Postseason Preview: The 2019 World Series

On May 23, the Washington Nationals lost a matinee to the Mets in heartbreaking fashion, taking a lead 4-3 with a three-run eighth inning only to give up three runs of their own in the bottom of the frame. The loss dropped the Nationals to 19-31, a whopping 10 games back of the division-leading Phillies. They had been outscored by 40 runs on the season, and Dave Martinez’s seat was getting hot in only his second year as manager.

On Tuesday night, the Nationals will play in the World Series. It’s a change in fortune so extreme that it begs for explanation, and at first glance the explanation is easy. The Nationals have star power but lack depth, the exact kind of team “built for October.” Their starting lineup and top four starting pitchers are phenomenal; the less said about the backups and bullpen, the better. The kind of Nationals team losing 6-4 on a Tuesday afternoon in Queens is simply not the same team playing now.

That’s a convenient explanation, but it’s also wrong. Stephen Strasburg threw seven innings that day, and no regular had the day off. Wander Suero was the only reliever to pitch, and he wasn’t one of the relievers who weighed the Nationals down this year; he had a 4.54 ERA and 3.07 FIP over 71.1 innings, a solid season for a middle reliever.

No, the Nationals sent out their best, their co-ace starter backed by the A-squad, and they lost to a Mets team playing Adeiny Hechavarría, Carlos Gómez, and Juan Lagares all at once. That same team survived the Brewers, outlasted the Dodgers, and walked all over the Cardinals on their way to the first World Series appearance in franchise history. The convenient story isn’t always the right one. Washington simply started playing better.

After that bleak day in May, the Nations went 74-38 to finish the regular season. They outscored their opponents by 189 runs, scoring the most runs in the National League and allowing the third-least. The talent at the top of the roster shone through; the combined brilliance of Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and all the rest was so great that no amount of bullpen incompetence or lack of bench depth (36-year-old Howie Kendrick played the second-most innings at third base for them this year) could hold the team down.

Shockingly, that 74-38 record wasn’t the best in baseball. The Houston Astros, their World Series opponents, went 74-37 over the same stretch, a scant half-game ahead. They scored four fewer runs than the Nationals and allowed one more. The two hottest teams in baseball are facing off in the World Series, and if you don’t think about it too literally, you could even say they’re constructed from the same blueprint.

The Do-Everything Third Baseman
Anthony Rendon and Alex Bregman have such similar games that I wrote an article about it before the season started. They’re both having their best seasons this year, and each of them does everything well. Impressed by Rendon’s 12.4% walk rate and 13.3% strikeout rate? Wait until you see Bregman’s comical 17.2% walk rate and 12% strikeout rate.

Like Bregman’s .592 slugging percentage, the seventh-best mark in baseball? Rendon’s .598 places him fifth. Do you enjoy Rendon’s slick defensive play at third base, all soft hands and cannon arm? Bregman looks great out there himself, and he filled in at shortstop throughout the season when Carlos Correa missed time.

The biggest way the two players differ is in their public personas. Rendon comes across as preternaturally calm, the kind of person who might, after a particularly rough day at work, frown slightly. Bregman seems to exult in playing the heel, flexing and posing for the camera in the dugout after his heroics. Both are a joy to watch, and both are coming into the World Series at the peak of their powers, with excellent postseason offensive numbers to back up their MVP-level regular seasons.

The Number One Overall Pick Hurler
Gerrit Cole is the Platonic ideal of an ace. He throws literally 100 miles an hour, breaks off curveballs that make you question physics, and pairs his top-notch arsenal with a bulldog demeanor on the mound. Watch Cole, and you immediately understand why he’s great; you might even wonder how people ever square him up.

Stephen Strasburg will likely finish second in Cy Young voting, behind only Jacob deGrom. He’s having perhaps his finest year, impressive for someone who has compiled 36.7 WAR in his career. He doesn’t inspire awe in quite the same way as Cole, but he’s an absolute artist on the mound, with a gorgeous curveball and lethal changeup that combine to carve batters up.

