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A Cubs fan’s guide to the 2021 American League Division Series

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The White Sox head to Houston and the Red Sox head to Tampa to begin their best-of-five series

Kyle Schwarber reacts after hitting a home run during the Wild Card Game
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Wild Card Series are in the books with the 92-win Red Sox decisively defeating the 92—win Yankees and the 106-win Dodgers eking out a walkoff win over the 90-win Cardinals. These one-game playoffs were about as representative of the unpredictable nature of a single baseball game as anything that could be scripted. So now the series move to five-game sets for the Divisional round, which will begin in Houston this afternoon.

White Sox vs. Astros

This is a matchup that could inspire a lot of emotion in some Cubs fans. As a transplant to the Chicago area I never really got all that worked up about the Crosstown Rivalry. The White Sox are a team who played some exhibition games against the Cubs when I was growing up. They were never close to as important as the Cardinals, but I have been told by many a local Chicagoan that I would feel different if I grew up immersed in the North Side/South Side dynamic and I believe all of you who have very strong feelings about the White Sox.

Projections

The White Sox and Astros were pretty much always supposed to be here. In the early weeks of the season there were some thoughts that the Twins might be able to give the White Sox a run for their money, but that threat was long gone by the end of April:

AL Central Playoff Odds
FanGraphs

Meanwhile out West the Astros faltered a bit in the early going and there was a brief moment in June where it looked like the Oakland Athletics might make things interesting in this race, but the Astros held on and won their division by a solid five games over the late surging Seattle Mariners.

AL West Playoff Odds
FanGraphs

Starting pitching

The White Sox’ rotation includes Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodón and former Cubs prospect Dylan Cease, though probably only three of those will start in this series. You can see their full ALDS Roster here. Starting pitching has been a strength for the White Sox all season and they have the edge here as well. Their rotation strikes out a lot of guys and doesn’t walk very many. It will be anchored by veteran Lance Lynn, who brings the most postseason experience to the table with 54⅓ innings from his years with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees. Here are each pitcher’s year-long and September/October stats:

White Sox Starting Pitching Stats

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Lance Lynn 28 157.0 10.09 2.58 1.03 .263 81.50% 38.10% 2.69 3.32 3.81
Lucas Giolito 31 178.2 10.13 2.62 1.36 .269 77.50% 33.20% 3.53 3.79 3.75
Carlos Rodon 24 132.2 12.55 2.44 0.88 .267 82.20% 37.70% 2.37 2.65 3.17
Dylan Cease 32 165.2 12.28 3.69 1.09 .309 73.90% 33.30% 3.91 3.40 3.72
Lance Lynn Sept/Oct 4 21.1 10.13 1.27 0.84 .309 67.70% 44.60% 3.38 2.56 3.24
Lucas Giolito Sept/Oct 4 20.1 9.30 2.21 0.89 .259 87.90% 33.90% 2.21 3.12 3.92
Carlos Rodon Sept/Oct 4 18.0 11.00 2.50 0.50 .238 75.30% 30.20% 2.00 2.28 4.01
Dylan Cease Sept/Oct 5 22.0 15.55 4.91 0.82 .391 68.50% 34.00% 4.50 2.53 2.79
Season long and Sept/Oct FanGraphs

The Astros will counter in Game 1 with Lance McCullers Jr. and follow up that matchup with Framber Valdez in Game 2. It’s expected that possible Hall of Fame candidate Zack Greinke and José Urquidy will round out the the rotation with possible Rookie of the Year candidate Luis García as a potent long-weapon out of the pen. Their full ALDS roster is here. Their numbers aren’t as gaudy as the White Sox but they certainly have the advantage in postseason experience.

