People attempt to attach wide-ranging significance and meaning to relatively isolated circumstances. It’s human nature to extrapolate an overall conclusion from a specific instance, but if the sabermetric take over of sports has taught us anything it’s that accuracy is based on sample sizes and large is telling while small is often misleading. It’s a battle between rationality and instinctive reality.
This week, that battle is being waged in the media and the setting is a four game series between two of the four American League elites, the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros. Come Monday, there will be boisterous debates filled with exaggerated conclusions defining the series and all of it’s meanings. The reality is that there are two things that we are going to learn, one large and one small. There will be a “macro” message and a “micro” one.
Entering the series there are a few things we are fairly certain we know.
1. The Astros and Red Sox, along with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees, are the elite teams in an American League that has a stark separation between the “haves” and the “have nots.” The “big four” are the clear favorites to win their divisions or occupy the first Wild Card. This series isn’t going to change that fact, or is it? More on that later.
2. It looks like the Astros are the class of the league because of their starting rotation. All of the big four rank in the top five in runs scored and they all have elite pitchers to front their rotations, but on paper, the Astros starting rotation separates itself and on the stat sheets they have proved it with a historically dominant start.
As a staff, the Astros lead the league with a team ERA of 2.67 and a WHIP of 1.02. The Washington Nationals rank second with a team ERA of 3.23, a difference of more than half a run (.56). There isn’t a larger separation in team ERA between two consecutively ranked teams than the Astros and Nationals. The second largest difference is between the fifteenth ranked Tampa Bay Rays (3.97) and sixteenth ranked New York Mets (4.19) and the twenty-second ranked Colorado Rockies (4.40) and twenty-third ranked San Francisco Giants (4.62), less than a quarter of a run difference.
3. If we assume the Red Sox and Astros are going to be playoff teams then, even though it is only June 1, we need to look at the individual matchups between the two teams. Winning in the playoffs is significantly easier when you have top-of-the-rotation starters like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale or Luis Severino rather than mid-level starters and innings-eaters like Rick Porcello and Sonny Gray, Drew Pomeranz or C.C. Sabathia. The Astros won’t need to add an ace to be ready for a World Series charge, but the Red Sox will and it looks unlikely that they will be able to.
What We Can Learn from a 4-Game Series in June
There are three things that we can glean from a four game set in late May/early June that will be relevant to a seven-game playoff series in October. One is a “macro” impression while two are more “micro” focused.
The “Macro” of The Astros-Red Sox Series
The big picture take away from this series, the “macro impression,” will be whether the Boston Red Sox belong on the same field as the Houston Astros when it counts most. The Red Sox are built perfectly for the marathon that is MLB’s regular season, but it doesn’t mean they have a legitimate chance to win a seven-game World Series against a team as good as the Astros.
Both teams score a lot of runs and both have bullpens ranked in the top ten in ERA. Where the Astros could bury the Red Sox in a short series is with their starters. The Astros have what looks like three, if not four or even five, front-of-the-rotation starters (Justin Verlander/Gerrit Cole/Charlie Morton/Lance McCullers/Dallas Keuchel) while the Red Sox have one, Chris Sale. We will see if the mismatch on the bump is so vast that the Red Sox will be forced to either add an ace or book tee times before any October series even begins. Fans and media will be left with an impression rather than come to a factual conclusion, but it will feed into an ongoing narrative for the 2018 season.
The “Micro” of A June Astros-Red Sox Series
There are two specific areas where we can learn some, somewhat meaningful, long-term lessons from a small sample size series in June between two juggernauts. The small sample won’t allow us enough data to come to hard and fast conclusions, but we will see certain, specific things that will “suggest” what could be meaningful in October. It won’t be the final scores or the wins and the losses, it will be the individual matchups.
1. We will be able to see how individual hitters perform against specific starting pitchers. The Red Sox batters will get a look at the Astros big-four (Verlander/Cole/Morton/McCullers), while the Astros will see the best the Sox have to offer, Chris Sale, and more importantly, the lesser of the rest, and we will see how they do.