Not too long ago, both of them could have been considered disappointments. Cole never quite made good on his promise while he was a Pirate; his stellar 2015 was more exception than rule. His trade to the Astros was significant, but not because he was the best pitcher in baseball; it was because everyone wanted to see what the Astros could do to transform a pitcher with Cole’s raw stuff.

Strasburg was the game’s most heralded pitching prospect. He arrived in the major leagues fully formed, striking out 14 in seven dominant innings in his first start. He signed a $175 million contract with the Nationals, and has had an ERA above 3.5 only twice in his 10 major league seasons (3.6 and 3.74). And yet, it always felt like there was more in the tank. Before 2019, he’d only made 30 starts in a season twice, and he only managed 130 innings in an injury-shortened 2018.

After the seasons Cole and Strasburg put together, no one’s doubting them anymore. Cole is a free agent after the season, and Strasburg could join him if he opts out of his current contract. They’ll be the two most sought-after pitchers on the market, and they’re both entering the World Series in the midst of dominant postseasons; Strasburg has thrown 22 innings with a 1.64 ERA, while Cole has a 0.40 ERA in 22 and two-thirds innings of his own.

The Former Tiger Cy Young Winner
Max Scherzer might go down in history as the best free agent pitcher signing of all time. His worst season out of his five with the Nationals was worth 5.6 WAR, and he’s won two Cy Young Awards to pair with the one he won in Detroit. The next season he has an ERA above 3.00 for the Nationals or strikes out less than 30% of the batters he faces will be his first.

For his part, Justin Verlander might go down in history as the best waiver-deadline trade acquisition of all time. He may not win a Cy Young this year due to the brilliance of his own teammate, and he was denied last year by Blake Snell, but it’s hard to overstate how impressive he’s been with the Astros. When Houston traded for him, the general consensus was that he was a decent pitcher with an overpriced contract. A year later, the Astros signed him to an extension with a higher yearly value.

Both Scherzer and Verlander have been among the game’s very best for a decade, including five years when they overlapped in Detroit. They’ll both be interesting test cases in what it means to have a Hall of Fame career as a starting pitcher; both have the hardware and rate statistics that make them unquestionably belong, but both lack the counting stats that we associate with the Hall. A World Series title for Scherzer, or a second for Verlander, would be a feather in their eventual candidacy’s cap.

The Former Diamondback Who Is Really Good But Not As Good As The Other Guys
When Bryce Harper reached free agency last year, you could have called it the end of an era in Washington. The only National ever to win an MVP award was headed out of town, and the team would have to find a way to replace him. Their plan, as it turned out, was to already have three good outfielders and use the payroll space Harper had occupied to sign Patrick Corbin.

Corbin was tremendous in 2018 for Arizona, and even if you thought he’d never replicate those numbers again, he represented the best pitcher available in free agency. The Nationals brought him in to be an absurdly overqualified third starter (he finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 2018!), and he delivered. His 2019 couldn’t quite match his 2018, but it was still one of the 25 or so best pitching seasons in baseball this year, exactly what the Nationals needed to turn their rotation from a strength into a seemingly unfair advantage.

The Astros must have liked what the Nationals did in signing Corbin, because they brought in their own Diamondback at the trade deadline this year. Zack Greinke, Corbin’s teammate in the desert, isn’t quite at his peak anymore; he’d been good but inconsistent since signing with Arizona in 2016. Probably 25 teams in baseball would be happy to have him as their best pitcher — in Houston, he slots in a comfortable third, which is a preposterous thing to say about someone worth 5.4 WAR this year.

The Lefty Wunderkind
Juan Soto burst onto the national radar this postseason with his delightful antics at the plate and timely hitting against the Brewers, but he’s been excellent for two years now. He’ll turn 21 this Friday, which means that he’ll be legally allowed to drink champagne alongside his teammates if the Nationals prevail, and all he’s done before his 21st birthday is bat .287/.403/.535 with 56 home runs in around 1000 PA. The list of hitters as good as Soto at such a young age is basically comprised of Hall of Famers.

