#2 Houston vs. #3 Atlanta
Game 1: Tuesday, October 26, 8:09 PM EDT, FOX — Valdez vs. Morton
Game 2: Wednesday, October 27, 8:09 PM EDT, FOX — Urquidy vs Fried
Game 3: Friday, October 29, 8:07 PM EDT, FOX — TBD vs. TBD
Game 4: Saturday, October 30, 8:09 PM EDT, FOX — TBD vs. TBD
Game 5*: Sunday, October 31, 8:15 PM EDT, FOX — TBD vs. TBD
Game 6*: Tuesday, November 2, 8:09 PM EDT, FOX — TBD vs. TBD
Game 7*: Wednesday, November 3, 8:09 PM EDT, FOX — TBD vs. TBD
One moment in the 2005 playoffs looms larger than the rest in the public consciousness. On October 17, Astros closer Brad Lidge left a belt-high slider over the middle of the plate and — as legend tells us — that ball has not yet landed. Lost in the collective memory was that Houston won that series in six games, knocking off the 100-win Cardinals before swept by a White Sox team that only lost one playoff game that year. But before that World Series loss — and before Albert Pujols allegedly broke Brad Lidge — Houston met Atlanta in the Divisional round. And Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS was the game that taught more than a few young fans that baseball doesn’t have to end.
Atlanta took a 6–1 lead into the bottom of the 8th inning, and starter Tim Hudson returned to the mound. But after giving up a leadoff walk and a single, Atlanta pulled him for Kyle Farnsworth. Three batters later, a Lance Berkman grand slam closed the gap to one run, and then a Brad Ausmus home run with two outs in the 9th tied the game at 6-6. And then, over the course of the next eight and a half innings, the score stayed that way. It wasn’t until Chris Burke hit a solo shot with one out in the bottom of the 18th inning that the game ended and Houston earned their ticket to the NLCS.
That was the second year in a row that Houston defeated Atlanta in the Wild Card round, and the last time the two teams would meet each other before Houston’s move to the American League. They’ve played just 25 times since the start of the 2010s, and Atlanta has had the upper hand, winning 16 of them. Their more important history has come more in the players who have called both cities home in recent years. Charlie Morton, Atlanta’s projected Game 1 starter, was an integral part of the Astros’ 2017 team, and it was in Houston that he turned his career around after their coaching staff helped him to play a more strikeout-oriented approach.
Houston (95 – 67)
The driving force behind that offense this postseason has been their pair of 2019 callups, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. While Alvarez was the one who got the opportunity to shine before the team’s cheating scandal, it’s been Tucker who has been arguably more productive in the two years since their last run to the World Series. By now you’ve probably heard the bit about him being the qualified hitter with the highest wRC+ to make the postseason despite batting seventh. Manager Dusty Baker seemingly has as well — he moved up one spot to sixth during the ALCS. Alvarez won ALCS MVP honors, but Tucker leads the team in both home runs (4) and RBI (15) this postseason. Tucker was notably the fifth overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft, the same draft where Dansby Swanson was selected first overall and Alex Bregman was taken second.
Bregman, a crucial part of the team’s 2017 title run, is considered to be a member of the old guard in Houston at this point. It’s easy to say that he’s underperforming based on his 2019 numbers, but most of his underlying numbers look largely the same. Bregman’s strikeout rate has stayed in the low teens despite injuries and inconsistency, and he’s actually produced more hard hit events and barrels on a per-PA basis than he has since 2018. Despite all this, he’s been depositing just a fraction of his pulled fly balls into the bleachers. The obvious culprit is the deadened ball — it seems Bregman’s high-contact/low-power profile just isn’t capable of producing as many home runs in this environment.
If that’s some small consolation for Atlanta, the rest of the Astros’ starters offers none. After struggling last year, Jose Altuve tied his career-high in home runs this year at 31, and Carlos Correa produced a down-ballot-MVP season led by his stellar defense at shortstop. Correa should command considerably more than the five-year, $125m deal that the Astros reportedly offered him at the beginning of the year. Whether Correa becomes the latest Astro to sign a top-of-market extension is to be determined, but for now, they’ll need him to chase the elusive second title that has escaped more than a few would-be dynasties over the past two decades.