Astros Starting Pitching Season and Sept/Oct

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Lance McCullers Jr. 28 162.1 10.26 4.21 0.72 0.273 78.50% 56.40% 3.16 3.52 3.69
Framber Valdez 22 134.2 8.35 3.88 0.8 0.268 78.30% 70.30% 3.14 4.01 3.58
Jose Urquidy 20 107 7.57 1.6 1.43 0.237 77.20% 32.20% 3.62 4.14 4.38
Zack Greinke 29 168.2 6.24 1.92 1.55 0.264 75.30% 44.10% 4.11 4.69 4.25
Luis Garcia 28 149.1 9.64 2.95 1.08 0.289 76.70% 38.90% 3.38 3.62 3.91
Lance McCullers Jr. Sept/Oct 5 30 9.3 3.9 0.6 0.233 72.80% 60.00% 3 3.37 3.62
Framber Valdez Sept/Oct 5 29.2 7.89 4.55 1.21 0.256 77.50% 72.10% 3.94 4.99 3.95
Jose Urquidy Sept/Oct 6 29.2 7.28 1.82 1.52 0.25 73.10% 34.10% 4.25 4.45 4.64
Zack Greinke Sept/Oct 2 9 7 4 4 0.222 11.90% 54.80% 12 8.72 4.71
Luis Garcia Sept/Oct 5 27 5.67 3.67 1 0.317 72.60% 42.20% 3.67 4.58 5.09

Bullpens

The White Sox have one of the elite bullpens in the game and the Astros pen has looked mortal at times. That gap has grown wider in September and October as the season came to a close, but bullpens are a funny thing to project in the postseason. For one thing, the weakest pitchers in a bullpen are not part of either team’s roster. Additionally, both teams have added some starters to the pen for length and depth. Here are each team’s season-long bullpen stats and September/October comparisons:

Astros and White Sox Bullpen Stats

Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
CHW 548 10.58 3.45 1.15 .298 72.70% 42.40% 3.97 3.75 3.83
HOU 563 9.92 4.01 1.18 .285 72.40% 42.50% 4.06 4.21 4.19
CHW Sept/Oct 113 10.01 3.10 0.56 .316 74.70% 48.50% 3.41 2.99 3.68
HOU Sept/Oct 118 9.38 4.73 0.99 .285 74.30% 46.20% 4.04 4.25 4.23
Season Long and Sept/Oct FanGraphs

Hitters

The Astros have the best offense in baseball and it is not close. Their team wRC+ for non-pitchers is 117, which indicates that the entire team is 17 percent better than the league average hitter. To put that in perspective a bit, Patrick Wisdom had an individual wRC+ of 115 in what many considered to be a strong offensive campaign. But the Astros offense is built on a few components that are way better than what Wisdom (or any Cub, for that matter) can offer.

The Astros are the only team in baseball that strikes out less than 20 percent of the time. As a team, their non-pitching hitters strike out just 19.3 percent of the time. They are fairly middle of the pack in terms of their walk rate, but they lead MLB in batting average at .268. In fact, their team slash line would look pretty good for an individual player. What team wouldn’t want a guy hitting .268/.340/.446 in its lineup?

The White Sox offense is no slouch, it just isn’t quite the league-leading, low-strikeout machine that the Astros offer. The White Sox team wRC+ for non-pitchers is 110 and their collective slash line of .257/.337/.423. Here are the teams’ hottest batters in September/October:

Astros and White Sox Hottest Hitters in Sept/Oct

Name Team PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Name Team PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Kyle Tucker HOU 122 8 13.90% 13.10% .346 .350 .346 .438 .692 .465 203 1.8
Jose Altuve HOU 125 6 8.80% 9.60% .268 .298 .304 .371 .571 .398 158 1.4
Carlos Correa HOU 115 6 7.00% 15.70% .221 .293 .288 .339 .510 .358 131 1.0
Yordan Alvarez HOU 116 5 12.10% 24.10% .245 .304 .255 .345 .500 .357 130 0.6
Yuli Gurriel HOU 111 2 7.20% 12.60% .088 .379 .343 .387 .431 .357 130 0.6
Yasmani Grandal CHW 111 5 21.60% 14.40% .238 .323 .310 .459 .548 .429 177 1.3
Luis Robert CHW 116 7 3.40% 16.40% .269 .361 .343 .379 .611 .416 168 1.4
Tim Anderson CHW 67 3 4.50% 22.40% .188 .435 .359 .388 .547 .399 157 0.8
Gavin Sheets CHW 80 5 8.80% 25.00% .254 .326 .282 .363 .535 .382 145 0.4
Leury Garcia CHW 108 2 4.60% 13.00% .153 .373 .337 .371 .490 .368 136 0.9
Yoan Moncada CHW 109 3 12.80% 22.90% .207 .328 .261 .376 .467 .367 135 1.0
FanGraphs

There are some big names who missed the cut here. Alex Bregman, José Abreu and Eloy Jiménez could also have a huge impact in this series.

