Playoff Preview: Braves-Astros

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
Houston            89     73     .549     693     609     91-71
Atlanta            90     72     .556     769     674     92-70
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
Houston            4.28     .256     .322     .408     281     161     481    1037     
Atlanta            4.75     .265     .333     .435     308     184     534    1084
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
Houston            3.76     .246     .308     .389     257     155     440    1164     
Atlanta            4.16     .268     .333     .406     282     145     520     929

Except for the part about these two rosters looking very different than they did a year ago, this is a rematch of last season’s National League Division Series. The Astros beat the Braves 3-2, as Carlos Beltran hit .455 with nine RBIs in the series, homering in all three of Houston’s wins. He’ll be watching this year’s matchup from New York, having spent a largely disappointing first season with the Mets. Last year the Braves had a starting rotation of Jaret Wright, Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Russ Ortiz. Only Thomson remains on the active roster and he’s a long shot to start a game.

There are a few other differences, too. John Smoltz was a closer then; he’s a starter now. Jeff Francoeur had just wrapped up a disappointing 18-game stretch at Double-A then; he’s the Braves’ right fielder now. Jeff Bagwell was the Astros’ first baseman, team leader and #3 hitter then; he’s a pinch hitter now. J.D. Drew and Charles Thomas flanked Andruw Jones in Atlanta’s outfield then; they’re in California, watching the postseason as members of the Dodgers and A’s now. It goes on, of course, but those are some of the highlights.

Another big change from last year is with the state of Houston’s pitching staff. They went to battle with basically three pitchers last postseason, relying on Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt to start games and Brad Lidge to finish them. In the NLDS win over the Braves, Clemens and Oswalt made four of the team’s five starts, and together with Lidge they pitched 27.2 of the team’s 46.2 innings.

This time around they’ve got a healthy Andy Pettitte to join Clemens and Oswalt in the rotation, and Lidge has setup man Dan Wheeler around to help bridge the gap from the starters. In fact, once you account for the fact that the postseason schedule allows teams to rely more heavily on fewer pitchers than during the regular season, the Astros’ pitching staff looks extraordinarily strong:

STARTERS               IP      ERA        RELIEVERS              IP      ERA
Roy Oswalt          241.2     2.94        Dan Wheeler          73.1     2.21
Andy Pettitte       222.1     2.39        Brad Lidge           70.2     2.29
Roger Clemens       211.1     1.87

In previewing the White Sox-Red Sox ALDS, I wrote that “an argument could be made that the White Sox had the best pitching/defense in all of baseball this year.” That’s different than having the best playoff pitching, as a balanced, 11-deep pitching staff isn’t crucial in October. Houston’s streamlined, five-man staff went 56-36 with a 2.39 ERA and 712-to-193 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 819.1 innings, which is about as good as it gets. Of course, postseason or not they’ll need more than five pitchers, and they’ve got guys like Brandon Backe (149.1 IP, 4.76 ERA) and Chad Qualls (79.2 IP, 3.28 ERA) around to pick up the handful of innings Oswalt, Pettitte, Clemens, Lidge and Wheeler don’t take care of.

So why aren’t the Astros prohibitive favorites in this series? First, the Braves can pitch too, with Smoltz, Tim Hudson (another big change from 2004) and Leo Mazzone‘s latest reclamation success story, Jorge Sosa, leading the rotation. Those three went 41-19 with a 3.09 ERA in 555.2 innings, and the Braves added Kyle Farnsworth at the trade deadline to anchor a relatively shaky bullpen. At the time of the trade I wrote that acquiring Farnsworth “might be the only deal involving a player who will have a major impact down the stretch and into October,” and he posted a 1.98 ERA in 27.1 innings.

Beyond that, the Braves have a big edge offensively over the Astros. Actually, considering Houston scored just 693 runs while playing half their games in a very friendly ballpark for hitting, most teams have a big edge over the Astros offensively. Houston ranked 24th in the majors with just 4.28 runs per game, and among the eight playoff teams only San Diego scored less often. And as I discussed in previewing their series with the Cardinals, the Padres’ offense looks a lot better than the raw numbers suggest once you adjust for pitcher-friendly Petco Park.

Fortunately for the Astros, their pitching is so good that they don’t really need to score a ton. In fact, if you told me Houston’s lineup would score exactly three runs in each game—production that would be by far the worst in baseball—I’d pick the Astros in a heartbeat. But that won’t be as easy as it sounds, as Clemens’ record shows. Despite a league-leading 1.87 ERA in 211.1 innings, Clemens wound up with just 13 wins because of horrendous offensive support. The Astros were shut out in nine of Clemens’ 32 starts and scored three runs or fewer with Clemens on the mound 20 times.

Can they scratch together a run every three innings against stud pitchers like Smoltz and Hudson? I think they can, and more than that I think Houston has a chance to completely shut the Braves down at the plate. Both Andruw (.263/.347/.575) and Chipper Jones (.296/.412/.556) have been fantastic this year, and Marcus Giles (.291/.365/.461), Rafael Furcal (.284/.348/.429), Adam LaRoche (.259/.320/.455) and Francoeur (.300/.336/.500) give Atlanta plenty of weapons.

However, if Houston’s Big Three of Cy Young-caliber starters pitch well, they hand the ball over to Wheeler, and then manager Phil Garner drops the hammer with Lidge closing things out, Atlanta will essentially have to bat against the equivalent of baseball’s best pitcher at all times. If Lidge can slam the door with multiple-inning outings like he did last October (12.1 innings with a 0.73 ERA and 20-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in seven appearances) and skip the middle man, that’ll make things even more difficult for the Braves.

This series features what looks like the best, most intriguing matchup of the opening round and it will be all about which team can muster any sort of offensive attack. It’s a tough call, but I think Lance Berkman (.293/.411/.524), Morgan Ensberg (.283/.388/.557), Craig Biggio (.264/.325/.468) and Jane Lane (.267/.316/.499) have a better chance against a very good Braves pitching staff than anyone does against the Astros. Like in pick-up basketball, I’m guessing the first team to 11 moves on to the NLCS.

Astros in five.

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