Red Sox

How good are the Astros? 4 things to watch as Red Sox prepare for ALCS opponent

A closer look at the pitching, hitting, and narratives around the Astros.

Red Sox Astros ALCS
Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros celebrates a win over the Chicago White Sox with teammates. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Red Sox lost five of the seven games they played against the Astros this season, and while both teams look different on the eve of the ALCS, the Astros are a formidable opponent.

So what should fans expect to see? Here’s a closer look at what the Astros bring to the table.

The Astros’ pitching rotation is a little thin

Losing Lance McCullers Jr. — reportedly for the series, possibly for the season — is a brutal blow for the Astros. McCullers was the team’s ace against the White Sox and won both of his outings.

But the Red Sox never faced McCullers this season. The pitcher they face in Game 1 is Framber Valdez, who gave the Red Sox fits in a pair of June meetings. Red Sox hitters mounted little challenge against his lethal combination of a sinking fastball and one of the MLB’s best curveballs. Valdez doesn’t generate many strikeouts, but he has 92nd percentile spin on his curve which averaged 61 inches of vertical drop and 13.5 inches of horizontal movement, as noted by Over the Monster. The Red Sox will need to figure Valdez out at some point, because they will likely see him twice.

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In Game 2, the Red Sox will get a second look at Luis Garcia, who gave up five hits and one run in a win over the Red Sox earlier this season. Garcia relies on a nasty cutter for 22.6 percent of his pitches.

Assuming he gets a start, José Urquidy will be an intriguing test of the Red Sox’s patience — he gives up very few walks, while the Red Sox boast one of the best walk rates in baseball.

But the loss of McCullers unquestionably hurts the Astros.

“Our options are — you know — who we have,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We got Framber, Garcia. We got Urquidy, and [Jake] Odorizzi. We do have options, but right now we’re not going to call upon those options even though Framber is starting tomorrow, and we’ll go from there.”

The Astros have a nasty collection of hitters.

Any lack of depth in the pitching rotation is more than made up for by the Astros’ lineup, which featured Kyle Tucker (.294, 30 homers) in the seven slot against the White Sox. The Astros didn’t have an All-Star starter, but they had three batters among the reserves — Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Michael Brantley.

Statistically, the Astros were first in team WAR with the No. 1 offense by a mile, according to FanGraphs. The Astros also led the majors in wRC+ (weighted runs created, adjusted for external factors such as ballparks).

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Chris Sale, who will face the Astros in Game 1, was asked about their lineup.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Sale said. “I think they were one of the top offenses in the league. We know what we’re up against. We know who is in the other dugout. It’s just about us executing. We’ve got a lineup that is just as dangerous if not more, so it’s going to be on us to keep them at bay so our lineup can go and do their thing and feel comfortable in those spots.”

The Astros are incredibly clutch.

A team doesn’t make the ALCS five consecutive years without some drama, and the Astros are good at drama. White Sox closer Liam Hendriks offered perhaps the best summation of how good the Astros are when the lights are brightest.

“That’s what they’re known for,” Hendriks said. “That’s what they’re really good at is figuring out how to win in the playoffs.”

Early in the season, the Red Sox gained a reputation as a team that is never out of a game. That reputation later waned a bit, but the Red Sox have been excellent again in the postseason.

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The Astros, who are annually excellent in the postseason, present their biggest test to date.

Will the “villain” narrative spark the Astros?

The Red Sox spent much of the season playing up the “Nobody believes in us” narrative, which worked well for them.

The Astros are a different case. Opposing fans certainly believe in them. They are just widely hated after a sign-stealing scandal rocked their franchise in 2017 and 2018.

During the ALDS, White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera insinuated the Astros were cheating again. Astros players were incensed.

“I saw it on Twitter, sent it to the team’s group chat and said, ‘We’re coming for their heads,'” Correa said in Spanish in an interview with DePlaymaker on Wednesday, as transcribed by the Houston Chronicle. “That’s all I said in our group chat.”

In a postgame interview on the field, Correa called about Tepera again.

“I encouraged other players that when you’re going to talk [expletive] about other teams, just state facts,” Correa said. “If you don’t state facts, then you lose credibility in this game. It’s unfortunate that he had to say those words because we came out here hungry. We showed up.”

Narrative psychology is a field that investigates the power of story and how it gives meaning to a person’s life and experiences. The same might be said about teams — generating a narrative can be a powerful way to bring everyone together. “Nobody believes in us” taking on “H-Town vs. Everybody” could be an interesting showdown.

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