The ALCS is Baseball’s First Postseason Battle of Texas

Jose Altuve Jonah Heim
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I’m always a fan of a playoff series that we haven’t seen before, and oddly, the Astros and Rangers have never faced off in the postseason before. But we’ll finally get that battle for Texas supremacy this year in the ALCS, after the Astros shut down the Twins to win in four and the Rangers swept the Orioles and sent them back home for the peak of the steamed crab season. For this championship series, we also get a team without an obvious claim to superiority over the 2023 season, as both tied for the division at 90–72, leading to an unsatisfying Game 163-less conclusion based on head-to-head records.

Houston and Texas having never faced off in the postseason is one of those little accidents of history. The Senators/Rangers took until 1996 to make the playoffs for the very first time, and the Astros only moved to the AL before the 2013 season. Despite playing in the same league, the two franchises haven’t really had their periods of success overlap; 2023 is just the second season in baseball history in which the Astros and Rangers won 90 games in the same season, the only other time being in 1999 (when both teams lost in their respective divisional series).

Perhaps the biggest X-factor in the ALCS is which pitchers will actually be ready to pitch for the Rangers. I’ll highlight this with two sets of (very) preliminary projections for the series, one without Max Scherzer and Jon Gray and one with:

ZiPS ALCS Projection (No Scherzer/Gray)
Team Gm 1 Gm 2 Gm 3 Gm 4 Gm 5 Gm 6 Gm 7
Astros Justin Verlander Framber Valdez Cristian Javier José Urquidy Justin Verlander Framber Valdez Cristian Javier
Rangers Jordan Montgomery Nathan Eovaldi Andrew Heaney Dane Dunning Rangers Pen Jordan Montgomery Nathan Eovaldi
Team Win in Four Win in Five Win in Six Win in Seven Victory
Astros 9.1% 15.4% 19.5% 15.8% 59.8%
Rangers 4.0% 9.7% 11.8% 14.6% 40.2%

ZiPS ALCS Projection (Scherzer + Gray)
Team Gm 1 Gm 2 Gm 3 Gm 4 Gm 5 Gm 6 Gm 7
Astros Justin Verlander Framber Valdez Cristian Javier Jose Urquidy Justin Verlander Framber Valdez Cristian Javier
Rangers Max Scherzer Jordan Montgomery Nathan Eovaldi Jon Gray Max Scherzer Jordan Montgomery Nathan Eovaldi
Team Win in Four Win in Five Win in Six Win in Seven Victory
Astros 7.1% 13.7% 18.9% 16.2% 55.8%
Rangers 5.2% 11.4% 12.6% 15.0% 44.2%

Don’t pooh-pooh four percentage points; that’s actually a fairly large amount when talking about two teams roughly in the same tier in a seven-game series. Four points is nearly half the projected advantage that ZiPS sees the Astros having over the Rangers, after all.

As I write this, the exact roles that Scherzer and Gray will play in the ALCS are an unknown. Scherzer has been out for a month with a muscle strain in his shoulder, and initially the prognosis was that he was likely to be out for the season. But he’s reportedly feeling fine and has participated in both live batting practice and a simulated game. If Scherzer thinks he’s ready to pitch, any person who stands in his way is a far braver human than I am. The return of Gray doesn’t have quite the same upside, but sending Dunning or Heaney (or both) to the bullpen also gives the Rangers more tactical options in games with two extra pitchers in relief who can eat some innings.

In any case, with both Division Series ending before a Game 5, both teams have the luxury of resting their bullpens and lining up their rotations basically how they want to. While that’s not a change for the Astros, the Rangers started the ALDS with Heaney on a short hook, which highly I doubt would have been the plan if they had all their pitching options available. When you add Gray and Scherzer to the mix, ZiPS sees both rotations as fairly close in quality, with Houston having a sliver of an edge. The projections also see the bullpens as similar, both somewhere between the fifth and 10th best in baseball, though the Rangers peek out a bit in front with some combination of Heaney/Dunning/Gray throwing innings as well.

From a tactical standpoint, I’m not sure if I’m quite as confident about the Rangers’ bullpen as the projections. One of the things that makes the Astros maddening to face in the late innings is it’s hard to leverage platoon split advantages against them; the lineup as a whole doesn’t really have an exploitable platoon tendency. You also can’t turn Yordan Alvarez or Kyle Tucker into lesser players by putting in Aroldis Chapman or Will Smith, as both have significantly smaller-than-typical platoon splits for left-handed batters; Caleb Thielbar can attest to this.

That lineup is what gives the Astros a small, though hardly insurmountable, edge. The Rangers led the AL in runs scored, so they’re hardly the Tigers, but as I’ve talked about excessively, top-heavy teams tend to outperform in the postseason since the format allows you to get a larger proportion of playing time from your best hitters and pitchers. Corey Seager may be the most dangerous hitter in the ALCS right now, but Alvarez, Tucker, and Jose Altuve are probably numbers two-through-four, and Houston will likely aggressively pinch-hit for Martín Maldonado in high-leverage situations, even early in the game. Helping out the Astros is José Abreu showing signs of life over the last six weeks or so. He slugged .536 in September after slugging .350 up until that point, and it doesn’t appear to be fluky; his hard-hit rate crept up back near 50%, and his average exit velocity got on the good side of 90 mph again. Just having him play as a major league-level talent is basically a free upgrade, and he did far better than that against the Twins, hitting three homers.

From a rooting standpoint, I’d be personally happy with either of these teams making the World Series. The Astros, like the Giants a decade ago, have punched above their weight class in the postseason, and it’s nice to see excellent teams get rewarded with a plethora of playoff success in a format that’s designed to prevent that from happening. And while I’m from Baltimore and obviously bummed about the ALDS results, it’s also hard to root against the Rangers, a team that has aggressively tried to improve their team at every opportunity rather than sit on their hands at trade deadlines and winter meetings. With the Padres having a complicated future, it would be nice to see one of these audacious all-in upstarts the last few years actually see it pay off. And with just one series to go until the World Series and two teams with deep rosters, hopefully we’ll get some of those true nailbiters that this postseason has lacked so far.





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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baubo
4 months ago

> Houston will likely aggressively pinch-hit for Martín Maldonado in high-leverage situations, even early in the game. 

This isn’t happening for as long as Dusty is managing the team, unfortunately.

sadtrombonemember
4 months ago
Reply to  baubo

I read that and thought that Dan was thinking about this from an abstract, logical perspective instead of imagining what Dusty Baker would do.

baubo
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I feel even as a thought exercise it’s not worth doing because of how dedicated Dusty is to Maldonado. Front office traded for a legit starting catcher last deadline in Vazquez who I think caught like 2 playoff games last year. And Yanier Diaz put up 2 WAR in half a season and also barely seeing playing time.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
4 months ago
Reply to  baubo

I asked Chat GPT how many times Martin Maldonado had been pinch hit for in 2023 and it told me that the population of St Louis was 239,610 in 2021

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
4 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Chat GPT – for entertainment purposes only.

tmthjdbmember
4 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Wow that’s many fewer people than I would have guessed.

sadtrombonemember
4 months ago
Reply to  tmthjdb

St Louis has been losing population to its suburbs for decades now. And then suburbs themselves make up a larger proportion of the metro area than you expect.

ccoeurmember
4 months ago
Reply to  tmthjdb

It’s not accurate.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
4 months ago
Reply to  baubo

I can see PH for Maldonado once the SP is out of the game. I see no way possible that it would happen bases loaded 2 out in the 2nd inning or 4th inning even behind a run or two

BKArbourmember
4 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

In Game 2 of the DS, down 5-0 with Pena having doubled to leadoff the inning and Valdez pulled in the top half of the inning, Baker still let Maldonado hit. Basically, he’ll never hit for Maldonado unless it’s really desperate.

Joe Joemember
4 months ago
Reply to  baubo

If you think a sac bunt early in a postseason game is the best option for a player when a runner gets on base, odds are you are playing the wrong guy or need to get another guy.

Though I should say, Maldy is playable against LHPs.

Last edited 4 months ago by Joe Joe
Ivan_Grushenkomember
4 months ago
Reply to  baubo

From B-Ref’s Diaz page I counted Maldonado being PH for 13 times in 2023, 12 by Diaz. Only once did Diaz have more than one PA. I only counted once so it may be off slightly. Also Maldonado might have been PH for other times where Diaz didn’t finish the game at C

Old Washington Senators Fanmember
4 months ago
Reply to  baubo

Maybe, but Dusty has been a fine manager, leading several teams to the playoffs and World Series.

As soon as he’s eligible, he should be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Good player. Even better manager. Even better person.

tz
4 months ago

Can’t argue with that. His record as a manager is pretty close to Joe Torre’s right now, if you don’t put excess weight on Torre’s WS rings during the Jeter era. And I think it doesn’t hurt at all that he’s grown with the times as a manager, adapting to the analytics-driven era much better than someone like LaRussa.

sadtrombonemember
4 months ago

Dusty Baker is one of my favorite people in the game of baseball. Just an incredibly insightful, thoughtful guy who has a huge personality and a lot of empathy. And his record is undeniable; he’s easily a hall of fame manager.

That said, would drive me bananas if he managed my team, though, always batting the center fielder first and the shortstop second. That kind of stuff isn’t as important as getting everyone to buy into their roles but it is visible and frustrating.