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Who has edge? Nats-Astros position by position

@mike_petriello
October 21, 2019

The World Series has arrived, and it's a good one: The 107-win Astros, hoping to collect their second ring in three seasons, face the more-than-a-Cinderella-story Nationals, owners of the second-most wins in baseball over the past seven seasons. Looking for superstars? Friend, you've got them -- on both sides.

The World Series has arrived, and it's a good one: The 107-win Astros, hoping to collect their second ring in three seasons, face the more-than-a-Cinderella-story Nationals, owners of the second-most wins in baseball over the past seven seasons. Looking for superstars? Friend, you've got them -- on both sides.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 22 WSH 5, HOU 4 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 23 WSH 12, HOU 3 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 25 HOU 4, WSH 1 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 26 HOU 8, WSH 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 27 HOU 7, WSH 1 Watch
Gm 6 Oct. 29 WSH 7, HOU 2 Watch
Gm 7 Oct. 30 WSH 6, HOU 2 Watch

Let's quickly dispense with the false narratives: No, the Nationals aren't "better without Bryce Harper." (He'd be a big upgrade in right field.) No, this isn't the final battle of "old school vs. new school." (The Nats may not be the famously analytical Astros, but they have plenty of smart people working for them looking at lots of numbers.) If Washington loses, it might be as much because Houston is a historically good team as it is that "they got rusty waiting too long."

So there’s plenty of story to get through before we get to the actual game. When we do, how do these teams match up? Looking position-by-position can give us an interesting view.

Remember: We're not just looking at "who's been hot in the playoffs," though we won't rule it out entirely, either. Don't forget that Cardinals sluggers Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt combined to post a .429 average and an .881 slugging percentage in the National League Division Series against the Braves before collapsing to .125/.156 -- with 17 strikeouts! -- in four games of the NL Championship Series against the Nationals. It can happen that fast in a short series, and what happened in the long season matters as much or more.

Catcher

It is extremely hard to separate these two teams at this position. Their starters hit almost exactly the same this year, with Houston's Robinson Chirinos posting a .336 wOBA and Washington's Kurt Suzuki posting a .337 wOBA. Their backups hit almost exactly the same this year, with the Astros' Martin Maldonado's .288 wOBA coming in nearly identical to Washington's Yan Gomes' .298. None of them is a terribly impressive pitch framer.

What this “matchup” lacks in glamour, it makes up for in being really close.

Tiny Advantage: Nationals

First base

Howie Kendrick may see some time here, but this spot is going to be Ryan Zimmerman's, given the fact that Kendrick has been starting at second base and that both will be needed when the designated hitter is in play in Houston. It feels somewhat unfair to lean too heavily on Zimmerman's just-OK .257/.321/.415 slash line in an injury-plagued season with only 190 plate appearances, but Yuli Gurriel ended up being so good this year -- a .298/.343/.541 to go with 31 homers, and legitimately one of the 10 best hitters in baseball in the second half -- that he gives Houston the edge anyway.

Advantage: Astros

Second base

José Altuve, finally healthy, was also one of the "10 best hitters in baseball in the second half," and he's got a half-decade of truly elite performance backing it up. (He's also hitting .349/.417/.767 with five home runs this month, including his pennant-winning walk-off homer for the ages on Saturday.) While Kendrick was a legitimate star hitter this year as well, his somewhat-similar line came in nearly 200 fewer plate appearances, and because of the DH, it's likely that Brian Dozier (.238/.340/.430 during the season, and the owner of just six postseason plate appearances) will need to see plenty of time here, too. That’s a boon for Houston.

Big advantage: Astros

Shortstop

We don't generally rely too heavily on Wins Above Replacement in the playoffs, because it's a counting stat that works a lot better over full seasons than in short series, but looking at it for Carlos Correa and Trea Turner can still tell us something instructive:

Correa: 321 plate appearances -- 3.2 WAR

Turner: 569 plate appearances -- 3.5 WAR

In just about half as many plate appearances, Correa nearly equaled Turner's value. That's what happens when you have a similar OBP (.358 for Correa, .353 for Turner), a massive slugging advantage (.568 to .497) and better defensive metrics -- though Turner regains some of that value by being one of baseball's most dangerous baserunners.

Advantage: Astros

Third base

Alex Bregman is a legitimate American League Most Valuable Player Award candidate having a great season.

Anthony Rendon is a legitimate NL MVP Award candidate having a great season, perhaps likely to finish third behind Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich, but still with a chance to win.

During the season, Bregman had a .423 OBP and a .592 slugging percentage, which is barely distinguishable from Rendon's .412 OBP and .598 slugging. Surely, there's a difference in October, right? Well, Rendon is having the superior 2019 postseason (1.059 OPS to Bregman's .863) … but Bregman's .835 OPS in 37 career postseason games beats Rendon's .821 OPS in 24 postseason games.

These are two of the biggest superstars in the game, and they're shining on the brightest stage. Good luck picking. We won’t.

Advantage: Push. Are you kidding? You can't make us choose.

