The 115th World Series kicks off Tuesday night when the Houston Astros play host to the Washington Nationals at Minute Maid Park. Who has the edge? Let’s break it down by unit and skill.
At the plate
Getting on base: Maybe we should call this the World Series of On-Base Percentage? The Astros (.352) and Nationals (.342) ranked first and second in the major leagues in this measure. Houston’s Alex Bregman (.423) and Washington’s Anthony Rendon (.412) placed third and fourth among qualified batters. The Astros struck out the least (1,166) of any team and the Nats (1,308) performed fourth-best in this category. We should see plenty of traffic on the bases. The only real liabilities in this department are the Astros’ Josh Reddick (.319) and Washington’s Yan Gomes (.316).
Power: The ’Stros led the majors in slugging percentage (.495), tallying the third-most homers (288) and second-most doubles (323). It’s a sign of the times that the Nationals could match Houston with 10 players reaching double digits in home runs and 12 in two-baggers. When you break it down further, however, you see that the Astros field seven players who went deep 20-plus times to the Nats’ four. Washington, while possessing a foreboding lineup for the National League, can’t come close to the danger the Astros pose virtually every time someone comes to bat.
On the basepaths: Speed has helped the Nationals get to where they are. Trea Turner, an outstanding 35-for-40 in stolen-base attempts, and Victor Robles (28-for-37) lead the way. The Astros, a generally athletic group, run the bases well, yet the stolen base is not a primary weapon.
In the field
Infield: This conversation must start at third base, where Bregman and Rendon both figure to be finalists for their respective leagues’ Most Valuable Player honors. The shortstops Carlos Correa and Trea Turner are pretty darn good, too. When you head to the right side of the infield, the Astros keep excelling with 2B Jose Altuve and 1B Yuli Gurriel, whereas the Nats slip a little with a mix of three veterans: Brian Dozier plays some second, franchise icon Ryan Zimmerman starts often at first and Howie Kendrick (who will DH in the Houston games) pinballs between the two. The Astros’ unit might be the best in all of baseball.
Outfield: All you need to know about the Nats’ outfield is they let Bryce Harper go to sign the largest free-agent contract in baseball history and still put out a stellar unit, led by super sophomore Juan Soto in left field. Rookie center fielder Victor Robles plays outstanding defense and right fielder Adam Eaton hits without a great glove. Having written that, the Astros’ pair of LF Michael Brantley and CF George Springer more than cover up for the pedestrian play of RF Josh Reddick and give Houston yet another area of strength.
Games 3 through 5 at Nationals Park will be interesting just to see how the Astros deploy their rarely used reserves. In AL action, the most creative they get is bringing in OF Jake Marisnick for defense late in leads. The Nats, meanwhile, rely on a crew of familiar names like former Mets IF Asdrubal Cabrera, 1B Matt Adams, OFs Gerardo Parra and Michael Taylor and whoever isn’t starting among Dozier, Kendrick and Zimmerman. Catchers Martin Maldonado and Kurt Suzuki should get some starts in relief of regulars Robinson Chirinos and Yan Gomes.
On the mound
Rotation: Now we’re talking. Look at the Astros’ top three of RHPs Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke and the Nats’ top three of RHPs Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and LHP Patrick Corbin. How many of the other 28 teams would select any of the six as their ace? Plenty, including semifinalists the Yankees and Cardinals. The Nats have a respectable fourth starter in RHP Anibal Sanchez, while the Astros, whose fourth starter LHP Wade Miley struggled greatly in September, won the pennant with a bullpening effort and could try that again in Game 4.
Bullpen: Each of Washington’s three aces has pitched in relief this month, a byproduct of the Nationals’ stunningly awful and shallow bullpen. The steady performances of LHP Sean Doolittle and RHP Daniel Hudson this month have provided at least some stabilization. That the Astros’ bullpen serves as their Achilles’ heel speaks more about their strength everywhere else than their relievers, as closer RHP Roberto Osuna and setup men RHPs Will Harris, Ryan Pressly (if healthy) and Joe Smith do their jobs adequately. Given the presence of important lefty hitters like Soto and Eaton on the Nats, it’ll be interesting to see if the Astros select a southpaw like Miley after going with all right-handers against the Yankees.
It’s embarrassing for the Diamondbacks’ fan base and media that they largely treated AJ Hinch with contempt upon his hiring in 2009. This marks Hinch’s fourth trip to the playoffs in five years running the Astros, as he has proven mastery of game strategy, people skills and organizational advocacy. His counterpart, Dave Martinez, looked to be in serious danger of getting fired in just his second season, only to rally his guys in a huge way. Martinez naturally gets credit for the team’s revival after a ghastly 19-31 beginning.
The Astros are great and they know it, and they’re pretty unshakable, as evidenced by their shrugging off DJ LeMahieu’s ninth-inning, two-run homer in ALCS Game 6 and winning the pennant in the bottom of the inning on Altuve’s two-run bomb. How can you not love these Nationals’ energy, however? You’re going to be pretty darn confident when you pull off major comebacks to beat the Brewers (in the NL wild-card game) and the Dodgers (in Game 5 of the NL Division Series), then blow past the Cardinals in the NLCS. You’ve got to love the “Baby Shark” routine at Nationals Park. The Nats act like a group of guys with nothing to lose, having the time of their lives.