In the year of the home run, the Astros and Nationals have served as reminders that exciting, dominant starting pitching is still out there, and still effective. Both clubs, who will face off in the 2019 World Series beginning with Game 1 on Tuesday, are built around their rotation. Pitching, was hardly the focus in the regular season, however. Instead, it was the juiced ball that got the attention, from early April when its use was first detected, and then in the postseason when, suddenly, it was nowhere to be found.
Some narrative-setting background, for those who haven’t been following along: the 2019 ball isn’t actually “juiced,” but its seams have been altered in a way that changes its aerodynamics significantly — those alternations and their effects have been described in detail by Meredith Willis and Rob Arthur. That change, which reduces drag, played more than a small part in this record-setting season, in which a new mark was set for the most homers in a single MLB season… on September 11, with weeks to go before all of the playoff spots were locked up. That record-breaking dinger, struck by the Orioles’ Jonathan Villar, was number 6,106 for the year: by season’s end, the league had hit 6,776, shattering the old mark.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, like in the 2017 season when ball physics was also a popular topic, repeatedly denied anything was different about the balls, then moved on to denying that anything was deliberately different, and then finally admitted that something was both different and wrong, and that MLB would get the baseball scientists on the case so they could figure out what it was come the offseason.
Manfred spoke of how MLB wanted to strive for transparency on the ball issue, and that, while they weren’t required to discuss changes to the ball with the Players Association, they wanted to make sure players would be “aware” of the situation. Then, when the playoffs started, roughly a week after Manfred’s comments, the rocket ball vanished. There was no notice from the league. MLB is, once again, denying they’ve done anything, and are saying that the postseason balls are the same as the regular season balls despite acting entirely differently. Then again, MLB spend months trying to tell us there was nothing special or different about the 2019 regular season balls, either.
Teams like the Twins rode the juiced ball to the postseason. Minnesota crushed the previous record for homers in a season: they surpassed that mark of 267 on August 31, and then finished their campaign with 307 bombs. Twins, whose strategy for victory was to hit dingers and let a stellar bullpen do the rest, were swept by the Yankees in the ALDS. Their team, which featured 11 different players with at least 10 homers, had their most significant advantage removed just in time for their toughest and most important matchup of the year.
That brings us back to the Astros and Nationals, teams which did rely on pitching during the regular season. The loss of the juiced ball meant little to them, compared to what it did to the poor Twins. The Nationals made it to October on the strength of a rotation that featured perennial Cy Young contender Max Scherzer doing his usual thing, Stephen Strasburg reminding the Nats why they signed him to a lucrative extension, free agent acquisition Patrick Corbin improving on the work that earned him a $140 million deal this past winter, and the inexplicably revitalized Aníbal Sánchez, who has produced some of the best work of his career the last two seasons in his mid-30s after escaping Detroit.
The Nats’ offense, bereft of Bryce Harper, was around average. They had home run hitters in Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, both of whom went deep 34 times, but they weren’t juiced-ball hunters: the 20-year-old Soto hit 22 in his shorter rookie campaign a year ago, and Rendon had hit 25 the year before. The Nats had more homers because of the ball, sure, but not in a way that gave the team a completely new identity. It was their rotation which propelled them to 93 wins and the Wild Card Game. Disappointing bullpen work hides the true story of the Nats’ staff, which limited opponents to a .389 slugging percentage and just 116 dingers (1.1 per nine innings, compared to the NL’s 1.4 average). Despite throwing 438 fewer innings, Washington’s bullpen allowed just 30 fewer homers than the starters.
Less deadly offensive opponents and the de-juiced ball have meant the pen’s most significant weakness — their long ball problem — has been somewhat nullified in October. The Nats’ offense wasn’t scarred in the same way the Twins were, and a frightening rotation became even more terrifying when some of the “whoops, a homer” chaos was taken out of each game.
The Astros, meanwhile, did not have an average offense heading into the postseason: they had the best in baseball. Unlike Minnesota, theirs did not come out of nowhere. Houston won the World Series in 2017 with the best offense in MLB, and while it was indeed aided by a juiced ball then, as it is now, they also ranked sixth in MLB in OPS+ in 2018 while winning 103 games. They can thank their rotation for picking up what little slack there was: it was tops in MLB last year by ERA+, a distinction they once again hold in 2019.
Unlike in 2017, Houston’s bullpen is also phenomenal. During their championship season, the Astros ignored the building of Super Bullpens across the league, method derived from the Royals’ World Series team of 2015. Instead, they leveraged their immense starting pitching depth out of the pen to make up for the dominant relievers they didn’t have. In 2018, the Red Sox, under new manager Alex Cora, who just happened to be Houston’s bench coach in 2017, used a similar strategy to fill in the gaps en route to their own World Series trophy. It’s a highly effective plan, maybe even more so than going with the super relievers from a team-building and budgetary perspective. But the 2019 Astros have those excellent relievers in Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, and Will Harris, and, if necessary, some of the same starters they handed reliever duties to in 2017. There’s a reason they’re considered the class of MLB in 2019, and it’s because they have depth everywhere. Even without the 2019 ball, they’re still a great offensive team, and now their pitchers have an easier time of things than they did all season long.
