The 2019 World Series: Can Mad Max And The Underdog Nationals Upset The Astros?

According to most sportsbooks in Las Vegas, The Washington Nationals are the biggest World Series underdog since 2007, when the bigfoot-favorite Boston Red Sox swept the hopeless Colorado Rockies in four straight.

I know that the Houston Astros led the majors with 107 wins this season, are armed with a wickedly good rotation, and march into the 2019 World Series with one of the greatest offenses in MLB history. (That’s no hype.)

The Astros won 14 more games than Washington during the regular season, and that sets an ominous precedent for the Nats.

In World Series history, only two teams have won the classic after finishing with at least 14 fewer regular-season victories than the opponent: the 1906 White Sox, and the 1954 Giants.

However, here are a few other dollops of information to drop into the mix:

Since MLB switched to a division format (1969) that included a league championship series the team with the superior regular-season record is 23-24 in the World Series.

And since 1969 there have been 15 World Series matchups pitting a team that won at least 10 or more reg-season games than the other contestant. But: the team that had 10-plus more wins than its World Series opponent went 7-8 record in the WS.

The Nationals already have knocked the 106-win LA Dodgers from the tournament. And that deed went down in the NLDS.

After lagging to 19-31 start to the season the Nationals are 82-40, have scored 700 runs and own a plus-203 run differential. Over the same time frame, which began May 24, the Astros are 81-41, have scored 691 runs, and pounded out a plus-182 run differential. (The numbers include postseason games.)

Yep. We’re talking very similar teams here. Right on down to each side having a “Big Three” coalition of prestigious starters. The Nationals are led by joints chief of staff Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. The Astros have a trio of Appolonian pitching divinities in Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.

As ESPN Stats and Info noted: for the first time in World Series history, five of the top 10 regular-season pitchers in strikeouts during the regular season are in the World Series. Cole (326) and Verlander (300) ranked were first and second. Strasburg, Scherzer and Corbin finished sixth, eighth and 10th respectively.

Moreover: Cole, Verlander, Scherzer, Greinke, Corbin and Strasburg all ranked among the top 16 in the MLB this season in ERA — ranging from 2.50 (Cole) to 3.32 (Strasburg.)

It gets better …

Six of the top 12 pitchers in WAR this season will throw down in this World Series:

  • Cole,    1st,              7.4
  • Scherzer, 4th,       6.5
  • Verlander, 5th,     6.4
  • Strasburg, 7th,     5.7
  • Greinke,  9th,        5.4
  • Corbin, t-12th.    4.8

Five World Series Thoughts: 

1. The starting pitchers are commanding most of the attention here, partly because of an overreaction to the rotation-heavy composition of these teams. No more bullpenning! A return to old-school baseball when starting pitchers ruled the world! Enough, already, with the reliever obsession! Yeah, well, OK. These postseason games almost always come down to the relievers. (See: Aroldis Chapman vs. Jose Altuve, Game 6, 2019 ALCS.)

2. For whatever it’s worth — because we’re talking small samples here — but Washington’s starters have a 2.04 ERA this postseason with a 0.92 WHIP, a 4.4 strikeout-walk ratio, and an opponent batting average of .168. The Astros’ starters have a 3.16 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP, 3.59 K-BB ratio and .198 opponent BA. Then again, the Astros didn’t have a chance to carve up those weak St. Louis bats.

3. On paper (as we say) the Astros have the better bullpen, ranking second in the majors this season with a 3.75 ERA. And the Nationals’ abysmal 5.68 ERA was 29th among the 30 MLB teams. But that’s misleading. The Nationals pitched well in relief late in the season. They’ve been boosted by lefty Sean Doolittle’s rebound from an extensive slump, the trade acquisition of Daniel Hudson (1.44 ERA), and the strikeout punch (35% K rate) of hard-throwing rookie Tanner Rainey. And the ancient Fernando Rodney can still be effective when spotted in a sensible matchup. I’d still give the edge to Houston, but the Nationals might be OK in this area. Or more than OK. Washington has converted five of six save opps this postseason.

4. The 2019 Astros have one of the greatest single-season offenses in major-league history. And this is no hype. Based on park adjusted runs created, also known as wRC+, here are the top four performances on offense by a big-league team during the regular season:

— The 1927 Yankees, 126 wRC+, or 26 percent above league average.

— The 2019 Astros, 125 wRC+, or 25 percent above average.

— The 1930 Yankees, 124 wRC+.

— The 1931 Yankees,  124 wRC+.

This season the Astros led the majors in slugging percentage, onbase percentage, batting average, OPS, wOBA, and wRC+. They were eight percent better than the Yankees, who had a 117 wRC+ this season. Removing pitcher plate appearances from the accounting — and going with position-player PA only — the Astros were No. 1 in the majors with a 126 wRC+, and the Nationals were fifth at 111.

The Astros are easily the most astute group of hitters in MLB in the lost speciality of plate discipline. Houston brings the physical power and the brain power. The No. 1 slugging team in the majors also had the lowest strikeout rate (18 percent) in the majors this season.

Houston led MLB with a .649 OPS in two-strike counts. The Nationals were better than the Astros in performance with runners in scoring position — .887 OPS to .855 — but both teams excel at situational hitting.

5. On a personal note, I’m rooting for St. Louisan Max Scherzer to win a World Series ring.  This is Scherzer’s second crack at the World Series; Max was a member of the 2012 Detroit Tigers rotation that was booted out of the 2012 World Series by the San Francisco Giants in four straight. Scherzer, then 28, started Game 4 of that World Series, won by the Giants 4-3 in 10 innings.

Scherzer, 35, already has established his Baseball Hall of Fame credentials. He’s won three Cy Young awards (2013, 2016, 2017), finished second in the vote in 2018, and came in fifth in the balloting in 2014 and ‘15. He’s a seven-time All-Star. He’s finished in the top 10 in the majors for best ERA seven times. He’s led the majors in strikeouts three times, and ranked among the top 10 five other times.

Scherzer makes his 17th career postseason start in Game 1 Tuesday night. He goes into this World Series as one of the most accomplished players in big-league history without a World Series ring.

That list would include — among many others — Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, George Sisler, Ken Griffey Jr., Juan Marichal, Early Wynn, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gywnn, Ernie Banks, Nap Lajoie, Arky Vaughan, Harmon Killebrew, Carl Yastrzemski, Ichiro Suzuki, Billy Williams, Robin Roberts, Carlton Fisk and Ralph Kiner.

“You’re almost overconfident with him on the mound,” said Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, to the Washington Post, before this year’s NL wild-card game. “There’s not a pitcher on the planet that you’d want instead of him in a one-game playoff. Guys start talking: ‘We have Max. We’ll be okay.’ That’s what it’s like when you have the best.”

Prediction?  If I have to … and I’m not wagering on this so it doesn’t matter … but Astros in 7.  The deep Houston lineup gets it done. I think. That said, there’s something magical going on with the Nationals. “Mojo,” Scherzer calls it.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie