By: Chris Larson
The Boston Red Sox might currently have baseball's best record, at 103-48, and be close to clinching the American League East, but that doesn't mean that they don't have their own weaknesses or that they should automatically be crowned as baseball's best team. Yes, a team's record over an entire 162 season is important to measure, but there are other considerations to take into account including a the talent level of players on a teams 25-man roster, the depth of a team's farm system, a team's offensive metrics, and how strong a team's pitching staff is in both the starting rotation as well as the bullpen.
When you take all of those things into consideration and make a fair assessment, with all personal bias set aside, it is easy to see why the Houston Astros are the best team in baseball and stand to have the best chance of any team to return back to the Fall Classic. Once again this season, the Astros have played a stellar brand of baseball and while they haven't necessarily run away with the AL West Championship, like many thought they would because of the surprise Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners who had a strong first half, the Astros are still sitting in a pretty coveted spot.
For starters, look no further than the depth and talent level of the Houston Astros pitching staff. Houston's staff, led by veteran and future Hall of Fame starting pitcher Justin Verlander, continues to impress and has all year long. The Astros know that every night they have a significant chance of winning because of who they put on the mound and that becomes extremely important come the postseason, when mixing and matching, enters into the picture more often.
To this point of the season, the Astros continue to lead baseball, with a 3.16 ERA over 906.1 innings of work, and have the most strikeouts (1,043), the lowest Opponent Batting Average Against (.218), and the lowest WHIP (1.12) of all 30 teams. Beyond that, it's not just the fact that the Astros have Justin Verlander leading their staff, but they also have Gerrit Cole, who could easily be an AL Cy Young candidate this season, followed up with Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton. If that still isn't enough, Houston also has, Lance McCullers Jr., who is currently on the DL, but can be a valuable weapon come October once again.
Counter all of that with the Boston Red Sox and you can start to see the difference between both starting rotations. The Red Sox have Chris Sale and David Price as their 1-2 punch, but after those two names, things become a lot more murkier and you don't always know what you are going to get from guys such as: Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. Sure, Nathan Eovaldi, who the Red Sox acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays at the trade deadline, has been very effective, but he would likely fill a bullpen role in the postseason and has never pitched in the postseason before.
In addition, although the Houston Astros bullpen received a wrath of criticism during the first half of the season, their bullpen has kept them in the race and been a very valuable asset overall. Even after adding to the bullpen at the trade deadline, the Astros still have the best bullpen in all of baseball (3.01 ERA over 451.2 IP) and a very deep one at that. In fact, the bullpen is so deep, that the Astros will likely have to leave out one or two guys, once October rolls around which is a problem any team would want to have.
One name in particular, Ryan Pressly, has to have been the most underrated trade prior to this year's July 31st Trade Deadline. Since arriving in Houston with the Astros, Pressly has posted a 0.90 ERA over 20 innings of work with a .132 Opponent Batting Average Against and a strikeouts-per-9 rate of 11.70. When you combine this season altogether, with the numbers that Pressly put up in Minnesota with the Twins and during his tenure with the Astros, Pressly ranks among the Top 15 qualified relievers in strikeouts-per-9, has a 82.2 left on-base percentage, and provides the Astros with someone who could easily shut down the opposing team's offense during a postseason series in those valuable 7th and 8th innings.
In contrast, while the Boston Red Sox have survived their bullpen struggles to this point of the season with baseball's best record, Boston still is having trouble getting the ball to, Craig Kimbrel, at the back end. As we've seen in the past few Octobers, having a shutdown bullpen is extremely important and something that helps a team significantly boost their chances of getting to the Fall Classic. With the Houston Astros, you can say that they have enough depth to accomplish that goal. With the Boston Red Sox, there is a bit more skepticism that comes into the picture.
Lastly, let's take into consideration run differential and the fact of how strong the Astros lineup is when everything is clicking. As of right now, the Houston Astros have a run differential of +251, easily the best in all of baseball, courtesy of a strong starting rotation and a lineup that comes up big in the most critical spots of a game. As a team, the Astros have the second lowest strikeout percentage (19.6%), behind only the Cleveland Indians, are tied with the Diamondbacks for with the 6th best walk rate (9.2%), and have the highest Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) value in all of baseball (111).
Furthermore, something else that is really fascinating about the Astros lineup is how much contact the team's hitters make within the zone. Among all 30 teams in baseball, the Houston Astros rank third with a zone contract percentage of (87.4%), putting them behind the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners. Beyond that, of all of the pitches that the Astros have seen thus far this year, the team has made contact with 79.8% of them, which puts them second best in baseball. A lot of that is courtesy of having disciplined hitters in the lineup, such as Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, and Marwin Gonzalez.
Of course, there will be those who disagree with the statement that the Boston Red Sox aren't the best team in all of baseball, but when you take into account the strength of the pitching staff, the Astros lineup, the defensive metrics, and the strength of the farm system, the Houston Astros have all four of those things. That's not to take anything away from the success of the Boston Red Sox this year or the fact that Boston has two MVP candidates in, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. However, with the postseason pedigree of the Houston Astros pitchers, the offensive metrics, and the amount of veteran leadership that Houston has, you really have to like their chances of returning to the Fall Classic and it's really hard to deny that they aren't the best team in baseball, right now.
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