The Houston Astros will begin their postseason on Thursday against the Chicago White Sox in a best-of-five Division Series matchup of the American League's No. 2 and 3 seeds, featuring Dusty Baker and Tony La Russa, who have had bad blood over the years. The Astros won 95 games during the regular season, securing their fourth AL West title in the last five years. The White Sox, for their part, won their first AL Central crown since 2008 on the strength of 93 games. Houston, by virtue of having the better regular-season record, will host three of the series' five potential games.
The Astros, for their part, are on the verge of an impressive feat -- and we don't mean convincing people to pretend their sign-stealing scandal never happened. Rather, with a series win the Astros will advance to their fifth consecutive ALCS. For a point of reference, the Jim Leyland era Detroit Tigers, who always seemed right there until the end, reached only four consecutive ALCS.
Is there reason to think the Astros will be able to surpass those Tigers and secure trip No. 5? We think yes, and here's three reasons why.
1. Better run differential, tougher schedule
One of the easiest ways to judge a team is to look at their run differential. Studies have shown that run differential is more predictive of a team's quality than even its won-lost record, especially in smaller samples. We have 162 games' worth to go off for both of these teams, and the data suggests the Astros are the superior group.
Houston finished the regular season having scored 205 more runs than it allowed, the second-best differential in the AL, a run behind the Tampa Bay Rays. The White Sox, meanwhile, finished with a run differential of plus-160 -- or, the fourth-best mark in the AL, behind the Rays, Astros, and the Toronto Blue Jays.
We'll note that the Astros posted that superior run differential despite playing a tougher schedule than the White Sox did. According to Baseball Reference's calculations, Houston's schedule was the 22nd toughest in the majors, as opposed to the White Sox's, which ranked 27th. You can play only the schedule you're dealt, but there's sufficient reason to think the Astros were the better regular-season team.
2. Proven against good teams
Another easy way to size up teams is to see how they've fared against good teams. It's one thing to clean up against the Baltimore Orioles, it's another to consistently prevail against the best the league has to offer.
The Astros, then, should be encouraged by having the majors' best winning percentage against teams who were .500 or better. The Astros were 45-32 in those games ... that's a 58.4 winning percentage that prorates to 95 wins over 162 games.
Contrariwise, the White Sox were 27-29 against good teams during the regular season, putting them on a 78-win pace. The only division winners with worse marks were the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves.
Record against good teams might not be as predictive as run differential or other factors, but it does add credence to the idea that the Astros are the better team.
3. Platoon matchups favor Houston
Perhaps this is getting too far into the weeds, but we'd be remiss if we didn't note that the Astros bullpen seems built to handle Chicago's lineup in the late innings.
The White Sox will trot out a starting lineup that is highly dependent on right-handed hitters, including José Abreu, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, and Luis Robert. (Even switch-hitter Leury García has historically performed better against lefties, making him a de facto right-hander.) That's notable because Houston will be handing the ball over to relievers who excel at shutting down right-handed batters.
Single-year platoon stats can be misleading, but check out some of these marks:
- Ryne Stanek: .482 OPS vs. right-handed batters
- Yimi Garcia; .495
- Kendall Graveman: .540
- Ryan Pressly: .569
- Cristian Javier: .587
That's five relievers with a sub.-600 OPS against righties this season. That could spell trouble for the White Sox if they head into the middle to late innings needing multiple runs to get back into a game.
Of course, weird things can happen in small samples and over the course of five-game series. Maybe the White Sox find a way to prevail all the same, perhaps by scorching Houston's bullpen once or twice. If we had to guess, though, we think the Astros will be heading to their fifth consecutive ALCS.