The starting pitcher might be dying off, but no one told the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians. Both teams rode strong starting staffs to the postseason, and will now be out to prove that you can win a World Series without changing pitchers every inning.
It’s tough to overstate the level of talent in these rotations. The series will feature seven of the top-10 starting pitchers in the American League, according to fWAR. That’s Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Dallas Keuchel.
This is not to say the series will be strictly for baseball traditionalists. Both A.J. Hinch and Terry Francona are among the most inventive managers in baseball. Hinch utilized tandem starters during the team’s World Series run in 2017, and Francona employed aggressive bullpen strategies in 2016.
Each managerial decision could wind up under the microscope even more than usual considering both teams employ equally strong offenses. The series could come down to one wrong pitching change or one miscalculated pinch hitter.
If there’s a major difference between both clubs, it’s what’s at stake. The Astros are looking to become the first back-to-back World Series champs since the New York Yankees did it in 1999 and 2000. The Indians, on the other hand, haven’t won the World Series since 1948.
Will baseball fans see the start of a new dynasty, or will a long-suffering fanbase inch closer to breaking a lengthy drought?
Game 1: Friday, Oct. 5, in Houston, 2:05 p.m. ET (TV coverage on TBS)
Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 6, in Houston, 4:37 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 3: Monday, Oct. 8, in Cleveland, time 1:30 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 4*: Tuesday, Oct. 9, in Cleveland, time 4:35 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 5*: Thursday, Oct. 11, in Houston, time 4:07 p.m. ET (TBS)
Houston won the regular season series, going 4-3 against Cleveland. The two teams played all seven of those games in the span of just nine days in May. They haven’t seen each other since then.
For the most part, all those games were pretty close. Houston managed to beat Cleveland 8-2 and 11-2, but every other contest between the clubs was decided by three or fewer runs.
Game 1: Corey Kluber (20-7, 2.89 ERA) vs. Justin Verlander (16-9, 2.52)
Game 2: Carlos Carrasco (17-10, 3.38) vs. Gerrit Cole (15-5, 2.88)
Game 3: Dallas Keuchel (12-11, 3.74) vs. Mike Clevinger (13-8, 3.02)
Game 4: TBA
Game 5: TBA
The popular saying is that you “can’t predict baseball,” but we feel pretty confident saying you’ll see some strong starting pitching in this series. With their 22.9 fWAR, the Indians had the best rotation in baseball in 2018. At 22.5 fWAR, the Astros weren’t far behind for second.
If you don’t like WAR, that’s fine. There are plenty of other stats that hint at this being a tight matchup. The Astros’ rotation was first in the majors with a 3.16 ERA. The Indians were third with a 3.39 ERA. The Astros rotation put up a 28.2 percent strikeout rate, good for best in the majors. The Indians came in at second with a 26.3 percent strikeout rate.
Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander will square off in Game 1, and that might be the best pitching matchup fans see all postseason. Game 2 will feature Carlos Carrasco against Gerrit Cole.
Dallas Keuchel is expected to take the mound for Houston in Game 3. Cleveland could counter with Trevor Bauer depending on health. By some metrics, he was the team’s best pitcher in 2018, but a broken leg took him out of action until late September. Bauer was able to return and pitch down the stretch, but he hasn’t gone more than four innings yet since coming back from the injury.
Game 4 could feature the Astros turning to Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. as tandem starters. Indians manager Terry Francona could counter with Mike Clevinger.
Keys to victory for Houston
Get to Cleveland’s bullpen. If there’s one area where these teams differ, it’s in the pen. The Astros’ relievers combined for a 3.03 ERA, which was good for best in the league in the regular season. Cleveland, on the other hand, posted a 4.60 ERA out of the bullpen, which ranked 25th.
There are reasons to believe that figure is somewhat misleading. Andrew Miller missed a large chunk of the season and the team didn’t get a full year of production from Brad Hand. Miller, however, hasn’t been the same since returning. He put up a 6.30 ERA in September over 10 innings.
The Astros don’t necessarily have to score a bunch of runs against Cleveland’s starters, they just need to tire them out and extend at-bats. The sooner Cleveland has to go to its bullpen, the sooner the Astros can move on to the American League Championship Series.
Keys to victory for Cleveland
Don’t walk anyone. We’re reaching here, but it’s only because these two teams are so evenly-matched. If there’s one area where Cleveland has an edge over the Astros, it’s that the team’s starting rotation doesn’t give up walks. Cleveland’s starters led baseball with a 6.0 percent walk rate. Houston was about middle of the pack in that area. The Astros’ lineup is scary enough. There’s no need to put guys on base for free. Make them earn it.
The other side of that would be to take advantage of the free passes issued by the Astros. Cleveland led the majors with 135 steals, so the team could easily turn a walk into a double with a well-timed steal. Capitalize on enough of those situations, and Cleveland will topple the reigning World Series champs.
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