Fresh off a big four-game series win over the Mets, the Braves will continue their homestand by welcoming the Houston Astros to town for a three-game, World Series rematch weekend set. The Braves won two of the three World Series games in Atlanta last autumn before clinching the series in Game 6 in Houston.
Fast forward nine months, and the Braves and Astros are still both formidable opponents. The ‘Stros have the second-most wins and the second-best record in the majors and an 11.5-game lead in the AL West; perhaps the only surprising thing about their season at this point is that they’ve gone “just” 10-7 in August so far (the Braves are 11-6). After an 11-10 start to the season, the Astros went 56-26 over the next three months.
It’s hard to find a weakness or chink in the armor when looking at Houston’s stats. They’re fourth in position player fWAR, with the league’s fourth-best wRC+ and third-best defense. They have the majors’ best overall pitching staff by fWAR, including currently its best rotation, and sixth-best bullpen. Yordan Alvarez has a 186 wRC+ (lol/wtf/how) and has already hit 5.0 fWAR. Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, and Kyle Tucker have already crested 3 fWAR. They’ve gotten good-to-elite production everywhere except catcher and first base, though Jeremy Pena (2.4 fWAR on the year) has hit terribly since returning from injury (65 wRC+ over his last 178 PAs.
Pretty much the only place the Braves have the Astros beat in terms of an overall team aspect is the bullpen, but the combination of Ryan Pressly and Hector Neris has been potent, journeyman Rafael Montero is having a great relief season, and Bryan Abreu has chipped in quite a bit as well.
It should be a good series. Both teams feature strikeout-heavy pitching staffs and offensive strategies that revolve around pulling the ball in the air; the key difference is that the Braves actively trade whiffs, including whiffs in the zone, for more power production; the Astros are content to take weaker contact to avoid the strikeout, letting the vagaries of BABIP prop up their batting lines while hitting enough homers to make it worthwhile.
Friday, August 20, 7:20 pm EDT
Lance McCullers Jr. (1 GS, 6 IP, 0 ERA-, 87 FIP-, 118 xFIP-, 89ish xERA-)
The Braves missed McCullers in last year’s postseason, as he exited Game 4 of the ALDS with a flexor tendon strain and missed the rest of the season. That injury kept him out of game action until a few days ago, when he hurled six shutout frames against the Athletics in his 2022 season debut. Prior to the injury, McCullers put together a career season in 2021, with 3.3 fWAR in 162 1⁄3 innings.
Kyle Wright (22 GS, 134 2⁄3 IP, 75 ERA-, 93 FIP-, 84 xFIP-, 98ish xERA-)
Kyle Wright will make his return to the rotation in the series opener after missing some time with what the team termed “arm fatigue.” After a strong three-start stretch to end July (17/3 K/BB ratio), Wright allowed a career-high four homers against the Mets, partly as a result of a curveball that shed a fair bit of its horizontal break. While Wright bounced back to post a very strong start at Fenway Park (5/1 K/BB ratio in six innings with a 72 percent groundball rate), he was exhibiting a loss of two ticks on his pitches, hence the whole “arm fatigue” thing. We’ll see whether the rest cured whatever’s been ailing Wright — if it didn’t, this could be a tough matchup, as the Astros are a good curveball-hitting team.
Saturday, August 21, 7:20 pm EDT
Cristian Javier (22 G, 18 GS, 106 1⁄3 IP, 78 ERA-, 85 FIP-, 94 xFIP-, 69ish xERA-)
The Braves should be pretty familiar with Javier, who made three relief appearances against them in the World Series, including giving up the tie and the lead in Game 5 thanks to back-to-back homers by Jorge Soler and Dansby Swanson while recording just a single out.
This season, Javier has ascended to the rotation and carved up batters, having struck out nearly every third batter he’s faced. He’s also doing a bizarre thing this year where he’s inducing weak fly after weak fly — he’s not really managing contact in the sense of avoiding barrels or anything, but is getting a bunch of do-nothing cans of corn anyway. It’s not clear how sustainable that is as a skill, but that aside, his xFIP is just fine, because it’s hard to struggle too badly with that strikeout rate.
Spencer Strider (25 G, 14 GS, 94 2⁄3 IP, 73 ERA-, 51 FIP-, 63 xFIP-, 63ish xERA-)
Speaking of strikeouts, the Braves will turn this game into a potential hitter’s nightmare matchup by sending Strider to the hill to oppose Javier. It’ll be interesting to see how Strider’s 37.2 percent strikeout rate (only marginally lower at 36.6 percent since becoming a starter) fares against a Houston offense that has the second-lowest strikeout rate in MLB. However, even if Strider doesn’t blow away Astro after Astro, don’t fret: his last start against the Mets showed that he can still be highly effective just by not walking anyone (5/1 K/BB ratio in five innings).
Sunday, August 22, 1:35 pm EDT
Jose Urquidy (22 GS, 127 IP, 97 ERA-, 111 FIP-, 111 xFIP-, 116ish xERA-)
The Braves get a bit of a break in the finale, because Jose Urquidy isn’t quite the world-beater-type that fills out much of the rest of Houston’s rotation. Urquidy is throwing harder this year compared to last, but his strikeout rate has dipped quite a lot, and he’s basically gotten by just by not walking guys so the hard contact he allows doesn’t hurt quite so badly. Still, Urquidy wasn’t super-great in 2021 either, yet stunned the Braves with a 7/0 K/BB ratio in five innings in Game 2, so who knows.
While Urquidy pounds the zone, he’s exhibited worse command this year — in particular, he’s left a lot of sliders he’s thrown in very hittable places, and he continues to struggle to elevate his fastball to a place where it can take advantage of its great shape and get whiffs.
Charlie Morton (23 GS, 129 1⁄3 IP, 97 ERA-, 99 FIP-, 88 xFIP-, 97ish xERA-)
Morton’s roller-coaster of a 2022 seemingly won’t stop, ever. He allowed three homers to the Red Sox despite a 7/1 K/BB ratio at Fenway Park on August 9, making it the second time in five starts he allowed three longballs (while allowing zero in the three starts in between). But then, he basically had a career-esque outing against the Mets last Tuesday, racking up a 12/1 K/BB ratio over 6 2⁄3 innings of scoreless, three-hit ball.
Morton, of course, heroically pitched on a broken leg for part of Game 1 of the World Series, against the team that helped him recalibrate his career and reach new, incredible levels of pitching success. This game could be some decent catharsis for him... provided that the good version of his arsenal shows up.