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The Astros coulda, maybe shoulda won it

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The ALCS was a vicious dog fight to the very end.

League Championship - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Of course Astros fans are disappointed by the outcome of the ALCS. It’s easy to believe that a team that won two out of the last three Championship Series was entitled to win yet another.

Of course, going in, the team with the best record in the AL, the Rays, was facing the team with the worst record in the AL that managed to qualify for the expanded playoffs. The Rays wRC+ for the season was ten points higher than the Astros’, 109 to 99. The Rays’ team ERA was third in the league at 3.56, almost a run lower than that of the Astros at 4.31.

The Rays were the best team in the AL in 2020 with a 40-20 record. Going into the playoffs, the Astros were not even an average team for the season with a 29-31 record.

And yet, the Rays outscored the Astros in seven games by only 25-22, and if you take away two critical errors by future Hall of Famer Jose Altuve, the Astros might have won the series in seven or even six games. In terms of earned runs both teams scored 21.

Arguably, the Astros outplayed the Rays. And despite the fact that it seemed they weren’t clutch, in fact the Astros outplayed themselves compared to their regular season performance. If any team underperformed, it was the Rays, not the Astros. All in all, it’s hard to imagine a more evenly fought series.

The Astros had a .751 OPS during the ALCS, up from .720 for the season. That’s against the third best pitching staff in the AL in terms of ERA. (The other playoff opponents of the Astros, the Twins and A’s, were fourth and fifth) The Rays OPS in the series was .675, down from .753 for the season. The Astros outhit the Rays 59 to 44 for an advantage in Batting Average of .260 to .201. In terms of total bases, including walks, the Astros had a 105 -100 advantage.

It figures that if you had more baserunners but fewer runs, you probably left more runners on base. Indeed, the Astros stranded 55 baserunners, the Rays only 46. But with runners in scoring position that Astros hit .239, the Rays only .166. Out-slugging the Astros 11-9 in home runs might explain part of this. And some of the Astros’ hits with runners in scoring position still left batters stranded.

Double plays also killed the Astros, who hit into 12, compared to only six by the Rays.

Obviously, if both teams were so close in terms of runs scored, their pitching stats would be similar. The Astros ALCS staff ERA was 3.15. That’s against a team that ranked in the top third in hitting and it’s a run and a half lower than their season average. Were the Rays bats cold, or were the Astros pitchers on their best game?

The Rays ERA against the Astros was almost the same. 3.08.

There are three outstanding narratives regarding Astros pitching in the ALCS.

  1. Framber Valdez has emerged from being a fringe major leaguer to becoming an ace. He pitched 12 innings in two starts and allowed only three runs. For the entire playoffs he pitched 24 innings with a 1.88 ERA.
  2. The bullpen was arguably better than that of the Rays, the best in baseball in terms of fWAR. The bullpen ERA for the Astros was 3.51. (Including Luis Garcia’s two opener innings) The rookies, Garcia, Blake Taylor, Andre Scrubb, Cristian Javier, Brooks Raley, Enoli Paredes, and Jose Urquidy (in relief) had a 3.72 ERA. The Rays bullpen had a 4.04 ERA. The Rays pen was much more stressed, pitching over 48 innings compared to only 25 by the Astros.
  3. Lance McCullers was either very good or very bad all year. He was very good in Game Two of the series, allowing only one earned run in seven innings in a hard luck loss. But with everything on the line for Game Seven he was clearly outclassed by former Astros hero Charlie Morton. McCullers only got through 3.2 innings, allowing three runs on four hits, one walk, in 75 pitches. Two of the hits were homers. If good Lance had shown up, this article would be about the Astros chances in the World Series.

It’s tempting to blame the batting slumps of Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel on the ALCS loss. (Reddick was bad too, but that’s to be expected) 2019 MVP runner-up Alex Bregman hit OPS .343 in the ALCS, and Gurriel .476. But in any given seven game stretch, some players will be hot and others will be cold. Altuve hit 1.447, the best of any player in the League Championship Series, even better than the Rays’ phenomenal rookie Randy Arozarena. (Altuve’s playoff OPS was second in MLB among players who played through the LCS, behind only Arozarena.)

Keep in mind that the Rays’ best hitter all season, Brandon Lowe, hit only .454. OPS. Austin Meadows was only .221. In every series there are guys who are hot and guys who are cold.

From watching the games, just about anyone would agree that the Rays were all over the place making highlight reel defensive plays, robbing hits left and right. It seemed to be the difference in the series. This level of defensive play was not a fluke. Fangraphs gave the Rays a Def rating of 5.6 for the 2020 season, 7th in MLB. The Astros rating was -19.9, 28th in the league.

The Rays only made one error in seven games, the Astros made four. Two of those were probably the difference in who won the series.

It was a great series for the ages. The Astros, minus their Cy Young pitcher, their own ROY equivalent to Arozarena, their closer, other key injured pieces, and a bullpen full of unheralded rookies, took the best team in the AL right to the brink. I’d rather they had won, but we have every reason to remain proud of the Astros for the resilience, persistence, and fighting spirit that made them champions.