Coincidentally, the Nats have been using their starters as relievers this October. Like with the 2017 Astros and last year’s Red Sox, it was out of necessity, but it’s been working. Scherzer has thrown one key inning in relief, striking out all three Dodgers he faced in Game 2 of the NLDS. Strasburg threw three shutout innings in the Wild Card Game against the Brewers, limiting Milwaukee to two hits while striking out four. Corbin has been the starter getting the most play in relief, and besides one hiccup against the Dodgers, things have gone well. Against the Astros’ offense, there will be more opportunities to relieve for all three of the Nats’ best starters.
The teams’ pitching-friendly approach isn’t all they have in common, and in many ways the 2019 World Series is an extension of the major narratives running through baseball lately. The Nationals are either right over the luxury tax or right below it: we won’t know how close the estimates are until MLB reports on the figures after the postseason is over. Their owner, Ted Lerner, does not want to be over the threshold: that, plus the non-ignorable existence of star youngster Juan Soto, is why the team failed to retain Bryce Harper this past winter. The Nats’ attitude towards spending matters in both the present and the future. Keeping this team together might require going over the tax in 2020: retaining star third baseman and pending free agent Anthony Rendon isn’t going to be cheap, and replacing him won’t be simple, either.
The same can be said for the Astros. Jim Crane, has already implied that keeping inevitable Cy Young winner and pending free agent Gerrit Cole around isn’t in the cards for Houston. It’s not just Cole, though: thanks to arbitration raises around the team, the Astros are going to be over the luxury tax threshold of $208 million in 2020 unless they shed salary. There are ways to do that, for sure, but to shed as much as they would need to stay completely free of the luxury tax might not be painless, given their free agents include vital pieces like Cole the aforementioned Harris. Baseball’s overall spending habits have changed, and gone are the days in which championship teams would be kept intact with money no object.
Is this World Series pairing a matchup between two teams attempting to win now before their players get too expensive? For the Nationals, it’s not every year you can pair homegrown talent like Soto and Rendon with a refurbished Sánchez, a 35-year-old Howie Kendrick playing like he’s 10 years younger, while getting peak performances from Strasburg and Corbin. Scherzer isn’t getting any younger, and the 2019 Red Sox are a terrifying reminder that even the best of rotations can fall to injury. Everything was in place for the Nationals to make a run in 2019. What about 2020?
As sobering as it is to consider, here and now could be it for the Nats at this level. They won a wild card, then the Wild Card Game, toppled the National League’s regular season best in the Dodgers, breaking a miniature curse in the process. The team, good as it is, has played out of its mind to get this far. There’s nothing wrong with riding your luck — the 2015 Royals are thrilled with their title, you know, and the Cubs aren’t about to trade their 2016 rings back in just because snapping a historic streak of failure didn’t come with a dynasty attached. It’s just something to consider: how vital it is to seize on this opportunity while it’s here, especially with Rendon possibly leaving town and the 2020 Nats looking like they’ll be worse-off for his departure.
The Astros only have the A’s to worry about in the AL West, should they intentionally make themselves worse to save a buck by letting Cole sign elsewhere. Still, Oakland has won 97 games in consecutive years, and even if Billy Beane’s shit still doesn’t work in the playoffs, his teams figure out how to get there with some consistency, and that could be an issue for Houston. At least they’ll have the 2017 title to fall back on, should they fail to win this time out. Still, championships in 2017 and 2019 would better justify the atrocious, tanking-on-purpose first half of this decade, best personified ‘round these parts by a gif of one of their players sliding face-first into another player’s ass.
The Astros are the better team on paper. They have the superior offense, even without the juiced ball, especially now that it features less Josh Reddick and Jake Marisnick than it did this summer. Their rotation is at least as good, if not better, than Washington’s: a lot of that thinking rides on what you think the Nats’ lineup can do against Cole compared to what the Astros might do to Sánchez. Houston has the better bullpen in terms of straight relievers, but as the Astros themselves showed back in 2017, the Red Sox in 2018, and the Nats are once again hoping to show in 2019, that doesn’t matter if you’ve got starters who can moonlight.
All of Houston’s advantages mostly add up to them having a better chance of winning the World Series than Washington, and nothing more. The Dodgers had a better chance of winning than the Nationals did in the NLDS, and they’re watching the World Series at home, their 106 regular season wins cold comfort as they once again failed to bring home their first World Series championship since 1988. Why can’t the Nationals do to the Astros what they already did to the Dodgers?
The Nats winning is not the most likely outcome, but, as the cliche goes, anything can happen in a short series. What matters is that we have a compelling, multi-layered narrative to pay attention to: an attempt at a mini-dynasty, potential last, best chances at winning, departing free agent stars, and no juiced ball in sight to mess with any of it. The playoffs so far have been an incredible spectacle, and the World Series looks like a worthy culmination of that spectacle. It’s baseball we should all want to watch, regardless of our traditional rooting interests, because watching it play out should be, to use an industry term, dope as hell.
It took the entire regular season and most of the postseason, but we finally have a series of compelling, dominant starting pitcher matchups, in the games that matter most. The 2019 season will be remembered for its home runs, regardless of which side comes out on top, this World Series will be so much more than a dinger-fest.