6 important facts to know for World Series

October 26th, 2021

Think you know everything there is to know about the Astros and Braves as they get ready to start the World Series on Tuesday night? Not quite. Here are six important facts to keep an eye on as the two teams take the field.

1. Both teams use the shift a ton.

This is going to be hugely important to remember when one batted ball gets through one shift one time, and the legions rise to yell about how the shift doesn’t work. (The shift does work.) Since July 1, postseason included, Atlanta and Houston have used the shift more than every non-Dodger team in baseball.

Shift rate since July 1

54.4% -- Dodgers
47.5% -- Braves
46.4% -- Astros

45.9% -- Mets

None of this is new for the Astros, who have shifted more than any other team in baseball dating back to Statcast tracking coming online in 2015, but it’s a much bigger deal for the Braves, who shifted less than any other team in 2019-’20 or even just in April of this year.

Then, suddenly, in the middle of a homestand in May, they just started doing it a ton …

… and their infield defense turned from an early-season weakness into a strength.

Think about it this way: Since that May homestand (and again including playoffs), the Braves and Cardinals are essentially tied for the best conversion of grounders and liners into outs. The Astros are third. That’s of course in some part due to the talent and skill of Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, and so on. It’s about where they’re positioned, too.

2. Eddie Rosario’s hot NLCS doesn’t guarantee a hot World Series.

Congratulations, first and foremost, are in order to Rosario, who was acquired while injured for almost literally nothing in July (we are not disrespecting Pablo Sandoval, merely noting that Cleveland released him immediately), played well down the stretch, and then absolutely went off in the NLCS, reaching base an incredible 17 times in 28 plate appearances, earning him the series MVP. The Braves may not be here without him. He’ll be a hero in Atlanta no matter what happens from here on out.

Rosario has had some success before -- he picked up down-ballot AL MVP votes in both 2019 and ‘20 -- but certainly nothing like this, so it really ought to go without saying that .560/.607/1.040 (his NLCS line, making for a 1.647 OPS) is hardly the new normal, especially since he had a .579 BABIP. After all, it was literally just a week ago that we were all talking about Enrique Hernández having a historic and incredible run … right before he went 4-for-17 with a .235 OBP in the final four games of the ALCS.

To see what might happen, we looked at this two different ways.

A) How have recent LCS MVP’s performed in the World Series?

For this, we went back to 1999, looked at hitters only, and came up with the 30 different bats who had won the MVP award in their LCS. Almost all had outsized batting lines, not surprisingly; of the 30, 27 of them had OPS marks between 1.850 (Daniel Murphy, 2015), and .905 (Craig Counsell, 2001). Two were in the .800 range; the one real outlier was Cody Bellinger in 2018, who had just five hits in seven games, but had them at huge moments to go along with big defensive plays.

Of the 30 players, 28 of them had lower OPS marks in the World Series. That’s 93%, and it’s 100% if you ignore 2020’s insanity, because Corey Seager and Randy Arozarena last year were the only two who actually did better. Now, when you’re starting from such heights, “doing worse” is not the same thing as “doing badly,” as David Freese in 2011 (1.691 in the NLCS, 1.160 OPS in the World Series) could tell you.

Still, the average OPS by these players in their MVP-winning LCS: 1.208.

The average OPS by these players in the World Series that immediately followed: .695.

Put another way: 23 of the 30 saw their World Series OPS drop by at least 300 points. Rosario may or may not be able to avoid this reality. We expect he’ll at least avoid what happened to Murphy in 2015, when he had a 1.850 OPS against the Cubs in the NLCS and then a .470 OPS against the Royals in the World Series.

B) How did 2021 hitters with similar streaks perform next?

We also tried to get more specific, and more recent. Rosario just reached base 17 times in 28 plate appearances, right? In 2021, there were 8 players who did exactly that -- 28 times up, 17 times on base. Mostly, they were stars, like Joey Votto, José Ramírez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Buster Posey, so let’s give a great deal of credit for simply doing that. (Also, Jace Peterson, who somehow did the same.)  

How did those eight do over their next five games, ranging from 15-22 plate appearances? Not … great. As a group, they followed this up with a .302 OBP and a .674 OPS. It wasn’t all bad; Ramírez kept on mashing, but Guerrero had a .186 OPS. Those are small samples, but that’s also the point.

3. Chas McCormick is the best outfielder you don’t know.

McCormick, a 2017 21st-round pick out of Millersville University (just the third Marauder to play in the Majors) actually made a playoff roster before his Major League debut, though the Astros chose not to actually let him see the field in the 2020 playoffs. This year, he made the Opening Day roster, where he spent four months barely playing, aside from when Michael Brantley was out with a hamstring injury.

That changed at the deadline, when Myles Straw was dealt to Cleveland for Phil Maton, and suddenly center field was wide open. It wasn’t exactly a clear path to a starting spot -- McCormick missed time with a hand injury and Jake Meyers and Jose Siri each saw time there -- but all told, McCormick got into 101 games at the three outfield spots, and the defensive metrics loved him. We mean, loved him.

