By: Chris Larson
It's officially almost here, the Fall Classic aka The World Series, the time of year that every baseball fan awaits all season long and lives for on every level of the planet. This year's World Series can be described in a variety of different words such as: "epic", "historical", extravagant", and "pure domination" and is bound to be a good one as the Houston Astros square off against the Washington Nationals.
Part of what makes this upcoming World Series so "epic" is the starting pitching matchups involved. For Game One tomorrow night, the Houston Astros are going to give RHP Gerrit Cole the ball, while the Washington Nationals will counter with an ace of their own in RHP Max Scherzer. Then, when Game Two rolls around on Wednesday, the starting pitching matchup will consist of two more workhorses in RHP Justin Verlander for the Houston Astros and RHP Stephen Strasburg for the Washington Nationals. If that isn't enough, then Game Three is going to feature yet another stellar starting pitching matchup between RHP Zack Greinke for the Astros and LHP Patrick Corbin for the Nationals.
The best part is that depending on if the series ends up going a full seven games, those three matchups will repeat themselves with Game Four being the only game of the series that could potentially include a pitching matchup that is a bit lackluster. As things look right now, RHP Brad Peacock would get the nod for Houston, while RHP Anibal Sanchez would start things off for Washington. While Game Four's matchup isn't necessarily as blockbuster as the other three matchups, don't sleep on that game either.
As everyone saw earlier this postseason, RHP Anibal Sanchez was extremely valuable for the Washington Nationals. Between the National League Divisional Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Sanchez pitched 12.2 innings and recorded (15) strikeouts over that span, while allowing (1) run. On the other side of the field, RHP Brad Peacock is capable of giving the Houston Astros three or four innings before the Astros turn to their bullpen which has shown that it is certainly able to piece things together to try and get Houston the win.
If you are beginning to have flashbacks of the 2012 Detroit Tigers team that won the American League pennant when you hear several of the names getting the start in this year's Fall Classic, then you are definitely onto something. For those that don't know, RHP Justin Verlander, RHP Max Scherzer, and RHP Anibal Sanchez were all teammates together on that team (refer to the picture above). The San Francisco Giants ended up sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the World Series that year, but nonetheless all three individuals are very familiar with one another. Furthermore, there are a couple of other storylines involved in the starting pitching as well.
RHP Gerrit Cole, who is going to get the start for the Houston Astros during tomorrow's Game One, attended the 2012 World Series in person and watched his brother-in-law, Brandon Crawford who is the shortstop for the San Francisco Giants, essentially win the Giants a ring that year. In addition, Game Three's pitching matchup between RHP Zack Greinke and LHP Patrick Corbin features two starters that used to be teammates with each other on the Arizona Diamondbacks. If you recall, Greinke was traded on the day of the July 31st Trade Deadline this year to the Houston Astros and Corbin inked a six-year, $140 million dollar contract in free agency with the Washington Nationals this past offseason.
No matter how you slice it, there are a plethora of different storylines in this year's World Series that are going to garner plenty of attention and be great conversation starters at the water cooler. If there were ever a World Series where there might be plenty of trivia nuggets to come out of it, this year's Fall Classic might be the one because of all of the star studded talent involved. Again, this is the type of World Series that all baseball fans, diehard and casual, live for because of everything involved.
Switching over to the position player side of things, both the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros have plenty of exciting and talented positional players in their lineups, but the biggest storyline of all will likely involve the two players at the hot corner for both teams in third baseman, Alex Bregman, and pending free agent third baseman, Anthony Rendon. When you begin to survey all 30 teams in baseball and look at who each team has penciled in at the hot corner, Bregman and Rendon are likely to be included in anyone's Top 5 list. The only other third baseman that could potentially be better is Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies, but it's hard to beat the talent level that Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon provide day in and day out.
In addition, both Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon stood out among all qualified positional players this year and not just those over at third base. Among qualified positional players, Rendon led all players with (126) RBI over the span of 646 plate appearances, while Bregman finished the year tied for seventh with (41) home runs over 690 plate appearances. Furthermore, Rendon ranked fourth among all position players in batting average (.319) and fourth in on-base percentage (.412), while Bregman capped the season off third in on-base percentage at (.423) and third in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) at (168). If you want to keep going, then consider the fact that Alex Bregman finished the season with a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) value nearly identical to that of Mike Trout at (8.5) and Anthony Rendon finished the season seventh in that category with a (7.0) WAR.
The takeaway here is that both Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon are star studded players, know how to play the game offensively and defensively at the hot corner, and are integral pieces to the success that their respective teams have experienced this season. It's rare for any team in baseball to have a third baseman that excels at the plate, has the defensive instincts to compete for a Gold Glove year in and year out, and possesses the work ethic and character that it takes to be a true big league player, but for both the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals they have just that.
