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The Four Areas That Could Decide the 2021 World Series

On the surface, the Atlanta Braves look like the underdog in this World Series. They came into this postseason with the worst record of any playoff team, they’re missing their best player (Ronald Acuña Jr.) and one of their best starting pitchers (Mike Soroka), and their outfield is being held together with bubble gum and duct tape. Had the Mets and Phillies both not crapped the bed so emphatically down the stretch, Atlanta might be watching this series on TV. The Astros have more star power, more experience, and home-field advantage.

But the projection systems say different. PECOTA and FanGraphs both have Houston as the favorite, but marginally at best, with 50.6 and 51.8 percent chances to win, respectively. Which, when you look deeper into both teams, makes some sense. Both Houston and Atlanta have been inconsistent in their runs to the World Series. Neither team has the rotation depth to lock out opposing offenses in a short series, nor the 2015 Royals-type bullpen depth to make up for weaknesses among starters. Anything could happen. So let’s take a look at a few different aspects of this matchup that might end up deciding the series.

Luis Garcia and Framber Valdez

The 2021 postseason has been Lance McCullers Jr.’s career in microcosm: He had a magnificent start in Game 1 of the ALDS—6 2/3 scoreless innings, four hits, and no walks—that set the tone for the Astros to knock the White Sox out without breaking a sweat. Then, in his next start—four innings, one run allowed in the clincher—McCullers felt tightness in his throwing elbow and is now out for the season. High-leverage excellence, nagging injury, extended absence. Rinse and repeat.

Without McCullers, and with Cristan Javier and Zack Greinke not stretched out to full starter endurance, the Astros have struggled to fill four rotation spots—and have had little idea what to expect from those who are starting. Take the ALCS, for instance. Everyone will remember Luis Garcia taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning of Game 6 and Framber Valdez saving Houston’s overworked bullpen with eight innings of one-run ball in Game 5. But Garcia was terrible in his lone ALDS start against the White Sox—Game 3, the only time Chicago’s bats showed up all series—and even worse in his injury-shortened one-inning, five-run appearance in Game 2 of the ALCS.

The Astros are 3-0 in Valdez’s starts this postseason, but that number belies how bad Valdez was in his first two, both of which required late-inning offensive outbursts to salvage a win. In the seven games between McCullers’s playoff-opening gem and Valdez’s series-turning outing in Fenway, no Astros starter got through five innings. Only twice in seven attempts did Houston’s starter get through three.

Even in this bullpen-dominant mode of baseball, you can’t expect to win a best-of-seven series with that level of starting pitching. Houston was lucky to get away with it once. Valdez and Garcia can dominate on their best day—so can José Urquidy, hero of Game 4 of the 2019 World Series—but they need to at least be competent if the Astros are going to win.

Houston’s Running Game

“What running game?” I hear you ask, and that’s a fair point. The Astros were 27th out of 30 teams in the majors this year in stolen bases. Their top base stealer, Myles Straw, was traded to Cleveland midseason. Only one remaining Astro, Kyle Tucker, even reached double figures in stolen base attempts. But Houston would do well to be more aggressive in the World Series.

In an unusually prosperous postseason for would-be Herb Washingtons, the Braves have found it difficult to keep baserunners from advancing at will. In six games’ worth of NLCS play, the Dodgers stole 11 bases without being caught. The previous round, the Brewers went 2-for-2, which is surprising if only because it means Milwaukee had as many as two baserunners in that entire series. For everything Atlanta does well, this is an obvious weakness.

The most difficult Atlanta starter to run on is Max Fried, who in his career has picked off 20 baserunners while allowing just 18 stolen bases. Shocking that an athletic left-hander with a smooth delivery would also have a good pickoff move, I know. Lefty relievers A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek have also managed to control the running game in small samples.

But their right-handed confreres, not so much. Base stealers are a perfect 13-for-13 combined off Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton this year and 7-for-8 (and 25-for-31 lifetime) off reliever Luke Jackson. Travis d’Arnaud is a hugely underrated all-around catcher, but at this point in his career, he isn’t very good at throwing baserunners out. Since d’Arnaud joined Atlanta last year, opponents are 50-for-58 in stolen base attempts, an 86.2 percent success rate. That would be the third-best career success rate all-time for an individual player with at least 100 stolen base attempts. Of the 43 catchers who caught at least 7,000 pitches this year, Baseball Prospectus has d’Arnaud 32nd in throwing runs.

The Dodgers and Brewers were in better positions to exploit this area of weakness for Atlanta, and the Astros don’t have a Trea Turner or Lorenzo Cain in their lineup. But Houston, on aggregate, is also just slow. Yuli Gurriel and Michael Brantley are old. Carlos Correa is one of the slower shortstops in the game. You might think Alex Bregman, a little guy who used to be a middle infielder, would have wheels, but you’d be wrong: He was in the 24th percentile for sprint speed this year and has attempted just one steal in the past two seasons. Yordan Álvarez … could maybe steal second if he had a dirt bike.