The list of the best hitters 22 and under in 2019, though, doesn’t have Soto at the top. Yordan Alvarez, the Astros rookie, sits there, with a ridiculous 178 wRC+ over nearly 400 plate appearances. Alvarez spent the first part of the season in the minor leagues, which kept him from qualifying for the batting title, but he hit .343/.443/.742 in Triple-A before being called up and .313/.412/.655 in the majors. He’s had a quiet postseason, but he’s a fearsome hitter. Expect to see a lot of off-day appearances from Patrick Corbin to face Alvarez, because the Nationals aren’t exactly flush with lefty specialists.

That’s a fun way to look at this series; the two hottest teams in baseball, constructed in an eerily similar way, are facing off for all the marbles. That would be the wrong takeaway, though. The teams might have a lot of similarities, but they have even more differences. The Astros are startlingly deep; we haven’t even talked about José Altuve, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, or Carlos Correa yet. The Nationals get strong production from their lineup even aside from Rendon and Soto; Howie Kendrick is having a postseason to remember and Trea Turner is relatively unheralded but excellent. Heck, Victor Robles was supposed to be the breakout Nationals prospect before Soto blew up, and he’s having a solid year as well.

The Astros have a deep bullpen that compiled a 3.75 ERA this season, and they’re so confident in it (or nervous about their fourth starter, Jose Urquidy) that they threw a bullpen game against the Yankees on Saturday. The Nationals are using their ace starters wherever possible in relief, which should tell you everything you need to know about their bullpen; Dave Martinez trusts Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, but that’s about it.

The arbitrary endpoints also blur the story in the Nationals’ favor. Yes, both teams have played at a 107 win pace since late May. The difference is that the Astros were already 15 games over .500 before May 23, while the Nationals were 12 games under. It’s not even fair to call what the Astros did a 107 win pace; they actually won 107 games this year, while the Nationals won 93.

The Astros and the Nationals are both deserving league champions. They have star power to burn and some fun superficial similarities that will make for wonderful stories throughout the series. But make no mistake: the Astros are the favorites. Convenient framing and selective use of statistics makes them sound like peers, but that’s not the case. ZiPS gives the Astros a 59.7% chance of raising another flag to fly forever.

For the Nationals, a 40% chance of winning the World Series must sound pretty good. We only gave them a 22.2% chance of making the playoffs at their lowest point. For the Astros, a 60% chance of winning the World Series sounds like business as usual. They were the best team in baseball by acclamation before the year, and they’ve held serve so far. The World Series should be excellent, and it should be close, and Houston will likely prevail, even if I picked the Nationals to win it all before the postseason started. Here’s to a great series!

We hoped you liked reading Postseason Preview: The 2019 World Series by Ben Clemens!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

newest oldest most voted
stever20
Member
Member
stever20

Does anyone expect Strasburg to actually start game 1? All indications are that Schezer will start game 1 and Stras game 2…. It’d be nice to see the ZIPS projections for that scenario.

Also, don’t think Stras has a chance to finish 2nd in the Cy Young. That’ll probably be Ryu. Stras might finish 4th(Flaherty with his final half of the season has a real chance to finish 3rd).

chazf
Member
chazf

I would be extremely surprised if Ryu or Flaherty finished ahead of Strasburg. They simply didn’t accumulate the value he did—-they didn’t approach his volume, and they were comparable on a rate basis, independent of park and defense—-Stras led league in IP, was 2nd in Ks to DeGrom, first in NL in Ws (I know, I know, but there remain dumb Win-centric voters), and then he was superior to Ryu and Flaherty in FIP and xFIP. He beats out everybody except DeGrom and Scherzer in both bWAR and fWAR I believe. He finished first in NL—indeed, ahead of DeGrom—in WARP for those who like that. Not as many folks vote solely based on ERA, which is basically what you would have to do to elevate Ryu and Flaherty ahead of Strasburg. IMO Scherzer is the only person I can see an argument for *possibly* finishing second, just due to his excellence in overall value and rate stats…..but I still think Strasburg is the fairly easy choice for 2nd after DeGrom (who is the easy choice for 1st.)

