Baseball is a funny game sometimes, isn’t it? The 2019 has been a showcase of how just when you think you know what to expect, you realize you don’t know anything at all. While baseball is being derided for being reduced to a math equation, all of a sudden it seems we’re seeing figurative broken calculators in lieu of broken bats strewn across the baseball diamond.
Yes, this World Series might be making you question everything you think you know about baseball – and you love being made the fool.
Let’s take a look at how the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros got here, how one defines what we think the future of baseball looks like, and how the other just might be one that is pushing back. We’ll look at the bullpens, player profiles, and the starting pitching to understand the larger scope of this epic battle of epistemology being played out in the 2019 World Series.
In a season that set a record for bullpen innings used in relation to starting pitchers (41%), this World Series has been defined with two teams riding their dueling aces. Perhaps we could have seen this coming. In a season where for the first time bullpen ERA was higher than starting pitchers since 1973, the era largely seen as the rise of the relievers and bullpens.
Of the 10 teams that made the playoffs this season, the Rays led them all in bullpen ERA at 3.66. Eight of the 10 teams are in the top 11 for the season, with Milwaukee just down at 17 and the Washington Nationals being down at #30 with a dreadful 5.66 ERA. Yet dig just a little deeper and you see something else. The Nationals also logged the fewest bullpen innings, which means yes, when they had to be used they were horrible, but their starting pitchers were largely keeping them out of games or perhaps the poor bullpen pushed the starters to pitch deeper into games. The Rays had the most pitched bullpen innings, the Brewers jumped up to 5 most bullpen innings pitched, and Houston was also 24th in bullpen innings. In fact only 3 of our 10 playoff teams were in the top half of the league. So perhaps the best bullpen strategy isn’t best after all.
Yes, the Houston Astros have become the absolute model of analytics and data in baseball, as they have fired nearly all of their traditional scouts, relying on video and advanced metrics using technology like TrackMan and Edgertronic cameras to measure many of the underlying characteristics of swings and pitches that point towards a good baseball player, not vague characteristics like saying this person has a “baseball body” or listening for the “crack of the bat” to find the next Mike Trout. Blue Jays GM JP Ricciardi cautions though: “I have changed enough with the ways to know and realize that there’s still enough baseball people who can help make baseball decisions that aren’t totally, 100 percent, analytically driven.”.
It should also be worth noting here that last year the Astros controversially brought in closer last season Roberto Osuna while he was under investigation for a domestic violence assault, able to acquire him for well below his market value because of the circumstances. He has done well for the team on the field, but after the ALCS clinching this year an Astros executive yelled “Thank God we got Osuna!” at a group of female reporters, one specifically who had been critical of the move which personified the idea of choosing analytics over all use. The Astros then sent out a disgusting statement attempting to discredit the reporter instead of taking any accountability. They have since fired the executive, but to think that they have made a wholesale change in adding “humanity” into their formula for player value seems unlikely. The numbers say it was a great move, but at what human cost? Analytics still can’t seem to measure team chemistry, though trying to by “correlation of high fives to wins” seems like a laudable goal. Perhaps this is a case study still in progress.
While the Astros have put together a core of talented baseball players by any era, the Nationals have as well, notably a season after Bryce Harper left the team. The Nationals Ryan Zimmerman, the first draft for the pick when they moved to Washington from Montreal, has been a surprise success after missing most of the regular season in what could very easily be his last as a big league player. He only had 171 regular season at-bats and a negative WAR, but his manager put him in the lineup and he came through in the playoffs with a big home run in the Division Series against the Dodgers before hitting the first World Series home run in Washington Nationals history in Game 1.
In contrast to Osuna, the Nationals ditched Bryce Harper who has had several dugout confrontations in the past most notably with closer Jonathan Papelbon back in 2015. Many framed this as the Nationals as “losing” Bryce Harper, but it appears to be a win at this point. They found addition by subtraction though the continued emergence of 20 year old Juan Soto in his second full season and signing Patrick Corbin, who joined Strasburg in throwing over 200 innings in a rare season Scherzer didn’t get to 200. This was the first season since 2012 Scherzer didn’t get to 200 and his lowest innings total since 2009. Soto has tremendous plate discipline and pitch recognition, especially for his age, with comparisons to Ted Williams. His home run in the World Series against Gerrit Cole to the opposite field and onto the train tracks was truly extraordinary, detailed in complete nerdy detail here.
Finally, can we talk about the starting pitchers in this World Series? The Astros bring aces Justin Verlander(ageless one), Gerrit Cole(current best pitcher on the planet), and Zack Greinke(crafty) against Max Scherzer(any time, any place), Stephen Strasburg(seen my curveball?) and…Anibal Sanchez(seriously). These pitchers all too appear to be sharpening into form in the playoffs, with no notable playoff chokers like Clayton Kershaw amongst the group(although Verlander has been subpar in the ALCS/WS after a strong DS).
It is interesting to note that of this group, Verlander is 36, Sanchez, Greinke, and Scherzer are 35, with only Cole being under 30 at 29 and also likely to sign one of the largest free agent contracts in history after this whole thing is done. So the aging ace still does have a place in this game apparently.
When the Nationals beat Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series at Houston, it was the first time that two 20 game winners had been beaten at home in the World Series since 1965! That season, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax lost for the Dodgers. The Dodgers would go on to win the World Series that year however. With Scherzer and Strasburg, the Nationals can easily hit back. Anibal Sanchez has been brilliant as well, and in the NLCS along with Patrick Corbin the Nationals had the 6th best LCS ERA in history at 1.35. Until Corbin allowed 3 runs in a blowout Game 4, their ERA was 0.35.
The Nationals entered this World Series as the greatest underdog in over ten years. When the season began they were 20:1 favorites to win the World Series, but after a terrible start their odds dropped to 50:1. So if you had bet $50 then, you would win $2,500 now if they win the World Series(We at DDDT do not condone gambling of any type). Meanwhile the Astros had odds of about -220, so if you risked $110 you would win $50.
To be fair, the Astros came back in Game 3 ending the run of Anibal Sanchez to win and put the Series at 2-1. If they win Game 4 tonight, all of a sudden all bets are off and we would see the aces go at it again for Game 5 and Game 6. If Game 7 is necessary, you would imagine the advantage would go to Houston being in Houston.
We have been treated to some great World Series the last several years with the exception of 2018 and this one too is certainly shaping up to be another one. The Nationals have brought the first MLB World Series to Washington DC since 1933, and first overall World Series since the Negro League World Series in 1948(note: the Washington Greys played the Birmingham Barons, led by a 17 year old starting CF named Willie Mays).
The Astros hope that all of their research and video and analytics can help them win their 2nd title in 3 seasons. The Nationals hope that their veteran leadership, young stud, and starting pitching can help them bring home the first title to DC since 1924 and first title ever in the Nationals/Expos franchise. As Mariners Manager Scott Servais expressed his thoughts about analytics in baseball: “People get caught up in the analytics and all the information and the numbers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it over and over again — the numbers are only as good as the ability to put it in play”.