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Small Samples Can Run Amok In The Postseason

The Astros pitching depth is once again the key in this ALCS rematch.

MLB: ALDS-Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It is that time of the year when I ponder how much regular season numbers matter compared to small samples that can run amok in the postseason. Answer: It varies, I suppose. Statistically speaking, the Dodgers were the best team in the regular season, with only the Astros on par in terms of pitching and the Blue Jays a far second in terms of offense. But a cold stretch against an opponent who is playing a bit better at that moment in October can unravel everything good from the preceding six months. Oh, the 2019 World Series has entered the chat.

That small sample randomness was a key reason why I was so nervous about the Mariners in the ALDS. Or any postseason series, for that matter. For example, Jose Altuve, the owner of a 164 wRC+ in the regular season, finished the ALDS 0-for-17 at the plate. Justin Verlander allowed six earned runs in Game 1. Weird stuff happens in October. Ultimately, there wasn't much separation between Houston and Seattle, as a run differential of four runs decided the series. But it is no different in this third ALCS in six years against the Yankees.

Out of the four remaining teams in the postseason, the Astros (2.90 ERA/3.28 FIP) had the best showing in the regular season on the pitching side of the equation. At face value, those results are impressive, as this staff was essentially the equivalent of Logan Webb on the mound. That's pretty good. But, for comparison's sake, the Dodgers were comparable to Framber Valdez in terms of ERA and Logan Gilbert in terms of FIP. That is also pretty good. The small-sample nature of the postseason is the real villain this October, not what the Astros did back in 2017.

If there is one thing about this year's roster that gives me even a sliver of peace against the backdrop of randomness in October is that the Astros have the pitching depth in place to mitigate those effects somewhat, hopefully. As we saw in ALDS games 1 through 4*, this entire staff of pitchers kept the series within striking distance. But it wasn't like Dusty Baker wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrel to obtain those ever-valuable 27 outs, or 54 on Saturday, unlike some clubs hoping to avoid the exposure of their second or third-string pitchers, if possible. By raising the floor of their second and third-string pitchers, the Astros have better ensured their chances of remaining competitive deep into games. Of course, this idea is all well and good when those pitchers perform as you generally expect. The unexpected poor appearance — hello, Justin Verlander in Game 1 against Seattle — can throw even the best-laid plans into disarray.

Against these Yankees, the Astros have the blueprint for clinching their fourth AL pennant in six seasons, partially supported by their overall performance in the regular season (plus-five run differential). Alas, the regular season record (5-2) doesn't mean much of anything now, as the results were generally close in all seven games. But at the center of this success was terrific pitching as Houston held New York to 3.14 runs per game (4.98 runs per game on the season). The only two losses were due to Aaron Judge walking off twice in that four-game set at Yankee Stadium in June.

To New York's credit, they also held Houston to 3.8 runs per game (4.55 runs per game on the season). Both clubs will need to continue to pitch well, as when these lineups have an opportunity to score, they usually do, as one was ranked second in the AL in wRC+ on the season with the other ranked third. For the Astros, the depth of their staff could be the deciding factor in this series.