The wait is finally over. A moment we knew was coming for weeks finally commences today as the White Sox begin their quest to capture a World Series deep in the heart of Texas against the Houston Astros.
This promises to be a highly compelling series filled with plenty of star power and subplots between two pretty evenly matched baseball teams. There will be plenty of excitement on both sides as a seasoned Astros core looks to reach their third World Series in five seasons, while the upstart White Sox share a striking resemblance to this Astros core from just a few short years ago.
Before we dive into how these teams stack up, let’s take a look at who will be taking the field for their respective sides.
These two offenses are explosive and can put opposing pitchers in fear early and often. The Astros by wRC+ were the top offense in the sport with a 116 wRC+, while our White Sox ranked third with a 109 wRC+. This is truly a remarkable task when you consider all the star power that was removed from the White Sox lineup for extended periods of time throughout the course of the season.
All things considered, the Astros do statistically have offensive numbers that outweigh those of the Sox, but again it’s important to consider that some of the players the White Sox gave significant at-bats to for long stretches of the season won’t be participating in games this October. Aside from the increased power production the Astros had during the regular season, the other key differentiator between the two teams was the strikeout rate. No team in baseball struck out fewer times than the Astros, which will lead to an interesting battle of strength versus strength as no team in the league struck out more hitters in the regular season than the White Sox.
With Jose Abreu receiving clearance and on the roster for the series, the White Sox are as healthy as they’ve been all season. Assuming the Sox get Abreu close to his normal capabilities, they have an offense that has plenty of thump through the first seven spots in the order. For what the Sox may lack in home run production compared to the Astros (and I’m not sure they’re even lacking anymore), they should be able to make up with their ability on the base paths.
The Sox have a significant advantage when it comes to a lineup that can take an extra 90 feet, which could prove to be the difference in a short game series. Speedsters and astute base runners such as Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada, and Leury Garcia all have shown an ability to take extra bases when needed. Then you factor in role players like Billy Hamilton and Adam Engel, and the Sox may be able to take advantage on the base paths to plate all additional runs that should be at a premium.
As I chronicled earlier in the week, on the offensive side I believe Eloy Jimenez will be the key for the White Sox. If he can show signs of the player we saw in 2020 and display the power potential we all know is there, the Sox lineup is significantly lengthened and will cause problems for Astros pitchers. I believe hitting the “Big Baby” sixth in the lineup will represent an opportunity for him to hit with runners on base, creating opportunities to do damage. If Eloy can begin catching up to fastballs again, this offense becomes a lot more explosive and will be more than suited to match the offensive firepower of their counterparts.
Catching The Ball
The biggest disadvantage the White Sox will have to overcome in this series is their team defense. The Sox ranked 26th in baseball with (-39) DRS. Conversely, the Astros ranked second with 78 DRS. This is a very significant gulf between the two teams, and from watching this team on a daily basis this passes the eye test. Look, the Sox have been bad defensively this season if we are being frank. Losing all-world outfielders Luis Robert and Adam Engel certainly did not help this situation. On top of that, they had rookie Andrew Vaughn trying to learn left field at the Major League level and it’s no wonder that the defense had some issues.
The season-ending injury to second baseman Nick Madigral did not help matters on the infield dirt. All things considered, the injuries to this team had just as much of an impact on their defensive performance as they did in the batter’s box. Only the lowly Pirates committed fewer errors than the Astros, while the Sox had only five teams commit more errors than they did. I know I’m really going out on a limb here, but they simply can’t afford to give a quality offensive team like the Astros extra outs in this series.
If the Sox are able to clean up their act defensively and not allow the Astros to have extra outs and extra bases, it will go a long way toward the South Siders winning the series. In many ways, the defense has been the Achilles heel of the Sox throughout much of the season. If it rears its ugly head again over the course of the ALDS, Soxtober may be a short-lived one.
