Astros-Sox position-by-position breakdown

12:00 AM UTC

Get it all out of the way.

All the stuff about the sign-stealing scandal involving the 2017 Houston Astros and Alex Cora’s involvement. All the hubbub about Houston reaching the American League Championship Series for a fifth consecutive year, even as so much of the baseball world has rooted against them. All the amazement about the Red Sox advancing this far in a season in which so little was expected of them and after COVID-19 concerns nearly derailed their path to the postseason.

Get that stuff out of your system now because, when this best-of-seven American League Championship Series starts Friday night, the baseball itself will drown out all that other drama and take center stage. These are two powerhouse ballclubs, with stars out the wazoo and experienced skippers in the dugout. This is the third postseason meeting between these two teams in the past five years (the Astros won the 2017 AL Division Series; Boston prevailed in the '18 ALCS), and it looks as though it could be the best one yet.

Don’t believe us? Well, just look at how these two clubs stack up, position by position. No, this is not how ballgames -- or series -- are decided. But it’s a fun way to demonstrate how evenly matched these two clubs might be. Some of these choices are simply torturous ... and that’s the way we like it in October.

Catcher

In and , both clubs have trusted, prepared catchers who are reliable behind the plate and work well with their respective staffs.

But even in a down offensive year, Vázquez (.659 OPS) outperformed Maldonado (.573). And with his walk-off homer over the Green Monster in Game 3 of the ALDS, Vazquez authored one of the more indelible moments of this postseason to date.

Advantage: Red Sox

First base

OK, so ’s defense at first base is iffy enough that when he made a routine 3-1 putout in Game 3 of the ALDS, it was cause for a hilarious, self-deprecating celebration. Whatever. The dude rakes. He did it throughout a fantastic 2021 season with the Nationals and Red Sox (Schwarber’s 145 wRC+ ranked 10th among all MLB hitters with at least 450 plate appearances), and he’s done it thus far in a postseason during which he’s gone 6-for-19 with two dingers.

had a typically terrific season (AL-best .319 batting average with an .846 OPS) and has the far more experienced and reliable first-base glove. But right now, it’s hard not to side with Schwarber, who started at first in each of the past three games of the ALDS (Bobby Dalbec starts here when Schwarber starts elsewhere).

Advantage: Red Sox

Second base

The Red Sox turned back to a rusty at second base because their go-to regular down the stretch, José Iglesias, was acquired too late in the season to qualify for their postseason roster. Arroyo is 5-for-19 with a double so far.

For the Astros, it’s a familiar scene: is owning October, just as he always does. He went 5-for-16 with a homer, two doubles and nine runs in the ALDS, and he has a .960 OPS in his postseason career -- the best for a second baseman with at least 150 plate appearances.

Advantage: Astros

Shortstop

Oh, nothing to see here. Only two of the best shortstops MLB has to offer.

It’s one thing to love the big moment and another to actually seize it. does both. He’s followed up a fantastic free-agent walk year (134 wRC+, 5.8 fWAR) with another awesome October so far (5-for-13, two doubles).

But has had some huge hits as well (7-for-20, two homers), and his regular season was just as good (130 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR).

We need a determining difference-maker, and it’s defense. Correa graded out at a plus-12 in outs above average this season, ranking sixth among shortstops. Bogaerts did execute a perfect and timely relay throw in the AL Wild Card Game, but he had a minus-10 mark and ranked 35th.

Slight advantage: Astros

Third base

We have another ridiculous decision to make here.

is another Astro who loves to seize this stage. He went 6-for-16 with a double against the White Sox and is healthy after a left quad issue forced him to miss 59 games this season. He is simply a better defender than , and that matters.

But Devers will get down-ballot MVP love this year after ranking second among MLB third basemen in fWAR (4.7) and third in wRC+ (134). He’s 6-for-20 with two homers this postseason, and he’s homered in two clinching games (the regular-season finale and ALDS Game 4) in the past two weeks.

Slight advantage: Red Sox

Left field

had a so-so second season in Boston overall. But he came through in the clutch quite a bit and has been locked in at precisely the right time, going 8-for-23 with a homer and two doubles in the postseason. If you want to side with him (and perhaps Schwarber, depending on the daily lineup) here, we won’t fault you at all.

