World Series viewers guide: Can Nats hang with Astros?

MLB

It is a sporting event so wonderful it requires two names: The World Series. The Fall Classic.

The Houston Astros got here in dramatic fashion on Jose Altuve‘s walk-off home run to knock out the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. The Washington Nationals have had some high drama of their own, with late rallies in the wild-card game against the Brewers and in Game 5 of the division series against the Dodgers, before they crushed the Cardinals in a four-game sweep in the NLCS.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get seven games of thrills over nine days, seven games of heroes and tragedy and breathtaking moments. One thing is for sure: We have the potential for some epic pitching performances. In the year of the home run, at a time when relievers pitch more innings than ever, starting pitching will be at the forefront of this World Series. Consider the following nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information:

— For the first time in World Series history, five of the top 10 pitchers in strikeouts in the regular season are in the World Series. Gerrit Cole (326) and Justin Verlander (300) ranked 1-2, and Stephen Strasburg (251), Max Scherzer (243) and Patrick Corbin (238) were also in the top 10.

— For the first time since 1945, six of the top 20 pitchers in ERA are in the World Series. Cole, Verlander, Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Corbin and Strasburg all ranked in the top 16.

— Astros starters struck out 28.9% of the batters they faced in the regular season, the highest rate in MLB history. (Cole had the highest rate ever by a starting pitcher, at 39.9%.) Nationals starters have struck out 36.1% of the batters they’ve faced in the postseason.

— The starters on these two teams have held their opponents to a combined batting average of .183 in the postseason.

— The Nationals’ big three of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin earned $77.8 million this season, the highest total in baseball for a team’s top three starters. The Astros’ big three of Verlander, Cole and Greinke earned $73 million, the second-highest total. Yes, scoring has been down in the postseason. Maybe it’s because the ball hasn’t been flying like it did in the regular season. But maybe these pitchers are part of the reason as well. If you detest nine-man playoff bullpens and quick hooks after two times through the order — don’t even mention bullpen games — this World Series is a potential love letter to another style of October baseball in which starting pitchers rule the headlines.

Here’s the rest of our viewers’ guide to the 2019 World Series:

What the Astros have on the line: With three consecutive 100-win seasons, including 107 victories this season, the Astros will secure a legacy as one of the greatest teams of all time with a second World Series title in three years. If they don’t win, they will — at least for the time being — be grouped alongside other historically dominant teams, such as the 1969-71 Orioles or 1990s Braves, who would get credit as being among the best ever if they had won more than one World Series.

What the Nationals have on the line: The Nationals have a chance to bring the nation’s capital its first World Series title since Walter Johnson led the Senators to the 1924 championship. Since their first playoff appearance in 2012, the Nationals have been one of the most star-laden franchises in the sport, but they had failed to win a playoff series until this season. They got over that hump, and with a title, they would avoid the fate of star-driven teams such as the 1960s Giants, 1990s Indians, 1990s Mariners and the current-era Dodgers: great teams that fell short in the postseason.

The favorites: The Astros — in a big way, at least according to the oddsmakers in Las Vegas. Caesars Sportsbook installed the Astros as -235 favorites on Sunday, making them the largest favorites since the Red Sox were -240 to beat the Rockies in 2007. Those odds are a little surprising, given the strength of the Nationals’ rotation and how well the Nationals have played since an awful 19-31 start dropped their World Series odds to 50-1 in late May.

The Astros, however, are more than the dominant 1-2 punch of Cole and Verlander. They have one of the best offenses of all time. According to the metric weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which adjusts for park and era, the 2019 Astros had the second-best offense ever, behind only that of the famed ’27 Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. With all that in mind, perhaps it’s worth noting: The Red Sox swept the Rockies in 2007.

What everyone is talking about: Obviously, the starting pitchers — big names, big stars, guys who had dominant seasons. It’s probably the best and most famous group of starting pitchers in a World Series since the 2001 matchup between the Yankees and Diamondbacks that featured Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte. That’s two Hall of Famers in Johnson and Mussina, two guys who might get there in Schilling and Pettitte, and one guy who might be the greatest pitcher of all time.

This year’s group includes three potential or likely Hall of Famers in Verlander, Greinke and Scherzer, one guy who was arguably the best starter in the game this season (and has won 19 consecutive decisions) in Cole, two former No. 1 overall picks in Cole and Strasburg (Verlander was second overall), a guy who could end up winning 200 games in Strasburg, a guy who has been one of the best starters in the game the past two seasons in Corbin and a former ERA champ in Anibal Sanchez, who nearly pitched a no-hitter in the NLCS.

What else everyone is talking about: The ball. After a record-setting season of home runs, the ball seems to be a little different in the postseason. Rob Arthur’s analysis at Baseball Prospectus indicated that there has been more drag on the ball, so balls with exit velocities and launch angles similar to what was seen in the regular season aren’t flying as far. But then the ball might have changed back to the regular-season ball. Or it didn’t. Did we mention that there are some very excellent starting pitchers in this postseason? For what it’s worth, in the regular season, there was a home run every 24.59 at-bats. In the postseason, there has been one every 27.36 at-bats. Runs per game are down from 4.83 to 3.92, and though scoring usually goes down in the postseason, that’s a larger than normal drop. Keep close tabs on fly balls hit to the warning track.

