The World Series kicks off tomorrow night between two teams with wildly different expectations heading into the postseason. On one hand, the Astros were the top seed in the American League. Houston reached the World Series in three of the last five seasons and reached the ALCS in all five. Everyone and their mothers could’ve predicted another ‘Stros appearance in the World Series.
The Phillies, however, were an entirely different story. For most of the season, the Phillies were on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in. If it weren’t for the Milwaukee Brewers actively trying to miss the playoffs, Philadelphia might not have gotten in at all. The club won just seven of its last 20 heading into the playoffs, and Bryce Harper had put up pretty subpar power numbers since his return from the IL — just three home runs and an OPS of .676 in Philly’s final 35 games.
Most people — myself included — expected the Cardinals to do away with the Phillies in the first round, but lo and behold, here we are nearly three weeks later, and Philly is still kicking like an ill-tempered zebra with serious back spasms. It shouldn’t be a shock that a majority of experts believe Houston holds a massive advantage in this matchup. The Astros earned the right to be considered one of the best teams in the league, but just because a team didn’t have the greatest regular season doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the tools to win it all. (Shoutout 2021 Atlanta Braves!) If Philadelphia does pull off a championship run, it would become the third-worst team — regular season record-wise — to win the World Series, ahead of only the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals and 1987 Minnesota Twins. That said, there have been four teams since 2000 to win the World Series while recording fewer than 90 regular season wins — so why can’t the Phillies continue that trend?
The Phils have spent a lot of money in recent years hoping to claim at least one title. They’d failed to win more than 82 games in any of their last four seasons (since signing Bryce Harper), thus they can’t afford to pass up this golden opportunity that has been thrust upon them. You’d like to think Philadelphia will be back, but of the seven teams to have won a World Series while winning 90 or fewer games in the regular season, only one went on to win another World Series within the next five years (the 2010 San Francisco Giants). There’s also the 2021 Braves, but their five-season outlook has obviously yet to be revealed.
The Astros need this World Series for a different reason. Having won only one title since 2017, Houston hasn’t yet rid itself of the “cheaters” moniker that baseball fans have placed upon it for taking the 2017 championship through dubious methods. While another World Series title wouldn’t absolve them of their crimes, it would show the baseball world that perhaps the Astros never needed to cheat in order to win. Maybe they really were just that good. I, personally, disagree. If they never needed to cheat, why do it at all? I can see that argument though.
Both teams clearly have a lot at stake in this series, so here’s who needs to step up for both teams in order to give their team a chance at winning it all.
Houston Astros: Martín Maldonado & Kyle Tucker
The Astros’ pitching staff matches up incredibly well with the Phillies’ lineup. Philadelphia’s biggest strength is hitting against fastballs (fifth-highest wOBA against that pitch in 2022). Houston hurlers throw a lot of fastballs (third-highest rate in MLB). Furthermore, the Phils were especially good against fastballs with an Intended Vertical Break of 18 inches or more in 2022, ranking third in MLB in that category. The Astros have a few members of their staff with those very types of fastballs. You’d think this would bode well for the Phillies, but both the Yankees and Mariners were also elite fastball-hitting teams — ranking fifth and seventh, respectively — in wOBA against fastballs with 18 or more inches of Intended Vertical Break. Neither of those teams won a single game against Houston, and their average runs per game were just 2.57. That’s almost a full run lower than the Detroit Tigers averaged in 2022 (3.44) and they scored the fewest runs of any team.
Basically, as long as the Astros’ pitchers keep doing what they’re doing, they’ll be just fine. It comes down to hitting for Houston and whether or not the likes of Martín Maldonado and Kyle Tucker can pick up the pace.
Despite going 16-8 with Christian Vázquez starting, the ‘Stros will more than likely rely on Maldonado’s superior power numbers to propel them to a title from the catcher position. He’s started all but one game for the Astros during this postseason run but has recorded only three hits and seven strikeouts in his fourteen at-bats. In 2022, the Astros were practically unbeatable when Maldonado recorded an extra-base hit. He only did so in 24 games, but the Astros went 18-6 while scoring 5.67 runs per game, over a full run more than their average from the season as a whole.
