One of the things I wanted to explain and expand upon from my ALCS Prediction was the idea of potential failure points in the series. At the most basic level, I’m just referring to the number of ways each team’s plan to win in the playoffs could go wrong, but there are a few more wrinkles to it.
In theory, there are infinite ways each team’s game plan could go awry, and a lot of these are symmetrical. Sure, Alex Bregman, the 2018 Astros MVP, could strain a muscle swinging the bat, or break his ankle jumping on home plate, or cut his hand fixing a drone, or injure himself in a freak accident in any number of ways. But in accounting for those risks, I also don’t really have any reason to think the chance of them happening is any greater than it is for 2018 Red Sox MVP Mookie Betts, so mostly makes sense to just ignore it.
What I’m looking for are the asymmetrical areas of risk, the places where one team’s plan relies on just a little more duct tape and prayers than the other’s. And right now, I would say the two teams’ rotations are one of the biggest areas of asymmetry, particularly the top two starters. In Games 1 and 2, the Astros will be starting Justin Verlander, who has a pretty long and successful postseason resume that includes last year’s ALCS MVP honors, and Gerrit Cole, who has a much more limited body of postseason work but who threw one of the better games in October Astros’ history in his last start.
In contrast, Boston will be running Chris Sale and David Price, and neither has reputations for big postseason performances. What I want to examine is, are those reputations merited or not; and will they hold up for this series against Houston, or do they seem to be unsustainable flukes?
This is the one Astros fans are probably more familiar with, after Sale’s performance last season in the Division Series. Following a season where he finished runner-up in Cy Young voting, Sale promptly fell apart in the playoffs, going 0-2 with 13 hits and 9 runs allowed in 9.2 innings.
Most of the thinking that I’ve seen on the matter seems to be that Sale ran out of gas at the end, and that appears to hold up a little more than any narrative about Sale having some mental block about pitching in the playoffs. After years on the White Sox, Sale’s playoff debut last year gave him his latest starts in a season, as well as the second-most innings of his career.
In fact, Sale has a history of losing steam at the end of the year even before having to pitch in the playoffs. Taking a look at his career splits by month over just regular season games, September (with regular season October games included) features easily his worst ERA and WHIP, and his second-worst strikeout rate.
Chris Sale Splits by Month, Career
Is that likely to continue this season, in spite of his efforts to correct for it? It’s hard to say, as Sale threw the fewest innings of his career since 2011, but that was partly due to injury rather than naturally resting up (and of course, that injury could prove detrimental to his performance even if he is now well-rested; it’ll be near-impossible to separate out either way). Just as with his career numbers, his September splits included his worst ERA and WHIP of the season, as well as his second-worst K%, and his only playoff start so far in 2018 was better than last season’s appearances, but also not quite up to his earlier season peak.
All of this uncertainty just factors into my earlier point: Chris Sale may or may not have solved his issues this year, but if I had to bet on which team’s Game 1 starter is more likely to repeat his normal performance, I’d definitely take Verlander over him.
David Price has a reputation for choking in the postseason, and it’s not terribly hard to see why. In 75.0 career playoff innings, the five-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner has a 2-9 record with a 5.28 ERA and a 4.56 FIP (compared to his regular season 3.25 and 3.34 marks).
Some may chalk these struggles up to a mental block about pitching in October, but even ignoring all the arguments other analysts have made in the past about whether “clutch” exists, there’s an interesting hitch in that theory: Price has been largely fine in the postseason when he pitches out of the bullpen. Some of you may even remember his appearances last year, where he seemed largely fine. In eight career postseason relief appearances, he’s allowed only 5 runs (4 earned) in 15.1 innings, with six of the eight appearances being scoreless. This especially clashes with the traditional idea of choking in that relief appearances are usually higher leverage spots.
And if you want a larger sample size, it’s not like Price has struggled against good teams at all during the regular season; teams with winning records hit .238/.292/.377 against him, while teams with losing records hit .232/.282/.359. It seems like there must be some underlying difference in how he pitches specifically during his postseason starts.
Breaking down the results of his performances, it’s actually pretty shocking how similar bad postseason Price looks to good regular season Price around most of the margins. His strikeouts slip a little (23.6% K% vs. 21.4%), but his walks also drop (6.3% to 5.7%). He actually gives up fewer line drives (20.4% to 15.9%), with his ground ball and fly ball rates both ticking up accordingly (42.6%/36.0% to 45.8%/38.3%). Unsurprisingly, his batting average on balls in play is also not too different (.287 to .288).
There’s really just one big change that seems to drive everything else, including a rise in batting average and a drop in strand rate: postseason David Price allows a lot more home runs. In his ten starts, Price has allowed thirteen dingers, with half of them being multi-homer games. His HR/9 nearly doubles, from 0.9 to 1.7, and his home runs per fly ball go from 9.9% to 16.1%.
What causes this spike in home runs? Unfortunately, I’m at a little bit of a loss. We’re a little more limited on the ways we can break down the specifics of his approach in the postseason (I don’t have information on his pitch selection, or in- versus out-of-zone data). But from what I can determine, his swinging strike rate is a little lower in playoff baseball (8.5%, lower than his career 9.8% rate, but not too far off his 2012 Cy Young season), and batters swing at his pitches a little more (48.7%, just above his career 47.5% rate). Playoff batters’ contact rate against him is high (85.2%, against a career 79.3% mark), but he’s posted seasons with a similar contact rate that weren’t bad (for example, in 2013, his contact rate was 83.1%).
None of that in and of itself seems especially damning were it to be happening in isolation, but that isn’t the case here. We know Price is allowing more home runs in the postseason, and all of those symptoms seem to be in line with our diagnosed problem. This doesn’t seem like the type of thing Prince can just power through and it’ll normalize with more innings; something seems fundamentally different in his approach to pitching, and hitters have caught on and exploited it.
Given that his last start included more of the same, with home runs from Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge against just 5 outs recorded, the Astros could definitely do some damage of their own in Game 2, especially given their strong lineup and Fenway Park’s hitter-friendly nature. And if the series runs long, the Red Sox might end up having to decide between another homer-prone start from Price late in the week, or shuffling their rotation mid-series, and both are factors that could help Houston even more.
Given that there does seem to be some underlying cause behind Chris Sale and David Price’s playoff struggles rather than just random variation, I definitely feel more confident in the Astros’ end of Game 1 and 2’s pitching matchups. And given that these are the kind of issues that can quickly compound on a team in a short series, with Sale and Price set up to take multiple starts at the moment, the possibility of more bullpen innings taxing the team early, and so on, it does feel like this might be one area the Astros can really push their advantage.