game 3 starter in the entire postseason. If not, however, the quality of the team’s bullpen could lead to a very early hook.
How They Got Here
Once again, this one is pretty simple. The White Sox never trailed in the AL Central by more than 2.5 games, and once they seized hold of first place on May 7th, they never gave it up, going wire to wire from there on out. Even by the standards of divisions with a head-and-shoulders favorite, this year’s race ended unusually early, as preseason favorite Minnesota simply never achieved takeoff, and when you trade your starting second baseman to the team you’re looking up at in the standings, as Cleveland did on July 29th, it’s hard to read it as anything but a concession speech. The AL Central wasn’t as purely bad as it was made out to be—it was the only division this year without a 90-loss team and one of only two without a 100-loss team—but this is not a graph of a particularly compelling or competitive race.
All this being the case, this series will be somewhat of a referendum on the value of being rested and healthy for the postseason versus the difficulty of “flipping the switch” after two months of relatively low-stakes games. Though the second seed and home-field advantage in this series were firmly within the team’s grasp, La Russa remained committed to the rest-and-health philosophy, running out C-lineups for much of August and September as the Sox essentially played .500 baseball for six weeks. Such a strategy didn’t work out particularly well for previous AL Central winners; it remains to be seen whether this year will be different.
Breakout Star of the Series
5’8″ sparkplug Leury García has become a fan-favorite thanks to his energetic post-May performance, ability to play six different positions, and status as longest-tenured player on the team (let’s pause to remember some guys: García first made his way to the White Sox as a 22-year old in 2013 as the return in an Alex Ríos waiver trade), and while he’s a key cog that makes the lineup function, he’s not likely to be the difference-maker in this series.
That top-six of the Sox lineup has plenty of name recognition and star power, so if anybody introduces themself to a national audience at the best possible time, I’m putting my money on the aforementioned Gavin Sheets, whose unexpected development and penchant for big home runs have already endeared him to fans who have seen a complete dearth of home-grown position player talent in recent years. A second-round pick out of Wake Forest in 2017, Sheets was initially called up in late June amid a rash of injuries and proceeded to slash .250/.324/.506 (125 wRC+) with 11 home runs in just 179 plate appearances, setting White Sox records with eight RBI over his first four games in the Majors.
At 6’5″ and 230 pounds, Sheets has always possessed plenty of raw power but was unable to take advantage of it until a swing change prior to this season carried him to 22 homers between the White Sox and Triple-A Charlotte this season, equaling his total from the 2018-19 seasons combined. He’s already shown the ability to deliver in high-pressure scenarios, and his height, strength, and natural uppercut swing path make him a good matchup against sinkerballers (McCullers) and low-spin, low-velocity four-seamers that don’t operate high in the zone (Greinke, Urquidy, Odorizzi). He may be generally unknown, but powerful left-handers can make for dangerous matchups late in games, and he has as good a chance as any to come through on that threat in the postseason.
If Chicago wins this series, it’s because…
1. The offense
votes takes the lead early and often. The lineup is fantastic on paper, but pitching is still clearly the strength of this team. Even against the Astros loaded bats, the staff ought to be able to keep the team in any given game of this series. If the White Sox hitters avoid falling into an early rut and can put pressure on a Houston pitching staff with a relative lack of high-octane arms (they ranked 21st in average fastball velocity), the games will just be a matter of getting through five innings and letting the bullpen do the rest.
2. Lynn or Giolito take a game by themselves. This year’s White Sox had the biggest home/road split of any playoff team, playing 15 games over .500 at home while going just 40-41 on the road. If either Lynn or Giolito can put on a pitching clinic in Houston that delivers a win without too much tax on the bullpen, the team will be in good shape heading back to Chicago for games three and four in front of what might be one of the most raucous crowds of any postseason matchup.
3. The Hall of Fame Baseball Person lets the players play. Lest anybody forget, Tony La Russa’s record of playoff managing was rapidly deteriorating even as the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011. Before David Freese’s heroics, there were bullpen communication snafus and questionable decisions that almost cost St. Louis the series. Minimalism should be the word: put the best hitters on the field, and don’t get too cute with the bullpen. The scripts ought to write themselves without much managerial input.
My prediction: White Sox in 4. I’ve waffled on this one quite a bit, as neither team played inspiring baseball after the All-Star Break, with the White Sox in particular not looking like a team built for a deep run for much of the last two months. That being said, with both teams possessing dangerous lineups, it’s hard not to give the benefit of the doubt to the team with clear-cut advantages in both the rotation and bullpen. Houston’s experience matters, but with Carlos Correa set for free agency and four other starters aged 32 or older, this has the feel of a series in which the older guard will have to work particularly hard to avoid being passed up by the new.
Featured Image Photos by Rohan Gangopadhyay/Unsplash and Adrian N./Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)