- If the Astros want a shot to defend their title, they'll need to get through the Indians first. Here's what you can expect from a series between two AL heavyweights.
The Astros begin their title defense against the AL Central champion Cleveland Indians. Here's what you need to know about the two AL heavyweights as they clash in the American League Division Series.
How they got here
Both of these clubs were expected to run away with their respective divisions. The Indians did just that, clinching the otherwise putrid AL Central on Sept. 15. They ended up winning it by 13 games, although their 91 victories were a half-dozen fewer than any other AL playoff participant.
The Astros, meanwhile, were in first in the AL West since June 14, although they had unexpected company in an A’s team that refused to lose; the two even spent three days in August tied at the top of the division, though the Astros eventually prevailed by a comfortable six games.
No title defense is easy, and the Astros’ lineup was buffeted by injuries for much of the summer. Even so, they are so deep–and their pitching staff is so dominant–that they became the first defending champ to win 100 games in 28 years, finishing with a franchise-record 103. And even that represented something of an underperformance: their Pythagorean winning percentage, based on their majors-best +263 run differential, suggested that they ought to have won 109. According to research conducted by Patrick Brennan, that .675 Pythagorean winning percentage was the second-best since 1960, narrowly trailing the 1969 Orioles’. At least some fundamentals suggest that this might be the best baseball team, top-to-bottom, since the Vietnam War.
To be fair, the Indians’ record also didn’t necessarily reflect the club’s quality–its expected Pythagorean win total was 98–and the front office smartly filled a couple of gaping holes with trades for third baseman Josh Donaldson and reliever Brad Hand. The `69 Orioles, of course, didn’t win the World Series–the Amazin’ Mets did. So, first things first.
Starting pitching isn’t dead, in this series anyway. No “Openers” here. This ALDS will feature pitchers who might occupy four of the top six slots in the AL Cy Young voting–Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole for the Astros, and Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer for the Tribe, the last of whom appears recovered from a late-season stress fracture that cost him a legitimate shot at the award. We’ll see six of baseball’s top 20 finishers in innings pitched, six of the top 20 in batting average against, and seven of the top 20 in strikeouts. The rotations finished first (Houston, 3.16) and second (Cleveland, 3.39) in the AL in ERA. They’re a wash.
The bullpens aren’t. The Astros’ relief corps represented their biggest flaw during last year’s championship run, and they’ve addressed it in a big way, adding, among others, Roberto Osuna, Hector Rondon, Ryan Pressly, Josh James, and Joe Smith since last fall. Throw lefty Tony Sipp, who rebounded from a terrible 2017 to post a 1.86 ERA this season, into that mix, too. Houston finished first in bullpen ERA, at 3.03 by a lot; the Cubs were a distant second at 3.35.
Meanwhile, the Indians’ `pen has been an issue all season long, especially as the former playoff killer Andrew Miller (4.24 ERA in 34 innings) has experienced injuries–he had three DL stints this year–and shaky performances. As of July 19, its cumulative ERA was 5.28, second-worst in the majors. GM Mike Chernoff’s brilliant trade for the dominant southpaw Hand stabilized things thereafter–the bullpen’s ERA has been 3.75 since July 20, the night of Hand’s debut–but it’s still not exactly dominant. Maybe Francona will get imaginative and use Bauer, who is not slated to start either of the series’ first two games, as his relief ace. Even so, the advantage goes to Houston.
Here’s the problem for Cleveland: their two erstwhile MVP candidates, Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez, have been slumping for months. Since Aug. 1, Lindor has batted .248 with 11 homers, 25 RBIs, and a .754 OPS, and Ramírez has been even worse: .210, seven homers, 27 RBI, a .731 OPS. Maybe the lack of anything to play for sapped their motivation–and Donaldson has been excellent in limited at-bats since he came over from Toronto–but it’s a concerning trend.
Even though the Indians outscored the Astros during the regular season, 818 to 797, Houston has been trending up. The Astros spent 64 days, from June 25 through Aug. 27, without posting a lineup that included all of their three most important hitters, aside from Alex Bregman: Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa (more on him below). In fact, no Astro aside from Bregman and Marwin Gonzalez appeared in more than 140 regular season games, a number topped by five Indians regulars. But Houston still finished sixth in the majors in runs–albeit a far cry from last year’s league leading 896–and the lineup will enter the playoffs looking exactly as it did most nights last October, with the addition of the from-the-blue run producer Tyler White. Their offense appears to be rounding into form at just the right time.
Both Terry Francona and A.J. Hinch have World Series rings on their fingers. Both have successfully, and creatively, navigated flawed teams to the Fall Classic; Tito did it in 2016 with essentially one reliable starter–Kluber–thanks to Bauer’s drone, and Hinch did it just last year with a closer, Ken Giles, who kept imploding. Both have mastered the art of blending the tools their analytically advanced front offices provide them with their own instincts, making decisions based not just on spreadsheets but the pressing human realities in their clubhouses. Nothing meaningfully separates two of the game’s best skippers.
X-Factor: Carlos Correa’s torso
Correa, the Astros’ 24-year-old shortstop, began the year as everyone thought he would, batting .330 with a .932 OPS in March and April. On May 4, he lashed two doubles against the Diamondbacks. That would prove to be his last game with multiple extra-base hits for nearly five months. The culprit was a combination of back and oblique injuries that put him on the DL for much of the summer, and made him reticent to swing when he returned, sapping his torque. His final season line: .239, 15 homers, 65 RBI’s, and a 200+ point drop in OPS from 2017.
Still, he broke his string of games without more than one extra base hit on Sept. 29, with a double and a homer against the Orioles–the last game he’s played, until now. Maybe he’s feeling better; maybe he’s back to the MVP form everyone expected of him. There’s no bigger wild card in this series.
THE PICK: Astros in 4