Believe it or not, the 2021 World Series will not be the first time the Astros and Braves have met in October. It’s easy to forget now, but Houston spent the first 51 years of its baseball existence in the National League, playing the Braves in the regular season multiple times each year, more than 700 times total. When the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, the Astros were the third team to come visit. (They lost on a Henry Aaron walk-off, a pain so many others knew.)
From 1969-93, they inexplicably shared the NL West, preventing any playoff matchups, but then from 1997-2005, we saw five Astros/Braves NLDS battles. Atlanta won the first three, the Astros the last two, and then Houston was off to the American League in 2013.
This now creates a matchup between a team that’s been to the playoffs six times in seven years and an 88-win team that overcame the loss of its best young player to set up an unexpected, yet fascinating, pairing. Which side has the edge? We’ll go position by position.
Martín Maldonado hasn't hit very well this year (.573 OPS), even less so in the playoffs (.225 OPS). Travis d'Arnaud didn’t hit much this year (.671 OPS) and hasn’t hit much at all in the playoffs (.518 OPS). If you had to pick one to hit, you’d pick d’Arnaud, who was good for Atlanta in 2020, but Maldonado has game-changing abilities behind the plate, while d’Arnaud was able to do little to stop the Dodgers from taking bases at will.
It is a measure of just how good Freddie Freeman (133 OPS+) is that he gets the advantage here, because Yuli Gurriel (131 OPS+) had basically the same regular season and is also a skilled defender. The Atlanta edge here is a small one and given mostly because ties aren’t an option, and because Freeman has had the more productive October. Still, it may surprise NL fans who don’t closely watch the AL to realize just how good Houston’s fourth-most-famous infielder is.
A similar issue persists at second base, because when you get to the World Series, you’re of course delving into two skilled rosters, so to make a choice is to have to pick between one extremely good player and another. This is what confronts us at the keystone, where you can expect to hear entirely too much about how small Ozzie Albies (5-foot-8, 105 OPS+) and Jose Altuve (5-foot-6, 127 OPS+) are, and not nearly enough about how fantastic their on-field work is. They both hit 30 or more homers this season; Altuve did so with a 40-point edge in on-base percentage.
Similarly so at shortstop, where Dansby Swanson might be able to say that he hit one more home run than Carlos Correa did, but Correa would point out not only his superior track record, but that he had a much better OBP (.366 to Swanson's .311) and a higher slugging percentage, too (.485 to .449). Correa rates better by defensive metrics, as well, though Swanson is solid with the glove. There are shortstops you’d take Swanson over. Correa isn’t one of them.
Here, perhaps, our first upset. Alex Bregman is one of baseball’s stars; Austin Riley entered 2021 needing to prove he could be Atlanta’s third baseman of the future, or even present. Riley did that and then some, blasting 33 homers with a 132 OPS+ and improving his defense as the year went on. Bregman, meanwhile, had a good-not-great 2021 (113 OPS+), which looked a lot like last year’s good-not-great season.
We get it: Eddie Rosario looked like the greatest player who ever lived in the NLCS. There’s no denying his role in getting Atlanta here, though do remember that we were saying the same things about the red-hot Enrique Hernández a week ago, right before he went 4-for-17 to finish off the ALCS, so remember that if Rosario goes 2-for-14 in the Series. As hot as Rosario has been, he had neither the regular season (98 OPS+) that Michael Brantley had (119 OPS+), nor anything approaching the track record. Neither are skilled defenders or particularly fast, either. The same can be said of Yordan Alvarez, who will likely man left field for Houston in Games 3-5 in Atlanta. He’s a superior hitter to either Brantley or Rosario, further cementing the Astros’ advantage in this spot.
If Rosario can keep up the best run of his life for a few more days, this pick won’t age well, but in general, there’s no doubt which team has the edge here.
Chas McCormick has quietly become one of the better defensive outfielders in the game as a rookie, though he’s been sharing some time here with Jose Siri of late. Adam Duvall plays center more by necessity than preference for Atlanta, but he did hit 38 homers this year. There’s not a huge edge here other than depending upon which skill you value -- fielding or power -- and we’re mostly interested in seeing what the short Crawford Boxes look like to Duvall.
This has been Joc Pederson’s spot for Atlanta, though we might see more Jorge Soler now that he’s back in the mix. Either way, that’s a pretty powerful platoon duo with a lot of value that still can’t quite compare to Kyle Tucker, who had a true breakout this year -- his 147 OPS+ was somehow the highest in the star-laden Houston lineup -- while also playing above-average defense in right. You might have noticed, also, the four postseason homers Tucker has hit so far.
For the first two games (as well as the final two, if the series goes that long), the World Series will be in Houston, which means the DH is in play, which means that Yordan Alvarez (136 OPS+ in the regular season, 1.408 OPS in the ALCS) is in the lineup, and that’s a clear advantage over Soler or Pederson or however the Braves choose to play it. Where it gets interesting is in Atlanta, because Alvarez did start 39 games in left, but he is a below-average fielder. Still, when the DH is in play, Houston has a big edge.
Without the injured Lance McCullers Jr., who is unlikely to be available for the World Series, the Houston rotation got off to an ALCS start that could only be described as disastrous. None of the first four starters (in order, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy or Zack Greinke) managed to complete even three innings in the first four games, making it something of a miracle Houston managed a split. But in Game 5, Valdez was fantastic (8 innings, 1 run). In Game 6, Garcia was dominant (5 2/3 innings, 0 runs). It doesn’t erase the problems manager Dusty Baker faced just a few days ago, but those two sure make things look better.
Still, the Braves have relied on their rotation all year, and the postseason has been no different. Their starters -- primarily Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton -- have combined for a 3.27 postseason ERA, easily the best of the final four teams. Do they have a fourth starter? No, not really. Then again, neither does Houston, assuming McCullers can’t go. Neither did anyone this October.
It’s fair to say the bullpens haven’t really been considered a strength of either side, at least not in the same way you could say for other teams. And yet, each club’s relievers have performed well in October. Houston’s bullpen took its 4.06 regular-season ERA and offered a 3.42 in the first two rounds; Atlanta’s took its 3.97 and gave a 3.56. In some sense, that’s expected, because each side is going only with its best, and you don’t get this far if those pitchers aren’t performing well.
There are not, really, big differences here, because the 'pens have had similar October strikeout rates and walk rates. We give the slightest of edges to the Astros for two reasons: First, because they have the single best reliever on either roster in Ryan Pressly; second, because Atlanta’s best relievers are left-handed, which might be great for neutralizing Alvarez, Brantley and Tucker, yet we can’t imagine any Braves fan being terribly excited about Luke Jackson or Jesse Chavez being called upon in a big spot against Altuve, Correa or Bregman.
We’re forced to acknowledge as well that Houston’s bullpen kept the team afloat while the rotation collapsed during the first four games of the ALCS, so bonus credit there. All that said, Tyler Matzek is the best story in baseball right now, and he’s just a handful of big pitches away from turning his journey from “incredible” to “eternal.” Anyone not wearing orange and blue would surely like to see that.