World Series preview: Can favored Astros hold off upset-minded Braves?
And then there were two.
The Houston Astros looked the part of a champion en route to an ALCS victory over the Boston Red Sox, while the Atlanta Braves earned their spot in the Fall Classic by upsetting the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS.
Can Atlanta pull off yet another upset this postseason and earn its first World Series victory since 1995, or will Houston win its second title in five years?
No. 2 Astros (-145) vs. No. 3 Braves (+125)
At a glance, it's easy to see why the Astros are the clear favorites. They reached the World Series in three of the past five seasons, boasted a better record and win differential during the regular season, and have outscored teams by 2.1 runs on average this postseason, tripling the scoring margin of the opposing Braves (plus-0.70).
Atlanta's path has been more impressive on paper, vexing the Milwaukee Brewers' trio of Cy Young-worthy arms before slaying the 106-win Dodgers in a series that wasn't close until the very end. But the Astros look like the best team in baseball after outscoring the Red Sox by a combined 20 runs over the final three games of the ALCS.
The key to that series - and to Houston's title hopes - was contact. Astros hitters led MLB in strikeout rate (19.4%) and whiff rate (21%) during the regular season and had the highest contact rate in the zone (85.3%), which was on full display against Boston. Houston struck out just 43 times across the six games and owned single-digit strikeout totals at the plate in five of them.
The last four World Series winners have ranked in the top five in strikeout rate during the regular season, while 85 of the 116 teams to win the Fall Classic were better than league average in that department. Simply put: if you want to win it all, you can't come up empty at the plate.
That hasn't been the approach for the Braves, who entered the postseason with the third-highest swing rate (49.6%) and sixth-highest whiff rate (27.1%) in the majors. We've seen more of the same recently. Atlanta struck out 68 times through six games in the NLCS, but it scored 14 of its 28 runs via the long ball after plating six of 12 on homers in the NLDS.
Can the Braves sustain that against this Astros staff, which allowed the eighth-fewest home runs per nine innings (1.16) during the regular season? Even without ace Lance McCullers (who will miss his second straight series with a forearm injury), Houston held a surging Red Sox lineup to a combined three runs over its final three games thanks to gems from young starters Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia.
That's arguably more impressive than what the Braves did against a talented-but-weakened Dodgers lineup, which simply never looked the same after losing MVP candidate Max Muncy ahead of the postseason. This is also a brutal matchup for Atlanta's playoff rotation, which features just one starter with a strikeout rate of 25% or higher (Charlie Morton). We've said it before and we'll say it again: if you can't strike out the Astros, you can't beat them.
Relievers have been the story of this postseason, and that's also the case for these two clubs, which have each had roughly half of their playoff innings come from the bullpen. The Braves' relievers have been electric this postseason, but they'll have their hands full with this relentless Houston lineup, which scored 26 of its 36 runs in the ALCS in the sixth inning or later.
None of this is to say Atlanta can't win its third straight series as an underdog, especially if someone like Eddie Rosario pops off like he did over the last week. But we've seen players like that flame out just as fast as they heated up. Look no further than Red Sox slugger Enrique Hernandez, who carried Boston to the ALCS behind a historic run at the plate before hitting .154 in the final three games of that series.
Save for another Rosario-like run, it's hard to find the advantage that points to Atlanta winning a seven-game series. Speaking of which, should the series go the distance, Game 7 will be at Minute Maid Park, where Houston boasted the fifth-best home record (51-30) during the regular season and is 4-1 this postseason. Love 'em or hate 'em, all signs point to another World Series title for the Astros.