The last time that the Astros made the World Series, their rotation was not just a strength, but arguably the strongest in baseball. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole finished 1-2 in the AL Cy Young race, and Zack Greinke arrived at the deadline to give them a top-three that only the Nationals could counter. That year, Lance McCullers Jr. was still returning from his Tommy John surgery, and rookie José Urquidy was pushed into the spotlight to start Game 4. His shutdown performance (5 IP, 24 K, 2 H, 0 BB) helped put him on the map to a national audience. He’ll return to the World Series as the Game 3 starter, but a host of new faces will join him. Houston’s rotation hasn’t quite replaced Cole, and Verlander has missed most of the past two years after Tommy John surgery.
The story of the 2021 playoffs has been one of fatigue and attrition for starting pitchers, and Greinke is but a small part of the story. McCullers will miss the series after a new arm injury of his own, and Houston feared that they’d lost rookie sensation Luis Garcia to a knee injury in Game 2 of the ALDS. His outstanding return in Game 6, taking a no-hitter into the 6th inning, not only booked Houston’s ticket to the next round but also showed off a new gear that he hadn’t shown before — his fastball hit 97 mph after an adjustment to how he pushed off the mound. If that change leads to lasting change, look out: Garcia’s cutter already helped him to strikeout out 26.4% of batters, and if he can unlock another level with an improved four-seamer, he has the potential to be a true difference-maker in the World Series.
Of course, it was a paid of strong performances from Framber Valdez that made Garcia’s Game 6 performance the clincher. Over two starts, he pitched 10.2 innings, allowed just three earned runs, and struck out seven. His 70.4% groundball rate helps to cover for his massive 29.4% HardHit/PA%, which at the 27th percentile was almost three points higher than league average. Houston’s excellent infield defense does help to make that approach possible, but his 10.1% walk rate has been an issue. His approach can work — his excellent ALCS followed a 3.14 regular season ERA — but there’s also a clear path for things to go bust.
Zack Greinke is the big question mark. He hasn’t been built up as a starter since missing a good deal of time to both injuries and COVID in the second half, and his strikeouts have fallen off markedly in his limited time since. At most, Houston can hope that he’ll be a serviceable opener for a bullpen game. Jake Odorizzi is the likely pair with him that they’d like to be able to rely on, but he’s also a potential bulk reliever earlier in the series if needed.
Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker have been the offensive standouts for Houston so far, but they’re about to run into an Atlanta bullpen stocked with left-handed pitching that’s ready to meet them. But that means increased opportunities for the rest of Houston’s lineup to do damage. Correa and Bregman will almost certainly need to lead the charge against Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Max Fried, and Drew Smyly when Alvarez and Tucker draw them out.
What to watch for
Atlanta’s pitching embarrassed an overmatched (and seemingly underprepared) Brewers squad in the Wild Card round before overpowering what remained of the vaunted Dodgers offense. Houston’s offense, though, is considerably better than anything they’ve faced, 10 points better than Los Angeles’ lineup in wRC+ and considerably healthier. They’ve also seen arguably better pitching from the White Sox, whom they beat in four games. Looming large, though, will be lineup choices when the series moves. to a National League park. Houston’s two DH candidates are both left-handed outfielders, meaning one of Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley will likely have to sit for games three through five. Brantley has struggled since his return to the lineup, though, which might mean that Baker has a simple choice to make. Which of those two sits and how that change plays out is will almost certainly be a leading storyline heading into Game 3 — when aren’t NL rules a story? — but so too will be whether Zack Greinke gets one last chance at postseason at bats. Greinke sits at nine career home runs, and while he’s one of the more memorably capable pitchers at the plate, he hasn’t picked up a postseason hit since 2014. Whether he can pick up a hit (and maybe a ring) could make for a fascinating storyline as he’s struggled to find his way back to his best pitching form in the second half of the season.
The games themselves become secondary to ongoing arguments about The Chop and Houston’s cheating scandal. Old friend Charlie Morton stymies Astros bats, but Houston jumps on Max Fried twice in the series. Yordan Alvarez serves capably enough in the outfield on the road, and Houston closes the series at home. Greinke pinch hits in a blowout. Astros in 6.
– Alexander Chase
I’ll admit, I am quite stunned that Atlanta has come this far with this roster. It’s nothing against guys like Freddie Freeman, but I didn’t feel like Atlanta had the depth to withstand a fantastic Brewers’ rotation and an all-around elite Dodgers squad. Obviously, they’ve proved me wrong, and not because they’ve been getting especially fortunate. Atlanta dispatched the Brewers with relative ease, and then made it look fairly easy against the Dodgers with some timely hitting and some excellent defense. I sure hope Ronald Acuña Jr. is thrilled to see his team get this far.