Beyond Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon, another interesting storyline of this years World Series is how both teams constructed their everyday starting lineups. For the Houston Astros, their positional player group came via the draft and free agent markets, while for the Washington Nationals their positional player group came via the draft and through various trades instead. From an organizational standpoint, the Houston Astros were the birth franchise of the "analytical era" and therefore their approach to tanking for several consecutive seasons to get high draft picks played a significant role in the way that they constructed their everyday lineup. On the other hand, the Washington Nationals have been more of a "win-now" organization over the previous handful of seasons and have committed more money on the free agent market with their starting rotation than within their everyday lineup.
Take a look at the charts below that consist of how each player within the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals lineups were acquired.
Houston Astros General Manager and President of Baseball Operations, Jeff Luhnow, has made it a point over the past couple of seasons to essentially look towards free agency for upgrades in the offseason and then make a big in-season move at or prior to the July 31st Trade Deadline that helps to shakeup the makeup of the team. For instance, during last offseason, Luhnow & Company signed free agents OF Michael Brantley and C Robinson Chirinos. Last year at the August 31st Waiver Trade Deadline, the Astros acquired RHP Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers and did the same thing at this year's July 31st Trade Deadline when they acquired RHP Zack Greinke from the Arizona Diamondbacks. For the Astros, the theme has been to have a solid core of positional players that came via the draft and then supplement around those players mainly through free agency.
A similar approach has been taken over the past couple of seasons by Washington Nationals General Manager and President of Baseball Operations, Mike Rizzo, but to a lesser degree. The Washington Nationals went all-in and signed LHP Patrick Corbin this past offseason as previously mentioned, but due to luxury tax concerns, Rizzo was forced to essentially "work around the edges" after that and at the July 31st Trade Deadline to add to the bullpen which was an area of concern. As a result, the Nationals didn't make any splashy types of acquisitions at this year's July 31st Trade Deadline, but they did acquire LHP Roenis Elias and RHP Hunter Strickland from the Seattle Mariners along with RHP Daniel Hudson from the Toronto Blue Jays. If you haven't noticed yet, Daniel Hudson has been pivotal for the Nationals throughout the course of this postseason.
Besides those storylines, another important storyline revolves around the overall defense makeup of both the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals as well. When it comes to looking at an important defensive metric known as Outs Above Average (OAA), these are the elite of the elite teams from around baseball. According to data compiled by Baseball Savant, the Houston Astros finished the 2019 regular season first in OAA with a value of (27), while the Washington Nationals finished the season second with a (14) value. Outs Above Average is significant because it indicates the cumulative effect of each defensive play that every player on a team makes, strives to take into account the number of defensive plays a team makes over a period of time, and takes into consideration the difficulty level of every defensive play made.
Throughout the 2019 regular season, there were plenty of different moments where the elite defensive skills and athleticism of many of the positional players on both the Astros and Nationals were in the spotlight. As previously mentioned, both Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon are at the front of the conversation when it comes to defense at the hot corner, but there are other contributors on both teams as well. For the Astros, besides Alex Bregman, players like second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa, and the entire outfield trio of Michael Brantley, George Springer, and Josh Reddick help from a defensive perspective.
For the Nationals, besides Anthony Rendon, other key defensive players include centerfielder Victor Robles and catcher Yan Gomes. When it comes to Victor Robles and Outs Above Average (OAA), Robles led all qualified major league players with a value of (21) and had an Actual Catch Percentage of (93%). On the season as a whole, Robles finished the 2019 regular season with (22) Defensive Runs Saved, a (5.3) Ultimate Zone Rating, and an overall Defensive rating of (7.4), based on data compiled by FanGraphs. The best part for the Washington Nationals is that Robles is only 22 years old and is only going to continue to get better moving forward!
Furthermore, when it comes to pure athleticism and making catches when they matter the most, virtually no one in baseball was as good as Victor Robles over the course of the 2019 regular season. Take a look at the table below for more on that courtesy of Baseball Savant.
It's really difficult for any outfielder to end up with five-star catches and no one is better in that category than Byron Buxton of the Minnesota Twins, but Victor Robles really excelled in four-star catches. In that category, in terms of pure percentages, Robles tied for second with Harrison Bader of the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite that though, Robles had more outs (10) that were considered four-star compared to Bader (5) and had more overall chances (14) compared to Bader (7). In order to rate high in that area, an outfielder has to be able to make good jumps, have a keen awareness of the entire layout of the outfield that they're playing in, and plenty of athleticism. Victor Robles seems to be all of those things wrapped into one every time he steps onto a big league field.
