Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Once Again, the Astros Take on a Really Good Team, but a Team That They Are Better Than

The swing of emotions in about 20 minutes on Saturday night was about as big as possible.  One minute, DJ LaMahieu tied the game with a two-run home run off Roberto Osuna. A few minutes later, well, you know what happened...but you also want to see it again.

Awesome. You'll see that home run again for years and years, including on the day that Altuve wins election to Cooperstown.

The Astros reward for dispatching the Yankees in 6 games is a matchup with the Washington Nationals in the World Series.

The Nationals started the season miserably, going 19-31 through May 23. But as this Mike Petriello tweet shows, the Nats turned their season around after that, nearly matching the Astros record for the rest of the season.

The Nats dominance over these 112 games shows that this is a very good team, capable of not only trading blows with the Astros through the next week and a half, but also winning the series outright. This is a good baseball team with lots of strengths.

But this is also the same team that went 19-31 in the opening six weeks of the season. On that day, the Astros record was close to the opposite: 33-18.  And this reflects what the numbers show--despite how capable the Nats are, the Astros are the better team. Their consistent high level play all season and the depth of their bats and bullpen provide them with an advantage in this series.

A Slugging Advantage

If we take out at bats by pitchers, the Astros and Nationals have exceedingly similar slash lines. The Nationals slashed .272/.352/.473 for an OPS of .825. The Astros slashed .275/.353/.497 for an OPS of .850. Overall, the Nationals finished 2nd in the National League in runs scored with 873. The Astros finished 3rd in the AL with 920.

The Nationals offense is driven primarily by what scouts call "the hit tool." That Nationals can run out a lineup of 8 players who have batting averages above league average at .252. They led the National League in batting average, and thanks primarily to all of those hits, they led the NL in On Base Percentage as well.

But a look at those slash line numbers show there is one element of that where the Astros have a clear advantage--slugging. The Astros batters hit for 24 points more of slugging percentage than did the Nationals. The Nationals hit for 553 extra base hits, while the Astros clouted 639 of them. The Nationals belted 230 homers; the Astros 288 The fact that the Astros get a DH rather than have their pitcher bat explains some, but not all of this difference.

In short, the Astros hit for more power than the Nationals. This proved an advantage in the ALCS, when the Astros were able to overcome their poor batting average through their ability to hit homers, especially multiple run home runs (c.f. Springer's 3-run shot in Game 4, Correa's 3-run bome in Game 4, Gurriels' 3-run jack in the 1st inning of Game 6, and of course the Altuve dinger shown above). The quickest way to score in baseball is the home run, and the Astros can do that better than the Nationals.

One other advantage the Astros have from a slugging standpoint is that the DH position. The Astros will start Yordan Alvarez there in Game 1. Alvarez has slumped badly for the last several games, but in the regular season, he had a 1.067 OPS.  He's good, and I hope he gets it turned around so he can turn around on a pitch and show off for the national audience.

The Nationals will have to employ a DH in the games in Houston. Looking at the players on the bench for Washington's Game 4 clincher in the NLDS, there is not much to choose from. The only bench player who had an OPS+ over 100 is backup catcher Kurt Suziki, and this article about potential Nats DH candidates does not list him as a candidate. Regardless of who the Nationals choose, they will be at a disadvantage.

A Bullpen Edge

The narrative around the series is the Cooperstown level rotations that both teams have. The series features three Cy Young Award winners, two first overall picks in the MLB draft, and this past off-season's highest paid free agent pitcher. Those who made aesthetic critiques of managers going to their bullpen early will enjoy the potential for the Cole-Scherzer, Verlander-Strasberg, and Greinke-Corbin matchups to last deep into the game.

The chart above shows that for all the excellence of the Nationals rotation, the Astros rotation was better this year.  Cole and Verlander were clearly better pitchers than any four of the Nationals starting pitchers, and all three of the Astros big starters had lower WHIPs than any of the Nats starters. The edge is not massive and all of the Nats pitchers are capable of holding down the Astros until late in the ballgame, but the Astros Big 3 is better.

Of course, you will note that the four starter spot for the Astros is blank. We don't have one. and it is likely that Game 4 will follow the pattern of Game 6 of the ALCS and be a bullpen game.

Speaking of bullpens, the Astros bullpen is better. The Astros bullpen is anchored by Roberto Osuna (176 ERA+ and 0.877 WHIP) and Will Harris (309 ERA+ and 0.933 WHIP). The Nationals bullpen is anchored by Sean Doolittle (113 ERA+ and 1.300 WHIP) and Daniel Hudson (186 ERA+ and 1.137 WHIP).  If you turn your head a certain way, Hudson's numbers are similar to Osuna's.  But Harris knocks Doolittle out of the park.

Nats manager Dave Martinez has shown a clear reluctance to go to the rest of his bullpen. He's used members of his starting rotation on their "throw days" to take innings away from his belagured middle relief staff. When he does go to a third member of his pen, it's often Tanner Rainey, who features a 100 MPH fastball, and an elite slider, and bad walk rates and a strong platoon split.  Each of these three relievers performed very well in the playoffs so far, but remember that is a 9-game sample for the Nationals.

The Playoffs are a Crapshoot

Overall, this review of the strenghts and weaknesses of the Nationals shows that they are an excellent baseball team that has played excellent baseball for months now, and that they are still not  as good as the Astros. The Astros have a superior lineup, rotation, and bullpen.


There's always a but. It's hard to beat a good team, and the Nationals are certainly that. They have an excellent rotation, and a top five in their order which can give the Astros problems.

The odds are in the Astros favor. Five Thirty Eight has the Astros at a 60% favorite, Baseball Prospectus says it's more like 69%, and Fangraphs is the most bullish--72%.  These are outstanding odds for a short series.

But each of those models leaves substantial chances (ranging from 28% to 40%) that the Nationals can win the series, even accounting for the fact that each of these models thinks the Astros are the better team.

An expression that took hold in Sabremetric circles back in the 1990s holds that "the playoffs are a crapshoot."  By creating an excellent, deep, and nearly flawless baseball team, the Astros have done everything they can to stack the odds in their favor.  But they can only do so much...and we'll have to sweat out each of the next four victories..