At 12 games under .500 in late May after losing arguably their best player, no one expected the Washington Nationals to be here. The same can’t be said of the Houston Astros, who have been the darlings of prognosticators from the start.
The Nationals have gone a Major League-best 82-40 to bring the World Series to D.C. for the first time since 1933 despite losing Bryce Harper in free agency and sitting at 19-31 on May 23. The second-best record over that span? The Astros at 81-41.
Washington starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez and Patrick Corbin have played a major role in the team’s postseason success with 12.84 strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9), which is the highest rate of all time among playoff staffs with more than 20 innings pitched.
Houston’s Gerrit Cole, who opposes Scherzer on the mound in Tuesday’s Game 1 at Minute Maid Park, has gone 19-0 with a 1.59 ERA since May 27. He has a chance to become the first pitcher to win 20 consecutive decisions within a single season, and the first to do it overall since Roger Clemens won 20 straight over the 1998-99 seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees.
Meanwhile, the Astros’ remarkable offense, which had the third-most home runs in the majors while striking out the fewest number of times, has also come up big to put the franchise in position to capture its second title in three years.
Using our proprietary data provided by our advanced analytics group, Stats Perform is taking a closer look at the 2019 World Series and revealing which team holds the advantage on the mound, at the plate, and in the field.
We’ve known for some time that Strasburg and Sanchez are big-game pitchers. They hold postseason ERAs of 1.10 and 2.57, respectively, over 17 combined appearances. Scherzer, on the other hand, doesn’t have that same big-game reputation. But this postseason, Scherzer has been as impressive as ever, posting a 1.80 ERA through 20 innings. Remarkably, he’s also upped his average fastball velocity from 94.9 to 96.0 since the playoffs started.
As good as the Nats’ starters have been, the Astros get the nod. As previously mentioned, Cole hasn’t lost a decision in his last 25 starts dating back to May – and Justin Verlander led all of baseball during the regular season in wins (21), WHIP (0.80) and opponent batting average (.172) – with Cole finishing second in each category.
That combo has also been exceptional throughout the playoffs, even if they haven’t quite matched the historical dominance of the Nationals’ rotation. Houston’s wild card figures to be Zack Greinke, who is 0-2 with a 6.43 ERA in three playoff starts after going 18-5 with a 2.93 ERA during the regular season.
Below we’ve highlighted each team’s top starters to evaluate their 2019 performance relative to Stats Perform’s advanced analytics. Before you start to digest the graphic, here’s a rundown of what each of the metrics mean.
BIP (-): A pitcher’s ability to limit quality contact.
Discipline (-): A pitcher’s ability to get hitters to swing at balls and look at strikes.
Command (+): A pitcher’s ability to hit his Pitch Intent spots. Stats Perform’s Pitch Intent tracks which pitchers are better at hitting their spots everywhere (including balls).
Whiff%: The percentage of swings and misses that a pitcher generates.
Raw Value: A cumulative measure of overall performance.
RV (-): A rate measure of overall performance. Raw Value adjusted for quantity of pitches.
Discipline (+/-), BIP (+/-), and RV (+/-) are all two-sided metrics. The “+” represents “positive” outcomes such as a home run or a pitcher hitting his spot. The “-“ represents “negative” outcomes, but that doesn’t mean these contributions are bad. Poor contact is considered a negative outcome, but for a pitcher it’s good. Thus, we measure pitchers on BIP- (as opposed to hitters, who are measured on BIP+). For these graphics, those distinctions aren’t particularly meaningful, because everything is calculated as a percentile. This makes everything easy – high is good, low is bad. For our purposes, qualifying pitchers have at least 1000 total pitches.
The Nationals’ bullpen is not pretty. It only carries two pitchers who had a sub-4.00 ERA during the regular season – Daniel Hudson (1.44) and Tanner Rainey (3.91). Since the start of September, Washington’s pen has just 8.32 SO/9 and has allowed 52% of inherited runners score – both rank second to last in the league.
As a result, the Nats have been forced to use starters out of the bullpen quite regularly in these playoffs. The strategy has worked effectively thus far, and the club’s sweep of the Cardinals will give the starters ample time to rest. It will be interesting to see how often Washington turns to its starters for relief appearances – and the potential implications that may have on their effectiveness throughout the series.
