Tampa Bay cruised past Oakland in the Wild Card game and enters the divisional round for the first time in six years. Their reward is a best-of-five date with the Houston Astros.
|Game 1||October 4||2:05 EST|
|Game 2||October 5||9:07 EST|
|Game 3||October 7||TBD|
|Game 4 (if necessary)||October 8||TBD|
|Game 5 (if necessary)||October 10||TBD|
The Rays aren’t exactly limping into the postseason. Tampa Bay won 96 games in what passes for a competitive division these days, and they’re solid in all aspects of the game. In Houston though, they’re meeting a 107-win behemoth, a club that looks like one of the two or three best teams we’ve seen this century.
|Hitting (wRC+)||102 (6th in AL)||125 (1st in AL)||Astros|
|Defense (DRS)||54 (3rd in AL)||90 (1st in AL)||Astros|
|Starting pitching (FIP-)||76 (1st in AL)||85 (2nd in AL)||Astros (wait… what?)|
|Relievers (FIP-)||89 (4th in AL)||94 (7th in AL)||Rays|
You may have noticed something weird in the “Edge” column of the table above. Ultimately, the yearly totals don’t adequately reflect how dominant Houston’s rotation is as currently constructed. After all, the Rays won’t be facing Collin McHugh or Corbin Martin or Brad Peacock out of the gate. Instead, they’ll get Justin Verlander (73 FIP-), Gerrit Cole (59 FIP-), and Zack Greinke (66 FIP-). No American League club can unleash a better rotation this October, and even if the Astros only let their horses gallop through the lineup twice each start, they’ll still have an advantage in that department.
But it’s a relatively small edge this series because Tampa Bay has quite a bit of ammunition on the mound as well. Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Charlie Morton will get the ball in the first three games. Morton is fresh off a six-win season, and he just threw five innings of one-run ball against the A’s. Houston should know him well, but he’s evolved a bit since moving to Florida. He leans even more heavily on his curve than he used to and he’s also throwing his sinker less often.
Snell and Glasnow are high-upside wild cards. Both missed large chunks of the season, returning in September in a diminished capacity. Neither has thrown even five innings since July, and they’re both candidates for a quick hook if the Astros rally. Snell and Glasnow are both capable of missing plenty of bats, and if they can get through Houston’s gauntlet once or twice, Kevin Cash will be happy to turn the ball over to his relievers. In Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Emilio Pagán, the Rays have the kind of three-headed monster out of the ‘pen that can carry a team deep into the playoffs.
One potentially decisive matchup is Tampa’s middle relievers against Houston’s lineup. It’s hard to imagine Cash getting enough innings out of both Snell and Glasnow to go directly from the starter to the end of his bullpen. He’ll need to bridge a few innings this series, and that’s where things get dicey. In Oliver Drake, Chaz Roe, and Colin Poche Tampa has options who can miss bats. Drake and Poche are too dinger-prone for comfort though, and Roe’s knack for walking hitters is a bad match against Houston’s patient lineup. Cash also lacks the kind of dominant lefty you’d feel confident turning to against Michael Brantley or Yordan Álvarez in crunch time. In what may turn into a low-scoring series, the middle innings look like a good opportunity for Houston to take charge.
My guess is that the Astros lineup is good enough to do so. It’s hard to score runs in October, but the ‘Stros are heading to battle with one of the best offensive clubs of all time. The 125 wRC+ the team posted this year speaks for itself: By this metric, their average hitter was basically Matt Chapman.
As it turns out, a team 125 wRC+ isn’t just an impressive season total but rather a historic outlier. The second best wRC+ a team posted this decade was also Houston, at 121 back in 2017. Next? The 2015 Blue Jays, at 117, a full eight points below Houston’s mark. The only squad in baseball history with a better wRC+ was the 1927 Yankees and those guys had a player who out-homered four other AL teams — and nobody was even impressed with him because one his teammates bested every other club in the league. The 2019 Astros are in league with Ruth and Gehrig.
Somehow, that may undersell Houston’s talent at the plate. As impressive as the totals are, they’d undoubtedly be better had they fielded their best lineup on a regular basis. Due to injuries and time spent in the minors, A.J. Hinch wound up giving several hundred plate appearances to Tyler White (80 wRC+), Jake Marisnick (86 wRC+), Tony Kemp (92 wRC+), and Jack Mayfield (23 wRC+). In an alternate world, many of those could have gone to these guys instead:
Everyone is healthy now, though Carlos Correa’s on-again, off-again back woes suggest that he may not be in peak form. Regardless, there isn’t a reliable way to get through this lineup. You can’t just throw strikes and hope for the best: Houston finished third in the majors in home runs and first in slugging percentage. Again, they’re more dangerous now than they were for most of the last six months.
You also can’t pitch around anyone. It’s a deep lineup and everyone in it is capable of drawing a walk; Houston led the league in walk rate. They’re also unlikely to go fishing. It’s incredible that a team that worked enough deep counts to lead the circuit in walks could also finish with the lowest strikeout percentage, but the Astros managed to do that too.
In short, the Astros have baseball’s best rotation, most patient lineup, best contact hitters, and arguably more pop than anyone else. They have no holes, and they will be favorites in every series they play from here on out. Our new ZiPS game-by-game odds give Houston a 69.5% chance of winning the series — the highest percentage in any first round matchup.
Still, if I were a betting man, I’d wager on something else. This is the round-ball, round-bat game, with a dash of catwalk and the Crawford Boxes. Houston’s advantage is large but not decisive. It almost feels unfair that a juggernaut like the Astros needs to sweat out a short series against a good, if inferior team. But that’s how it goes in this sport. If you want to watch the best team win all the time, the NBA playoffs are only eight months away.