Player with the most on the line: How about Scherzer? He’s a potential future Hall of Famer and the owner of three Cy Young Awards, and he’s still going strong at age 35. He was part of excellent teams and excellent rotations in Detroit — Verlander was his teammate — and now in Washington, but he doesn’t have a World Series ring. His postseason career has been good but not great, with a 6-5 record and 3.35 ERA, though his last two starts against the Dodgers and Cardinals were outstanding.

Scherzer can cement his legacy as not just one of the best starting pitchers of his generation but also one of the best ever in terms of peak value. He’s likely to get matched up twice against Cole, setting the stage for what could be two memorable battles. If he comes up big — something Clayton Kershaw has failed to do — he might surpass Kershaw in the eyes of many as the best pitcher of the decade (or perhaps be second behind Verlander).

Most exciting player: You can’t pick just one. With these star-studded rosters, that’s like picking between Mozart and Beethoven. Here are three players who have a history of October excellence:

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Jose Altuve recaps the wild ninth inning and breaks down his approach vs. Aroldis Chapman that resulted in a walk-off homer.

Jose Altuve: The diminutive second baseman has five home runs this postseason — and only four strikeouts! — and 13 homers in 174 career postseason at-bats. His career line in 43 playoff games: .287/.354/.552. As teammate George Springer said after Altuve’s walk-off homer against the Yankees: “There’s nothing that guy does anymore that surprises me. He’s so good. He’s so talented. He never lets the moment get too big. That’s why he’s our captain.”

Stephen Strasburg: It isn’t a huge sample, but Strasburg has yet to have a poor outing in his postseason career. He’s 4-2 with a 1.10 ERA in 41 innings, with just two home runs allowed. He’s 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA this postseason and a 33-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings. It will be fascinating to see how the Astros attack him, given his command and his changeup/curveball combo. Like the great postseason pitchers, he seems able to raise his game in October. “He doesn’t try to do anything different,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said during the NLCS. “What I love about these guys is everybody sees them every fifth day. I get to watch them every day and what they do behind the scenes. All our starters, they work harder than anybody to get ready for that fifth day, and I think that’s a testament to how good they are and what they want to do and what it means to them to win a championship.”

George Springer: Speaking of Springer, he dominated the 2017 World Series for the Astros, winning MVP honors as he hit .379 with five home runs and three doubles. His career postseason numbers are almost identical to Altuve’s: .267/.348/.545 with 13 home runs in 176 at-bats. He’s hitting just .152/.235/.283 this postseason, however. Which might mean he’s due.

Feel-good storyline to watch: Ryan Zimmerman was the Nationals’ first draft pick back in 2005, and he reached the majors later that season. He was once a terrific defensive third baseman and all-around player, but shoulder issues eventually forced him to move to first base, and he has battled injuries for several years now. He was an underrated star in those bad early Nationals seasons and is now the wily old veteran. He’s “Mr. National,” and with his contract expiring, these are probably the final games of his career.

The biggest question for the Astros: Rookie Yordan Alvarez had the third-highest OPS in the majors this season among players with at least 300 plate appearances, trailing only that of Christian Yelich and Mike Trout. His first taste of the postseason has been a huge struggle, as he’s hitting .171/.227/.244 with no home runs, one RBI and 19 strikeouts in 11 games. The Astros reached the World Series despite hitting just .208/.287/.358 so far in the postseason. They need the big rook to get untracked.

The biggest question for the Nationals: The bullpen. The Nationals had the worst bullpen ERA by a playoff team since World War II. Other than one Corbin blowup against the Dodgers, however, the pen has been pretty solid this postseason. Still, Martinez can comfortably rely upon just three relievers: closer Daniel Hudson, lefty Sean Doolittle and Tanner Rainey, who throws 100 and has pitched his way into a setup role. Those three have combined to allow four runs and 10 hits with 15 strikeouts in 17 innings in the playoffs.

Whom to root for if you’re neutral: If you like to see greatness rewarded, you’re rooting for the Astros to win that second title and earn rightful recognition as one of the best teams ever. Or maybe you like to see different fan bases rewarded and thus want to see the Nationals win their first title. Or maybe the Astros rub you the wrong way, with Alex Bregman‘s cockiness, the charges of sign stealing against them the past couple of postseasons, closer Roberto Osuna‘s arrest for domestic violence when he played for the Blue Jays or that air of “we’re smarter than everyone else” that they exude. Maybe you’re an old fan of the Montreal Expos, and a small piece of your heart for some reason remains with the franchise. Or maybe you love Bregman’s cockiness and Cole’s dominance and Greinke’s off-speed stuff and Trea Turner‘s speed and Anthony Rendon‘s artistry with the bat and Juan Soto‘s prowess at such a young age and Scherzer’s intensity — and all you want is seven more games.

The pick: Astros in six. I had Astros over Nationals back in March. Not about to change it now.

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