The 2018 ALCS is a battle of 2018 powerhouses. It’s the defending World Series champs against the winningest regular season team of the past 17 years. In Alex Bregman’s words: “Two best teams on the planet...this will be fun!” The two remaining NL squads might have something to say about that, but there’s no denying Astros-Red Sox has all the makings of a classic series. This is the first time since 1942 that two teams with at least 103 wins will meet in the postseason. There are stars and storylines everywhere you look. Indeed, Alex. This will be fun.
How They Got Here
Thanks to their convincing ALDS sweep of the Indians, the 103-win Astros will have had four full days of rest when Game 1 gets underway on Saturday night. Cleveland has a talented team, but looked utterly outmatched against the Astros. Houston outscored the Indians 21-6 over the three-game sweep, with their lineup, starters, and bullpen all performing at a high level.
The other ALDS was still tied 1-1 when the Astros secured their spot in the Championship Series round. The Red Sox won twice in two days at Yankee Stadium, the first game a 16-1 bludgeoning and the second a 4-3 game that got scary in the ninth for closer Craig Kimbrel. It was an impressive two-game stretch for the 108-win Red Sox, as the series momentum had seemed to be in the Yankees’ favor heading home after a Game 2 win at Fenway Park.
The Astros’ lineup was historically great in its three games of ALDS action. As a team, they hit .327 with a 1.036 OPS–the highest in a postseason series in MLB history. Leading the way was Playoff Bregman. After a fantastic age-24 season in which he emerged as the Astros’ best player, Bregman continued to rake in the playoffs. He reached base in nine of 13 at-bats, struck out once, and hit homers off Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer (and came up feet short of a third). Next up in the first two games of the ALCS? Chris Sale, who he took deep twice in last year’s ALDS, and David Price, who he homered off of back in June. George Springer had another outstanding playoff series, going 6-for-14 with three homers after hitting five bombs in last year’s World Series. And neither of them led the Astros in hits or RBI–that was Marwin Gonzalez, who went 7-for-13 and drove in five. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Martin Maldonado also homered for Houston. This lineup tied for second in baseball with a 109 OPS+ in the regular season and is peaking at the right time.
The one team with a better OPS+ than the Astros in 2018? The Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez-led Red Sox at 112. Martinez delivered the big hit in Game 1 with a three-run homer off J.A. Happ, and the whole lineup flexed its muscles in Game 3. Betts and Martinez drove in two runs apiece, Andrew Benintendi drove in three, and utility player Brock Holt hit for the cycle with five RBIs. Guys like Ian Kinsler, Xander Bogaerts, and Steve Pearce each had at least four hits in the series. The Red Sox will need Betts, who hit .188 against New York, to get back to his regular season form against the Astros.
The Starting Pitchers
The Astros sent former Cy Young winners to the mound in Games 1 and 3. Each of those two–Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel–allowed two runs in five and 5 1/3 innings, respectively. Solid starts, sure, but nothing like what Gerrit Cole did in Game 2. Cole allowed one run and three hits in 7 innings, striking out 12 Indians in a dominant performance. Back on the mound for Game 1 of the ALCS will be Verlander, who has a 5-2 record and 2.57 ERA in seven career ALCS starts and has never given up a hit to Betts (15 plate appearances). It’ll be Cole in Game 2, then presumably Keuchel (4.65 ERA in September) and Charlie Morton.
Sale’s ALDS performance had to be encouraging for the Red Sox. There were concerns about his fastball velocity in September, but it was back up to around 95 mph in his start against the Yankees. He was his usual filthy self in that game, striking out nine and allowing five hits in 6 1/3 innings. Sale vs. Bregman on Saturday night is going to be must-see television (as is the rest of the game and series). Interestingly, Alex Cora is sticking with David Price as his Game 2 starter. Price gave up long homers to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez and didn’t make it out of the second inning in his last start. He has a career 5.28 ERA in 75 playoff innings, leading to a reputation that he doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in October. This is a big spot for him to change that narrative. Righthanders Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi will get the call in Games 3 and 4 and are each coming off impressive outings.
Teams like the Brewers, A’s, and Yankees got most of the publicity for having dominant relievers, but Houston led the majors in bullpen ERA in the regular season with a dominant 3.03 mark. The Astros lived up to that reputation in the ALDS. Thanks to each starter going at least five innings, A.J. Hinch didn’t need to go too deep into his revamped ‘pen against the Indians. Two former starters (Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh) and two midseason acquisitions (Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna) combined for 8 scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and three hits allowed. Will Harris was the only reliever to allow a run, and he won't be on the roster this round. The ALCS could be twice as many games and is against a better offense, so Hinch will have to utilize guys like Hector Rondon, Tony Sipp, and Josh James.
The Red Sox bullpen was very effective against the Yankees despite being an area of concern heading into the playoffs. Like Houston, Boston had four guys (Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Ryan Brasier, and Heath Hembree) pitch at least two innings without allowing a run. Brasier has been an unlikely, consistent weapon for Cora down the stretch. Both Barnes and Kelly struggled in the second half, so it will be interesting to see if they can continue their ALDS success. Kimbrel nearly blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 4 and will need to be sharper against the Astros.
Hinch and one of his former assistants will be in different dugouts for this huge series. Cora was the Astros’ bench coach for the past two seasons before leaving to take over for John Farrell in Boston. Both managers have had phenomenal seasons. Hinch has World Series experience and a superior bullpen to work with, but Cora has better bats available off the bench like Pearce and Brock Holt. Cora showed he isn’t afraid to buck convention when he used Sale in the eighth inning of Game 4. Hinch has some big decisions to make on which relievers he includes on the ALCS roster.
It’s so hard to separate these two teams. The lineups are a wash. The aces are a wash. Cole gives the Astros an advantage over Price in Game 2, but Porcello and Eovaldi have been pitching better than Keuchel and Morton. The Red Sox might have an advantage defensively; Betts is the best fielder on either side and the advanced metrics favor Boston slightly. The most obvious X-factor is the bullpens, where the Astros have a definite advantage on paper. That said, Kelly and Barnes were impressive in the ALDS. The season series doesn't tell us anything either. The two teams split a four-game series in Houston and the Astros took two of three at Fenway, outscoring the Red Sox 34-31 overall.
Prediction: Astros in 7
If this series lives up to the hype and goes the full seven games, we’re in for a treat. It’s just difficult to pick against the Astros given how dominant they were last round. They’ve got the swagger of the defending champs. They’ll take one of the first two games at Fenway, win two of three at home, and then get it done on the road to head back to the Fall Classic. Give me the team with Bregman, Springer, Verlander, and Cole.