Playoff Preview: Braves – Astros

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
Atlanta            96     66     .593     803     668     96-66
Houston            92     70     .568     803     698     92-70
 
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
Atlanta            4.96     .270     .343     .434     304     178     587     1158
Houston            4.96     .267     .342     .436     294     187     590      999
 
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
Atlanta            4.12     .265     .329     .400     250     154     523     1025
Houston            4.31     .258     .328     .417     283     174     525     1282

This series seems to be sort of an afterthought. Not only does it start a day later than the other three, it doesn’t feature the team with the best record in baseball, it doesn’t include Johan Santana going up against the Yankees, and it doesn’t have the always-interesting Red Sox clashing with the 2002 champs. However, while some people may not notice, it figures to be a very good matchup.

From looking at some of the numbers above, you can see that the Braves and Astros are very similar teams in both style and substance. They both scored 803 runs in 162 games this year, while the Astros allowed 30 more runs, 698 to 668. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the offenses are equal and Atlanta’s pitching is better, because the Astros play in a very good park for hitters, which means their offensive numbers get a boost and their pitchers are better than they look.

Obviously the big story with Houston is what they did just to get back into the playoff picture. Following the firing of Jimy Williams after the team had a disappointing 44-44 record through 88 games, the Astros made Phil Garner manager. They then went on a 48-26 (.649) run to end the season, leap-frogging over several teams that were in front of them in the Wild Card standings.

The thing that is really remarkable is that the Astros made up all of that ground without both Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller. Because of injuries, Pettitte started just five games in the second half, while Miller didn’t throw a single pitch after the All-Star break. Instead, they got what they could out of guys like Pete Munro, Brandon Backe and Carlos Hernandez, which makes the comeback all the more improbable.

Because of the injuries to Pettitte and Miller, the Astros have a rotation that is extremely top heavy, with Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, who combined to go 38-14 with a 3.25 ERA in 68 starts, at the top and a whole lot of questionable guys at the bottom. It’s a similar situation to the one Minnesota is in, although the Astros’ bullpen isn’t nearly as deep as Minnesota’s. While Houston has Brad Lidge, one of the best relievers in baseball, closing games, their primary setup men are Dan Miceli and Chad Qualls, who have had fine years but are not exactly proven studs.

Still, add it all together and Houston has perhaps the best pitching trio of any NL playoff team, with Clemens and Oswalt starting the first two games of this series and Lidge ready to close things out when they hand over leads. With a healthy Pettitte and Miller this Astros team would be extremely dangerous, but even with the current question marks they are still very capable of advancing deep into October.

Meanwhile, the Braves, as usual, have plenty of starting pitching. While this current group of starters won’t remind anyone of the Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz days, the Braves can go 3-4 deep with quality starters in Jaret Wright, John Thomson, Russ Ortiz and either Paul Byrd or Mike Hampton. The highest ERA from that bunch is Hampton’s 4.28, and he went 8-1 with a 3.27 ERA in the second half.

When things get to the bullpen, Atlanta has a lot more relief depth than the Astros, but they’re still not particularly strong. Smoltz is outstanding as the closer, but Chris Reitsma was very hittable all year as his setup man, giving up a .284 batting average along with his 4.07 ERA. Antonio Alfonseca finished with a great 2.57 ERA, but he struck out just 5.5 batters per nine innings, had a mediocre 1.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and posted a 5.83 ERA with the Cubs last season. Actually, Juan Cruz might be Atlanta’s best non-Smoltz reliever, with a 2.75 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 72 innings, but I’m not sure Leo Mazzone and Bobby Cox will turn to him in many high-leverage situations.

Offensively, Atlanta and Houston finished within a few points of each other in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and were also very close in doubles, homers, stolen bases and walks. The one area where there is a big difference is strikeouts, as the Braves whiffed 16% more often than the Astros. That is surprising, because Atlanta was actually the toughest team to strike out in the entire league last year, whiffing 225 fewer times than they did this season. Houston pitchers — particularly Clemens, Oswalt and Lidge — miss a ton of bats, so this is something that could come into play quite a bit during the series.

Once you adjust for ballparks, the Braves’ offense starts to look a little stronger than Houston’s, although the Astros make up for some of that with their second-half improvements. After hitting .264/.338/.415 to rank seventh in the league in first-half OPS, the Astros batted .269/.349/.461 in the second half, good for third in the league. The biggest difference came in slugging percentage, which went up 46 points thanks to going from 0.9 homers per game in the first half to 1.4 homers per game after the All-Star break.

Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Lamb all slugged over .500 during the second half, and Morgan Ensberg and Craig Biggio slugged over .450. Berkman was particularly impressive, hitting .335/.447/.577 after the break. And after getting established with his new team, Beltran hit .257/.370/.547 during the second half, going an incredible 27-for-27 on stolen base attempts. In other words, this is a very dangerous offensive team right now.

The Braves are also a better offensive team right now than they were for most of the season, thanks to Marcus Giles getting healthy and Chipper Jones rediscovering his hitting stroke. They also got nice boosts from Adam LaRoche, who hit .302/.368/.576 in the second half after getting off to a poor start, and the left field platoon of Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero, who have provided surprising production after the All-Star break.

Much like the Minnesota-New York series over in the American League, I think this series might come down to the fact that the Astros have the two best starting pitchers and could potentially use them four times in five games. That does a lot to mask weaknesses in the rest of the pitching staff, and the fact that they should be able to count on Lidge for an inning or two in at least 3-4 games is also a huge factor. I’ll go with quality over quantity and say that, after getting bounced from the playoffs by Atlanta in 1997, 1999 and 2001, the Astros will get some revenge this time and finally get out of the first round.

Astros in five.

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