But is one of the premier contact hitters of his era. The 34-year-old vied for the batting title this year with a .311 average, and he has hit safely in 15 consecutive postseason games -- the fifth-longest streak of all time.

Slight advantage: Astros

Center field

has nine hits, three doubles, two homers, six RBIs and four runs ... just in the past three games. He has only added to an impressive and extensive October résumé that includes five multihit games and tons of clutch knocks. He’s an asset in center field (or at second base), too.

The Astros’ center-field situation was up in the air, as of this writing, after rookie injured his left shoulder trying to make a play at the outfield wall in Game 4 of the ALDS. Meyers was replaced by Chas McCormick in that game, and his status for the ALCS is uncertain.

Advantage: Red Sox

Right field

has followed up a strong season in Boston with a solid postseason, going 6-for-20 with a double and three walks. He hasn’t hit any balls over the wall with his bat, though he did accidentally hit one over with his leg in a memorable mishap that benefited Boston.

, though, is the clear choice here, after slashing .294/.359/.557 with 30 homers and 37 doubles in a breakout regular season and then going 5-for-17 with two homers, a double and seven RBIs in the ALDS. Here’s a chance for his emerging star to shine all the brighter.

Advantage: Astros

Designated hitter

and had eerily similar slash lines this season -- .277/.346/.531 for Álvarez, .286/.349/.518 for Martinez. Alvarez had 33 homers and 35 doubles with 104 RBIs; Martinez had 28 homers, a Major League-high 42 doubles and 99 RBIs. Alvarez went 3-for-11 with a homer and a double in the ALDS; Martinez went 7-for-15 with a homer and a double in the ALDS (after missing the Wild Card Game with a left ankle injury).

You see where we’re going with this. It’s a coin flip. Martinez is established as one of the game’s more gifted hitters, and Alvarez, despite missing almost all of 2020 following double knee surgery, is very quickly amazing an incredible offensive profile of his own. We’ll respect the more veteran player here, but either of these guys could change a game and a series with a single swing.

Slight advantage: Red Sox

Starting pitching

For the season, the Astros had a 3.63 ERA that ranked second in the AL, while the Red Sox had a 4.49 mark that ranked in the middle of the pack. So this is easy, right?

Of course it’s not easy. Hardly any of the decisions on this list are easy.

The Astros’ rotation situation is affected by using ace and workhorse to try to close things out in Game 4 of the ALDS and McCullers leaving that start early with right forearm discomfort. That’s a huge X-factor for this ALCS. will start Game 1 after allowing four runs in 4 1/3 innings against the White Sox. Rookie of the Year Award candidate was charged with five runs in 2 2/3 innings in his second career postseason start. Depth starter is battle tested, having stepped up on the postseason stage in the past, and could conceivably return from his banishment to the bullpen to pitch in, but if McCullers is compromised, so are the ‘Stros.

For the Red Sox, the big question is , who has allowed 10 earned runs in his past 8 2/3 innings and was chased after the first inning of his ALDS start in St. Petersburg. But with Sale healthy and starting Game 1, Game 2 starter wielding a 1.93 career ERA in the postseason, having delivered five solid innings in his second start of the ALDS and and pitching well this postseason as depth options, the Red Sox seem better situated here, no matter what the season ERAs suggest.

Advantage: Red Sox

Bullpen

Because of the second-half struggles of and , the bullpen was Boston’s biggest question mark going into October. And perhaps it remains a question mark in a longer series. But during the off-days, the late-season return of and manager Alex Cora’s expert utilization of his options (including the aforementioned Pivetta and Houck) are helping the Red Sox advance.

The Astros’ situation is a little more straightforward. had a terrific year in the closer role, and the uncertainty of the Houston ‘pen was abated by the in-season arrival of and by ’s move to relief work. One X-factor for the Astros is , who was shaky after his midseason arrival (5.48 ERA) and in Game 3 of the ALDS but recovered nicely in Game 4.

This is another coin flip, and it will ultimately come down to which manager pushes the right buttons in the bullpen. Dusty Baker has loads of experience and has evolved more than he gets credit for. But right now, it’s hard not to side with Cora’s seemingly magic touch.

Slight advantage: Red Sox

Prediction

Like so many of the positional selections, the prediction could go either way. But McCullers’ iffy arm is enough to sway us to the red-hot Red Sox. Boston in six.