The World Series kicks off Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and despite what ad executives might say about ratings, it’s hard to be disappointed by the matchup. After all, it’s only the eighth time that two 100-win teams have met in the Fall Classic, and the first since 1970.
For most of the season, the Houston Astros were the best team in the American League. The proverbial tortoise caught the hare as the Cleveland Indians reeled off a 22-game winning streak in August to usurp the Astros and ultimately grabbed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by just a single game, but Houston got the last laugh as Cleveland blew a 2-0 lead — hold your jokes, please — and was eliminated by the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.
The Astros had to play some catchup of their own against the Yankees, winning 4-3 in the ALCS in the series that squashed the idea of game-to-game momentum. Like the Minnesota Twins in each of their World Series wins, the home team won every game in the 2017 ALCS.
LISTEN: Brandon chats with the operator of the Train at Minute Maid Park, Bobby Dynamite on a recent Midwest Swing
What it set up the Astros with was a date with the Dodgers, a team that sizzled through the first five months of the season, fizzled for a couple weeks and then returned to form at just the right time.
It’s almost like a team that was 91-36 at one point wasn’t doomed to failure because of a rough two-week stretch. Huh. Score another point for the anti-momentum movement.
None of this is to say that momentum cannot or does not exist. If a team goes up 5-0 at the end of the first inning, it’s probably going to win. Is that momentum? Or is that just the odds of the situation? If a player is playing well in a game, will that carry to the next game? Maybe. Perhaps even probably. But what stops the momentum? Some other player’s momentum?
It’s almost like the game is man vs. man and whoever executes wins the play, and rules the day. The concept of momentum fills column inches and radio minutes, but it’s nebulous at best. If the Dodgers lose this series, some may argue they had too much time off between the NLCS and World Series, and others will argue they weren’t tested enough during the postseason — during which they’re 7-1, one might add.
But that doesn’t give enough credit to the offensive juggernaut that the Astros are. They didn’t do much offensively against the Yankees to be sure, but they posted a team wRC+ of 121 on the season. That’s the best single-season mark by a team since the 1931 Yankees. That mark also virtually has no regard for if a pitcher is right-handed (122) or left-handed (120) — both of which were at the top of the class when parsed out.
The other thing this team doesn’t do is strike out. In this era of sacrificing strikeouts for the allure of hitting homers, the Astros did their own thing. They were second in baseball with 238 homers — three behind the No. 1 Yankees — yet struck out just 17.3 percent of the time. For some added context, only one other team was even below 19 percent (Cleveland, 18.5 percent) and the MLB average was 21.6 percent.
No strikeouts and ample power is a dangerous combination, and it’s going to result in a nasty battle with Dodgers pitching. Dodgers pitchers were fourth in baseball with 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings, and posted the sixth-lowest rate of home runs per nine innings (1.15).
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None of this should indicate that sleeping on the Dodgers offense is a good bet, either. In addition to employing the slam-dunk Rookie of the Year in Cody Bellinger, the team as a whole posted a 104 wRC+. That might not seem great in lieu of 100 being the average figure, but only the Indians, Yankees and Astros were better. Offenses were greatly balanced this year in terms of outliers, and just 11 teams posted marks of 100 or better.
That gives some added context to just how great the Astros were too, really.
But while the Astros did it with contact and power, the Dodgers did it with a walk rate of 10.5 percent in addition to showing ample extra-base ability. The Dodgers were the only team with a double-digit walk rate — let’s put it this way, Joe Mauer walked 11.1 percent of the time this year; they were a team of Mauers — and yet they still posted an isolated slugging mark of .188, which was fourth-best in MLB and just behind the MLB-leading Astros (.196).
Isolated power, for those uninitiated, is slugging percentage minus batting average, and it gives added context to how much thump an offense has.
In other words, if the pitching isn’t up to snuff, this could be a battle of fireworks shows.
But both teams do boast great pitching. With the Astros, it skews heavily to a rotation fronted by Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander. They haven’t announced any starters past that, but it would be some combination of Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton and/or Brad Peacock. McCullers is the best of the three, but he was so good out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the ALCS — including finishing the game with a staggering 24 straight curveballs — that he could be used to prop up that sagging unit. Morton was absolutely terrific in that game as the starter, as he tossed five innings of shutout ball with two hits, five strikeouts and just one walk.
Back to that sagging bullpen for a second. While the Dodgers have a bunch of guys manager Dave Roberts isn’t sure he can trust to build a bridge to Kenley Jansen, A.J. Hinch’s bridge is even more tenuous. The Astros bullpen posted a collective ERA of 4.27 — 17th in MLB. For further context, the Twins checked in at 4.40. That’s not to say the Astros didn’t do things a lot better than the Twins — consider their 10.9 K/9 — but this is the unit that is clearly the squeaky wheel on an otherwise flawless car. Ken Giles has not had a good postseason (five earned runs in six innings, two homers against) and it’s not clear Hinch trusts many of the guys between the starters and him.
The Dodgers were fourth in reliever ERA, but even still feel a bit shaky because outside of Jansen, it also isn’t totally clear who Roberts trusts. Kenta Maeda has been a revelation out of the bullpen this October, as he’s tossed five spotless innings — one at a time — with seven strikeouts and no walks. Brandon Morrow came basically out of nowhere to bring the heat, and after allowing a home run in the NLDS while seeing his strikeouts lag a bit has come on like gangbusters over his last four appearances.
In the NLCS, Morrow tossed 4.2 shutout innings with just one hit allowed and a K/BB ratio of 7-1. Still, this is a shorter-than-ideal bullpen if a starter only goes 3-to-4 innings. The battle of the bullpens could be interesting — or a war of attrition.
So it might come down to starters, and this may line up nicely for the Astros. Having Verlander and Keuchel start the two games in Los Angeles give them the best chance to steal one on the road. It also gets them to the three-game stretch at Minute Maid Park, where they may have a little more leeway offensively — especially with the DH in the mix. With that said, the Astros don’t have much of a care where they play; they won 48 games at home during the regular season and 53 on the road.
The Dodgers have announced their starters for four games — twice as many as the Astros — and will go Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Yu Darvish and Alex Wood. Of course, that can be subject to change at Roberts’ whim, depending on how the rest of the series goes.
But it all starts with Tuesday, and it’s going to be an incredible matchup. Keuchel is absolute death to left-handed hitters (.435 OPS) which should help neutralize the likes of Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, while his ability to induce grounders keeps the ball in the park and keeps scores down.
As for Kershaw, it’s hard to know what exactly to do with his postseason narrative. He entered this postseason with an October ERA encroaching on 5.00, or about double what he typically posts. So far this year, he’s played it right down the middle with a 3.63 and terrific secondary numbers — .194 BAA, 0.98 WHIP, 16-5 K/BB in 17.1 innings.
No matter what happens, it should be a dandy.
The pick: Dodgers in seven. These teams are both too god for the other to win in a walk, and seven games means we get November baseball for the third straight year.