Houston and Boston just finished the regular season with a four-game series in Fenway Park. Starting Thursday night in Houston, they will be matched in a best-of-five series with much bigger stakes.
The MLB odds on this AL Division Series have the Astros at -165 speaks volumes about how far they have come since their 2015 post-season appearance — a wildcard game upset of the New York Yankees, followed by a 3-2 ALDS loss to the eventual AL champion Kansas City Royals.
From a nice little story about a sabermetrically driven franchise that rebuilt from three consecutive 100-plus-loss seasons (2011-13), the Astros have become a powerhouse offensive team that added to a $136-million-and-climbing payroll for what they hope will be the final piece in a championship run — Justin Verlander.
They finished with 101 victories, and in this season of streaking elite-level teams, led the way with an 11-game run that left them with a 42-16 record on June 5. They reached 60-29 at the break, and after Verlander’s arrival, went on a 20-8 run that included winning streaks of seven, six and five games.
Dominating league offensive statistics along the way, the Astros have these sizable offensive edges over the Red Sox:
Runs: 892 (1st in AL) to 782 (6th)
OPS: .825 (1st) to .737 (11th)
Slugging pct.: .479 (1st) to .407 (14th)
On-base pct.: .346 (1st) to .330 (5th)
Home runs: 238 (2nd) to 168 (15th)
Run differential: +196 (2nd) to +117 (4th)
The Red Sox (93-69) also are built to win now, with a $207-million payroll, and won the AL East by two games. They have some pitching numbers advantages over the Astros, led by overall ERA (3.70 to 4.13 overall), and especially in bullpen ERA (3.11 to 4.29). And now the Sox get the huge bullpen addition of David Price, who besides being the only quality left-handed option for manager John Farrell, also could be used in an Andrew Miller-like, high-leverage pattern. The Kimbrel-Price-Matt Barnes trio gets the edge over Houston’s Ken Giles-Chris Devenski-Will Harris combination.
The Astros won the season series 4 games to 3, with both teams taking series in the other’s home ballpark. Houston had a 36-22 run advantage on the strength of 12-2 and 7-1 blowouts, but four of the seven games were decided by one run. The Astros have not decided between Dallas Keuchel and Verlander to face Sox ace Chris Sale in Game 1 (and a Game 5 if necessary). But because there are two scheduled off days in the series, whoever starts Game 2 could come back on regular four days rest to pitch a Game 5.
Sale’s minimal dropoff in the second half — ERA 2.74 to 3.28, and WHIP 0.97 to 1.14 — likely will cost him the Cy Young Award to Corey Kluber. Sale — who will be in his first post-season — did not face the Astros in either series this season.
Going back to 2016, the numbers were a bit mixed: On May 19, he allowed only four hits and a run in a complete-game victory. But on July 2, he allowed four runs and six hits in seven innings. In his career v. Houston, the numbers are nothing short of dominant: 5-1, 1.31 ERA, 48 IP, 29 hits, 5 BB, 65 K.
Keuchel hasn’t faced the Red Sox this season. His career numbers against them aren’t good: 0-1, 9.88 ERA, 15 runs and 19 hits in 13.2 IP. But the last outing was in the midst of Keuchel’s sub-par 2016, when he allowed eight runs and 10 hits in six innings in Fenway on May 12. In a 2014 start at Fenway, he allowed three runs and six hits in seven innings.
Verlander has been dominant in an Astros uniform, winning all five starts with this combined line: 34 IP, 17 hits, 4 ER, 5 BB, 43 K. In two starts against Boston this season, he allowed three runs and eight hits in 12 innings.
The Astros led the AL in OPS against RHP (.828) and were 2nd in AL in OPS against LHP (.814). Boston was third (.731) and 7th (.758), respectively. Defensive statistics are relatively even, with neither team being anywhere near the top of the AL heap.
Sale and Co. could pitch their way to an upset in this series, especially if the Astros pen falters. For your MLB Picks, My suggestion is to back the Astros to advance to the ALCS.