ALCS preview, best bet: Which lineup will carry its team to World Series?
For the fifth straight season, the Astros are in the ALCS and on the doorstep of yet another World Series. Standing in their path are the red-hot Red Sox, who slugged their way past the top-seeded Rays to set up this semifinal showdown.
No. 2 Astros (-155) vs. No. 4 Red Sox (+125)
|Boston Red Sox||92-70||49-32||43-38||2-5||+80|
Who's ready for some offense? The Astros and Red Sox ranked second and third, respectively, in OPS and wOBA during the regular season and featured eight of the AL's top 26 batters in fWAR. Houston led the majors in runs scored (5.3 per game), while Boston paced all lineups in wOBAcon (.396) and ranked in the top two in virtually every advanced Statcast metric.
Offense carried each of these teams to the ALCS, though the production came in different ways. For the Red Sox, it was all about power: They hit 11 home runs with 32 RBIs against the Rays, most by any team in the LCS, and nearly doubled up the next-best team in total bases (105).
The Astros' approach - as broken down by our own Travis Sawchik - is simple: Don't strike out. Houston boasted MLB's lowest strikeout rate (19.4%) and whiff rate (21%) and highest contact rate in the zone (85.3%) during the regular season, which is often a harbinger of playoff success. Each of the last four World Series champions ranked in the top five in strikeout rate, while 85 of the 116 winners all time ranked better than the league average.
Even the vaunted White Sox pitching staff - which led the AL in strikeout rate among starters (26.6%) and relievers (27.9%) - was powerless against these Astros, who buried Chicago in a barrage of singles up the middle, often with two outs and men on base. Houston followed a similar formula en route to its 2017 title, but this team's defense is by far the best in the last five years.
After ranking third in defensive runs saved (76) during the regular season, the Astros' fielding was on the full display against the White Sox, who were robbed time and time again by Houston's infield. It helps that the Astros' pitchers keep so many offerings on the ground - they posted the fifth-highest ground-ball rate in the regular season, which helped them strand 75% of runners.
The Red Sox have more pop than the White Sox do, and they're hotter, too. Kike Hernandez put on one of the best postseason displays we've seen in the ALDS, but Boston enjoyed key hits all the way down the order - including a walk-off series winner by pinch-hitter Christian Vazquez out of the 8-hole in Game 3. It was an extension of what we've seen all year from this versatile group, which joins Houston as the only lineups with positive value against every pitch category.
Still, this order has more questions than the Astros', albeit small ones. Is Rafael Devers' slump over after his three-hit Game 6? Is J.D. Martinez healthy enough to keep producing at the heart of the order? Can their power-heavy approach work against an Astros staff that stripped the White Sox of virtually any extra-base potential in three of four games?
There are legitimate questions on the mound for both sides. Houston ace Lance McCullers left his team's Game 4 win versus Chicago with a forearm injury that will likely cost him this entire series - putting a strain on an already thin Astros bullpen. Red Sox ace Nathan Eovaldi can attack the strike zone with the best of them, but the rotation gets dicey beyond that after subpar showings from Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez in the previous series.
Perhaps McCullers' injury sets back this young Houston rotation against the scorching Red Sox lineup in a way that their stellar lineup can't overcome. Yet the same can be said for Boston's rotation, which was exposed early in games against a Rays order with less top-to-bottom talent than what the Astros will throw its way.
It can't be discounted that Houston gets Game 7 at home should the series last that long. The Astros posted MLB's fifth-best record at home and looked like a different club at Minute Maid Park during the ALDS, while their pitchers were consistently better at home (3.60 ERA) than on the road (3.98) during the season.
Ultimately, it's hard to have watched the way Houston dominated its last series - which was awfully reminiscent of World Series predecessors - and bet against it here against a team with a nearly identical, yet inferior, profile. If the Red Sox can't strike out the 'Stros in this one, it'll be over sooner than you might think.
Pick: Astros -155
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