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

except that traditional voters don’t really see it the way you talk about… Voters don’t look at things like that at all…

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

You can down vote me all you want. By the Tango tracker- which values what voters actually care about:
de Grom 83.5
Ryu 74.6
Flaherty 72.3
Strasburg 70.6

To act like voters don’t vote based off of ERA is frankly ignorant. Far more of them do so than don’t. You can have a conversation about should they or shouldn’t they- but reality is that they do.

Just look at last season. A major reason why Snell beat Verlander was ERA being 0.63 better than Verlander. Even though Verlander had better FIP and more innings and more strikeouts.

chazf
Member
chazf

Dude relax. You don’t need to throw a fit and call people ignorant. Just pointing out that the voting pool is increasingly progressive each year and that Ryu/Flaherty’s case is tied solely to one stat, with disadvantages in basically all others. It’s not a slam dunk prediction wise. At one point people only looked at Ws, then they looked mostly at ERA, and they’re tending to look at more things now. What you say is certainly possible….I just think there are probably enough older folks who think “18 wins!” and enough younger folks who think “superior in all categories but one!” But I mean, we’ll see. I certainly think if you’re going to be better in one category, ERA is the best one to do it in.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

I just don’t think voters have moved off of ERA anywhere near as much as you think they have. last year with deGrom was ALL about ERA. Last year with Snell was ALL about ERA. 2017 Kluber was ALL about ERA. Arrieta/Greinke over Kershaw 2015- ALL about ERA.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

I would also argue that the voting pool hasn’t gotten increasingly progressive this decade. You say King Felix. Well yeah he won, but he also led the league in ERA by 0.45 over Price who finished 2nd.

Looking this decade, only once did the Cy Young winner have an ERA 1/3 of a run or worse than the runner up. 2016 Scherzer over Lester.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

Good for you, steve. You’re right and you’re right. I didn’t upvote because i’d prefer the minuses for your intelligent comments show what kind of a crowd we have here. If you’d prefer upvotes, lemme know.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

I just think too often in here folks talk like how it should be done and not how it is in reality. Sorry but a guy with an ERA a full run behind Ryu just about has no chance of finishing ahead of him.. WAR, FIP, etc. are great- but to a majority of award voters- it’s utterly meaningless. If award voters mirrored what we hear on the MLB network- I’d have a different opinion. It’s not though.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

I think that the problem here, steve, is that the majority of fangraphs readers want to have their own cy young and mvp voting and then decry the actual results, and they don’t like the fact that you’re jumping the gun and discussing what you think the actual results will be.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

I think it’s they want the voting to go their way, and when it doesn’t, they want to decry it….

I just think when you have a writer here say that Strasburg is the likely 2nd place guy in the award- it takes it too far. Could he finish 2nd? Maybe. But historcially, that’s just not been the case at all.. I don’t know too many folks that would say it’s a likely right now. Also, have to remember the postseason doesn’t count one iota.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

I don’t think that the issue is that the people downvoting you want the cy young voting to go their way. I think the issue is that they are focusing on demonstrating that they know more about baseball than people who don’t read fangraphs to the extent that they aren’t carefully reading what you are writing, they are assuming that you are defending the use of era in determining the cy young winner, and so they are downvoting you to demonstrate to themselves that they are more knowledgeable than you are.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

I think it was the Wins… which is even worse. I think you could blame FG too as he was their guy. The FG guy wins every time right? The Cy Young race is super messed up in this era.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

actually it’s pretty easy. Go look at ERA and it’ll tell you a lot about the race…. Wins a bit if they have 20 or more. Innings really only as a disqualifier if they don’t have at least 180.