Can the Astros feast on relatively pedestrian starters like Drew Pomeranz and Rick Porcello or can the Red Sox rotation hand it off to the bullpen without the game getting out of hand? Can J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts handle Verlander and McCullers curveball. With the release of Hanley Ramirez, can Mitch Moreland handle full time at bats against top-tier right handed pitching?
Can young lefties like Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers hold their own against veterans of the quality that the Astros will throw out there in this series? Can the bottom of a Red Sox batting order that has struggled mightily this season manage some kind of offense or does it provide Astros starters with quick, easy innings that allow them to go deep into these games and minimize the exposure to their bullpen?
For the Red Sox to win a playoff series against the Houston Astros Chris Sale is going to have to carry them. The strength of the Astros batting order is right handed, a side that Chris Sale has a .185 batting average against and .94 WHIP, but he has allowed nine home runs, two more than the struggling Drew Pomeranz. Can Sale continue his dominance or will he prove to be susceptible to home runs against the types of right handed bats that the Astros have in bunches?
2. Both teams rank in the top five in bullpen ERA, but ERA can be a misleading statistic for relievers. Inherited runners don’t count against a pitchers ERA, so a reliever brought in to a jam can fail to do his job and still leave with a pristine ERA. In their early season series the Yankee offense was able to exploit the Astros bullpen and do some damage. The Red Sox will need to show that they can get into the bullpen and take advantage of it. We will get a glimpse of how the managers plan to play the chess game with their bullpens, which individual matchups they like and don’t like, and how the players handle their individual matchups.
A Glimpse At The Pens
Left handed hitters are batting .303 against Ken Giles, .234 against Chris Devenski and .100 against Tony Sipp. Right handed hitters are batting .250 against Ken Giles while they are hitting a miserable .167 against Chris Devenski and an even more miniscule .133 versus Will Harris.
Right handed hitters are batting an almost invisible .102 against Matt Barnes, .130 against Craig Kimbrel and .196 against Joe Kelly, while hitting .277 against Heath Hembree. Left handed hitters are batting .050 against Joe Kelly, .179 against Matt Barnes and .214 versus Craig Kimbrel.
What To Look For
In the opening game of the set we saw Drew Pomeranz allow four earned in five innings pitched while Lance McCullers struck out only four through six before the Astros bullpen closed it down without incident. If you were to ask Red Sox fans if they would take that they probably would, reluctantly, and hope the offense could win the game. I am sure if you asked Astros supporters about how the game unfolded they would be ecstatic with the bullpen and tell you that they would like the offense be more explosive and to see McCullers more dominant, but they’ll take it.
The Red Sox lineup was altered due to lingering soreness to Pedroia’s knee that could result in him missing the series and a lat strain for Mookie Betts, but he is expected to play this weekend. There weren’t many fireworks to see in game one, we’ll see how the aces fair and whether the offenses flourish or fail over the weekend.
There will be a few bats added to these offenses and more than a few relief arms to the bullpens by the time we October rolls around, but there are things to be learned about then, now. What we will not learn? This is not a measuring stick series. Whether the Red Sox belong on the same field with the Astros or not is to some degree a measuring stick I suppose, but it’s a stretch to call it that. We will not learn how close or how far apart these two teams are or why based on anything that happens this series.
We will be left with an impression. Like pornography, we know it when we see it. That’s it.
We won’t learn about the strengths or weaknesses of their rosters based on this series. We will see examples, supplemented by the remainder of the season, that will eventually be telling in retrospect, but this specific series won’t tell us with any certainty anything sweeping.
We learn those lessons from 130-162 games and 400-600 at-bats and while the talkers and the bold “takers” will try to make the case on Monday, it will all be speculative noise. If you want to learn about how these two teams match up, look closely at the individual battles and how the managers choose to attack the opponents lineup. It’s the micro that is telling, not the macro.