Once again, note that Joc Pederson is effectively a starter in this lineup. Skipper Brian Snitker has used Pederson as a pinch hitter and as a starter, so expect Snitker to mix and match among Pederson, Duvall, and Soler. At this point, Eddie Rosario has more than earned a starting spot on the team, and I’ve updated the lineup to reflect that. I think Soler starts on the bench this series, as he’s returning from a bout with COVID, but he should be getting plenty of opportunities to hit, given how well he’s played for Atlanta.
Atlanta finished with the second-highest team ISO in baseball (.191) as well, so they pack a serious power punch overall. During the regular season, they got 52.6% of their runs off of home runs, which ranked second among all playoff teams. I was initially worried about how they would score runs against homer-suppressing teams like the Dodgers and the Brewers, but most of my concerns have been alleviated. It’s something to keep in mind for this series but for the opposite reason: Houston hasn’t really been able to limit the homers, allowing 1.4 HR/9 (a handful of points higher than Atlanta or the Dodgers’ staffs).
The NLDS showed that even though Atlanta is missing Ronald Acuña Jr., plus Marcell Ozuna’s domestic violence suspension taking him out of the lineup, they still have a lineup of very good hitters to surround Frederick Freeman. Austin Riley, who quietly stacked up a 135 wRC+ during the regular season, hit for a .908 OPS against the Brewers. Adam Duvall produced an .804 OPS for the NLDS after knocking in over 100 runs during the regular season. The real star of the series, though, was Joc Pederson, who blasted 2 homers and 5 RBI in 7 ABs. “Joctober” is still in full swing.
The NLCS showed a different story. This time, it wasn’t just Pederson cranking out HRs. It was Eddie Rosario, who was responsible for one-THIRD of Atlanta’s RBIs and blasted 3 of Atlanta’s 8 home runs, en route to an NLCS MVP award. Rosario’s final slash line for the 6-game series was comically good: .560 BA, .607 OBP, 1.040 SLG, and 1.647 OPS. Rosario’s efforts were complemented by some wonderful table-setting from Ozzie Albies (.280 BA, 7 runs) and, of course, Freddie Freeman (.286/.444/.619 with 4 RBIs and 4 runs). By now, it should be clear that this lineup is far deeper than expected.
However, for all of Atlanta’s offensive talent, they haven’t really produced at the level of some of the other final four teams:
Keep in mind that the quality of pitching in the ALCS and NLCS was completely different, which should account for some of the differences in run production. Except for Framber Valdez’s postseason gem, the Red Sox and Astros were getting abysmal starting pitching, which is also reflected in their pitching stats below. Atlanta and Los Angeles got the pleasure of facing high-end starters each night. Atlanta overcame multiple matchups with Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urías in the NLCS and matchups with Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta. Each of these pitchers, minus Freddy Peralta, finished in the top 10 in regular-season ERA.
At any rate, Atlanta’s offense should get a little bit of a reprieve this series, as Houston does not have Lance McCullers Jr. at their service this series and don’t have any other pitchers that have been quite on par with Scherzer and Buehler this season. That’s not to say that Luis Garcia and Framber Valdez haven’t been excellent, they just haven’t been Scherzer/Buehler/Burnes-level. So, we’ll see if Atlanta’s offense can turn up the heat on the Astros after two series against very good pitching.
This staff has come alive during the postseason in the very best ways. Except for Game 5 of the NLCS, the starting pitching has been just about lights out, giving Atlanta a very good chance to win every game. One of the keys for me in the first two series was Atlanta’s starting pitching, which had varied throughout the season but came on strong in the final two months of the year. That has continued throughout the postseason, as Max Fried has been just as advertised (minus Game 5 of the NLCS, of course) and Ian Anderson has commanded the spotlight well on his turns, including a strong performance in Game 6 of the NLCS. Anderson only went 4 innings in that one, but held the Dodgers to a run and handed the game off to the bullpen with Atlanta leading, 4-1.
Charlie Morton is notable in this series for a few reasons: A) he is projected to be the Game 1 starter, B) Houston is where he salvaged his career, and C) He’s the other half of the one-two punch at the top of Atlanta’s rotation. He is one of the few players in this series who was actually part of the 2017 Astros World Series squad, unlike many of the Astros players currently on the roster (We’re now down to 5 players on the Astros that were present in 2017, plus Morton). Morton is lined up for at least two starts in this series, but I think the starting pitcher that is more likely to pitch on short rest is Max Fried.