Throwing Up Zeroes
These two teams represent two of the top 10 pitching staffs in the entire sport. The Sox tout a significant edge in strikeouts while issuing fewer walks, and the teams are nearly identical in HR/9. White Sox starters ranked second in the sport in terms of missing bats, while the Astros ranked 17th. Again, it’s going to be interesting to see the battle between Sox pitchers who are designed to miss bats while the Astros put the bat on the ball better than any other team in baseball.
Aside from Game 1 starter, Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros rotation doesn’t have a tremendous deal of star power or raw explosive stuff. However, they do have a group that excels at inducing soft contact, which allows their all-world defense to pick up the slack.
Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, and Dylan Cease make up quite an intimidating top of the White Sox rotation. Sox skipper Tony La Russa expressed that he’s open to going back to his top arms on short rest if the situation calls for it, but he also has the likes of Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez, and Michael Kopech at his disposal. It will be intriguing to see how the Sox choose to deploy the latter set of names as a piggy-back type of setup could be in play if La Russa elects not to go the short rest route as the series wears on.
The Pen is Mighty
While I talked earlier about the Astros’ greatest advantage in the series being their overall team defense, the biggest advantage in the Sox favor is that of their bullpen. If you simplistically looked at it just from an ERA standpoint, you wouldn’t think there is much of an edge for the Sox (3.97 ERA) vs. an Astros pen ERA at 4.06. However, where the Astros pen gets itself into trouble is by issuing free passes. They ranked 20th in the sport with 4.01 BB/9 for their relief corps, while the Sox unit ranked eighth at 3.45 BB/9.
If White Sox hitters are able to work Astros starters into deep counts to get into that bullpen earlier, there’s a significant advantage to be had. While the Sox do have some free swingers at the top of the order in Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, and Jose Abreu, these are all hitters that can do damage early in counts with runners on base.
The re-emergence of Aaron Bummer could prove to be the key to this series. In the season’s final month, Bummer pitched to a 0.75 ERA with a 2.84 FIP. He was inducing ground balls at an insane 92.3% rate while also featuring a 9.75 K/9 and 0.75 BB/9 rate. Those numbers will simply get it done. He had a .147 wOBA against lefties over the season’s final month, and that will prove to be crucial against the Astros’ three left-handed bats of Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Michael Brantley — the first two being players that have hit southpaws as well as righties. How the Sox deploy Bummer to attack this area of the Astros lineup will be one of the key things I’m watching over the course of the next five games.
As if Bummer’s presence wasn’t enough, the White Sox have the reigning AL Reliever of the Month in Liam Hendriks. Over the course of his 13.2 IP to close out the year, the big Aussie didn’t allow a run while holding hitters to a meager .112 wOBA. Simply put, he showed why the Sox went out and spent the money on him this winter. Liam had 13.83 K/9 without issuing a walk in the season’s final month, giving the Sox a deadly weapon at the back end of the bullpen that can put games away quickly.
The Astros simply don’t have bullpen options that can match those of our Sox, and that isn’t even considering the likes of Ryan Tepera and Craig Kimbrel if he is right. Tony La Russa will have the opportunity to shorten games and play matchups as he sees fit. The goal is to get 27 outs and I think the Sox bullpen is better positioned to do this successfully than the Astros.
How It Plays Out
In the end, I think this is going to be a highly competitive series. Within individual games, I expect there to be a seesaw series of battles. Much was made of the Sox going 2-5 against the Astros in the regular season, including being swept in a four-game series in Houston during the month of June. However, this is not the same White Sox team. Luis Robert is here, Eloy Jimenez is here, Yasmani Grandal is here, and even complementary pieces such as Gavin Sheets, Adam Engel, and Cesar Hernandez give the Sox a different look than what the Astros saw previously.
When it’s all said and done, I think we are celebrating a series win at 35th/Shields on Monday night after Game 4. I’ve talked all season about this team having an intangible element that allowed them to persevere and overcome the injuries and adversity they faced. I believe it was those moments that prepared the White Sox for this moment. This team is young, energetic, and vibrant and I think they are going to feed off the energy at 35th/Shields when the series shifts to the South Side on Sunday night. Soxtober isn’t coming to an end just yet.