Left field

Michael Brantley has long been a solid player, and he put up a typically solid season, hitting .311/.372/.503, making him one of the more valuable players on the Astros. Against a lot of other left fielders, he'd be the easy choice -- but Juan Soto isn't any other left fielder, is he?

At just 20 years old, Soto got on base more than Brantley did (.401 OBP) and hit for more power, too (.548 slugging percentage). Throw in the fact that Soto is a better defender (plus-6 Outs Above Average) than Brantley (minus-7 OAA), and that he's been better in October, with huge hits in the winner-take-all NL Wild Card Game and NLDS Game 5, and this one is an easy call.

Advantage: Nationals

Center field

Victor Robles might be the best defensive outfielder of 2019 (plus-21 Outs Above Average), but George Springer is pretty good with the glove himself (plus-7 OAA), and the offensive difference between the two of them is massive. Just compare the lines:

Springer: .292/.383/.591, .974 OPS, 39 home runs

Robles: .255/.326/.419, .745 OPS, 17 home runs

This doesn't even consider the open question of whether Robles is fully healed from the right hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two games of the NLCS, though he did have three hits including a homer after returning. Either way, Robles is a good young player, but Springer is a star.

Big advantage: Astros

Right field

Josh Reddick and Adam Eaton are each average defensive outfielders -- that's a good thing, not a bad thing -- and roughly average hitters, though Eaton's bat is a tick above average while Reddick's is a little further away from that on the negative side (89 OPS+). For us, it really comes down to the fact that Eaton's .365 OBP is considerably better than Reddick's .319, though neither side has a huge edge here.

Small advantage: Nationals

Designated hitter

This one should be easy. After all, Yordan Alvarez just put up one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history, mashing 27 homers in only 87 games to go with a .313/.412/.655 slash line. The only slight hesitation is that Alvarez hasn't done all that much in the postseason, hitting .171/.227/.244 so far. Then again, he was great against the Rays in the ALDS (.316/.350/.474), and we know better than to let a few games against the Yankees color our thinking, don't we? The Nationals will counter with either Zimmerman or Kendrick, as they did in all 10 of their road Interleague games this year.

Advantage: Astros

Starting pitching

You'd need something like an electron microscope to choose between the competing ace duos of Gerrit Cole/Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer/Stephen Strasburg, so we won't. Instead, we'll look at what happens after that.

Do you prefer Patrick Corbin (3.25 ERA, 3.49 FIP) or Zack Greinke (2.93 ERA, 3.22 FIP)? Greinke was a little better in the regular season, though he's struggled at times in three October starts (.910 OPS allowed), while Corbin has been strong this month, save for a disastrous NLDS Game 3 relief appearance. But Houston pounds lefty pitching better than any other team in the game, adding another wrinkle. These are two of the more accomplished veteran starters in the game, and you could go either way.

Then we get to the fourth starters, where Aníbal Sánchez not only threw 166 innings of solid 3.85-ERA ball this season, but has also been stunningly effective in two postseason starts, allowing one earned run in 12 2/3 innings. Houston would have to counter either with rookie Jose Urquidy, who's barely been relied upon at all this month -- his only appearances were in long relief in ALDS Game 4 and in the clinching Game 6 of the ALCS -- try another bullpen game like it used in ALCS Game 6, or bring back its Game 1 starter on short rest.

It's a pretty tight matchup. Washington's slightly better depth in a long series earns it the minor edge.

Small advantage: Nationals

Relief pitching

The thin Washington bullpen hasn't yet been the downfall that many expected, though it's worth pointing out that just six pitchers -- the top four starters, plus top relievers Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle -- threw 90 percent of the team's innings in the NLCS. That's fine for a four-game sweep, but it might be tougher over a longer series against better competition, and manager Dave Martinez will have to risk using rookie flamethrower Tanner Rainey, ageless veteran Fernando Rodney, or relatively anonymous names like Javy Guerra and Austin Voth at some point.

The Astros bullpen, for what it's worth, hasn't exactly been invincible, especially since shutdown setup man Ryan Pressly hasn't quite looked like himself since coming back from a late-summer right knee injury, which he re-aggravated in Game 6 of the ALCS. Then again, Pressly looked great in Game 4, and he, Roberto Osuna (despite the blown save in Game 6), Will Harris and Joe Smith have become a fairly reliable late-inning quartet, though one without a lefty to use against Soto.

Advantage: Astros

Prediction

Over the course of the season, the Astros were baseball's most dominant team, becoming the first club to have the most strikeouts as pitchers and the fewest as hitters. There's a reason they won 107 games, and most will give Houston the advantage in the Fall Classic over a team that didn't even win its division.

That's fair enough, but don't sleep on how good the Nationals have been, too. In Scherzer, Strasburg, Soto, and Rendon, they have the star power to match any roster. And check out the records of the two teams after the Nationals famously bottomed out at 19-31 on May 23:

Astros: 73-37, .667, best record in baseball

Nationals: 74-38, .661, second-best record in baseball (tied with Dodgers)

It's going to be close -- closer than you think. We'll take the Astros for their second title in three seasons, but it won't be easy.

Astros in six

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.