Reading far too much into small samples.
The Red Sox punched their ticket to the ALCS on Monday thanks to a big win at Fenway to knock off the Rays, and on Tuesday they found out they’d be playing. After a convincing 10-1 win in their own Game Four in Chicago, the Astros punched yet another ticket to the ALCS, their fifth straight appearance in the game. We know you can’t learn too much over small samples in baseball, and especially from the first half when we’re in the postseason, but we’re going to try anyway. Boston and Houston faced off seven times this year, with the Astros taking five of those games. Here are four things the Red Sox could take away from those games. Why four and not five? Because I don’t listen to The Man, that’s why.
Rafael Devers and fastballs
This is the obvious one because it was so blatant the first time these two teams played. Most of the time, teams are subtle about the way they are attacking opposing hitters. Houston left nothing to the imagination against Devers early in the summer, consistently peppering him with high fastballs. The Astros totally exposed him in that series, throwing him literally nothing but fastballs and keeping him in check for basically the entire series. To his credit, Devers worked on the issue they were exposing and quickly made himself good enough that he was at least keeping teams honest.
That said, I’m still expecting to see a whole lot of fastballs. For one thing, the Astros pitchers had success with that strategy, and when you beat someone like Devers on a consistent basis you stick with that strategy until it becomes untenable. But perhaps more importantly, his injury is making that high velocity difficult for Devers right now. I would be very surprised if we don’t see them test Devers with a whole lot of heat in this series.
Eduardo Rodriguez needs his fastball
On the other side of things, Rodriguez needs to make sure he has his fastball on point for this series whenever he gets his start, assuming he gets one. This, to be fair, is something of a base state for the lefty. We see it all the time with him, when he has confidence in the fastball everything else follows from there. When he doesn’t, he either nibbles and shows no efficiency to go with lackluster results, or he hits too much of the plate and gets hit all around. Houston got the fastball in both of the lefty’s starts against them this year. Normally in that case the instinct might to focus more on the other pitches, but we know Rodriguez can beat anyone when he has it. I’d like to see him come out with confidence and feeling good about that fastball right off the bat. He allowed six runs over 4 2⁄3 in each of his two meetings with Houston this year.
Kyle Tucker is a problem
The Astros has been around in these spots for years now, so most of their lineup is familiar at this point. We know about José Altuve, Carlos Correa, Yordan Alvarez, et al. If you’re not already, get familiar with Kyle Tucker. He should be someone to fear no matter what, as he was one of the best hitters in baseball over the second half, number three to be exact by wRC+. He was a top prospect, and he’s making good on the potential. But he can get hidden among the other names, and it helped make his performance against Red Sox pitching somewhat surprising. Boston’s staff is different now than it was in early and mid June, but Tucker put up a 1.220 OPS against them this year. Again, small samples, but just remember the name.
Framber Valdez’s curveball is to be feared
While Houston’s offense is intimidating, it was actually their young pitching that led the way in the five wins over Boston this season. And among the pitchers, Valdez was the only one to make two strong starts, and it all started and ended with his curveball. He threw the pitch about 30 percent of the time in both matchups, inducing whiffs on more than half the swings against the offering in both starts and extremely little in the way of threatening contact. This is Valdez’s best secondary so it’s not exactly something unique about Boston to struggle against the pitch, but if they can find some way to neutralize it to some extent they can find more success against the young lefty. Over two starts he allowed a total of two runs over 14 1⁄3 innings, striking out 18 and walking two.