And then there were two. The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals have survived the grueling ultramarathon that is the MLB regular season, the cage match that is the postseason path to the pennant, and are within spitting distance of baseball’s ultimate prize. Before we settle in for what should be an exciting Fall Classic, between two teams with a lot in common, let’s take some time to go over how these teams got here and what we can expect from the respective rosters of this year’s American League and National League champions.
Washington had their fair share of early season struggles, going 19-31 through May 23 for the fifth worst winning percentage in baseball and looking like their season was dead in the water. After that date, though, they became a juggernaut, going 74-38 the rest of the season and posting the second best winning percentage in baseball over that time. They were able to crawl out of the hole they’d dug for themselves and post a 93-69 record that earned them a Wild Card berth, but their postseason future was by no means certain.
The Brewers had the Nationals down 3-1 in the 8th inning of the Wild Card Game, with just an 18 percent expected chance to avoid another early postseason exit, when a bases-loaded single by Juan Soto propelled them to victory. In the NLDS, they fell behind the Dodgers 2-1, but were able to beat the Dodgers in Games 4 and 5, by scores of 6-1 and 7-3, respectively. While the Dodgers were the best team in the National League over the entirety of the regular season, the team that was better down the stretch was able to pull off the upset, with an extra-innings grand slam from Howie Kendricks propelling them to victory in Game 5 after falling behind 3-0 in the first two innings only to tie it up late.
The NLCS was a much different affair from the previous rounds, with the Nationals cleanly sweeping the Cardinals out of the postseason. They did it in dominant fashion, allowing only 6 runs over four games, while scoring 20. Now they stand on the precipice, and it’s a truly historic one. On the way to winning their first pennant, the Nationals won their first postseason series. Washington is getting its first chance at a baseball championship since the 1933 Senators fell to the New York Giants. Their last actual championship came in 1924, when the Senators beat the Giants. Needless to say, it’s been a minute since baseball fans in the nation’s capital were this close to celebrating.
The same can’t be said for the Astros, who fell to the eventual champion Red Sox in the ALCS just last year and won the whole damn thing in 2017. While the Nationals are simply working to exorcise their postseason demons and finally clinch a title, the Astros are looking to build something dynastic. They’ve won over a hundred games three years in a row and, while the A’s gave them at least a hint of a challenge for the division, their path to the postseason was never in question. Houston’s 107 wins and +280 run differential were the best marks in all of baseball. Over that same post-May 23 timeframe where the Nationals posted the best record in the NL, the Astros just barely one-upped the Nationals, going 74-37 for the best record in baseball. But they didn’t have an easy path through the postseason to this point, either.
After winning the first two games in the ALDS against Tampa Bay, the Rays fought back to win two and force a Game 5. An excellent start from Gerrit Cole got the Astros into the ALCS where they faced an extremely frightening offense in the form of the Yankees. After splitting at home, Houston took two out of three in New York, which gave Houston two chances to finish off the Yankees at home. Game 6 started off with a three-run dinger in the first for Houston but a blown save in the ninth made things interesting and allowed for José Altuve to further cement his reputation as a postseason legend by hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth.
That’s the quick season and postseason stories, but what of the teams’ history against each other? It isn’t the least bit surprising that they’ve never met in the postseason, let alone the World Series, given that Houston moved to the American League in 2013, right around the time the Nationals started to appear in the postseason only to immediately get sent packing each time. They haven’t even played each other since 2017. But there is some historical significance to this matchup, as it’s only the second World Series in MLB history to feature two expansion teams, with the first being the Royals/Mets matchup in 2015.
Regardless, fans of baseball history will find much to love in this series, especially in terms of the pitching that will be on display. Both teams feature rotations that were constructed in similar fashions, and they should, if all goes according to plan, mostly pitch deep into games and do away with the parade of fire-throwing relievers that has become increasingly common in the postseason since 2015 and has since become a regular season fixture as well.
Houston’s rotation is headlined by Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. Either Cole or Verlander will almost certainly win the AL Cy Young this year and they occupy the one-two spots in strikeouts issued this year. When Houston GM Jeff Luhnow acquired Greinke from the Diamondbacks prior to the deadline, he added a pitcher who would’ve received lower ballot NL Cy Young votes were it not for the fact that he changed leagues. Verlander and Cole also came to Houston via trade, so a whole bunch of prospects have changed teams in Houston’s pursuit of its top-three, with Verlander signing an extension this past offseason and Cole set to be the premier arm available in free agency this offseason.
The Nationals rotation answers with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, all three of whom are in the discussions for the NL Cy Young. Scherzer has been one of the best free agent signings of all time, adding a second and third Cy Young Award (and possibly a fourth this year) during his time in Washington, while Strasburg is the homegrown pitching hero. When Bryce Harper went to the Phillies this offseason, the Nats took the money they had presumably earmarked for his services and used it to sign their own own ex-Diamondback to a six-year, $140 million deal. Washington’s top-three are the highest-paid in MLB, while Houston’s trio comes in second. Strasburg, like Cole, is going to be one of the top free agents available this offseason.
Where Houston wasn’t confident enough in José Urquidy or another of their starters and opted for a bullpen game in their ALCS clincher, the Nationals turn to Aníbal Sánchez as their fourth starter. This is both a product of Sánchez’s quality (he took a no-hitter into the eighth in his Game 1 start in St. Louis) and the lack thereof in the bullpen (more on that soon). Whether this is the best collection of starters of all time in the World Series is up for debate, but there is no question that it is certainly up there.
While there are tons of similarities in the rotation, they don’t end there. Both teams feature the best third basemen in their respective leagues this year in Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon, either one of whom might pull off a slight upset to win their first MVP. During the regular season, Bregman hit .296/.423/.592, ending the season with a MLB second-best 17.2% walk rate while only striking out in 12% of his plate appearances. He hit .353/.450/.647 in the ALDS, but the Yankees were able to limit the damage he did, although he continued to get to first on balls, posting a .167/.423/.222 slashline. Rendon hit .319/.412/.598 prior to October, with none-too-shabby 12.4% and 13.3% strikeout and walk rates, but has been even hotter in the postseason, hitting 412/.455/.765 in the NLDS and and .417/.529/.500 in the NLCS.
But it’s not just established third basemen having career years in the spotlight, as both teams have young talent turning heads, as well. Juan Soto hit .282/.401/.548 this season and delivered the aforementioned hit to keep the Nationals’ season alive in the Wild Card Game. The 20-year old outfielder had a great NLDS (.278/.409/.611) but struggled in the ALCS (.188/.235/.250).
For Houston, 22-year-old Yordan Álvarez seemingly came out of nowhere with a brilliant season where he hit .313/.412/.655 and is a shoo-in to win AL Rookie of the Year. After a respectable ALDS (.316/.350/.474), he looked lost at the plate in against the Yankees, hitting just .045/.125/.045 against in 22 at-bats with 12 strikeouts. Six games is an extremely small sample size, and the good news for Álvarez is that all of the National pitchers we’ve discussed so far except Corbin are right-handed, and the Nationals won’t be able to use the platoon advantage as effectively as the bullpen-centric Rays and Yankees did.
Zooming out a bit, the Astros had the best offense in baseball this year. They were notoriously difficult to strike out (18.2 K%, 1st in MLB), walked more than any other team (10.1 BB%) and ranked third in home runs (288). Houston’s offense as a whole hit .274/.352/.495 for a 125 wRC+. That latter stat is league and park-adjusted, so you can use it to compare hitters regardless of context, era and ballpark. What it means that the lineup as a wholewas 25% better at creating runs than the rest of MLB. For comparison’s sake, Matt Chapman posted a 125 wRC+ this season, meaning that the Astros were basically rolling out nine Chapmans this season. You have to go back to the 1927 Yankees to find a better wRC+.
It’s also worth noting that they posted those numbers with significant absences from 2017 World Series MVP George Springer, Altuve and Carlos Correa, and with only a partial season from Álvarez. We haven’t even talked about Michael Brantley, who hit .311/.372/.503 in his first season in Houston, or Yuli Gurriel, who hit .298/.343/.541. Hell, Aledmys Díaz, who hit .271/.356/.467 (119 wRC+), is a bench player. This lineup was the deepest and scariest in all of baseball this season.
The Nationals lineup isn’t quite as intimidating as the Astros, but there are still plenty of offensive threats after Rendon and Soto. Shortstop and leadoff hitter Trea Turner improved offensively this season and hit .298/.353/.497. Kendrick had a serious bounceback season, where he hit .344/.395/.572 for the highest wRC+ (146) of his career. While Ryan Zimmerman, the National organization’s first ever draft pick back in 2005 is no longer the ridiculous hitter he used to be (.257/.321/.415 in 2019), he has a long history of having clutch at-bats.
But, overall, the Nationals certainly don’t have the depth that the Astros have in their lineup, and the same goes for the bullpen. The Nationals’ bullpen’s 5.68 ERA is the worst mark of a playoff team dating back to the Post-War Era. While ERA doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to the bullpen, it’s still pretty remarkable that they’re here in light of it. Since October, Washington Manager Dave Martinez has been able to rely on his reliever core of Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey and Fernando Rodney for the most part.
They’ve been very effective, especially in the NLCS, where they allowed just one run in ten innings. But that innings-count stat shows you one of the reasons that the Nationals have been so successful this October: They haven’t had to rely on anyone except for their starters and their top bullpen arms. Their starters plus Doolittle and Hudson have pitched 90% of the Nationals’ innings this postseason. When your starters are throwing no hitters into the late innings, you’re not going to need a lot of help out of the pen. If the increased workload of the postseason to date doesn’t get to them, and they can keep Houston off the board early, they won’t need to rely on the depth pieces that have proved problematic and Martinez can keep using Corbin in relief as a lefty specialist.
Houston’s bullpen, on the other hand, posted a 3.66 ERA on the season. Robert Osuna led the AL in saves (38) and had a 2.63 ERA. Out of the most trusted reliever group of Ryan Pressly, Will Harris and Joe Smith, no one had an ERA over 2.32, with the latter two both coming in under 2.00. Pressly lookeded to have injured his knee in the final game of the ALCS, but is purportedly good to go for the World Series. Whether he is actually OK or not will go a long way to ensuring Houston’s success if their starters struggle, because he’s been one of their best relievers.
So what should we expect to see in the series in terms of results? Well, the oddsmakers are heavily favoring Houston, but I’m not entirely sold. We’ve seen Houston’s hitters struggle at times at the plate this postseason, and they have yet to face a rotation that’s in the same league as the Nationals’. That said, even if you want to give the edge to Washington in terms of the rotation, Houston’s lineup is much deeper than the Nationals and there weren’t any holes in it during the regular season. Houston gets the nod on the bullpen, but the Nationals’ starters have been so good this season, they haven’t really needed to go there.
There are non-statistical narratives at work, too. The Nationals are well rested. The Astros have momentum in their favor. Ultimately, we’ll take the pile of nonsense that happens in a seven-game series and construct our own narratives after the fact. Before the season started, I had the Nationals laying claim to their first title over the Yankees, after New York vanquished the Astros in the ALCS. Now that Houston has emerged victorious, I think I have to go with them, as they’ve got the edge in both their lineup and their bullpen. But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Nationals and their ridiculous rotation were able to pull off the upset. The only thing that I am certain about? This is a pitching matchup for the ages.
Pick: Astros in 6