At the end of each baseball day after the season, I run a set of simulations to estimate the updated probabilities for each series and the ultimate outcome of the bracket. I’ll add the latest results to a log and send them to Bristol HQ to be included in our ongoing playoff coverage.
Here are the evolution of the odds of the Houston Astros winning the American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays as well as the World Series in the last eight days:
This is like the scene in a movie where a character drowns – let’s call him “Astro” – and is pulled up out of the water by the hero we call “Dusty.” Dusty starts in a desperate CPR and starts asking Astro to wake up and look up at the sky after a miracle, while everyone else – Alex and Jose and Carlos and little Zack – stand around and watch the whole business in terror. Before long, reality sets in. It is too late. Astro does not breathe. Astro is gone.
Then suddenly Astro spits a whale’s spout of water and his eyes fly wide open and he gasps for air. The dust is looking forward! Alex and Jose and Carlos and little Zack dance in cheers. Astro lives a lot.
What else can you say after Carlos Correa – who has nothing to do with the lengthy analogy above – visualizes himself hitting a home run, tells everyone to hit a home run, and then hits a home run to keep the Astros alive for another day? These are adventurous things, though given the public approval rating of the Astros coming into this post season, it could be the kind of adventure where the prince ditches Cinderella and hits the clubs with the evil step-sisters.
That the Astros have averted elimination by winning back-to-back 4-3 games after tumbling into a 0-3 hole to begin ALCS against Tampa Bay is not a matter of them coming to life, or the rays intervenes in some kind of terrible state of shock. Basically, we’ve seen the same game play five times in a row. The Rays happened to win the first three of them and the Astros the last two. It is the sequencing that makes this so open.
Because of this sequencing, the Astros have already written history. Thirty-eight teams have fallen behind in a 3-0 series. Four of them have forced a game 6. Astros is the fourth. Here is the list of the others:
1998 Braves: Forced a Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Padres, but lost.
1999 Mets: Forced a game 6 in the NLCS against the Braves, but lost.
2004 Red Sox: Forced a Game 6 in the ALCS, won it, won Game 7, won the World Series and celebrated while Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore somehow found their way onto the field.
The Astros still have a long way to go before forcing their way into “Fever Pitch 2: Dusty’s Revenge,” but they’ve already ventured into territory where few 0-3 teams have gone. It’s pretty intense. But can they keep it going? Will they?
The answers: I do not know, and I do not know. But there are many factors embedded in the way this series has played out, suggesting that the Astros at least have a real shot at doing this.
Before we go into these factors, let’s pause for a necessary reality check: You can see the probabilities in the table above. Astros’ odds remain long. They stay long, not only because they still follow the 3-2 series, but because they play the Rays. The Rays came into this series as heavy favorites for a good reason: They have been a better team than Houston throughout this campaign. They have come this far in ALCS, despite a number of their main hitters struggling because they have a list of extraordinary depth and versatility. Before the game, Houston manager Dusty Baker even said it felt like Tampa Bay had more players on its roster than his club.
Tampa Bay is still the favorite to win any individual game in this series. And since the Rays only need to win one more game unlike the Astros’ two, the Rays are still in a very good position. Despite the devastating nature of watching Correa finish Game 5 on a game-winning shot to center field, the Rays did not seem plush during their postgame Zooms. They praised the Astros and looked forward to having Blake Snell and Charlie Morton line up for the next two games if needed.
“It’s just been two tough games, and hey, they’re playing well,” said Kevin Kiermaier. “We know we have a really good opponent over there and we have to get out early tomorrow and often with the bats and let Blake do his thing and try to get some races for him.”
But if you live in Houston – and let’s face it, if you’re after Astros, you either live in Houston, have a relative in the organization, or are really, really rooted for Dusty Baker, all good reasons – there are a number of indicators, that leans you:
1. Your team has already bent history.
2. Their swagger is back.
Carlos Correa says he made adjustments in the game by hitting coach Alex Cintron before his game-winning stuff.
OK, I understand this is a serious intangible, old-fashioned sports writer bromide. But it’s hard to miss. Having been around the Astros a good bit the past few years, one thing that always jumped out at them for me was the boldness and confidence that marked the way they played and carried themselves. This year, they simply did not look like that team. They looked like a bunch of guys late for a dinner reservation.
That changed when the post season started, but as one break after another the rays went off in this round, the fleeting quality of swagginess fled. There was a team meeting, which is more feed for sports writer bromides. But hey, it worked, didn’t it? Don’t you think swagger is something? Well, with the season on the field, Correa said he would hit a home run and then hit a home run.
What is it if not swagger?
Now, none of this is a sign that the Astros believe more in themselves than the rays. The rays have been blooming in obscurity for years, the best proof of confidence there is. This is more about the dynamics of the Astro clubhouse. When this team behaves like it’s been the last couple of nights, it’s terribly hard to beat.
3. They did not use Framber Valdez and got Lance McCullers Jr. to line up for Game 7.
The Rays have every reason to feel good about the pitchers they have lined up to start the next two games. And after Baker pushed everything there was to get out of his bullpen on Thursday while Rays manager Kevin Cash was able to get more length out of his relievers, Tampa Bay’s overall staff is in better shape on the way into Friday.
But even as the Astros pulled the win out of Game 5, their pitching plans came very close to being encrypted. When the Rays tried to take the lead at the top of the ninth, with Mike Zunino starting inning with a single and a pinch runner Kiermaier reaching second base on a wild course, Baker Valdez threw in the bullpen behind Ryan Pressly . Pushed himself out of trouble without Baker having to dive deeper into his pitched depth. It’s huge.
“I prayed a prayer for my father and my brother,” Baker said, recounting what went through his mind as Correa stroked the plate before the winner of the game. “And I said, ‘Please, Lord, let us go away, for if we do not need Framber, then we do not have Framber tomorrow to start.’
Let’s not forget that Valdez and McCullers no doubt surpassed Snell and Morton in the first two games of the series, even though the Rays won both:
Jug: IP, H, ER, BB, K
Valdez & McCullers: 13, 8, 3, 4, 19
Snell & Morton: 10, 11, 1, 3, 7
The key to Baker is probably length. Given the state of his bullpen after games 4 and 5, he needs Valdez and McCullers to repeat their starts from earlier in the series. No easy feat – Rays’ army of analysts dissects these excursions once these words are written – but if they can, Tampa Bay’s bullpen edge is minimized.
4. Their luck is reversed.
One thing about baseball: You can say that the breaks even out over time, but there is no guarantee that they will even out over a short series. But in this case, it seems that things are already returning to normal.
During the first three games in the series, the Astros’ hitters had hit about 33% more bullets with an exit speed of 80 km / h or more than the Rays. Their OPS on these balls was .836. The regional season in the major league in this category was 1,052. (The rays were at .977.) Over the last two games, the number for the Astros is 1,152.
5. They are children!
The teams combined to use eight rookie pitchers in their respective main games of the season. It’s amazing. The oldest of the four rookies the Astros used (Andre Scrubb) is 25. He would have been 9 years old when the Red Sox withdrew their epic comeback.
I think because the Astros have so many familiar postseason faces playing in the series, people just overlook how much revenue they’ve had on their pitch staff since last year’s World Series. Houston had the third youngest staff of majors this season.
Do you think the group is intimidated by the team’s history in a 0-3 hole? They do not know the story.
6. The Astros’ hitters hit better than the Rays’ hitters, and their pitcher pitches better than the Rays’ pitchers.
Yes, it’s a short test and a simple concept, but it’s true. For the series, Houston has a .759 OPS compared to .647 for the Rays. Astros’ wOBA is .325 against an expected wOBA (based on their impact balls) of .395. Tampa Bay has a .279 wOBA and an xwOBA of .289 (per TruMedia). Better process, better results.
It goes on: Houston’s hitters have 34 strikes and 17 walks. Tampa Bay has 57 strikes and 14 walks. Houston has an 8-7 edge in homers. Both teams have had 31 bats with runners in scoring position and produced six hits in those places for an average of .194. Still, the Rays have surpassed the Astros 9-3 on those hits. You would not turn on Vegas to bet that this trend will continue.
7. If momentum is anything, Astros have it.
It’s not only that they have won the last two games, this is where they started from before these competitions and the dramatic character they played out. Houston is driving high.
“Boy, this is going to be one of the greatest games in history,” Baker said. “And hopefully it will go down as one of the biggest comebacks in history after two more games.”
The Rays remain the favorites. But there are many reasons to believe that the Astros can pull the miracle out and evidence to support them.