Continuing the thread from above about comparing the final four playoff teams, let’s take a look at the value that each team has gotten from their pitching staff:
You can see which teams have gotten superior value out of their starting pitching and which teams have had to slug their way to victory. Atlanta and Houston can do both, but it’s interesting to see how much worse the pitching has been for the AL teams than the NL teams.
The bullpen finished the first half with a suspect 4.58 ERA (21st in baseball) but turned into the lights-out unit we expected in the second half, collecting a second-half ERA of just 3.24 (4th). The bullpen, much like the other units of this team, came together down the stretch, with several of the above-listed names (Matzek, Smith, Jackson, among others) rounding into form just in time for the playoffs.
In the NLDS, the bullpen was just as advertised; the only runs allowed by this Atlanta pitching staff came from Charlie Morton in each of his two starts and Huascar Ynoa’s one inning out of the bullpen. Otherwise, the ‘pen combined for 13.2 IP, 0 ER, and 17 Ks.
In the NLCS, the bullpen was less brilliant. A lot of that has to do with giving up 11 runs in Game 5, including allowing three homers to Chris Taylor, but there were some spots that the bullpen could and should have been better. Atlanta led Game 3, 5-1, after 7 and a half innings. Luke Jackson came in and promptly served up 4 ER in 0.1 IP, three of which came on this big fly from scrub Cody Bellinger:
Cody Bellinger rewriting the script with a game tying home run!pic.twitter.com/yoWK2GYTw6
— depressed red sox fan (@VerdugoBetter) October 20, 2021
If Atlanta’s bullpen holds that lead… it’s 3-0 Atlanta, with a chance to close out the series against a very tired Julio Urías. But, it obviously did not matter in the end, as Atlanta held on for the series win.
Atlanta’s bullpen is going to need more performances like we saw from Tyler Matzek in Game 6, who pitched six innings in the NLCS and gave up 1 ER, striking out 11. Matzek was BaseballReference’s favorite reliever of the series, with Matzek adding several points of championship value thanks to his relief performances.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) October 24, 2021
Will Smith is the unquestioned closer, while Luke Jackson acted as the setup man/backup closer as the season concluded. However, with Matzek’s contribution last series and Jackson’s struggles, we could see a “Setup Man By Committee” type of approach from Manager Brian Snitker. I would not be surprised to see A.J. Minter, Jackson, and Matzek rotate in and out of late-game, high-leverage roles as needed. Snitker went to Jackson and Matzek to preserve the lead in each of Atlanta’s three wins in the NLDS and continued to do so in the NLCS, albeit with Matzek pitching lights-out and Jackson doing… not that. But, as long as Snitker still trusts in Jackson, we will see a mixture of those four guys, with some Chris Martin and Jesse Chavez mixed in.
How They Got Here
Atlanta got here by beating the Dodgers in six games in the NLCS. Atlanta took the first two at home on walk-off hits. In Game 1, it came from Austin Riley:
Austin Riley walk-off single. Braves win 3-2! pic.twitter.com/9d0rE56iFm
— The Base Hit (@the_basehit) October 17, 2021
In Game 2, it came from—surprise, surprise—Eddie Rosario:
EDDIE ROSARIO WALKS IT OFF FOR THE BRAVES 2ND WALK OFF IN AS MANY NIGHTS pic.twitter.com/RYr5cHyysu
— MLB Walk Offs & Game Winning Plays (@MLBWalk_Offs) October 18, 2021
In Game 3, Atlanta once again had the chance to win and put the Dodgers behind, 3-0. But, as we saw in an earlier section, that ultimately didn’t come to fruition.
In Game 4, Atlanta rebounded thanks in part to Eddie Freakin’ Rosario, who sparked the Atlanta offense with two homers and a triple.
Eddie Rosario stays hot! His home run makes it 1-0 Braves pic.twitter.com/9NFWxyyFZB
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 21, 2021
Adam Duvall would go back-to-back with Rosario, as he crushed a 3-2 pitch from Julio Urías. Atlanta would tack on a couple more runs, thanks to outbursts from Freddie Freeman and Austin Riley. But, of course, Eddie Rosario would not be outdone!
