The Braves lost Ronald Acuña Jr. on July 10 when he tore his ACL trying to make a play in the outfield and to outside observers it looked like he might have taken the Braves postseason hopes with him. After all, the Braves were 44-44 and they had just lost their star player. Beyond that, they hadn’t been over .500 for a single game in 2021 and their outfield production aside from Acuña was abysmal. As I wrote at FanGraphs, Braves outfielders not named Acuña were worth a dreadful 0.4 fWAR heading into the trade deadline.
But the Braves didn’t throw in the towel. They made an early trade with the Cubs, adding Joc Pederson and then they made a flurry of moves to create a patchwork of an outfield with Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler. They were 51-53 with a 9.8 percent chance to make the playoffs on July 29. They finished the season 37-20 — their only stretch playing above .500 baseball all season—to make the playoffs. They handily dispatched the Brewers, winning three out of four games, in the National League Division Series and then stunned a gassed Dodgers team, taking the National League Championship Series in six games to earn their spot in the 2021 World Series.
The expert consensus likes the Astros in this best-of-seven set that opens at Minute Maid Park tonight, but despite their well-documented offensive prowess, I think it would be a mistake to look past a Braves team that has been playing .657 ball since August 1. Let’s take a closer look at these two teams. As a reminder, you can find their regular season stat profiles in their respective Division Series breakdowns that I wrote here during those series.
There are minor changes to both teams rosters heading into the World Series. Let’s start with Atlanta:
Speedster Terrance Gore is back (you might remember him from heartbreaking Cubs postseason games like this one). He’ll replace Johan Camargo. The only other move is at the backend of the bullpen where righty Kyle Wright takes over for Jacob Webb. Oh, and 2016 Cubs World Champion Jorge Soler will be on the Braves roster for the whole series this time. He missed the start of the NLCS with a positive COVID-19 test. I’ll also definitely be keeping an eye out for Willson Contreras during this series, after all, it’s his brother William’s first time in the Fall Classic and we all know Willson is William’s biggest fan.
As an aside, it’s sort of incredible that the Cubs haven’t had a leadoff hitter since 2016 but Soler, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo and Tommy La Stella all batted leadoff during the 2021 postseason for their new teams. I’m not bitter or anything.
The Astros will counter with a roster that is also largely similar to their Championship Series lineup:
It is worth noting that means the Astros will be without their best starter, Lance McCullers Jr., who also missed the ALCS. They did substitute utility bat Marwin Gonzalez in for Jake Meyers, who injured his shoulder during the White Sox series.
The Braves pitchers would seem to have the edge here, particularly with McCullers being out for the Astros. Starters Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson have all been excellent for Atlanta. They have also been some of the only pitchers this postseason to consistently give their teams right around five or more innings a start. Deep starts have been so rare in the 2021 postseason that Max Fried’s ability to pitch six innings in back to back starts earned him a New York Times headline.
It isn’t just the starting pitching that has been working for Atlanta, however. Our old friend Jesse “wears his sunglasses at night” Chavez has been exceptional during the playoffs. He’s thrown 4⅓ innings without giving up a run. Tyler Matzek has also been exceptional. I admit this performance in Game 6 against the Dodgers had me screaming on my couch [VIDEO].
For the Astros it’s really a question of which rotation will show up — will it be the one the Boston Red Sox annihilated? The one that saw starters leaving four or five outs into every game? Or will it be the rotation that rallied to shut down that potent offense after embodying the spirit of the Finnish war term: Sisu? When the Astros starters were in the game long enough to hand it off to their A-bullpen of Kendall Graveman (remember when the Cubs took a flyer on him?) and Ryan Pressley they were devastatingly effective, however the soft underbelly of the Astros bullpen is not remotely threatening.
The Astros are the best-hitting team in baseball by pretty much every measure and in the final three games of the ALCS, Yordan Álvarez went 9 for 13 with three doubles, a triple and a home run en route to an absurd .692 BA to lead his team over the Red Sox. He’s slashing .441/.535/.794 across 10 games this postseason. It is not just Álvarez, however. The Astros come at opposing teams almost top to bottom. When they have a designated hitter the break for pitchers is catcher (and former Cubs backup) Martín Maldonado. It gets slightly easier for Atlanta in the National League game when pitchers need to hit, but it’s still an absolutely relentless hit parade for batters one through seven.
On the Braves side of the ledger Rosario, Pederson and Freddie Freeman are all slugging well over .500 in the postseason. Rosario was the NLCS MVP and all he’s done is slash .474/.524/.789 across 10 games this October. Pederson has hit three home runs, and keep an eye on the bat he’s using when he hits his next one:
Joc Pederson is still using Anthony Rizzo's bat pic.twitter.com/f3IELUUW94— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 18, 2021
I know the experts love the Astros in this series. I’ve seen their offensive numbers and watched them just dismantle the Red Sox and the White Sox pitching earlier this October. And yet, there is something about this Atlanta team that makes it hard for me to follow the pack here. The Braves starters have pitched, like, well, starters. Their bullpen has been much more consistent than the Astros. While they didn’t have the season-long offensive dominance that the Astros did, a team’s wRC+ in May means nothing in October.
And then there are the little touches that every World Series team just seems to have on their side. The 2019 Nationals weren’t supposed to beat the Astros, but baseball statistics had nothing on Baby Shark. This Atlanta team seems to have some magic in them and I’ve got to go with Atlanta in six games.
After all, who am I to mess with magic like Anthony Rizzo’s bat and pearls in Joctober?
Who are you cheering for in the World Series?
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