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Know Your Enemy, ALDS Edition: Houston Astros

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The garbage-bangers are back for a postseason matchup.

MLB: AUG 03 Astros at Dodgers Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to October baseball, White Sox fans! The playoffs are here and with it, national media pretending to have cared about the White Sox all along. We know the truth — they just care about the Astros.

Everyone outside of Houston still hates the Astros. It’s such a mystery as to why. Could it be the fact that they cheated and never apologized for it? Could it be that they cheated, never apologized, and then played victim? How will we ever solve this greatest of all conundrums?

As critical as I’ve been of Tony La Russa and his hiring, I am very much looking forward to him continuing his weird feud with Dusty Baker. Will the old dudes continue to fight it out? Sure.

So, how did the regular season go?

The beginning of 2021 saw the departure of George Springer (to the Blue Jays), Josh Reddick (to the Diamondbacks, arguably a punishment of its own), and Dustin Garneau (to the minors, Rockies, and Tigers). They signed Ryne Stanek, Pedro Baez, Jake Odorizzi, and Jason Castro in the offseason.

The Astros spent 118 days in first and have been 30 games better than .500 since September 22. Their longest losing streak was April 9-16, and they haven’t looked back since (they would go on to lose four in a row at various points throughout the season). The Astros went 44-27 on the road and were 40-31 in the second half of the season.

Dusty Baker returned as the manager of the Astros, originally brought on in 2020 to use whatever good feelings the baseball world had for him to help boost the image of the cheatin’ Astros. Not sure how well it worked, considering plenty of people other than just Nationals fans are mad that they have to hate Dusty Baker now just because he’s Houston’s manager.

The Astros finished first in the AL West with a 95-67 record. They had the second-lowest number of strikeouts in the league (1,222), best team batting average (.267), and best team OBP (.336) while finishing third in slugging (.444). The Astros led the league in hits (1,496) and at-bats (5,593) and were ninth in home runs (221). All of this offense gave the Astros the No. 2 seed in the AL, and means the White Sox are stuck facing them in what can be described as a 2005 showdown — but with way older managers.

Yuli Gurriel, famous for mocking Yu Darvish in addition to cheating his way to a World Series, led the team in batting average (.319), OBP (.383), and hits (169) while Yordan Alvarez was tops in home runs (33) and RBIs (104). Gurriel has a strikeout percentage of 11.2% this season, placing him in the top 2% of the league in strikeouts. Breaking pitches have tripped him up this season, getting a whiff% of 20.6.

Astros darling Jose Altuve finished the season with an xBA of .258, which is fairly close to his rookie season of 2015, when his xBA was .259. Altuve’s strikeout rate is the highest he’s ever had at 13.4%, putting him in the top 6% of the league. He continues to have a high whiff%, most on breaking balls (23%), but not at the rate he was in 2020 so that’s progress I guess (or indicative of 2020 being a shorter season, so he saw fewer breaking pitches).

Pitching-wise, Lance McCullers Jr. led the pitching staff with 13 wins, a 3.16 ERA, and 185 strikeouts. His spin rate was up across the board for 2021 in every one of his pitches, except for his changeup.

How is the ALDS looking?

On paper, of course, the Astros are the favorites. As much as everyone hates them, they still finished the 2021 season with a better run differential than the White Sox (+205 vs. +160). But if this year’s AL Central PECOTA rankings taught us anything, it’s that “on paper” and “in real life” can be two very different things.

The Astros finished the regular season with a pretty good offense. The White Sox offense is good too, just not quite as good:

In terms of pitching, both teams’ staffs were fairly close in quality. White Sox finished with a team ERA of 3.73, while the Astros posted 3.76. The White Sox pitchers posted more strikeouts, 1,588, compared to Houston’s 1,456. The advantage also goes to the White Sox in terms of bullpen ERA, 3.96 vs. 4.06. The White Sox also led all of baseball in pitching WAR.

However, the White Sox limped through September in a way that will not give fans a whole lot of faith. They went 14-12 and only managed 113 runs scored while allowing 99 runs. White Sox lost 10 of the first 18 games, before going on to win eight of 11 to end the season, which included a six-game win streak. September was a bit kinder to the Astros; they went 15-12 with 141 runs scored while allowing 114 runs.

In the regular season matchup, things could have gone much better than they did (to say the least), as the Astros took five of seven.

Pitching matchups: Games 1-2

Game 1 will be Lance McCullers Jr. vs. Lance Lynn. McCullers went 13-5 during the regular season, going 162 13 innings while allowing 122 hits and striking out 185. He posted a 3.16 ERA, walked 76, and allowed 13 home runs. He’s done pretty well against the White Sox, posting a 4-1 in his five starts against the team. McCullers has allowed 19 hits against the South Siders while allowing eight runs and striking out 36. He’s pitched in eight postseason series from 2015-20, so suffice to say McCullers is very prepared for the postseason. In the eight series, he’s gone 1-2 with a 3.28 ERA over 46 23 innings while allowing 35 hits.

Lynn has as much postseason experience as anyone of the White Sox pitching staff. His first trip to the postseason was in 2011 with the Cardinals, and he continued pitching in the playoffs every year after that until 2015 (with a stint pitching in a World Series game in both 2011 and 2013). His next trip to the postseason, with the Yankees in 2018, was not as fruitful. The World Series and all the postseason experience can only help the team.

Game 2 will be Framber Valdez vs. Lucas Giolito. Valdez ended the season 11-6 over 134 23 innings with a 3.14 ERA. He allowed 110 hits and 53 runs, striking out 125 and giving up 12 home runs. The White Sox have only seen Valdez twice, once on June 19 and again on July 18. He’s holding a 1-1 record against the White Sox, going 13 13 innings while allowing 13 runs and striking out nine. Valdez’s sole postseason experience comes from the Astros’ 2020 trip to the American League series.

The last time Giolito faced off against the Astros on July 17, he threw a complete game. He allowed three hits and one run (a homer) while striking out eight. Giolito has had five career starts against the Astros, striking out 24 and holding batters to a .186 average.

(Game 3 should see either Carlos Rodón or Dylan Cease starting for the Blackout Game Sunday night back in Chicago. If you’re going don’t forget to wear your black!)

Why do we still hate them?

It seems like a really obvious question, but here we are.