chazf
Member
chazf

So you’re saying awards voters are too advanced to decide based on Wins (I agree…see DeGrom last year)…..but…. they’re *not advanced enough* to look beyond just the single stat of ERA? Cant say I agree with that take. Maybe a few people vote like that, but IP, Ks, FIP, and increasingly, WAR seem to matter to many voters/writers/folks you see talking on MLB Network etc. about this stuff, especially since they’ve opened up voting to non old school types. But I mean, we’ll see. My personal guess is 1. DeGrom 2. Stras 3. Scherzer 4. Ryu 5. Corbin/Buehler/Gray……something like that.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

deGrom’s win had EVERYTHING though to do with ERA. If his ERA was at 2.25 instead of 1.70- he would have had a whole hell of a lot tougher chance to win…

Also, using MLB network analsyts as logic for this is a joke. They are as much advanced metrics folks as you can see. But they aren’t the electorate.

Jayson Stark’s ballot from last month should give you pause….
1 deGrom
2 Sonny Gray
3 Flaherty
4 Scherzer
5 Ryu

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

More specifically his HR rate. That is what fueled his ERA. It has proven to be unsustainable which is beautiful.

scooter262
Member
Member
scooter262

I think pitcher wins have been demonized (appropriately) enough that it has seeped into the minds of a large majority of voters. And while they may look at other stats, as you mention, I do think a lot of voters still value ERA, possibly more so than they should.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

I think where wins come into play is like last season’s AL where Snell got 20. But if it’s something like 18 vs 14- it’s just not that big of a deal….

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

Chaz, steve is giving specific data regarding past cy young votes in support of his argument while you aren’t. Can you?

DDD
Member
DDD

Do award voters really care a flip about FIP?

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

not most of them.

I think the danger we see here is that folks here listen to MLB Network and think that’s the electorate. But it’s really not. Last year the most advanced metrics electorate had only I think 13/30 voters. With several of the award votes only having 8-9 voters out of the 30.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

I think voters mostly just read what FG has to say. Evidence points that direction. That is to say that they are using FG WAR I imagine.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

There is also a social-psychological aspect to it. Reading fangraphs makes you feel like you’re more serious and intelligent than the average baseball fan. Many readers don’t care about this but many readers do. I teach in a university and it’s the same phenomenon, many people hang around universities or even make a career in a university largely because it makes them feel like they are more intelligent than other people. Many fangraphs readers think that the only point in mentioning ERA in a fangraphs post is to say that it’s stupid so that you can demonstrate that you’ve gone beyond that intellectual stage; if you mention for any other reason, like Steve did here, you get downvoted. It’s the same thing with for example Trump in universities–if you mention Trump in a university lecture in any context other than say how awful he is, some people will go ballistic.

chazf
Member
chazf

Scherzer is starting Game 1. They haven’t announced it officially but reading tea leaves from Nats beat reporters and Rizzo…..its going to be Max, Stras, Corbin. Strasburg is the better pitcher right now overall, but I suppose there is an argument to be made that Astros lineup is fairly RHH, and Scherzer has less balanced splits than SS. Also game theory to consider regarding maybe Nats—even if they think Strasburg is their best starter at this moment—that beating Cole is almost impossible right now. My own perspective is that while Cole has the distinct advantage over Max in Game 1, that Strasburg has an excellent chance to out-duel Verlander in Game 2, even with Astros superior offense—so Nats starters obviously with a tougher task.

carter
Member
carter

Strasburg was better down the stretch when Scherzer struggled, but I don’t really agree he is a better pitcher overall.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

I think Stras might be better as of this moment. Please look at Scherzer’s monthly splits. He was a wreck after his injury. It is clear as day. Maybe he is good now, but I think it is more likely that Max is on the decline than that he has gotten back to being the best pitcher in the NL which he was before he got hurt.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

I think he’s finally back to being healthy. His last 2 starts pretty darn special- 14 ip with 5 hits, 5 walks, but 18 k’s. 1 run given up. Have to remember for Scherzer- he missed all that time in August- so right now he’s where normal pitchers are innings wise in early to mid September.