Postseason Preview: Red Sox and Astros Tangle With Ghosts in the ALCS

Of all the major sports, I would argue that none rely on their history and its place in the cultural milieu more than baseball. Every big moment in baseball seems to be steeped in comparable historical feats accomplished by some of the game’s most famous protagonists, from Ruth to Mantle to Maddux. In one sense, that’s a positive; even if there are more strikeouts and home runs than there were 100 years ago, someone from 1921 could arrive by time machine and still follow what is fundamentally a very similar game. But on the flip side, someone like Mike Trout can’t simply be recognized as being the first Mike Trout but as the next version of Mays or Mantle or Speaker. We joke about broadcasters waxing nostalgic about the aura and mystique of the New York Yankees, but a player on the Yankees can’t help but be endlessly compared to the heroes of yore, and mortals are usually found wanting in those comparisons.

Every team in the playoffs has something to prove, but Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros would both like to be victors who write the history books.

The Red Sox spent most of the 20th century as the Goofus to New York’s Gallant. The Yankees were expected to win World Series after World Series while the less-fortunate son was the habitual loser, constantly pulling defeat from the jaws of victory because of a curse caused by a team owner who wanted to produce a play, My Lady Friends in 1919. But the 2000s have swung things the Sox way, with Boston not just breaking its long championship-less streak but winning four championship trophies this century, the most in baseball. Yet to a large extent, the Yankees still retain the position of the big dog. It even felt a bit like that at the trade deadline, when the Yankees got the headlines for acquiring Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo while Kyle Schwarber was seen as a Boston consolation prize. But Schwarber played better than either Gallo or Rizzo, and unlike them is still playing in 2021.

Winning the World Championship so soon after trading a popular franchise player like Mookie Betts in a year that was supposed to be dominated by the Yankees, and even eliminating them from the playoffs, is a great highlight, especially since the last time we saw the Red Sox in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, they fought the Orioles for fourth place in the AL East — and lost! Not to mention Boston getting nicked in 2020 for sign-stealing during the 2018 championship season. While their scheme appears to have been significantly less extensive than what happened in Houston, it’s still something for Sox-haters to cling onto. Coming into 2021, only one of us here at FanGraphs picked them to make the playoffs. Between the specters of distant history and the prognosticators of recent past, the Red Sox have a lot of adversaries to prove wrong.

The history of the Houston Astros is much shorter, but the team has their own questions to answer. Whether or not you think stealing signs gave the Astros a significant advantage in the end, the fact remains that they did it, they were caught, and no player suffered a specific punishment from MLB. But there was a de facto punishment, that loss in reputation. The history books will always show that the Astros won the 2017 World Series, beating the Red Sox on the way to the denouement, but much of the public and likely many other players see that victory as tainted. Just this past week, Ryan Tepera of the White Sox accused them of cheating in the present while Tony La Russa charged them with a “character shortage” after a José Abreu hit-by-pitch late in Game 4 of the ALDS. The black cloud will likely linger no matter what, but a World Series victory post-scandal would be some consolation to their fans.

Against this backdrop, Boston and Houston start their seven-game series in Houston on Friday. This is the third time the teams have faced each other in the playoffs; in the prior two, the victor went on to win the World Series.

Like the Red Sox, the Astros were underestimated to an extent coming into the season. Here at FanGraphs, we still picked Houston to win the AL West but had the Los Angeles Angels as dangerous competition (oops!). ZiPS had the Astros tied with the Oakland A’s at 88 wins, an improvement over 2020 but still well below their 2017-19 peak years.

Both teams had a similar cause for concern at the start of the season: their starting pitching. Both clubs’ offenses had some serious high-end talent, but the depth of their respective rotations was a different story. Since winning the World Series, the Astros have lost Justin Verlander (he’s still with the team, but injured), Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Collin McHugh, Wade Miley, and Brad Peacock. Could the team cobble together a solid rotation behind Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. from their young talent? As it turned out, yes!

Boston’s pitching was even more worrisome. ZiPS was skeptical about the Red Sox coming into the season, basically seeing them as a .500 team. But digging a little deeper, I found that the win-loss record was highly dependent on their rotation’s health, more than any other team in baseball. Even in the simulations where players like Xander Bogaerts or Rafael Devers missed lot of time, the offense was still at least adequate. But the rotation featured five pitchers — Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Garrett Richards, Martín Pérez, and Nick Pivetta — with a long combined injury history and not much beyond Tanner Houck and the possible return of Chris Sale as backup. But outside of arm fatigue that delayed that start of E-Rod’s season and some cases of COVID-19, the pitching stayed remarkably healthy, enabling Boston to hit their upside projections.

The rotations may have held together surprisingly well over 162 games, but the bread-and-butter for the teams facing off here is their lineups. Thanks to a rebound season from Jose Altuve, full years from Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa, and Kyle Tucker’s emergence as a legitimate everyday starter, the Astros recovered from their 17th-ranked wRC+ in 2020 to lead the league, a feat they also achieved in ’17 and ’19. Outside of Martín Maldonado, a defensive luxury the Astros can afford because of the strength of the rest of their hitters, there aren’t any notable holes in the lineup. They have tough outs from top to bottom and no marked platoon split. Only the Rays won more games (38) by at least five runs than the Astros did (36), and they were one of only two teams in baseball to have an offense that posted positive run values against each of our pitch categories this season. The other? The Boston Red Sox.

Boston’s trade deadline acquisition of Schwarber looks especially prescient given the heavy helping of righties the Sox faced, first against Tampa Bay and now with Houston. The day they acquired Schwarber, the team had a .760 OPS for the season against right-handed pitchers; after the trade, they had an .839 OPS the rest of the way against righties. The Astros went into the ALDS with only two left-handed pitchers on the roster: Framber Valdez and Brooks Raley. Houston had the third-fewest batters faced by lefties this year, so the staff will remain righty-heavy even if Blake Taylor is added.

With two stacked lineups and few significant injury concerns among the hitters– J.D. Martinez didn’t seem bothered by his ankle in the ALDS — this series may come down to some of the unanswered pitching questions, the most significant of which is probably McCullers’ status for the ALDS. He was lifted after four innings in his Game 4 start against the White Sox due to reported forearm tightness, which the team has suggested is minor:

In any case, I’m not sure I would have put McCullers out for the fifth with a 5-1 lead. It looks like his availability won’t be an issue, but any time there’s doubt surrounding a key pitcher and an injury, you have to take it very seriously. Valdez is my current best guess for Game 1, with McCullers back for Game 3, and a bullpen game probably in there somewhere. Houston does have several Plan Bs at their disposal. Could Zack Greinke start in the playoffs? Was Cristian Javier’s 56-pitch outing on Sunday enough of a warmup to see him get a turn, at least in a four-inning special? Will Jake Odorizzi make an appearance?

At the moment, Boston’s rotation looks more set than Houston’s. Eovaldi can start Game 1 on normal rest and seems the obvious choice. Sale had a forgettable Game 2 against the Rays, but he’ll be well-rested, and given that Alex Cora still trusted him enough to warm up for a possible Game 4 appearance out of the ‘pen, I doubt they skip over him. Rodriguez would be ready for Game 3, and then Boston has a choice of Houck, Pivetta, or some kind of bullpen game depending on usage. Like the Rays, the former team of Boston’s CBO, Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox showed a willingness to blow up a neat little rotation plan if the game demanded it. Houck and Pivetta were allowed to go long in relief against Tampa Bay, and both Sale and Pérez warmed up. Don’t be surprised if Boston’s rotation looks very different on Monday than it does right now.

So what do the projections think? Well, with the assumptions I’m making right now (Houck in Game 4, Urquidy in Game 2, Luis Garcia in Game 4, and an Astros bullpen game in Game 5), ZiPS thinks the series is as close to a coin flip as anything I’ve ever projected:

ZiPS Playoff Projection – ALCS
Team Win in Four Win in Five Win in Six Win in Seven Victory
Astros 6.0% 11.8% 14.9% 17.3% 50.0004%
Red Sox 6.4% 13.2% 16.4% 13.9% 49.9996%

I’ve never had a whole series projected as 50.0%-50.0% before, let alone one where I had to go a few more decimal places. There will likely be updates, however, which you will be able to find here on this very website.

Since this article went live, the news on the McCullers injury front has been fast and furious. Contrary to the claims — possibly based on hopes — of the team, the news coming out is that the injury is not, in fact, a minor one, and he may miss the ALCS as a result.

The likely result of this is that the Astros will have to go beyond the stable of starters in their likely initial plan. Greinke struggled at the end of the season and went on the IL with neck soreness at the end of the season and the team has been carefully bringing him back. My belief was that they were more interested in him starting as a backup option, at least in the early parts of the playoffs, rather than a Plan A, until they were more confident about his health (and effectiveness). Losing McCullers quite possibly forces their hand now and I’m including him as an option in the projections. Sadly, the beautiful symmetry of the above projections is now gone.

Unless, of course, McCullers plays after all. For now, mum’s the word.

ZiPS Playoff Projections – ALCS (No McCullers)
Team Win in Four Win in Five Win in Six Win in Seven Victory
Astros 5.4% 11.2% 14.5% 15.9% 47.0%
Red Sox 7.0% 13.8% 16.7% 15.3% 53.0%

The team that wins this series might go to the World Series with a battered and bloody pitching staff. But it’s infinitely better than going home and letting someone else write the history of 2021.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

So, I guess I’ll be rooting for the NL in the world series then?

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

Personally, I could never root for the Dodgers. So I’m still in wait and see mode…

SucramRenrut
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SucramRenrut

Just root for Mookie. He’s a gem.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I was really annoyed when the Dodgers responded to needing a pitcher and someone to fill in for Corey Seager by getting Trea Turner and Max Scherzer. I’d still like for them to lose so I can root for someone else from the NL but it seems like a lesser evil.

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

I’ve been a Dodgers hater for 40+ years. Ain’t no turning back now….

hopbitters
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hopbitters

I’m still bitter they left Brooklyn.

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

They *are* rapidly getting tiresome in a very Yankees fashion. I was rooting for Kershaw to get his W.S., but now we’ve had too many iterations of the “Dodgers outspend everyone” show. At least, and also like the Yankees, the Dodgers and Padres rivalry is starting to take on some of the entertainment value of the pre-curse-breaking Red Sox rivarly. Just as big spenders, trying just as hard, but it just doesn’t seem to work out quite as well in the end *sad trombone* 😉

Anyway, sports are more entertaining when there are heels to root against. “Will someone please knock the Yankees out” is one of the things that gets me to tune into the playoffs!

bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

Glad my team was able to oblige.

cowdisciple
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cowdisciple

I can’t believe I’m left rooting for the (ugh) Dodgers.

marcusthelion
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Last time I checked, tonight’s Dodgers @ Giants game had yet to be played. Do you know something the rest of us don’t? Did Mookie get some bad waffles or something for breakfast?

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

Really? Because teams from several years ago cheated in a marginally helpful fashion? If anything the continued success of these teams post-scandal is an argument against the idea that the cheating was particularly outcome determining…

I’m mostly just disappointed because I always root for new teams to break through. Rays or White Sox would’ve been more fun. But the sign stealing thing is filed away with deflate-gate in my “things the media took a lot more seriously than I did” book. Yeah it was a bad look, Altuve’s ‘not my shiiiiiirt!’ moment was mostly just good for comedy, and naw, it doesn’t really make the list of things I spend brain cycles caring about.

proiste
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proiste

I think the hate more comes from the fact that the Astros are constantly in the playoffs, the Red Sox have won the world series a billion times since the turn of the millennium, even when they were clearly not the best team, they’re both big-money teams, and (most importantly) both of their fanbases are extremely obnoxious. The cheating complaints are just a blanket talking point for all those other factors imo.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

Some of us are still trying to figure out how Alex Cora got his reputation laundered, folded, and returned so neatly

shumway
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shumway

Who cares if they needed to cheat or not. They did and nothing was done. So lots of us will justifiably hate them until there’s not a single player left on that team from 2017.

Willians Astu-stu-studillo
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Willians Astu-stu-studillo

In a way, knowing that cheating served no purpose and they did it anyway would be worse.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Yeah I just don’t like cheating,. For the Red Sox, it’s a combo of Alex Cora and the Mookie thing. I think I’m okay with the Red Sox winning it all again someday, and maybe even the Astros too, but if we could just give it another half decade or so to wash the stink off a bit that would be nice.

knoxbanedoodle
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knoxbanedoodle

Nothing was done is an insane and blind thing to say.

Kervin
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Kervin

wamp waaaaaaamp