A quick look at the American League Division Series matchup between the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians.
AT FIRST GLANCE
The Astros, who finished the season with the second-most wins in baseball, won the American League West by six games despite the late surge of the Oakland Athletics. They lost their final game of the season but were 8-2 over the last 10 games on their way to a 21-6 record in September, which was their best month of the year.
Pitching has been their forte again this season — even more so with an improved bullpen. Houston relievers had a 3.03 earned-run average in 2018, good enough for best in the majors.
The Indians, the American League Central winners, glided into the postseason. Their division featured just one other team that won more than 75 games. The Indians finished ahead of the Twins by 13 games.
Although they faced the path of least resistance to reach the postseason for a third straight year, the Indians did not arrive completely by default. They out-hit the Astros across the board (Cleveland batted .259 and slugged .434; Houston batted .255 and slugged .425) and used speed to their advantage. Infielder Jose Ramirez spent most of the season battling for the league lead in stolen bases, and ultimately wound up third with 34. Francisco Lindor, Greg Allen and Rajai Davis stole more than 20 bases apiece.
It helped that former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, veteran Carlos Carrasco and third-year starter Mike Clevinger anchored a rotation that ranked third in baseball in ERA (3.39).
But the once-dominant one-two punch of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen out of the bullpen lost some of its luster this season. Miller, 33, had three separate stints on the disabled list and finished with a 4.24 ERA. The average velocity on his fastball dropped about 1 mph from the 94.5 mph fastball he was throwing last year, according to Fangraphs.
Allen’s ERA ballooned to 4.70 over 70 games this year. He walked batters at a rate of 4.49 walks-per-nine-innings, up from 2.81 last year.
The Indians worked past those issues by trading for the Padres’ Brad Hand. In 28 games for the Indians, the left-hander had a 2.28 ERA and held batters to a .192 clip. Expect the Indians to use some of their starters in the bullpen to help bridge the gap, like the Astros did in 2017 on their way to the World Series Championship.
WHY THE ASTROS SHOULD WIN
A more dominant pitching staff did not grace the planet this season. The Astros led baseball in overall ERA (3.11), rotation ERA (3.16) and bullpen ERA (3.03). Houston pitchers held opponents to a majors-low .217 batting average and limited them to just 152 home runs.
Astros pitchers piled on the strikeouts, too, leading the majors with 1,687. Game 1 starter Justin Verlander led the staff with 290 strikeouts in 34 starts.
Verlander paced Astros starters in most categories. He went 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA in five September starts, improving on a season in which he amassed his best ERA (2.52) since 2012 (2.64). He would be the likely Cy Young Award winner in the American League if Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell didn’t have a minuscule 1.89 ERA in his 31 starts.
Although Jose Altuve missed nearly a month from July 29-Aug. 21 with soreness in his right knee and did not put together his typical 200-hit campaign, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel picked up the slack. The three combined for 249 RBI. Bregman paced the trio, driving in 103 runs as he launched a team-high 31 home runs and batted .286 with a .394 on-base percentage and .532 slugging percentage.
Troubled by a back injury, shortstop Carlos Correa became something of a non-factor for the Astros. He batted just .239 with 15 home runs and 65 RBIs in 109 games. His 1.7 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com's version of the statistic, was the lowest of his career.
But Correa has shined in the postseason. Last year, he batted .288 with an .886 OPS, 14 RBI and 10 runs scored.
HOW THE INDIANS CAN WIN
If they can get to Verlander in Game 1, the Indians could at least lengthen the series to four games. The Indians have always given Verlander fits. He has a 4.71 ERA in 52 starts against Cleveland.
The Indians can press the issue by leaning on their offense, as they’ve been forced to do this year because of a faulty bullpen. They’re patient at the plate, their 1,189 strikeouts the fewest in baseball. Once they get on base, they’re a threat to run. They lead the majors with 135 stolen bases.
Outfielder Michael Brantley came along strong in his first season with more than 100 games since 2015. He led the Indians in batting average (.309) and hit the third-most doubles, his 36 trailing Lindor (42) and Ramirez (38).
Designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion provided his fair share of fireworks, clubbing 32 home runs to join Ramirez (39) and Lindor (38) as the three Indians with more than 30 homers this year.
WHO’S COMING IN HOT
Former All-Star closer Roberto Osuna, whom Houston acquired in a highly debated trade with the Toronto Blue Jays while he was still suspended for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy, was perfect in save chances (12 of 12) and had a 1.99 ERA in 23 games for the Astros after he returned from suspension.
The Indians drew some ire for a trade of their own when they acquired Josh Donaldson from the Jays in time for the Aug. 31 postseason eligibility deadline. Donaldson was on a rehab assignment when the Blue Jays placed him on revocable trade waivers. He went unclaimed, partly because MLB warned other teams he was damaged goods. The Indians struck a deal uncontested. Other teams were upset when the Indians placed Donaldson back on the disabled list within days, arguing that he should have been placed on the active roster immediately.
But the Indians reaped the benefits of a loophole. In a small sample size, the former All-Star hit .280 (14 for 50) with seven RBI, three homers and three doubles in 16 games after being activated on Sept. 11.
Donaldson has batted .292 with an .836 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 31 postseason games.
WHO’S COMING IN COLD
Houston’s Altuve drove in 10 runs and scored 15 times in September, but the All-Star second baseman only batted .267 with a .370 OBP and .395 slugging percentage. His month capped a second half in which he hit .276; he had hit .332 in the first half of the season.
The Indians’ Ramirez did not break .200 in the month of September. He drove in 11 runs and scored 19, but his .174/.322/.315 finish to the season dropped his overall average from .288 to .270 in a span of 25 games.
The Astros just barely won the season series, 4-3. The teams haven’t faced each other since consecutive weekends in May.