There are, however, a few Astros who could raise hell on the bases if they pick their spots. Tucker is one. José Altuve, who once stole 56 bags in a season but doesn’t run much anymore, still has solid wheels. Chas McCormick was in the 89th percentile in sprint speed and was a good-percentage base stealer in the minors. And if Jose Siri inveigles his way into the lineup again, he’s a 99th percentile runner who’s stolen at least 20 bases in every minor league season dating back to 2016. This style of play might not be the Astros’ comfort zone, but if they want to pursue every marginal advantage, this is an obvious place to do it.

Eddie Rosario and the Atlanta Outfield

Atlanta owes its appearance in this series in large part to its outfielders: Eddie Rosario’s 14-for-25 performance in the NLCS gets the most press, and deservedly so. But Joc Pederson is also approaching cult-hero status in the Southeast, thanks to his string of pearls and equally distinctive string of well-timed home runs.

By the time the Braves got to the NLCS, manager Brian Snitker was on about Plan F for his outfield, with Acuña hurt, Marcell Ozuna suspended, Ender Inciarte released, and Cristian Pache unable to hit major league pitching. Of the six outfielders Atlanta has used this postseason, none of the four with the most at-bats were in the organization before July 15. The only one who was with the franchise at the start of spring training was Pache, who’s played two innings as a defensive replacement and has yet to bat.

Yet Atlanta’s offensive production hinges on this outfield. If all three outfielders are taking good at-bats and getting on base, this lineup goes eight deep. If not, Freddie Freeman’s going to spend a big chunk of this series hitting with the bases empty. What can the left-handed Rosario and Pederson do against Valdez, whom they’re almost certain to see twice in this series? Can Adam Duvall rebound from an NLCS in which he went 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts? What kind of impact can Jorge Soler make if—as is expected—he starts at DH for the first leg of the series? Not exactly scientific questions, but the Braves got here because certain guys got hot. Now those hitters have to stay hot if Atlanta is going to keep winning.

The Platoon Split

These two teams make for a fascinating contrast in the makeup of their respective bullpens. Basically all of Houston’s high-leverage guys are right-handed, and all of Atlanta’s are left-handed. The Astros used two left-handed relievers in the ALCS: Brooks Raley and Blake Taylor, and between the two of them they’ve had one genuinely high-leverage outing in six relief appearances. Javier, Ryne Stanek, Kendall Graveman, and closer Ryan Pressly are all right-handed.

Atlanta, by contrast, didn’t even put Richard Rodríguez—the key righty reliever the Braves acquired at the deadline—on the postseason roster. Instead, they’ve made do with closer Will Smith, as well as Matzek and Minter, in high-leverage situations. Jackson has also pitched in big moments this postseason, but not well. In four NLCS appearances, he faced 15 batters and allowed 10 of them to reach base and five to score. If he pitches that poorly and that frequently, Atlanta might only last four games in the World Series total.

Having a lefty-heavy bullpen might make things awkward for the Braves, particularly because Houston’s teamwide wRC+ against lefties this year was 117, the best in baseball. At the same time, Houston’s teamwide wRC+ against right-handed pitching this year was 116, also the best in baseball. Moreover, Matzek and Fried both had notable reverse splits this season. The only Astros regulars with real platoon issues are Martín Maldonado, who’s 2-for-29 against pitchers of any kind this postseason, and the two right-handed-hitting young center fielders. (Three if Jake Meyers is healthy enough to make the roster.) Atlanta’s lefty-heavy bullpen will only be a weakness in the sense that all pitchers are weak against a lineup as good as Houston’s.

But the Braves might be able to exploit the Astros’ righty-heavy pitching staff, if only because they just did the same against the Dodgers. Dave Roberts’s three most trusted relievers in the last round were all right-handed: Brusdar Graterol, Kenley Jansen, and Blake Treinen. Lefties Alex Vesia and Justin Bruihl pitched well when called on, but Roberts was so skittish about using them he burned his only left-handed starter, Julio Urías, to face the top of Atlanta’s order late in Game 2.

That allowed Snitker to load the top and middle of his batting order with left-handed bats. Rosario, who hit near the bottom of the order in the NLDS, led off five times in six games against Los Angeles. Pederson, who would’ve played more regardless given that Soler was on the COVID-19 list, started four times in six games against the Dodgers.

Raley and Taylor have both held lefties to an OPS under .500 this year, but both have allowed an OPS of around .800 or higher. That makes them ideal high-leverage matchups for Rosario and Freeman, should Snitker continue to stack those two in the lineup. But because of the three-batter minimum, they’d likely have to face one or both of d’Arnaud (probably Atlanta’s no. 9 hitter in a lineup with a DH) and no. 3 hitter Ozzie Albies. Both d’Arnaud and Albies struggle against right-handed pitchers but would wear out either Raley or Taylor. Atlanta will have to live with maybe six plate appearances against Valdez each for Freeman and Rosario, but after that, it’s possible that neither will face a left-handed pitcher in high leverage over the rest of the series. Certainly no lefty other than Valdez will face Freeman, Rosario, and Pederson on the same trip through the lineup.

These are mostly small and unpredictable aspects of the game, but closely matched playoff series are frequently decided in the margins. Or Correa could go 14-for-21 or Morton could throw two shutouts and this could all be academic. There’s only one way to find out.

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