What that is saying is that by Statcast metrics, McCormick was tied for the fifth-most effective outfielder at turning chances into outs this year, and he was equally good at all three spots (+3 in LF, +4 in CF, +5 in RF). Now, this is a counting stat, so if you don’t fully believe that he plays defense as well as Byron Buxton, that’s fine, just remember that Buxton played only 60 games in the field this year.

Even so, based on the opportunities McCormick was presented with, an average outfielder would have been expected to convert 87% of them into outs. McCormick, meanwhile, actually turned 93% of them into outs, which is a huge margin. You saw it in action, anyway, in the ALCS. In Game 2, he had four seconds to go 67 feet, a chance that’s converted only 30% of the time. He made it look good.

The larger question, however, is how the Astros will arrange their outfield in Atlanta, when the DH is not available. It might be as simple as choosing between Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley in left field. It might also end up with them each in the corners, Kyle Tucker in center and McCormick off the bench.

4. Game 1 is all about strength-vs.-strength.

As we entered Spring Training, we were writing about how Valdez’s sinker compared favorably to Zack Britton's, and while it took a minute for his season to get going because of a broken finger, when it did, he ended up posting the highest ground-ball rate season for a starting pitcher on record, dating back to 2008.

70.4% -- Valdez, 2021
68 -- Dallas Keuchel, 2017
67.4% -- Brett Anderson, 2015
65.5% -- Brandon Webb, 2008
65.1% -- Keuchel, 2014

It’s that combination of “induces tons of grounders” and “plays in front of a talented infield that shifts a lot” that’s meant that the Astros' defense has added more value behind Valdez (+10 OAA while he’s on the mound) than any other American League pitcher has seen, behind only Adam Wainwright in the Majors. The formula is clear, right? Get grounders, have Correa, Altuve and Bregman vacuum them up, prevent runs, win games.

Except … the Braves do a great job of not hitting ground balls. In the regular season, they had the second-lowest grounder rate -- and in case you don’t think “hitting the ball in the air” is important, just look at how good the offenses with the lowest ground-ball rates were. (Houston was seventh lowest.)

Lowest GB%, 2021

39.7% -- Giants
40.3% -- Braves
40.4% -- Dodgers / Red Sox / Blue Jays

That held up in the postseason, too. Among the eight teams who played more than one game, the Giants had the lowest ground-ball rate, and the Braves had the second lowest. Among all the pitchers who had at least 20 batted balls, Valdez had the highest ground-ball rate. This is the battle to watch in Game 1 -- where is the ball being hit?

5. Atlanta pitching works away from Houston’s biggest strength.

The Astros have baseball’s best offense by measures both advanced and traditional, and they have baseball’s lowest strikeout rate as well, which makes them a challenge for any pitching staff. But where they really stand out is in mashing fastballs, where they have baseball’s lowest swing-and-miss rate and are tied for second-best production. It’s not that they aren’t good against non-fastballs -- they’re among the best there too -- but the levels of production are far less.

Enter the Braves, who are not only throwing considerably fewer fastballs than they did in the regular season, but are throwing a historically relevant number of postseason pitches that are not fastballs. For this, we looked only at teams who played at least three playoff games in a season.

Lowest fastball rate 2008-21 (postseason)

48.2% -- Giants, 2021
50.7% -- Dodgers, 2019
51.6% -- Braves, 2021
51.9% -- Red Sox, 2016

There, again, are the recent vintage Giants and Dodgers, which seems like a list you want to be on. Most interestingly, though, this was not what the Braves did in the regular season, when they threw 57.3% fastballs, or 13th most.

So what happened? Different pitchers to some extent, surely; while A.J. Minter (87% regular season fastballs) is still around, fellow fastball-heavy relievers like Richard Rodriguez (85%) and Sean Newcomb (84%) have not been seen this month.

But it’s also changing usage. Luke Jackson is throwing fewer fastballs (from 36% in the regular season to 27% in the playoffs). Will Smith is down, from 47% to 34%. Morton is down a little (58% to 55%); Drew Smyly is down a lot (58% to 34%). Ian Anderson is down too, from 47% to 41%, but even that undersells it; in his last start, he threw only 35% fastballs, the lowest of any start in his brief career.

That all happened against the Brewers and Dodgers, so it’s not Astros-specific. It might be well-timed, though. In the first game of the playoffs, Houston faced White Sox Cy Young contender Lance Lynn. He threw over 97% fastballs, the most of nearly 1,000 playoff games on record. He also allowed five runs and didn’t get out of the fourth.

6. Neither team has lost when out-homering its opponent.

The Braves are 4-0 in the playoffs when out-homering their opponent. The Astros are 4-0 in the playoffs when out-homering their opponent. The Braves have lost each of the games in which they’ve been out-homered; the Astros have lost all three of the games in which they’ve been out-homered. You get the idea.

We go through this every year. Last year, teams that hit more homers than the other guys were 35-5. This year, it’s 20-1, and it applies as well to Houston and Atlanta (who are, again, 8-0 when hitting more dingers) as it does to anyone else. Just a reminder, really, that the most fine piece of hitting might just be the 450-foot long ball that puts a run on the board. Home runs are hits. Home runs are runs.