Managers

I haven’t really done much of a deep dive into managers in this series so far because managers don’t usually have that much of an impact on the game. That said, one of the more interesting matchups of the divisional round is Dusty Baker vs. Tony La Russa and not just because they have some historic beefs with each other. Keep an eye on pitcher management and lineup moves throughout this series as two of the most storied (hey, I didn’t say they were all good stories!) managers in the game face off against each other.

Red Sox vs. Rays

The Rays won 11 of the 19 games these two teams played against each other in the regular season and for many people that has been enough to indicate that the Rays have an edge here. However, the last four of those games came during a large COVID outbreak for the Red Sox as they were struggling to put a full team on the field. It seems at least possible, if not probable, that the head-to-head matchup might be less informative here than one would think.

Projections

AL East Playoff Odds
FanGraphs

As we discussed before the Wild Card Game, the AL East was a rollercoaster ride in 2021, but the Rays took hold of the division shortly after the trade deadline and never really looked back. While you may be tempted to look at their team, with back to back postseason appearances and say it’s the same crew who made it to the World Series in 2020, that fails to recognize the way the Rays operate. There have been A LOT of roster changes, but Tampa Bay still finds ways to win.

Starting pitching

The Red Sox will kick off the series with Eduardo Rodriguez and staff ace Chris Sale will get the ball in Game 2. Nick Pivetta and Nathan Eovaldi, who was lights-out in the Wild Card Game against the Yankees, will round out the rotation. You can see the complete Red Sox ALDS roster here and here are Boston’s starting pitching stats for 2021 and September/October:

Red Sox Starting Pitching Stats

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Eduardo Rodriguez 31 156.2 10.57 2.70 1.09 .364 68.90% 43.40% 4.77 3.34 3.43
Chris Sale 9 42.2 10.97 2.53 1.27 .358 79.80% 47.40% 3.16 3.69 3.35
Nick Pivetta 30 154.0 10.17 3.80 1.40 .290 73.20% 38.30% 4.56 4.30 4.29
Nathan Eovaldi 32 182.1 9.63 1.73 0.74 .326 70.40% 42.00% 3.75 2.79 3.48
Eduardo Rodriguez Sept/Oct 6 30.0 10.20 2.70 0.60 .390 77.10% 50.60% 3.30 2.67 3.16
Chris Sale Sept/Oct 6 27.1 10.21 2.96 0.99 .382 72.90% 45.60% 3.62 3.65 3.83
Nick Pivetta Sept/Oct 4 19.0 10.89 1.42 1.42 .319 77.40% 41.70% 3.79 3.27 2.80
Nathan Eovaldi Sept/Oct 6 32.0 11.53 2.53 0.84 .345 70.70% 48.30% 3.94 2.67 3.16
Season Long and Sept/Oct FanGraphs

The Tampa Bay Rays will counter with two rookie pitchers who just ooze talent in Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz in Games 1 and 2. With most other teams in the league I’d have a more solid understanding of who will get the ball in Games 3 and 4, but as you can see from this ALDS playoff roster, with the Rays the only thing I really feel comfortable saying is that Drew Rasmussen is likely to get the bump in one of those games and it could be veteran Michael Wacha or could be any combination of the most effective pitchers the Rays can bullpen together. This is not your grandfather’s — or even your father’s! — playoff rotation:

Rays Starting Pitchers Select Stats

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
Shane McClanahan 25 123.1 10.29 2.70 1.02 .328 78.90% 45.50% 3.43 3.31 3.23
Shane Baz 3 13.1 12.15 2.03 2.03 .120 100.00% 42.90% 2.03 4.07 2.86
Drew Rasmussen 10 42.0 6.00 1.50 0.43 .197 78.80% 50.40% 1.93 2.96 3.85
Michael Wacha 23 107.1 8.55 2.18 1.34 .308 70.30% 39.40% 4.53 4.05 3.95
Collin McHugh 7 12.0 9.00 0.75 0.00 .214 100.00% 42.90% 0.00 1.42 2.74
Luis Patino 15 68.1 8.30 3.82 1.45 .277 71.10% 30.10% 4.74 4.82 5.36
Shane McClanahan Sept/Oct 5 23.0 9.39 2.35 0.78 .317 83.30% 44.40% 2.74 3.00 3.17
Shane Baz Sept/Oct 3 13.1 12.15 2.03 2.03 .120 100.00% 42.90% 2.03 4.07 2.86
Drew Rasmussen Sept/Oct 5 24.0 5.63 0.75 0.38 .214 84.30% 49.30% 1.50 2.71 3.93
Michael Wacha Sept/Oct 5 27.0 8.67 1.67 1.33 .159 76.40% 43.30% 3.00 3.84 3.48
Luis Patino Sept/Oct 4 16.0 6.75 3.94 1.13 .308 69.00% 24.10% 5.63 4.79 5.93
Collin McHugh Sept/Oct 2 3.1 2.70 0.00 0.00 .333 100.00% 33.30% 0.00 2.57 4.69
Season Long and Sept/Oct FanGraphs