Eddie Rosario’s ridiculous October continues with another home run to make it 9-2! pic.twitter.com/9fFSIvvw13
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 21, 2021
Atlanta would go on to win, 9-2.
In Game 5, Chris Taylor went nuclear. The Dodgers took that game to make it 3-2 in the series and social media was ready with the “Atlanta blowing a 3-1 lead” jokes.
This time, Atlanta would not have it.
Young thicc Austin Riley ground-rule double and the Braves take a 1-0 lead right away! pic.twitter.com/W7qmx45ELM
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 24, 2021
The Dodgers were able to even it up with a Cody Bellinger single in the top of the 4th.
Guess who stepped up for Atlanta?
MR. OCTOBER EDDIE ROSARIO THREE RUN HOME RUN!
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 24, 2021
Of course it ends with a SWEET play by Dansby pic.twitter.com/o5gSdyOdZb
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 24, 2021
After the game, we got this incredible moment:
blooper and stone duvall, best friends forever <3 pic.twitter.com/OBBJG0UVbk
— Cut4 (@Cut4) October 24, 2021
Atlanta got to the NLCS by beating Milwaukee in three out of four games in the NLDS. After dropping the first game, 2-1, to Corbin Burnes and the rest of the Brew Crew, Atlanta’s offense picked up, scoring at least three runs in each of the final three games of the series. That was more than enough to hold off the Brewers’ meek offense (or, Atlanta’s pitching staff did their job quite well, maybe even both!) and give Atlanta the chance to win Game 4 at home.
In Game 4, Charlie Morton struggled to get outs easily and left the game in the fourth inning with Brewers up, 1-0. Jesse Chavez came in and served up another run (credited to Morton), but Atlanta was able to rally for two runs in the bottom of the fourth off of Hunter Strickland (both runs credited to Eric Lauer, who went 3.2 IP to start Game 4). In the top of the fifth, Huascar Ynoa came in and served up a two-run homer to Rowdy Tellez to make it 4-2.
But, once again, Atlanta rallied, scoring two runs in the bottom half of the inning to tie the score at four. The teams traded goose eggs until the bottom of the eighth. Josh Hader was on the hill, and up stepped Freddie Freeman.
Freddie Freeman home run are you kidding me?! pic.twitter.com/jk6jV3lobh
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 13, 2021
That would be all Atlanta needed, as the non-catching version of Will Smith came in and shut down the Brewers to close out the series.
Breakout Star of the Series
We had Joctober. We had Rosario. In this series, it’s going to be a player who has been very quiet during the regular and postseason but has the potential to hit well and is due to go on a tear. I think this series will be the birth of d’Arnauctober/d’Arnauvember. Last year, d’Arnaud collected a .919 OPS and an OPS+ of 139. In 2021, though, after d’Arnaud had to take a trip to the 60-day IL, he really struggled, putting up a .671 OPS and a 74 OPS+, which is borderline unplayable without some good defense/framing.
This is the series that d’Arnaud reminds everyone that he, too, is a strong hitter, and rewards Brian Snitker for playing him every day.
If Atlanta wins this series, it’s because…
The starting pitching continues to pitch lights-out.
Starting pitching has been key for this Atlanta run. They’ve done a fantastic job of limiting runs early in the game, which gives Atlanta’s offense a chance to stack on some run support. Starting pitching is especially key for every postseason run, of course, but it feels particularly important against a red-hot Astros’ offense. I’m not sure I would want to get into a slugfest that starts Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa. So, to avoid that, the tone of the game needs to be set early. Fried, Morton, and Anderson will need to provide at least a handful of quality innings to avoid overtaxing the bullpen and keeping Atlanta in games.
The offense shows some depth.
If the pitching doesn’t hold up well, this offense isn’t going to be able to rely on a few guys to start rallies every third inning, they’re going to need contributions from just about every spot in the lineup. Again, Houston’s offense is very deep, so in order for Atlanta to stack up with them, Atlanta is going to need help from everyone in the lineup.
Atlanta has proved me wrong twice thus far. I’m still going to bet against them for the third time, as I think Houston’s starting pitching will do just enough to help the offense and the bullpen take over games. Atlanta will still get its licks in, of course, because there’s going to be one guy that’s going to hit out of his mind (like Rosario and Joc Pederson), but I think Houston is going to be able to stack on the runs and Atlanta won’t be able to keep pace with them over the course of a series. Astros in 7.
– Adam Sloate
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)