First let me start by saying the Astros are very deserving favorites in this ALDS. The Astros have a massively talented offensive lineup and good (just good) pitching. But the Red Sox, I am sure go into this series thinking they can win. And here are several reasons why the fan base should think their team can win as well.
1. Our ace is better than your ace. Justin Verlander has been everything the Astros could have possibly hoped for. He has made five starts since being acquired from Detroit in late August. Mr. Kate Upton's record is 5-0 with an ERA of 1.06 compiling 43 strikeouts in 34 innings. On the flip side, Boston's Chris Sale has struggled in September. In five starts, Sale gave up nine home runs and had a September ERA of 3.72. Now that is a struggle for Sale, but most major league pitchers would kill for an ERA of 3.72. Including his less than stellar last month, Sale's ERA for 2017 was 2.90 (along with his 308 K's). Verlander's seasonal ERA was 3.36.
Many articles out there list Verlander's expected Game One dominance as one reason Houston is heavily favored. Now Chris Sale has never pitched in the post season, but you can bet he is looking forward to it with every fiber of his being. There are very few pitchers in baseball as good or better than Chris Sale (Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber), but at age 34 Justin Verlander is not one of them.
2. Experience. After 2016's unexpected three and out versus Cleveland, Mookie Betts, speaking for himself and the other young players, said how the intensity and big stage of the post season needed to be experienced. There is little other way to really handle it. This Red Sox team is loaded with post season experience. Here is a breakdown:
First time post season in 2017: Chris Sale, Rafael Devers, Deven Marrero, some middle relief candidates ( Carson Smith, Robby Scott, Heath Hembree)
Players who made first playoffs trip in 2016: Betts, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Andrew Benintendi, Sandy Leon, Brock Holt, Drew Pomeranz, Matt Barnes, Eduardo Rodriguez, Christian Vazquez ( Rodriguez and Vazquez were on the '16 roster but did not play).
Now for some of the other pitchers ( total games and # of series)
David Price 15 Games 6 ALDS, 2 ALCS, 1 World Series
Rick Porcello 9 Games 4 ALDS, 2 ALCS, 1 WS
Doug Fister 9 Games 3 ALDS, 1 NLDS, 3 ALCS, 1 WS
Craig Kimbrel 8 Games 1 NLWC, 2 NLDS, 1 ALDS
Addison Reed 10 Games 1 each NLWC, NLDS, NLCS, WS appeared in the last two post seasons)
Joe Kelly 14 Games 4 NLDS, 1 ALDS, 2 NLCS, 1 WS
Now around the diamond to check how many playoff series some of the offensive players have appeared in.
Dustin Pedroia 5 ALDS, 3 ALCS, 2 World Series
Xander Bogaerts 2 ALDS, 1 ALCS, 1 WS
Hanley Ramirez 2 NLDS, 1 ALDS, 1 NLCS
Mitch Moreland 1 ALWC, 4 ALDS, 2 ALCS, 2 WS ( this will Moreland's 6th post season)
Back up outfielders Rajai Davis and Chris Young also have multiple post season appearances.
This is not to say Houston does not have some experience (hello, Carlos Beltran) but this factor has to help the Sox perform beyond 2016's level.
3. Bullpen. No matter how you slice it, Houston's bullpen does not match up with the other AL contenders. Houston finished tenth in the AL in bullpen ERA with 4.27. The Astros had 21 blown saves and allowed 272 hits. By comparison Boston's bullpen ERA was 3.15, second in the league to Cleveland's 2.89. The Sox allowed 186 hits from their relief corps. And while Ken Giles and Chris Devenski anchored the Houston pen, both have no post season experience. And Devenski faltered as the season went along.
In contrast Boston's all ready dominant pen is getting even more help from Carson Smith and David Price. If both Price and Smith match their somewhat unexpected September results, the Boston pen can be every bit as good as World Series teams of recent campaigns like the 2016 Indians and the 2014-15 Royals.
4. Lefty Starters. If you look through all of Houston's splits they are dominant everywhere, home, away, etc. But here may be an Achilles heel. The Astros had a losing record in games started by left handed starters: 21-24. Now who just happens to have at least two if not three left handed starters. That would be the Boston Red Sox with two of the best AL lefty starters in Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz. If Houston falters versus those lefties, Eduardo Rodriguez is hanging around as well. Now one caveat, shortstop Carlos Correa missed a big hunk of the second half, and with Correa in the lineup, the Astros are 19-13 versus lefty starters. Still something to keep an eye on in Games One and Two.
5. Red Sox beat good teams. This little note from Tim Britton of the Providence Journal: the Red Sox have the best winning percentage in MLB in 2017 versus teams with winning records. And in fourteen games agains the two super powers of the AL, Houston and Cleveland, the Sox were 7-7. The Sox took Cleveland 4-3 and after splitting the first six seasonal games, Houston won a meaningless last game of the season.
6. Sox Offense. Yes I know Boston did not hit home runs like nearly every other team this year. Yes the Sox were last in AL homers, their 168 trailed the next to last White Sox by 18. And the Astros clubbed 238, 70 more than Boston. But home runs do not tell the whole story, the object of the game is to score runs. And while Houston lead the league with 896, the Red Sox were a respectable sixth in the AL with 785.
So this comment about the Red Sox offense is more about potential than season long production. Would anyone be shocked if Mookie Betts caught fire and carried this team on his back? Or Andrew Benintendi, Hanley Ramirez, Xander Bogaerts? Mitch Moreland seemed to be heating up again with some long balls coming down the stretch. And Jackie Bradley, Jr. finished the season in one of his patented slumps. How many times has he followed a terrible slump with an out of this world hot spell. Or if Dustin Pedroia or Eduardo Nunez are healthy enough to contribute. Last year rookie Andrew Benintendi lead the Sox in post season BA and tied for lead in home runs and RBI. Can Rafael Devers do that this time?
Boston has enough potential offense to win it all, but some or all must produce.
7. Underdogs. as we said at the top, Houston and Cleveland are the top dogs in the AL. No argument about that. That means the Boston Red Sox are the nothing to lose underdogs (okay, if the Sox are swept out of the ALDS for the second straight year, John Farrell likely has something to lose: his job). But with other teams expected to win and having a team loaded with post season experience, the Red Sox are positioned much like last year's Indians team. Tito Francona's club was written off by all, teams were falling over themselves to get to play them. All that happened was Cleveland getting into extra innings of World Series Game Seven, before succumbing.
So take heart Red Sox fans, here are a few reasons to have hope as the ALDS begins on Thursday. My fearless prediction is Boston over Houston in five games.