World Series Preview: Houston Astros vs. Philadelphia Phillies

© Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

You can almost hear the hum emanating from the Astros’ player acquisition and development machine. It’s proven and precise, a system honed over 10 years that finds talent all over the place and then helps those players succeed while signing them to win-win extensions. It’s hard to say who the Astros’ core players are because they have too many, and from too many generations. They might be the best team in baseball when it comes to working with pitchers; they also have Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Jeremy Peña bolstering old hands like Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve.

The Phillies, meanwhile, should come with a sign for opposing GMs looking to emulate them: “Don’t try this at home.” The team is a high-wire act. After the previous regime mostly whiffed on developing an Astros-style new core, Dave Dombrowski arrived and worked out which pieces to keep, which to discard, and where to augment. He’s been wildly effective at it, but his options were limited by timeline. Need a new outfielder? Well, there are none in the system, so you’ll need to sign free agents and make trades. Bullpen? Hah! Better start working the phones.

The bones of a nice house were there all along – Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, Zack Wheeler, and Aaron Nola make for a heck of a foundation – but Dombrowski found the rug that really pulls the living room together. You’d never try to build your team this way, but if you absolutely have to, Dombrowski is the man for the job.

The differences don’t stop there. Watch an Astros game and you can’t help but think of the Borg. They’re inevitable. The opposition is irrelevant. All their pitchers are aces or closers, all their hitters are All-Stars. The new shortstop isn’t the same as the old shortstop, but he hits and fields like him. Their old right fielder/center fielder with a great bat is gone; the new one might be better.

Justin Verlander hasn’t really shown his age yet, but if he does, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier (and Luis Garcia and Hunter Brown and…) will step into the breach. The Astros score a ton of runs. They don’t allow any. The individual styles might differ, but you know what you’re going to see when they play: a Swiss watch in the form of a baseball team.

The Phillies – yeah, they’re not that. They’re a delightful mess. They might drop the ball – literally. They might throw it away – again, literally. They might hit a home run – you get the idea. There sure are a lot of baseball phrases that have real world connotations. When you build a team around squeezing defensively iffy sluggers into your lineup in pursuit of offensive edges, that’s just a risk you take. This isn’t some fatal flaw in team construction; they built it this way on purpose because there was no other way to get powerful bats like Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos in free agency. Those guys are good enough offensively to offset the outfield chaos, or at least they’re supposed to be.

To be fair to the Phillies, Castellanos was never meant to be in this position. He’s basically a DH who happens to own an outfield glove. Since Statcast started measuring Outs Above Average in 2016, he’s 240th out of 240 outfielders with at least 250 attempts in the field. Harper is a solid right fielder, particularly after taking his throwing arm into account, but an early-season elbow injury has limited him to DH duties all year. Castellanos hasn’t looked great in the field, but well, he’s not supposed to. You don’t sign a quarterback and expect him to shore up your defensive backfield; likewise, no one should expect Castellanos to conjure memories of Roberto Clemente in right.

For what it’s worth, Schwarber is second-last on that OAA leaderboard; the outfield corners flanking Brandon Marsh are downright dicey. All that defensive uncertainty leads to some cover-your-eyes moments, but the Phillies have slugged their way through the playoffs anyway. There’s no divine rule that teams can only be good if their stars are two-way beasts; if you hit enough to add more with your bat than you take away in the field, that’s perfectly okay.

This series should be a delight because every series involving the Phillies has been a delight. They played low-scoring thrillers with the Cardinals, slugged it out with the Braves, and then took turns squandering big leads against the Padres. But maybe it’ll be a drag, because every Houston series has been kind of monotonous: the Astros are good, better than their opponents, and they deploy a staggering array of great players in situations where they’re best equipped to succeed. It’s fun in the way that watching robots assemble an airplane is fun: you’ll ooh and ah, not because of any great drama but because the pieces just fit together so well.

It might sound like I’m rooting for the Phillies, but that’s completely untrue. I’m rooting for chaos. Chaotic playoff baseball is the best kind, and the Phillies bring that energy to every series they play, win or lose. With that in mind, I’m going to make some very specific predictions that will hopefully also shed some light on the matchups that will decide the series. There will be no position-by-position breakdown today; we’ve already previewed the Phillies three times this October and the Astros twice. You know the characters. Here’s how they might line up.

A Ball Will Bounce Out of Rhys Hoskins’ Glove and Hit Jose Altuve in the Stomach
Playing first base is incredibly hard – just ask Ron Washington or Rhys Hoskins. Hoskins has committed some ghastly errors in the field this postseason, enough to make you wonder whether the team should have Harper play first, even without the ability to throw. At times, it seems like a wormhole opens up linking his glove and a spot about 10 feet behind him; how else can you explain it?

The Phillies might still be playing Hoskins if he was out there with an oven mitt, though, because he’s already smashed five home runs this postseason. He’s been phenomenally unlucky when he puts the ball in play (he has a .120 BABIP during the playoffs), but no one ever said that “hit ’em where they ain’t” couldn’t be over the fence. A Hoskins defensive gaffe feels more or less assured, but so does a huge home run followed by a raucous Philadelphia dugout celebration.

As for Altuve, he’s having the kind of postseason where a ball hits you in the stomach for no good reason. He only has three hits, and he’s gotten them in the last two games. Even then, they’ve been soft contact; the hardest he hit any of those three was 82.6 mph. He’s hit just two batted balls harder than 100 mph, and they resulted in two groundouts, one of which was a double play. He has a .194 xwOBA on contact. He hasn’t just been unlucky; he’s also been bad.

That isn’t really predictive, and it also hasn’t mattered. The Astros haven’t lost a game. It’s a good reminder that baseball is hard; sometimes a potential future Hall of Famer is the worst player on the field for weeks on end while his team bulldozes its way to the World Series. I’d say that how Altuve bounces back will have a big impact on who wins this series, but it certainly didn’t matter against the Mariners or Yankees, so let’s just say the Astros would love to see him recover.

Justin Verlander Will Allow Three Solo Home Runs to Lose to Aaron Nola, Who Will Allow Two
Call this one a hunch. Verlander has only made two starts thanks to his team’s inexorable success – one putrid, one vintage Verlander. His style has long led to the occasional solo shot; he’s not afraid to attack hitters, particularly with his fastball, which leads to plenty of advantageous counts for him and the occasional stray homer for them. The Phillies love to swing at fastballs – and swing in general – which could set them up for a lot of crying and the occasional slow stroll around the bases. It’s the kind of matchup where any traffic on the basepaths becomes immediately dangerous; on the other hand, that traffic is unlikely against Verlander in the first place.

Nola doesn’t have Verlander’s career resume, but he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the past five years. He was rolling early in the playoffs, with scoreless outings in each of the first two rounds, before the Padres hung seven runs on him in Game 2 of the NLCS. Five of those runs came in a bonkers fifth inning when the Padres strung together singles and Brad Hand imploded. The other two came on back-to-back solo shots, and Nola’s tendency to attack hitters combined with a command-first fastball means I can see the Astros launching a few off of him. And they better – it’s hard to get on base against him otherwise.

More generally, the matchup between these aces will go a long way towards determining the series. The Phillies have their best shot to win when Nola and Zack Wheeler are on the mound; I like the back end of the Astros rotation more than Philly’s plan of mixing and matching fifth starters in short stints to cobble together a game. If they go 2-0 against Verlander, that makes the series feel very winnable. If they go 0-2, it’ll be a brutal uphill climb. The same is true to a lesser extent against Valdez, but let’s keep it simple: if the Phillies can’t beat Verlander, they probably aren’t winning this series.

Jeremy Peña Will Nonchalantly Rob Jean Segura of a Single; Segura Will Return the Favor With a Dive
If you watch Peña play shortstop for a game, you might begin to think that great defenders are born, not taught. In addition to plus range and a precise arm, he’s preternaturally smooth, making little adjustments you only notice when you pay attention but that add up to a lot. It can be hard to spot superlative fielders without splashy highlight plays, but Peña’s instinctual movements are beautiful. Watch him shuffle infinitesimally to align his steps with the optimal time to throw the ball. Watch him flatten out his angle ever so slightly so that an in-between hop becomes a long one, or smoothly change directions as a line drive knuckles to keep his glove squarely on it. Watch him anticipate a slow double play turn and compensate before it even happens, putting everything back into sync. Take all of that in, and you can’t help thinking this is as much physical virtuosity as it is learned skill.

Jean Segura is a great defender, too, but not in the same way. He’s all sprawling lunges and throws from awkward angles, beating the runner by mere steps or turning one out into two with a timely pivot. His signature move, inasmuch as a defender can have a signature move, is a full-out leap followed by a how’d-he-end-up-on-his-feet transition to throwing position. He’s an electric defender, one of the best second basemen in the game – and he looks nothing like Peña while doing it.

While they’re very different players, they’re each the cornerstones of their respective infields and offensive assets to boot. Segura has been a consistently league average bat throughout his career, and is almost a unicorn in Philadelphia: a player who contributes in all phases of the game (fine, Realmuto easily clears this bar, too). Meanwhile, Peña turned in an average batting line of his own this season, but he’s exploded in the playoffs, with three homers and a .303/.342/.667 slash line to help power the Houston offense.

Are the dynamic infield defenders the key to this series? They might be, but “keys to the series” are mostly bunk. No one pegged Eddie Rosario as the most important player in the 2021 World Series before it happened, or Steve Pearce in 2018 – the list goes on. I don’t know if the relative performance of these two will determine the outcome. I do know that I’m going to enjoy watching both of them turn surefire hits into outs in their own distinctive ways.

Bryce Harper Will Hit a Go-Ahead Home Run in the Top of the Ninth in Game 7. Yordan Alvarez Will Hit a Game-Tying One in the Bottom of the Inning.
If you made me rank hitters on a go-forward basis, I’d have Juan Soto as the best lefty by a narrow margin, though I think that’s a minority opinion. I’d have Alvarez second and Harper third; both combine light-tower power with a keen sense of the strike zone and an ability to make adjustments on the fly. Harper is on an otherworldly tear coming into the series; Alvarez scuffled in the ALCS after terrifying the Mariners the previous round.

Both teams would prefer to avoid these sluggers, as each is uniquely capable of turning the game around with a single swing. They’ll both take their free passes, too; Harper hasn’t walked much this October, but has posted double digit walk rates in each season since 2015, while Alvarez walked nearly as often as he struck out this year. It’s a tough spot for opposing pitchers, made even tougher by uncertainty. Will they get September or October Harper? Will they get the ALDS or ALCS version of Alvarez?

For the record, I think those two options are a false dichotomy. Alvarez is the same fearsome hitter regardless of when you catch him; a few down games doesn’t mean he’s suddenly bad. Postseason samples are simply too small for that kind of thing to be meaningful. Harper’s ascent feels more meaningful; recovering from a broken thumb doesn’t happen instantaneously, and the further he gets from that injury, the better he looks.

You heard it here first: Bryce Harper and Yordan Alvarez are both great hitters. Groundbreaking stuff, I know. But both of their plate appearances will be pivotal points in this series. That’s just how it works mathematically; the games will often be close, and you don’t have to watch much playoff baseball to know that every at-bat that feels like it could end with a home run is a hold-your-breath affair. I can’t pretend to tell you which hitter will deliver, or if either will. But they’re both going to raise your blood pressure regardless of who you’re rooting for.

Against All Odds, the Phillies Bullpen Will Duel The Astros Bullpen to a Standstill in a 15-Inning Game 3
Remember the good old days of the late 2010s, when dominant regular season powerhouses followed the Galactic Empire’s Death Star strategy and undermined their impressive rosters with poor bullpens? It was like clockwork; get to October, and you’d have 15 All-Stars sweating nervously while some reliever the Marlins cut earlier in the year tried to hold things together. The Astros aren’t built like that; they had one of the best bullpens in the league this season, and that group has paved over the opposition so far in the playoffs.

It helps to use Luis Garcia in a relief role, of course, but it also helps to have such an embarrassment of riches that Ryne Stanek, who threw 54.2 innings of 1.15 ERA, 3.02 FIP relief this year, has only pitched two innings. In case you were wondering, he’s faced six batters and retired all of them, four by strikeout. That’s the guy they don’t use. Astros relievers as a whole have a 0.82 ERA in these playoffs. They strike out the world, walk no one, and generally make it feel like the game is over when Houston leads after six innings – or five, or even four when they deploy the whole ‘pen.

The Phillies don’t have the kind of nightmarish bullpen that they’ve assembled in years past, though they’re not the Astros. Like seemingly every major league team, they feature a closer who hits triple digits with an unhittable secondary, and back him with a setup man who also throws 100 mph. After Seranthony Domínguez and José Alvarado, though, there are some question marks, which makes length from starting pitching more important for them than for the Astros.

Zach Eflin has had an up-and-down October. David Robertson injured himself jumping up and down in October, and hasn’t looked quite the same since returning. Andrew Bellatti and Connor Brogdon have both looked excellent to me so far, but don’t have a long track record of doing so.

That doesn’t mean they’re not a good bullpen. They’ve faced three straight tough opponents and held them to a collective 3.19 ERA. When push comes to shove, they’re perfectly capable of matching zeroes, even if it might not look as pretty. How will this 15-inning standstill end? For the sake of talking about the teams more, let’s say that Houston’s raft of reverse-split righties will hold down the Philadelphia boppers long enough for a run to score against Kyle Gibson, the emergency long relief option.

I know this might not have been your typical World Series preview. None of these predictions are actionable, exactly. I can’t tell you who’s going to win. Public models and gambling markets both favor the Astros by something like a 60/40 margin depending on whose numbers you like most. I don’t have much to add to that; markets are efficient, model-builders are smart, and so on. What I can tell you is that I expect it to be a fun series, the collision of two very different teams that nonetheless have bullied their way through October, both of which are packed with players who will delight you with their successes and their failures.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Re: The Borg…

Despite them seeming inevitable and invincible when they first show up in every appearance, it’s worth noting that by the end of the story arc they always lose to the more creative, free-wheeling Federation officers. So if we really think that the Astros are the Borg, we should expect a close-fought series that goes 7 games but the Phillies win.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Agree. The Borg, to me, is not about invincibility, but rather hive-mind efficiency. The Astros play that part well, a feature the author notes:

“The new shortstop isn’t the same as the old shortstop, but he hits and fields like him. Their old right fielder/center fielder with a great bat is gone; the new one might be better.”

1 year ago
Reply to  ted

Right, it’s the hive mind/collective thing that I think the Borg/Astros analogy works on. The Yanks basically shut down Alvarez, Altuve continued his playoff struggle, and Tucker was pretty quiet. They still got swept.

Matt Greene
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

And are the Astros TNG Borg or Voyager Borg? Is there a dumb sexy queen? And if so, is that queen Dusty?