In his career, Maldonado has five extra-base hits against the Phillies across four games. His team at the time — Brewers, Angeles, and Astros — won all four of those games by a combined score of 32-3. Across all other games that Maldonado has played against Philadelphia, his teams have gone 7-10. Specifically, with Houston, the Astros have gone 1-1, with both games happening in the final series of the 2022 regular season. The Astros won that series two games to one, but in the games where Maldonado didn’t record an extra-base hit, the Phillies outscored the Astros 5-3.
As for Kyle Tucker, despite being a solid playoff performer in years past, Tucker has struggled mightily through the 2022 ALDS and CS, recording a triple-slash of .214/.313/.321 through Houston’s seven games. The World Series could be even more difficult for Tucker. He’s struggled against southpaws for most of his career. In 2022, he hit arguably new lows against them, slashing .228/.279/.456, good for a .736 OPS and 103 OPS-plus, which doesn’t sound too bad, but when compared to his 140 OPS-plus against righties, you realize just how poor he was comparatively.
The Astros haven’t had to face too many lefties so far in their 2022 postseason run. In fact, Tucker, despite playing the entirety of all seven games, has only had five plate appearances against southpaws (Matthew Boyd, Robbie Ray, Wandy Peralta twice, and Nestor Cortes). He’s gone 1-for-3 with two walks, which is actually pretty good, but too small a sample size to assume he’s dug himself out of his southpaw rut.
The Phillies don’t have too many southpaws to speak fondly of — Ranger Suárez, Brad Hand, José Alvarado, and maybe Bailey Falter. Still, the four of them have thrown a combined 21.1 innings in the postseason thus far, 20 of which have come in the NLDS or NLCS, meaning when the going gets tough, the Phillies turn to these men (particularly Hand and Alvarado late in games). Tucker has primarily hit out of the fifth slot in the Astros’ lineup, which usually slots him in between Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel or Yuli Gurriel and Jeremy Peña, all three of whom are right-handed hitters (although Yordan Alvarez has occasionally slotted in front of Tucker as well). This usually keeps Tucker from having to face lefties often, but the Phillies have shown a dependence on Alvarado and Hand. The pair had the lowest and third-lowest ERAs of anyone in the Phillies’ bullpen with at least 30 innings pitched, so the righty-lefty matchup may not matter too much to Phillies’ manager Rob Thomson. If that’s the case, Tucker is really going to have to step up. Otherwise, he could be a non-factor in this World Series.
Philadelphia Phillies: Aaron Nola & Alec Bohm
Unlike the pair of Astros I listed above, these two sort of go in tandem with one another. I’m sure every Phillies fan alive is sick of hearing about their team’s poor defense, but it must be noted that third baseman Alec Bohm was responsible for more than a few runs going to Philadelphia’s opponents in 2022. Why does he matter specifically? Because the top of the Astros’ lineup consists of three right-handed hitters (Jeremy Peña, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman) who love to smash inside pitches. The Astros ranked sixth in MLB in wOBA against inside pitches, and the Phillies threw inside pitches at the second-highest rate in MLB.
The Astros only have three legitimate left-handed bats on their roster, meaning a lot of right-handers are going to come up to the plate. The Astros pulled the ball at the fourth-highest rate in MLB and hit either a line drive or grounder on over 60 percent of their batted balls. Bohm ranked 130th in Defensive WAR among third basemen this season and he could get a lot of work in this World Series. I wouldn’t be shocked if a few Houston runs are determined by Bohm’s ability or inability to flash the leather in key situations.
The only Phillies’ starting pitcher who didn’t throw inside pitches at an above-average rate this year was ace Aaron Nola (yeah, I consider him to be a tad better than Zack Wheeler). Nola is an innings-eater, has the highest strikeout rate of anyone on the Phillies’ starting staff, and held right-handed hitters to an astonishingly low 80 OPS-plus this year. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Phillies used him in the same way the 2014 Giants used Madison Bumgarner; that is, “Hey, it’s the end of the season so let’s just use this man’s arm as much as we can because he’ll have the whole offseason to recover.”
Through three series, Nola has only pitched 17.1 innings. His arm definitely hasn’t been overworked and although his last outing against the Padres wasn’t great, he had gone 12.2 innings with zero earned runs allowed prior. I’d be willing to bet he bounces back.