Bullpens

Comparing these two bullpens almost feels like an exercise in futility because the Rays use their bullpen quite differently from the Red Sox. That said, there are a few interesting things to note about the construction here. The Red Sox left Matt Barnes off their roster entirely. Barnes was Boston’s closer for most of the season, but really struggled down the stretch. He’s been replaced by starter Martín Pérez. Red Sox fans probably suspected Barnes wouldn’t see much action, but props to manager Alex Cora for not using a roster spot on a pitcher he had no intention of playing.

On the Rays side, long man Ryan Yarbrough isn’t on the roster and he was replaced by Josh Fleming. Again, this is a clear sign that neither manager is worried about anyone’s feelings as they constructed their playoff roster. This is all about who they think can get them outs most efficiently in what could be a real nail-biter of a series.

Hitters

The Red Sox and Rays had the third and fifth best offenses in the American League by wRC+ in 2021 for non pitchers with the Rays at 110 and the Red Sox just slightly behind at 107. Both teams were hitting better to end the season than they were at the start of the season with the Rays at 119 and the Red Sox close behind at 117. These teams can mash.

I covered the individual hitters for Boston earlier this week in the Wild Card Game preview, but as a review Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Bobby Dalbec and former Cubs masher Kyler Schwarber lead the way here. Two key additions from the Wild Card Roster are Danny Santana who will play in a utility role for Boston. He will be joined in the ALDS by designated hitter J.D. Martinez, who is still questionable for Game 1 as he recovers from an ankle sprain, but should provide some pop off the bench with his wRC+ of 122.

The Rays counter with a slew of top hitters of their own lead by Brandon Lowe, Kevin Kiermaier, Jordan Luplow, Wander Franco, Mike Zunino and last year’s postseason hero, Randy Arozarena. Here are both teams’ hottest hitters in September/October:

Red Sox and Rays Hottest Hitters Sept/Oct

Name PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Name PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Danny Santana 14 1 21.40% 21.40% .273 .286 .273 .429 .545 .417 164
Bobby Dalbec 85 7 8.20% 31.80% .364 .279 .247 .318 .610 .384 141
Kyle Schwarber 103 4 17.50% 24.30% .214 .327 .262 .398 .476 .381 139
Rafael Devers 121 6 8.30% 24.00% .193 .365 .303 .372 .495 .368 131
Xander Bogaerts 84 3 16.70% 21.40% .171 .327 .271 .393 .443 .367 130
Brandon Lowe 100 8 7.00% 22.00% .326 .333 .315 .360 .641 .415 172
Kevin Kiermaier 70 0 11.40% 21.40% .217 .444 .333 .429 .550 .416 172
Jordan Luplow 42 3 7.10% 38.10% .282 .450 .308 .357 .590 .398 161
Wander Franco 70 1 7.10% 4.30% .200 .344 .338 .386 .538 .393 157
Mike Zunino 72 6 5.60% 27.80% .333 .275 .258 .319 .591 .380 148
Randy Arozarena 110 2 10.90% 27.30% .176 .371 .275 .373 .451 .352 129
Select Stats FanGraphs

Who do you like in each series? Vote below and let us know what you’re most looking forward to in the comments.

Poll

Who are you cheering for in the ALDS Series between the White Sox and Astros?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    White Sox
    (52 votes)
  • 31%
    Astros
    (24 votes)
76 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who are you cheering for in the ALDS Series between the Red Sox and Rays?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Red Sox
    (34 votes)
  • 57%
    Rays
    (46 votes)
80 votes total Vote Now