On the other side, finding any matchup opportunity against the Astros is a difficult proposition. Even if you manage to chase one of their starters from the game, you’re faced with a top-5 bullpen. The Astros finished third in the majors in bullpen ERA (3.75) and opponent batting average (.226) and fourth in percentage of inherited runners scored (27.9) during the regular season, while the Nationals were last in ERA (5.66) and inherited runners scored (41.6) and 28th in opponent average (.266).
Houston’s quality and depth in the later innings were on full display in the ALCS against the Yankees. The Astros pitched seven different relievers in Game 6 and only one of them had a regular-season ERA over 4.00. Two of them – Will Harris and Joe Smith – had season ERAs under 2.00.
There is an underlying narrative that the Nationals must be, in some way, better without Harper because they’ve finally gotten over the hump and reached their elusive World Series.
But it’s not so much that Washington is better because the star slugger left as it is because the club’s offense raised its performance to another level in 2019.
The Nats went from 90.99 in BIP+ last season to a 105.8 mark in 2019, raised their Discipline+ from 104.68 to 107.48, their Raw Value+ from 102.32 to 111.94 and their Contact+ from 100.23 to 102.19.
Anthony Rendon set career highs in several offensive categories and emerged as an NL MVP candidate, while sophomore sensation Juan Soto took Harper’s place as the most feared left-handed slugger in the Nats’ order with 34 home runs, 32 doubles and 110 RBIs. At the top, Trea Turner has done a better job setting the table, improving his BIP+ and Raw Value+ metrics by a wide margin.
|Nats batters||2018 BIP+||2018 Disc+||2018 RV+||2019 BIP+||2019 Disc+||2019 RV+|
While the Nationals impressed by finishing with the fourth-fewest strikeouts (1,308) in the majors and ranking sixth in OPS (.796) and runs per game (5.39), this year’s Astros are likely to be considered one of the best offensive teams of all time when it’s all said and done.
Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Jose Altuve all improved their performance in BIP+, Discipline+ and Raw Value+ from 2018 to this season, dramatically in some cases.
|Astros batters||2018 BIP+||2018 Disc+||2018 RV+||2019 BIP+||2019 Disc+||2019 RV+|
The Astros ranked No. 1 in all of baseball in Contact+, fourth in Raw Value+ and eighth in Discipline+, and finished first in MLB in OPS (.848) and third in home runs (288) and runs per game (5.68) – all while ending up with the fewest amount of strikeouts (1,166). As a result, the Nats fall just short in this matchup despite ranking nearly as well at third in Discipline+, fifth in Contact+ and eighth in Raw Value+.
Below is a chart demonstrating the performance of each team’s top hitters relative to Stats Perform’s advanced analytics metrics. Once again – a quick rundown of metrics before you get into the visualization.
BIP (+): The quality of a hitter’s balls in play.
Discipline (+): A hitter’s ability to swing at strikes and lay off balls.
Contact (+): A hitter’s ability to generate frequent contact.
Raw Value: A cumulative measure of overall performance.
RV (-): A rate measure of overall performance. Raw value adjusted for quantity of pitches.
Once again, all of these values are represented as percentiles relative to other qualifying players. For our purposes, qualifying batters have at least 200 plate appearances in 2019.
There’s an old adage that a good defense is strong up the middle. The Astros certainly have that with Correa at shortstop and Springer in centerfield. Springer ranks first (98.09) among all centerfielders with more than 100 chances in Stats Perform’s Clean Fielding Percentage, while Correa is second (94.16) among shortstop with 150 opportunities.
Stats Perform’s Clean Fielding Percentage (CFP) accounts for not only plays in which a team is charged with an error, but also aspects of that play and others that aren’t ‘clean’ even though it may not be an error.
|Nationals||Plays||Unclean Plays||Clean %|
|Astros||Plays||Unclean Plays||Clean %|
For the Nationals, there isn’t much that gets by the left side of the infield. Rendon ranks seventh among all third basemen with a 91.80 CFP, while Turner was the sixth-best shortstop with a 93.15 mark.
Overall, however, Houston finished second in MLB with a .988 fielding percentage and 63.2% above league average in CFP, while Washington was 11th with a .985 fielding percentage and 31.5% above league average in CFP.
Prediction: Astros in five
Our data has spoken. Having earned the advantage in each of the four categories, Stats Perform projects a short series with the Astros winning their second title in three years.
Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Stats Perform’s Lucas Haupt