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This World Series Comes Down To Which Astros Team Shows Up

Going into the World Series, our forecast model offered up a rare prediction: a perfectly 50-50 championship tossup between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves. Atlanta disrupted that balance with a 6-2 win in Game 1, overcoming the loss of starting pitcher Charlie Morton (whose leg was fractured on a comebacker in the second inning) to take the series lead — and a 66 percent probability of winning the title. But after Houston struck back with a commanding 7-2 win Wednesday night, the teams are right back where they started: exactly 50-50 to win the World Series. And as unpredictable as this matchup looked going into its opening game, the outcome might be even less certain now.

Part of that has to do with Houston’s historic inconsistency this postseason. Including their victory in Game 2, the Astros have now won seven playoff games by a margin of five or more runs, tying the 2007 Boston Red Sox’s record for most such victories in a single postseason. Yet they also have lost more than a few blowouts: All four of Houston’s playoff losses have come by four runs or more.1

As a result, the Astros currently have the highest game-to-game variance in postseason run differential of any World Series team since MLB’s playoffs expanded in 1995:

The Astros are wildly inconsistent this postseason

Highest variance in game-to-game postseason run differential for World Series teams, 1995-2021

Wins Losses
Season Team Total by 4+ runs Total by 4+ runs Run Diff/G Variance
2021 HOU 8 7 4 4 +1.83 36.7
1996 ATL 9 4 7 1 +2.44 34.9
2001 NYY 10 2 7 4 -0.82 32.2
2007 BOS 11 8 3 2 +3.79 30.3
2010 TEX 8 7 8 4 +0.63 26.0
1999 NYY 11 4 1 1 +2.25 25.5
2019 HOU 10 5 8 5 -0.06 24.5
2019 WSN 12 6 5 4 +1.00 24.0
2007 COL 7 2 4 2 -0.09 23.1
2015 KCR 11 5 5 2 +1.50 22.5

Source: retrosheet

The first two games of the World Series have almost perfectly illustrated this up-and-down trend. Behind a shaky Game 1 outing from starting pitcher Framber Valdez, who allowed two home runs and was pulled in the third inning, plus a near-playoff-high nine runners left on base, the Astros fell into an early five-run hole in Game 1 and could not climb out. But just as was the key to their quick-turnaround ALCS comeback against the Red Sox, the Astros received a much better start in Game 2 — this time from righty José Urquidy, who struck out seven Braves — and their bats came alive to drop five quick runs on Atlanta ace Max Fried in the first two innings. When the Astros are firing on all cylinders like that, they are very difficult to beat … but it’s been tough to say whether that will be the case in any given game this postseason.

Things are plenty unsettled on the Braves’ side, too. Between Morton — who’ll miss the rest of the postseason with his injury — and Fried, Atlanta’s two best pitchers from the regular season by wins above replacement2 have provided a total of 7⅓ innings, causing the Braves’ bullpen to cover roughly as much of the team’s workload (57 percent) as the Astros’ relievers (61 percent). With Morton out, whatever rotation advantage Atlanta appeared to have over Houston going into the series seems less decisive than it was just a few days ago. Meanwhile, the Braves’ inability to make contact against Urquidy and company — along with the cooling of postseason hero Eddie Rosario, who went 0-for-4 to end an 11-game postseason hit streak — are sure to renew questions of whether Atlanta’s offense can keep pace with an Astros lineup that just scored at least five runs in a game for the 10th time this postseason, only one off of the 2015 Kansas City Royals’ all-time playoff record.

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With the series shifting back to Atlanta on Friday, the Braves will turn to Ian Anderson (who carries a stellar 2.25 ERA this postseason) for a crucial Game 3 start against Houston’s Luís Garcia, the first of three consecutive games at Truist Park. At the moment, the silver lining for Atlanta is that it departed Houston with a split, stealing home-field advantage in the series despite getting so few innings from its aces in Games 1 and 2. And looking forward, Houston’s advantage at designated hitter, where the team has gotten an 1.176 OPS this postseason between Yordan Álvarez and Michael Brantley, will be neutralized in the NL park as well.3 Still, the Astros continue to be the world-beating offensive team we all thought they would be heading into the Fall Classic, averaging a whopping 6.33 runs per game throughout the postseason. Would anybody be surprised if Houston kept up the hot hitting in Atlanta while the good versions of their pitchers showed up to confound Braves batters?

Of course, the opposite wouldn’t be too much of a surprise, either — and it’s that uncertainty which continues to define this matchup. While the contours of the series have already shifted some over its first two games, the overall outlook remains the same: This is anybody’s World Series.


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Footnotes

  1. Including a 12-6 loss to the Chicago White Sox in the division series and a 12-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  3. Or at least Astros manager Dusty Baker will have to shuffle his defense to accommodate both playing in the field.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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