It’s an under-discussed feat that the Houston Astros — who took down the Chicago White Sox rather easily in the American League Division Series — will be participating in their fifth consecutive ALCS when they open against the Boston Red Sox at Minute Maid Park on Friday night.
Despite losing George Springer to free agency and not having Justin Verlander all season, Houston — led by the indomitable Dusty Baker — is back where it always seems to be: on the cusp of the Fall Classic.
This series is a rematch of the 2018 ALCS, which the Red Sox won in five games en route to a World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Of course, there are some connections between these teams, most notably with respect to Boston manager Alex Cora, who was the Astros’ bench coach in 2017 — the year in which the infamous trash can sign-stealing scandal occurred — right before he was hired by the Red Sox.
Then, in 2020, Cora was fired by the Red Sox and suspended by MLB for his role in the scheme, only for him to be re-hired before the 2021 season. There’s a lot of familiarities.
The Astros didn’t have to break much of a sweat against the White Sox, while the Red Sox stunned the Tampa Bay Rays in four games after losing Game 1. Boston’s much-belabored bullpen actually got the job done in Games 3 and 4 to stave off the Rays in a pair of games that came down to the last at-bat. The Red Sox got key hits when they needed them and a questionable over-the-fence deflection that set the baseball world into a daze and Boston fans into delirium.
Boston eliminated good teams in the New York Yankees and Rays in the Wild-Card Game and ALDS, respectively; however, Houston might be in a different class of opponent. The Astros have elite batters at nearly every position and were in the top-three in baseball in most major offensive categories during the 2021 regular season. The Red Sox — mostly with Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts — have some firepower but they can’t match up with Houston.
The BetUS sportsbook has the Astros as -155 series favorites and the Red Sox as +125 series underdogs. Friday’s first pitch from Minute Maid Park is set for 8:07 p.m. ET.
Astros’ Rotation Is Deeper
While neither team has officially announced its rotation schedule for the ALCS, the Red Sox are likely going with Nathan Eovaldi in Game 1. Saturday’s Game 2 pitcher is still up in the air, as Eduardo Rodríguez would be lined up on regular rest for that start but Boston could choose to go with Chris Sale — who was shelled in just one inning in Game 2 against the Rays and didn’t pitch again the rest of the series — as another option. Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck, who pitched well as bulk guys against Tampa Bay, are also candidates to pitch early and often against Houston.
Houston has some more reliable rotation options. Framber Valdez, who struggled in Game 2 against the White Sox, should get the Game 1 start against Boston. Luis García also was hit hard by Chicago, but is rested enough to possibly start Game 2. Lance McCullers Jr. pitched well in the clinching game against the White Sox but had to leave early with forearm tightness, which could make things tougher for Baker. José Urquidy — who wasn’t used in the ALDS — and Zack Greinke are other guys with starting experience for Houston.
The MLB playoff odds clearly favor the Astros, mostly because of the Houston offense but also because the Astros have a much deeper group of pitchers for starts and multi-inning relief outings. If you’re betting online and don’t mind backing a sizable favorite, you should back Houston.
Houston’s Lineup Will Dominate Boston’s Staff
The Astros chewed up Chicago’s strong rotation and bullpen all ALDS, and there’s no reason to think Houston can’t do better against a Red Sox team that only has a few trustworthy bullpen options and fewer reliable rotation arms.
Houston scored 31 runs in four games against a strong White Sox rotation and posted a team OPS of .803. That’s not particularly surprising, considering that the Astros slashed .267/.339/.444/.783 this season. Each of those measures was either the best, second-best or third-best marks in all of baseball in 2021. On the other hand, the Boston pitching staff was 15th in ERA in the regular season and 23rd in WHIP.
The best-of-seven nature of the ALCS makes things tougher for the Red Sox because they won’t be able to rely on just Eovaldi, Houck, Pivetta, and Garrett Whitlock over the course of a longer series. It’s clear that Cora just doesn’t trust many of his pitchers right now, and you can’t blame him. But, in a best-of-seven series, he’s going to have to expand that circle of trust which just invites the Astros to tee off.
Meanwhile, Baker used basically his whole staff in the ALDS, showing that he can spread out innings among more pitchers to keep guys fresh for a longer series. Houston might not have guys with the stuff that Whitlock or Houck have, yet, by having more versatile arms, the Astros are less reliant on one or two guys which makes them even tougher to beat.
The MLB lines are siding with the Astros mostly because of the offensive production, to be sure. However, Houston’s roster is much better suited for a long series than Boston’s and the Astros are also a significantly better defensive team than the Red Sox. Of course, anything can happen in a playoff series but, in almost every aspect of the game, the Astros are by far the better team in this matchup. If you’re making MLB picks, go with Houston.