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The Houston Astros spent the first half of the 2021 season in a close battle with the Oakland Athletics for the AL West lead, until an 11-game winning streak in late June put them ahead for good. A mediocre 14-13 August kept them from putting the clamps on the division title, but a 17-13 September/October was enough to keep the A’s and the persistent Seattle Mariners at arm’s length. Much has been made of the White Sox enduring more struggles in the second half of the season than the first, but the Astros have only been a tick better. At 40-31 since the All-Star break, Houston hasn’t exactly surged into October either.
Dusty Baker‘s squad has had the blessing of very good health in 2021. Of their starting position players, only Alex Bregman missed any significant time to the injured list, and he still posted 400 plate appearances. In the rotation, the story was similar. Justin Verlander was a known absence at the outset due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery, but the Astros have gotten good results from six other different starting pitchers this season, and generally they haven’t had to go much deeper than that. It’s been an absolutely brutal year for injuries across baseball this season, and a big reason Houston has been able to separate themselves from some stiff AL West competition has been the ability to play their best players.
Aided by the aforementioned good health, the Astros were baseball’s top offense in 2021, leading MLB in both runs scored and wRC+. 2021 was the fourth time in the last five years Houston has posted baseball’s lowest strikeout rate (Cleveland edged them out in 2018), and the relatively low whiffs have helped them rank first in batting average.
With eight regulars posting an OPS+ over 100 and four regulars (Kyle Tucker, Yordan Alvarez, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel) finishing in the top 25 in baseball in wRC+, the lineup features both high-end bats and significant depth. The lone weak spot is catcher Martin Maldonado, who has struggled to a .172/.272/.300 line. Oddly, the right-handed Maldonado has drawn the lion’s share of the playing time over left-handed Jason Castro, who has posted a strong .235/.356/.443 line and isn’t that much worse defensively. If the Astros were to construct a lineup with Castro at catcher and rookie Jose Siri starting over presumptive starter Jake Meyers in center field, the lowest OBP would be Alvarez’ .346.
With six quality starting pitchers, the Astros can be aggressive with pulling their starting pitchers without worrying about needing to cover a lot of innings. It’s been suggested that Zack Greinke and Jake Odorizzi will likely be in the bullpen for the Astros. Given that most of Odorizzi’s struggles have been when facing hitters a third time (hat tip: Chorizy-E on the FromThe108 Podcast), he particularly seems like a quality option to cover three or four innings in a game if the Astros find themselves in a jam.
The bullpen has been a problem area for Houston all year long, as the Astros’ relief corps finished 25th in the major leagues in Win Probability Added. Cognizant of this, Houston’s trade deadline activity focused entirely around the bullpen, as they brought in Kendall Graveman, Rafael Montero, Yimi Garcia, and Phil Maton. Unfortunately for the Astros, all four of them have fallen short of expectations. Montero made four appearances before a lat strain ended his season. Garcia continued to post strong peripherals, but his appearances have either been dominant or disastrous, with the latter bloating his ERA. Maton’s strikeout rate has dropped considerably, and Graveman has been struggling with walks in a way that he didn’t when he was arguably the league’s best reliever in Seattle earlier this year. Closer Ryan Pressly has been strong all season, but Houston’s had a tough time getting the game to him.
While the Astros’ starting rotation is not exactly a weakness, it’s more notable for its depth than top-end talent. Lance McCullers leads the starting staff in FIP at 3.52, but that only ranks him 30th among the 115 pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. A sinkerballer with a couple tough breaking pitches, McCullers will take the ball in Game 1 for Houston. Lefty Framber Valdez will draw Game 2, and he’s notable for what’s easily the highest groundball rate in baseball. Walks can give Valdez some trouble, but he’s excellent at limiting dangerous contact, which is what has led to his sterling 3.14 ERA.
The Sox figure to catch Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy in games 3 and 4, respectively. Garcia throws in the low-mid 90s and has a particularly nasty cutter. The Sox went up against him on June 18 and weren’t able to put up much over seven innings. The story was similar on June 17 against Urquidy, who uses the classic four-pitch mix and relies on the changeup as his best pitch. Urquidy has the lowest strikeout rate of the projected Astros’ starters, but he compensates with one of the lowest walk rates in all of baseball.
How the White Sox match up
Unlike the 2020 White Sox, the 2021 squad has only been slightly more successful against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching. That improved balance will be important, as Houston does not rely all that much on southpaws. In the rotation, only Valdez is left-handed and the most important relievers Houston has are all righties; their two lefties in the pen (Brooks Raley and Blake Taylor) are specialists. Still, the pitching handedness works against the Sox, and the Sox’ difficulty putting the ball in the air this season (46.1 percent groundball rate, 3rd in MLB) theoretically plays into Valdez’ extreme strength.
On the other side of the ball, there’s a clash of skills between Houston’s ability to make contact and the White Sox pitching staff’s ability to avoid it (27.1 percent strikeout rate, best in MLB). Looking back at the regular season, the White Sox struck out 26.6 percent of the Houston Astros they faced, so they won that battle. Maintaining that edge in this series will be key, because no team in baseball can string together baserunners as well as the Astros.
The Astros’ offensive attack is very balanced vs lefties (117 wRC+) and righties (116 wRC+). With Carlos Rodon potentially limited, the White Sox will be using right-handed pitchers for the vast majority of innings. That’ll make popular White Sox offseason free agency target Michael Brantley (158 wRC+ vs RHP, 59 wRC+ vs LHP) a dangerous weapon for Houston. Another guy who might be particularly threatening in this series (not that any part of the lineup is a cakewalk) is the 24-year-old Tucker. The youngest player on the offense, Tucker has only gotten better as the season has worn on, capping off his year with a .346/.438/.692 flurry over the final month.
Comparing the units:
Offense: ASTROS. It’s the best lineup in baseball, even if the Sox’ current health narrows the gap.
Starting pitching: TIE. At full strength, this would go to the White Sox, but with Rodon’s status unclear, it’s murky.
Bullpen: WHITE SOX. Both bullpens disappointed this year, but the White Sox’ relievers have much better peripherals.
Overall: TIE. This is as close as it gets to a coin flip. Houston may have a slight edge with home field advantage, but these are evenly matched teams.
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Thursday, October 7: Lucas Giolito vs: Lance McCullers
- Friday, October 8: Lance Lynn vs. Framber Valdez
- Sunday, October 10: Dylan Cease vs. Luis Garcia
- Monday, October 11 (if needed): Carlos Rodon (and friends) vs. Jose Urquidy
- Wednesday, October 13 (if needed): Lucas Giolito vs. Lance McCullers
- Jose Altuve – 2B
- Michael Brantley – DH
- Alex Bregman – 3B
- Yordan Alvarez – LF
- Yuli Gurriel – 1B
- Kyle Tucker – RF
- Carlos Correa – SS
- Jake Meyers – CF
- Martin Maldonado – C
- SP1: Lance McCullers – RHP
- SP2: Framber Valdez – LHP
- SP3: Luis Garcia – RHP
- SP4: Jose Urquidy – RHP
- CL: Ryan Pressly – RHP
- RP1: Kendall Graveman – RHP
- RP2: Ryne Stanek – RHP
- RP3: Yimi Garcia – RHP
- RP4: Phil Maton – RHP
(Photo by Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports)