[As part of our expanded coverage for the playoffs (analysis, day-of and day-after games, podcasts, previews), we have a series preview every day of the week leading to Thursday’s Game 1. Today is a traditional preview for Joe Resis, Tuesday will be a lineup optimization analysis by Luke Smailes, and Wednesday brings the trash-talking of the trash cans, Know Your Enemy from Colleen Sullivan.]
There are few results in professional sports that are more difficult to predict than a five-game MLB series. But, let’s unpack what we know about the Good Guys (93-69, +160 run differential) and the Astros (95-67, +205 run differential).
(As this article was written a few days’ before season’s end, some of the stats in this article don’t include the last weekend of the season.)
Despite a flurry of injuries early in the season, Chicago’s slash line of .256/.336/.422 is one of the league’s best. This slash line results in a 109 wRC+, which is tied with Tampa Bay for No. 3 in the majors.
Overall, there is a lot to feel optimistic about. Yasmani Grandal (159 wRC+, 93 games) and Luis Robert (157 wRC+, 68 games) have been the best White Sox hitters. They have provided a big spark despite missing a solid chunk of the season. If not for those missed games, the slash line likely would look even better.
On the other side, the Astros somehow top the White Sox. Houston’s slash line sits at .267/.339/.444 with a 116 wRC+, best in baseball. Nearly all of Houston’s starters are above average in terms of wRC+. The only clear gap in the batting order is catcher Martín Maldonado (.172/.272/.300, 63 wRC+). Seven of Houston’s hitters have a wRC+ of more than 120, with Kyle Tucker leading the way (147), followed by Yordan Álvarez (138).
Shutting down an offense this balanced is a tall task for any pitching staff. It wasn’t just the secret signals that helped them bring home two American League pennants and one World Series title.
The slight hitting edge goes to the Astros.
The White Sox are a mixed bag as far as fielding is concerned. According to FanGraphs defensive adjustments, the White Sox defense is 18.5 runs below average, which ranks No. 25 in the majors.
A good place to start the discussion on White Sox defense is at the catcher position. Yasmani Grandal carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. Seby Zavala’s offense (67 wRC+) made him a bit of a liability (0.1 fWAR) despite decent framing and one magical game in which he went 4-for-4 with three homers. The other alternative, Zack Collins, was a complete liability (-0.7 fWAR) due to poor defense despite a serviceable wRC+ of 90. Collins should only be used sparingly if he turns out to be the only catcher besides Grandal on the postseason roster.
Per Baseball Savant, the White Sox leader in terms of outs above average is Luis Robert (four), even though he has only played about 40% of the season. Is there anything he can’t do?
As for the Astros, though their defense is not spectacular, weaknesses are hard to come by. According to FanGraphs, Houston’s defense has been 8.6 runs above average, which puts them fairly close to the league average. As for Houston’s catching situation, even Maldonado is useful due to his abilities behind the plate. Both rookie outfielder Chas McCormick and shortstop Carlos Correa are in baseball’s Top 20 in terms of outs above average (11 each).
In baseball, it is often more important to avoid weak links than it is to build strong links. The Astros have less gaps to fill, and largely due to that, the computers are more convinced by them.
The edge goes to the Astros in fielding, as well.
What a year it has been for the South Side pitching staff, which has accumulated 27.1 fWAR, more than any other MLB team. In the shortened 2020 season, the White Sox had two trustworthy starting pitchers (Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel). During the Wild Card round, the White Sox went 1-1 in the games started by those pitchers, and Game 3 was a mess from a pitching standpoint.
This year, however, the White Sox are unlikely to find themselves in such a position where they are struggling to get around with a thin starting rotation.
While Keuchel has had a disappointing season, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, and (against all odds) Carlos Rodón have filled in quite nicely. Rodón is a big wild card for this series. Despite a significant drop in velocity following shoulder fatigue, Rodón pitched five scoreless innings against the Reds in his most recent start, last Wednesday. Despite those strong results, Rodón’s ability to regain his velocity could be vital.
Then, there is the bullpen, which is No.2 in the majors in fWAR (7.8). A big reason for FanGraphs’ high reviews is the relievers’ tendency to miss bats (10.6 K/9).
Deadline acquisition Craig Kimbrel will have a large role, and his performance can be quite influential. Unfortunately, Kimbrel’s numbers have diminished since his trip over from the North Side.
Kimbrel’s mediocre numbers on the South Side can be traced to his inability to consistently keep the ball in the park. Sure, his strikeout rate is down a bit (15.7 K/9 to 14.1), but it is still high. Kimbrel’s control is also a little worse than it was (3.2 BB/9 to 3.9). This is not nearly as big of an issue as the home run rate (0.2 HR/9 to 2.0), though. Granted, Kimbrel’s home run per fly ball rate was only 3.8% with the Cubs this year, and nothing of that nature is sustainable. However, while with the White Sox, his home run per fly ball rate has skyrocketed to 19.2%. Given a sufficient sample size, the percentage of fly balls given up by Kimbrel that will result in homers certainly falls somewhere between 3.8% and 19.2%. The White Sox will need that rate to come down sooner rather than later.
The Astros’ pitching staff has accumulated 16.8 fWAR, which is ninth in the majors. Interestingly, the team ERAs are mighty similar (3.73 for the White Sox, 3.76 for the Astros), but the difference in fWAR comes from the FIP gap (3.75 vs. 4.09). In other words, White Sox pitching has been better, but the overall run prevention has been similar due to Houston’s edge in fielding.
Lance McCullers Jr. is the ace of the staff, carrying a 3.16 ERA, 3.52 FIP, and 3.3 fWAR in 162 1⁄3 innings. Luis García is close behind (3.30 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 3.1 fWAR), and his one game against the White Sox went very well (seven innings, one run, eight strikeouts on June 18).
As for the bullpen, the White Sox can expect to see a lot of Ryan Pressly in this series. The 32-year-old righthander has a 2.29 ERA, 2.07 FIP, and he has accumulated 2.4 fWAR as a reliever this season. It is a tiny sample size, but White Sox hitters were 0-for-6 with four strikeouts against him this year.
Houston’s fielding advantage reduces this gap, but the pitching edge goes to the White Sox.
Both managers are quite accomplished. The two septuagenarians have combined for more than 4,800 wins, as Tony La Russa’s teams are 2,819-2,433 (.537), while Dusty Baker’s are 1,985-1,733 (.534). Both managers have posted winning records with all teams they have managed, with the exception of Baker with the Cubs (322-326).
The difference is the postseason success. Baker won the NL pennant with the Giants in 2002, but he has not been to the World Series otherwise. Meanwhile, La Russa has made it to the World Series six times, and his teams won three of those. Of course, players ultimately determine results, and managers never deserve all of the credit or blame. However, what would have happened if Baker properly managed the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS is one of the biggest mysteries in baseball history.
While far from a be-all-end-all, a metric that can be used as determine manager performance is mWAR, which takes into account both player WAR and Pythagorean record (expected W-L based on run differential and actual W-L). Generally, managers who outperform their team WAR/Pythagorean records are doing well with their in-game decision-making.
But by mWAR, neither manager is doing well: La Russa had -4.1 mWAR in 2021, while Baker was even worse, at -4.7. (Historically, both have been strong managers, with Baker earning 2.2 mWAR per 162 games in his career before 2021, Baker 1.6.)
Of course, it is not always that simple, and there is more to managing than in-game decisions. Despite speculation from many (myself included) that La Russa would not blend with this group of White Sox players, he has. Also, the gap between the White Sox’s actual and Pythagorean records has existed since the beginning of the season and has largely remained stagnant in the second half. There was a learning curve for La Russa as he jumped back into managing for the first time since 2011, but he appears to have gotten up to speed.
This edge goes to the White Sox.
Although the White Sox are not specifically built to win with Guaranteed Rate Field’s dimensions, the South Siders’ disadvantage in not having home-field advantage is a non-negligible one. The Astros are 51-30 at home (+95 run differential) and 44-37 on the road (+105 run differential). The bigger gap is with the South Siders, who are 53-28 at home, while they finished only 40-41 on the road. The good news is that the White Sox still played fairly well on the road (+47 run differential), but they failed to squeeze out quite a few close games.
To win this series, the White Sox will need to break that trend, since they are unlikely to jump out to large leads in Houston. As of October 1, according to Baseball-Reference, the Astros had a 54.6% chance to win the series. The computers are providing a probability that is close to what most would expect, which is that the Astros have a slight edge, say a 3-2 win in a series that goes the full five games.
Far crazier things have happened in the MLB playoffs, though. One game at a time.