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MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros

World Series preview: the starters

It’s probably not as one sided as you think

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As the Phillies prepare to face the Astros, we’re previewing the major parts of the teams. Today, we start with the offenses.

This is going to be the spot where the World Series is won or lost. We’ll get to the bullpens later, but we all know how hard it can be to score runs late in a game in the playoffs. Both of these teams rely on their starters to go deep, to go deep effectively and to go deep consistently. While the Phillies had moments during the season that felt akin to “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain”, the Astros were consistently trotting out five starters each turn through the rotation that gave them a chance at a quality start each night. The Phillies were fortunate to get three out of five, and even then, that was in doubt.

One fact that I find interesting is that when looking at leaderboards, at Fangraphs, they have Aaron Nola atop their pitching WAR list (6.3 fWAR) while Houston has two in the top ten in Justin Verlander (6.1) and Framber Valdez (4.4). It’s going to be a well pitched series.

Houston Astros

Justin Verlander: 2 G (2 GS), 10 IP, 13 H, 7 R, 14 K, 2 BB, 6.30 ERA
Lance McCullers: 2 G (2 GS), 11 IP, 10 H, 4 R (3 ER), 13 K, 3 BB, 2.45 ERA
Framber Valdez: 2 G (2 GS), 12 23 IP, 8 H, 4 R (2 ER), 15 K, 3 BB, 1.42 ERA
Cristian Javier: 2 G (1 GS), 6 23 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 7 K, 3 BB, 1.35 ERA

The Astros have pretty much coasted through the playoffs to this point. Yes, the games in the ALCS were close by the scoreboard, but anyone who watched even a few minutes saw the difference between the Yankees and Astros was pretty clear. The Yankees are a good pitching team in their own right, but they didn’t even really compare to what the Astros had. They’ve been fortunate in that they haven’t had to go to fourth starter except for the one time in the ALCS, so they should be plenty rested.

Who’s hot

Framber Valdez is probably a guy you couldn’t pick out of a group unless he had a sign that said “I am Framber Valdez.” He’s been low key one of the better starters all year long and has continued that pace here in the playoffs. Facing off against the Yankees, he lasted seven innings, only allowing two runs, both unearned thanks to his own error, but showed the world why he has developed into one of the top pitchers in the game.

Who’s not

I mean, it’s kind of tough to pick someone who’s “not hot”. Do you go with Verlander? He did get beat up a bit by the Mariners, but they have also seen him a bunch this year and there probably weren’t many surprises Verlander had left for them. Against the Yankees, he got knocked around a bit in the first inning of his start, but he then settled into being the version of Verlander we’ve gotten used to seeing of late.

They’re just really, really good.

Philadelphia Phillies

Zack Wheeler: 4 G (4 GS), 25 13 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 25 K, 3 BB, 1.78 ERA
Aaron Nola: 3 G (3 GS), 17 13 IP, 16 H, 7 R (6 ER), 18 K, 3 BB, 3.12 ERA
Ranger Suarez: 3 G (2 GS), 9 IP, 5 H, 3 R (2 ER), 8 K, 5 BB, 2.00 ERA
Bailey Falter: 1 G (1 GS), 23 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 0 K, 1 BB, 54.00 ERA
Noah Syndergaard: 3 G (1 GS), 3 H, 1 R, 4 K, 1 BB, 1.68 ERA

The total here for the Phillies’ starters are skewed a bit as the Phillies had an extra round to play and played in two five game series while Houston has steamrolled their opponents. There could be a fatigue factor here that is in play, something to watch whenever Wheeler gets deep into games. It was speculated that he has been going to hard early in games knowing he doesn’t need to go seven, eight or even nine innings like he sometimes might during the regular season, but it was still a little concerning to see him top out at 94 in the seventh inning on Sunday.

Nola gets the start in game one on regular rest, affording Wheeler another day, something he could use at this point. We’ve seen what Suarez is able to be: one game might be bad (vs. Atlanta), the next might be solidly better (vs. San Diego). Falter might not see the mound this series, but who knows!

Who’s hot

Had Bryce Harper not erupted at the plate during the NLCS, there was a very strong case for Wheeler to be the MVP of that series. He was magnificent in his starts against the Padres, shutting down a quality offense twice and keeping them at arm’s length during most of his time on the mound.

Who’s not

The biggest question of the series for the Phillies is who is going to start game four. It is highly unlikely that Falter will be the choice based on his performance against the Padres, but Rob Thomson has shown he is unafraid to buck the norm.

Verdict

At first blush, this might be a clear Astros advantage. They had the best starters’ ERA in the American League during the regular season (2.95), the best strikeout rate (24.8%), the best home run rate (0.93 HR/9), one of the better walk rates (7.1%), and a defense that turned balls in play into outs (.261 BABIP, tops in AL). They have two studs atop the rotation, each capable of shutting down the opposing team over long stretches.

But so do the Phillies.

While the defenses aren’t really even close (lol), the Phillies’ starters were also among the National League leaders in most of the same categories as Houston. They may not have led like the Astros did, but they certainly weren’t at the bottom of the list. Were one to break things down on a pitcher vs. pitcher matchup list, you could reasonably argue that the first two games (expected to be Nola vs. Verlander, followed by Wheeler vs. Valdez) are a push while games three and four, depending on how Houston matches things up, could be a push as well. Whoever the Astros throw in game four would be favored, but the way the offense for the Phillies has been hitting, the advantage probably isn’t as great as it might seem.

I’m not going to go that far as I might slightly lean towards McCullers/Javier over Suarez/Syndergaard/Falter/RP, so I would probably give this matchup slightly towards Houston as far as the advantage is concerned, but the gap isn’t as wide as some will make it out to be. On paper, it should be a well pitched series coming from the starters, but we’ve seen how things on paper have gone this postseason.

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