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This World Series Is A Historic Battle Of Starting Rotations

The only time a baseball team based in Washington, D.C. won the World Series, the great Senators pitcher Walter Johnson was on the mound. Johnson — who would go on to be part of the first Hall of Fame class — was still effective at age 36, winning 23 games in 1924, and would be named the AL MVP. He won Game 7 of the World Series with four shutout innings in relief to close out the game, delivering the last baseball title to the nation’s capital.

Ninety-five years later, a Washington team has another Series win in its sights — and it has a historic amount of pitching talent behind it. But the Nats’ aces are matched by their counterparts on the Astros, who boast an elite top of their rotation. This World Series will be the first in modern history featuring five starting pitchers who produced 5 or more wins above replacement for the Series opponents during the regular season.1

There’s never been World Series pitching like this

Teams to reach the World Series with at least two pitchers who produced 5-plus WAR in the regular season

Season Team pitchers with 5+ WAR Count
2019 Washington Nationals Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg 3
2019 Houston Astros Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander 2
2016 Chicago Cubs Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester 2
2005 Houston Astros Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte 3
2001 Arizona Diamondbacks Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling 2
2001 New York Yankees Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina 2
1996 Atlanta Braves Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz 3
1991 Atlanta Braves Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz 3
1985 Kansas City Royals Charlie Leibrandt, Bret Saberhagen 2
1983 Philadelphia Phillies Steve Carlton, John Denny 2
1973 New York Mets Jerry Koosman, Tom Seaver 2
1969 New York Mets Jerry Koosman, Tom Seaver 2
1944 St. Louis Browns Jack Kramer, Nels Potter 2
1937 New York Yankees Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing 2
1918 Chicago Cubs Lefty Tyler, Hippo Vaughn 2

Astros pitcher Zack Greinke accumulated more than 6 WAR this season but was traded midseason, so his production was split between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Houston Astros.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

The Nationals are one of 13 teams since the first World Series in 1903 to have three starting pitchers on their roster who produced 5 or more WAR — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — for that club in the regular season. They are the fourth such staff to reach the World Series, joining the 1991 and 1996 Atlanta Braves and 2005 Houston Astros. The 2019 Astros are one of 25 teams to have two starting pitchers exceed 6.5 WAR in the same season. This World Series pitching matchup is rivaled only by the 2001 Series, in which Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling of the victorious Diamondbacks faced Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina of the Yankees. Potential matchups of Cole versus Scherzer in Game 1, Verlander versus Strasburg in Game 2 and Greinke versus Corbin in Game 3 could mark some of the best Series matchups in history.

These staffs have also led a comeback in starting pitcher workload this October. There have been 16 outings of 101 pitchers or more made by starting pitchers, and the Nats and Astros have combined for 11 of them, nearly as many as the past two postseasons combined.

But while the Astros and Nationals have similar levels of elite pitcher talent, they built their rotations in very different ways.

Houston acquired Cole and Verlander via trades that so far have given the Astros much more than they gave away. The Astros helped Verlander fine-tune his slider to return him to peak form, and Cole has gone from so-so to unhittable. This season, Verlander and Cole joined Johnson and Schilling (2002) as the only pair of teammates to top 300 strikeouts in the same season. They figure to be competing against each other for the AL Cy Young Award.

The Nationals drafted Strasburg first overall in 2009, and even with Tommy John surgery under his belt, he has been the 10th-most valuable pitcher in baseball since his debut. In 2015 the Nats signed Scherzer, who has been the most valuable arm in the game since 2012. And from a pitching standpoint, it worked out well for the club when Bryce Harper turned down a reported $300 million deal to stay in Washington — the Nats subsequently signed Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez. Corbin outproduced Harper this season, in terms of WAR.

The Nationals finished first in the majors in starting pitching production, while the Astros ranked fourth this season. And Scherzer and Co. will have to be great to give the Nats a chance against the heavily favored Astros, who have a 60 percent chance to win the Series, according to FiveThirtyEight’s MLB predictions.

While the Nationals bullpen has been better in the postseason, only the Baltimore Orioles had a poorer bullpen ERA in the regular season. Even if one of the Astros’ better relievers, Ryan Pressly, isn’t 100 percent healthy, they figure to have an edge after the starters are out of the game. And though the Nationals have star bats like Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner, the Astros are basically the 1927 Yankees. In fact, according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+) — a metric that adjusts for ballpark and scoring environments, with 100 representing league average — only the ’27 Yankees were a more efficient offense than the ’19 Astros.

Though the Astros and Nationals may have similarly dominant starting pitching, the Astros are stronger everywhere else. The Nats’ historically talented group of arms — along with their star position players — faces a nearly unprecedented challenge in returning a title to Washington.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The Astros feature yet another pitcher with at least 5 WAR in Zach Greinke, but his WAR was split between Houston and the Arizona Diamondbacks, from whom he was traded.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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