Postseason Preview: Astros and White Sox Set to Battle in ALDS

Both the Astros and White Sox dominated their respective divisions in 2021. For Houston, this was the team’s fourth division title in five years; for Chicago, its first since 2008. With the Rays having run away with the AL’s best record, these two clubs have been in each other’s sights for a while now. Both teams are filled with offensive stars, hard-throwing pitchers, and deep rosters; on paper, this looks like an even matchup.

The Astros are vying for their fifth consecutive trip to the American League Championship Series, which they’ve won twice, first in 2017 and again in ’19. They backed into the expanded playoffs last year as the only AL team with a record below .500 but came alive in the playoffs and nearly completed an 0–3 series comeback against Tampa before falling in Game 7. As for the White Sox, they’ve now made the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in their franchise history — appearances that are the culmination of a long rebuilding cycle that began more than half a decade ago. And this series will be a rematch of the 2005 World Series, Chicago’s last title and back when Houston was still a National League club.

Team Overview
Overview White Sox Astros Edge
Batting (wRC+) 109 (3rd in AL) 116 (1st in AL) Astros
Fielding (OAA) -5 (9th) 41 (1st) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 85 (1st) 96 (6th) White Sox
Bullpen (FIP-) 85 (1st) 99 (9th) White Sox

For the third time in the last five years, the Astros led the majors in wRC+ and also finished first in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, and strikeout rate. That last statistic is perhaps most important to their playoff success. As previous research has shown, high-contact teams do well against high-velocity pitchers, which every postseason team has in spades. A team’s regular-season strikeout rate also tends to correlate well with postseason success, as Eno Sarris found over at The Athletic. That tracks with the foundation of the Astros’ success over the last half-decade.

Astros Team Strikeout Rate
Year Astros K% League K% Astros wRC+
2015 22.8% 19.9% 109
2016 23.4% 20.6% 102
2017 17.2% 21.2% 122
2018 19.2% 21.7% 110
2019 18.1% 22.4% 125
2020 19.7% 23.4% 98
2021 19.3% 22.6% 117

Houston’s lineup isn’t filled with high-contact slap hitters, though; the Astros ranked ninth in the majors in home runs and ISO and third in slugging. And they’ve constructed their lineup to take full advantage of their mix of high-contact hitters and power hitters, as Owen McGrattan explained last week:

“[Astros manager Dusty] Baker is trying to cram the basepaths ahead of his best power hitters — Altuve, Brantley and Bregman in front of Alvarez, and Gurriel and Correa before Tucker — who also have the two highest swinging-strike rates. Everyone here is above-average at avoiding whiffs, but there’s a layering of hitters with exceptional contact skills followed by two sluggers who aren’t quite as good at that, and that looks to me to be intentional; it essentially gives the Astros two cleanup hitters.”

Astros Lineup
Player Position K% BB% ISO BsR wRC+
Jose Altuve 2B 13.4% 9.7% 0.211 2.5 130
Michael Brantley LF 10.4% 6.5% 0.126 -1.2 123
Alex Bregman 3B 13.3% 11.0% 0.152 -2.2 115
Yordan Alvarez DH 24.2% 8.4% 0.253 0.5 138
Yuli Gurriel 1B 11.2% 9.8% 0.143 -1.6 134
Carlos Correa SS 18.1% 11.7% 0.205 -0.6 134
Kyle Tucker RF 15.9% 9.3% 0.263 2.4 147
Jake Meyers CF 30.7% 6.1% 0.178 1.9 111
Martín Maldonado C 29.8% 11.0% 0.129 -5.0 63

It’s a luxury to be able to bat arguably your best hitter seventh in the lineup and still have five other hitters with a 123 wRC+ or better ahead of him. After an ugly April in which he posted a 64 wRC+, Tucker was one of the majors’ best hitters from May onward, hitting .320/.387/.600 (166 wRC+) to lead Houston’s offense in every major category. With all the big names hitting ahead of him, it’s easy to overlook Tucker’s contributions, but he was a key part of the Astros’ success.

Of all those stars at the top of Houston’s lineup, the biggest surprise had to be the struggles of Bregman. Since turning in a pair of phenomenal offensive seasons in 2018 and ’19 (a 162 wRC+ over those two years), he’s taken a significant step back at the plate. It’s not hard to figure out why, either: his once prodigious power output has disappeared. Bregman has never been a Statcast darling, with a career barrel rate of just 5.3% and a hard-hit rate of 37.0%, both of which are below league average and curiously low for someone who blasted 72 home runs in ’18 and ’19 combined.

The key for him might be the number of batted balls he’s pulling in the air. In ‘18 and ‘19, 42% of his fly balls and line drives were hit to left field as he was able to take advantage of the short porch created by the Crawford Boxes in Minute Maid Park. Last year, that rate dropped to 36.5%, and while it went back up to 42.7% in 2021, his ground-ball rate surged over 40% for the first time in his career.

One thing to keep an eye on is the health of Brantley’s knee, which forced him to miss two weeks in the middle of September; he only got one game in the field after being activated before season’s end. If he’s forced to serve as the designated hitter, that could push Alvarez into the outfield on a regular basis, a defensive downgrade.

The Astros’ situation in center field is also a bit up in the air. After trading away Myles Straw at the deadline, Houston has given the bulk of the playing time to Meyers and Chas McCormick. The former seems to have a leg up after getting most of the starts in September and down the stretch. They’re both right-handed, so there’s no easy platoon; it’s simply down to who Dusty Baker trusts more.

White Sox Lineup
Player Position K% BB% ISO BsR wRC+
Tim Anderson SS 21.6% 4.0% 0.159 6.1 120
Luis Robert CF 20.6% 4.7% 0.229 1.4 157
José Abreu 1B 21.7% 9.3% 0.219 -4.5 126
Yasmani Grandal C 21.9% 23.2% 0.280 -4.7 159
Eloy Jiménez LF 24.7% 6.9% 0.188 -1.6 101
Yoán Moncada 3B 25.5% 13.6% 0.148 0.3 122
Leury García 2B 20.5% 8.6% 0.108 3.4 98
Gavin Sheets DH 22.3% 8.9% 0.256 -1.9 125
Adam Engel RF 22.1% 7.9% 0.244 1.0 127

While it doesn’t feature the consistent peaks of the Astros’ lineup, Chicago’s offense was almost as dynamic, and considering Robert, Jiménez, and Grandal each missed considerable time due to injuries, the White Sox might have been able to match Houston’s offensive output with better health. Robert returned from his early-season hip injury on August 9 and hit .350/.389/.622 (173 wRC+). Grandal was even more impressive, hitting .337/.481/.673 (209 wRC+) after returning from knee surgery on August 27, with a wonky early slash line that was fueled by an abnormally low BABIP and huge increase in walk rate looking much more normal by the end of the year.

Like the Astros, the White Sox have an incredibly long lineup, with only one regular posting a wRC+ below league average. (One potential concern: Abreu’s status for the start of the series is TBD, as he’s been sick with flu-like symptoms for the past few days.) The bottom third of the order, though, is unproven. Andrew Vaughn was thrown into the fire at the start of the year after Jiménez’s injury forced him into duty as the Opening Day left fielder. He acquitted himself well through the summer but started to struggle toward the end of the regular season, with just seven hits in 78 plate appearances — none for extra bases — after August 22, and lost playing time to fellow rookie Sheets. Engel enjoyed a quiet breakout this year despite three separate trips to the IL for various leg injuries. With his speed and elite outfield defense still intact, he can provide value on both sides of the ball.

The White Sox have the luxury of being able to mix and match who they slot into those last three spots in the lineup depending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher. García and César Hernández can both play second, with the former also able to patrol the outfield grass. That gives them five players for three positions, with little difference in offensive output between them all.

Chicago’s true strength lies in the pitching staff. With the continued excellence of Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn, the revitalization of Carlos Rodón, and the emergence of Dylan Cease, Chicago’s starting rotation was easily the best in the AL, leading the league in ERA-, FIP- and strikeout-to-walk ratio and ranking third in HR/9 despite possessing a bottom-five ground-ball rate. The big concern, though, is the health of Rodón’s shoulder. The White Sox tried to be careful with his workload due to his long history of arm injuries; he threw just 28 innings over the final two months of the regular season, maxing out at just five frames per start during that stretch. General manager Rick Hahn said on Monday that the lefty will be available to pitch once during the Division Series and would then be reevaluated on a series-by-series basis. With Lynn and Giolito tabbed to start the first two games and Cease available for Game 3, Rodón wouldn’t be needed for more than one start anyway.

Their overall body of work pales in comparison to the White Sox’ elite rotation, but the Astros aren’t that far behind their opponents. Lance McCullers Jr. and Framber Valdez will go in Games 1 and 2, and Luis Garcia will likely take the mound in Chicago for Game 3. Should Houston need a fourth starter, José Urquidy or Jake Odorizzi would be available.

It’s odd not to see Zack Greinke’s name among the pitching probables, but it’s with good reason. After a solid start to the year, he struggled post–All-Star break, posting a 5.34 ERA and a 5.94 FIP. He also missed time in early September with COVID-related issues and was placed on the IL with neck soreness in the middle of the month before being activated for the final game of the season and making his first relief appearance since 2007. But with Garcia managing some workload concerns, it’s possible the Astros use Greinke or Odorizzi as a piggybacked starter as they did in the 2020 postseason.

McCullers has been a steady presence at the front of Houston’s rotation, though his success this year looked different than you’d expect. Before he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018, he threw his curveball more than 50% of the time; since returning, he’s thrown it just 20% of the time and introduced a slider to his repertoire, giving him another breaking ball to keep batters off balance. Valdez, meanwhile, managed to keep his ERA around three despite an elevated walk rate thanks to a whopping 70.3% ground-ball rate.

The difference between these teams may come down to the bullpens. Both made significant additions to their relief corps at the trade deadline: Houston added Kendall Graveman, Yimi García, and Phil Maton; the White Sox acquired Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera. Of those five, though, only Tepera was able to maintain his high level of results for his new team. Regardless, on paper, Chicago’s bullpen holds a distinct advantage over Houston’s.

Bullpen Comparison
Astros Bullpen White Sox Bullpen
Player K-BB% FIP WPA Player K-BB% FIP WPA
Ryan Pressly 27.2% 2.06 2.78 Liam Hendriks 39.7% 2.34 1.92
Kendall Graveman 18.5% 3.19 2.96 Craig Kimbrel 32.8% 2.43 2.19
Ryne Stanek 15.9% 4.11 0.91 Aaron Bummer 19.0% 2.96 -0.68
Yimi Garcia 17.7% 3.88 -0.40 Ryan Tepera 22.9% 2.73 1.94
Phil Maton 17.8% 3.50 -0.67 Michael Kopech 25.2% 3.12 0.20

Both teams have a lights-out closer and an excellent eighth-inning set-up man, but the White Sox have more and better options to use as a bridge to get to those final two innings. That was an issue for the Astros throughout the season; their bullpen was second in the AL with 97 meltdowns, with Pressly and Graveman responsible for just 12 of them. Houston may need to lean on its starters to get through six or seven innings to relieve the pressure on its mediocre middle relievers.

For the White Sox, the bullpen is well suited to cover the middle innings of a game should any of their starters falter. It’s a group so stacked that the table above doesn’t even include Garrett Crochet, who ran a 28% strikeout rate. If Rodón is held to a pitch or innings limit, they’ve got the length and depth in their bullpen to get to Kimbrel and Hendriks. And once those two pitchers are on the mound with a lead, a Chicago victory feels nearly assured.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

The ZIPS game by game odds have this series perfectly even, but the Fangraphs writers gave the edge 18-10 to the White Sox, in what looks to be a consistent preference for “the best starting pitching wins short series” among the writers.

1 year ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

I know it is “small sample size”, but the White Sox are 8-2 in games with their top 6 hitters (TA, Robert, Abreu, Grandal, Eloy, Yoan).

1 year ago
Reply to  richwp01

The most useful thing that stat tells you is they only had all those guys together for 10 games this year. They gave a lot of PA to backups, guys off the scrap heap, and minor league call ups and still managed to have a pretty good offense.

1 year ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

I also think the Sox are just the more fun team, which would seem to make them more likely to be picked in such an off the cuff, low stakes exercise as staff predictions!

1 year ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

What makes a team “more fun”? Youth?

1 year ago
Reply to  airforce21one


Left of Centerfield
1 year ago
Reply to  airforce21one

Tony La Russa, the King of Fun!

1 year ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

It seems inconsistent that if a healthy White Sox lineup is nearly the equivalent of the Astros and they have clearly better pitching that it’s an even matchup.

1 year ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

I suspect it’s more likely to be a “not the Astros” preference.

1 year ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

*shrug* Perhaps, hard to say. But the writers also incredibly *love* the Brewers over the Braves, far more than the fairly close ZIPS split. Again, that could be a preference for a particular team (though both the Brewers and Braves are making their 4th straight playoff appearance, each with one NLCS in the last three), but I kind of stick with the pitching bias.