On the other side of the field, the Houston Astros are another elite defensive team as previously mentioned, but where they shined during the 2019 regular season was in the shifts category. When it came to shifts, only the Los Angeles Dodgers shifted more than the Houston Astros during the regular season, but no other team shift more against left-handed hitters than the Astros did. In total, during the 2019 regular season, the Houston Astros made (2,915) shifts for an overall percentage of (49.4%). Approximately (860) of those shifts came against right-handed hitters for a total of (26.6%) of the time, but the remaining (2,055) came against left-handers for a cumulative percentage of (77.2%) of the time.
For more on the Houston Astros shifting throughout the 2019 regular season, take a look at the chart below courtesy of Baseball Savant.
The data contained within this chart shows the cumulative amount of shifts that the Astros made against both left-handed and right-handed hitters at their home ballpark, Minute Maid Park, in Houston. Furthermore, the data is from situations where there were no runners on base, but this gives a general sense of the shifting patterns that the Astros followed throughout the course of the season. One interesting thing to watch for during this year's World Series is going to be shifting that takes place over at first base and out in centerfield. As you can see from the chart, both of these areas were "hot zones" for the most shifts that were put into place and there were numerous occasions where second baseman, Jose Altuve, shifted back behind the base line between first and second base. In addition, centerfielder George Springer has excellent defensive instincts, but don't be surprised if Jack Marisnick makes a nice game saving catch or two out there either. Marisnick had (5) Defensive Runs Saved this year in centerfield, but has a total of (48) at that position dating back to the 2013 regular season when he was with the Miami Marlins.
While there are bound to be plenty of story lines surrounding the starting pitching, the star studded talent at the hot corner with Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon, how each teams lineup was constructed and the elite defensive skills of both the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals during this World Series, the thing that might end up separating the two teams the most lies in the bullpen. So far this postseason, the Washington Nationals have managed their bullpen tremendously practically using all of their starting pitchers at some point out of the pen along with a core group of three primary relievers consisting of RHP Tanner Rainey, LHP Sean Doolittle, and aforementioned RHP Daniel Hudson at the back end.
So far during this postseason, the Washington Nationals bullpen has combined for a (4.76) ERA over 28.1 innings of work with (35) strikeouts and a cumulative Opponent Batting Average Against of (.222). One of the primary problems for the Nationals bullpen has been keeping the opposing teams hitters off the base paths, as indicated by their Opponent On-Base Percentage of (.300), and in situations where they need to keep the ball in the ballpark. To this point of the postseason, the Nationals bullpen has an Opponent Slugging Percentage of (.426) and one blown save. Skipper, Davey Martinez, has worked things brilliantly to this point, but it's a question whether that is going to continue throughout the series and the Houston Astros lineup could certainly play some havoc.
Over on the other side of the field, the Houston Astros bullpen has also had it's moments of shakiness as well and that's going to be something to watch during Game Four of the upcoming World Series as the Houston Astros look poised to go with a bullpen game that day. As Houston showed in Game Four of the American League Divisional Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, the bullpen is capable of piecing things together to get the Astros a win, but it's not going to be easy. Heading into the postseason, there were questions concerning the Astros bullpen, but Houston has gotten very lucky and been able to get enough depth out of their starting pitchers to avoid having any major problems with their pen.
So far this month, the Houston Astros bullpen has combined for a (4.08) ERA over 35.1 innings of work with (41) strikeouts and a cumulative Opponent Batting Average Against of (.264). In comparison to the Washington Nationals bullpen that has allowed the opposing teams hitters to have a (.300) on-base percentage this postseason, the Houston Astros bullpen has held opponents to an even worse on-base percentage of (.338), but has done slightly better when it comes to Opponent Slugging Percentage at (.414). Of the relievers in the Houston Astros bullpen, the most impactful this postseason has been RHP Will Harris who has posted a (0.00) ERA over 5.2 innings of work with (7) strikeouts and a (0.71) WHIP.
Regardless of the bullpens for both the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, this World Series is bound to be an exciting one and features plenty of tremendous storylines as highlighted in this article. Every year, diehard and casual baseball fans look forward to this time of year and many live for the excitement that it brings, but this year's Fall Classic has the potential to be one for the ages. Three blockbuster starting pitching matchups, two of the best third baseman in the game right now, and two teams that contain plenty of elite defensive players are just a few reasons why.
So regardless if you refer to this year's Fall Classic as "epic", "historical", extravagant", or "pure domination", it's bound to be one for the ages and meant to enjoy fully. So sit back, relax, and enjoy everything that's going to come out of this clash between the two best teams in baseball!