If you were to guess the ALCS match-up in mid-2017, you would probably get this one. Seeding pretty much prevented that, so the Yankees squeaked in and got to face Cleveland. Now the Astros had that luxury, and Boston bumped the Yankees in four, so here we are, just what we waited for: the two best teams in baseball playing for the pennant.
It was to a point in the NBA where this was the case in the Western Conference; essentially the two best teams played for the right to play the usually lesser Eastern team. Not that the Dodgers or Brewers are slouches, but they’re not the Warriors or Thunder.
The Actual Best Team of 2017-18 is probably difficult to parse, but there’s a good argument that it’s the Astros. Devan Fink made that case just yesterday, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that this was a stumbling, injured team through much of the season, and now it is not, and they still finished with a better Pythagorean record than Boston.
Not to mention, there are categories where they might be the best ever. If the talent level, overall, gets better as the eras move on, then there is a good argument to be made that this is the best pitching staff ever. They had two six-plus-win starters in Justin Verlander and Gerritt Cole, which hasn’t really been seen in this current relief era, and their bullpen had a collective 74 ERA-, a paltry 3.03. If you imagine that staff with a now healthy Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer, and throw into the equation a newly minted star in Alex Bregman, they are the defending champions for a reason.
The Red Sox, however, would have won the Premier League title, finishing with the best record in baseball. That’s no guarantee as we saw with the 2001 Mariners, so there is a lot of talk that this season won’t “matter” as much if they don’t go all the way. That’s rubbish, of course, mostly because this could be harder than the World Series.
Boston has some advantages, as well. For one, they get home field advantage for the best record, so toss 10% of a game’s win probability to them for that simple fact. Then throw in the best player in the league this year, Mookie Betts, where he is a threat in every facet of the game. There’s also Chris Sale, who basically won the ERA title without meeting the innings total. Sale vs. Verlander will be the game of the year, I would imagine.
The major weakness to speak of is the bullpen, obviously. Craig Kimbrel was noticeably shaky in the LDS, and the combination of Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Joe Kelly, and Heath Hembree isn’t exactly... inspiring, to say the least. But it didn’t matter when they won 16-1, and they are still capable of achieving that against an even better staff.
Alex Cora could be the hidden weapon as well. He was decisive in his pitching changes as Aaron Boone floundered, and his strategic use of Brock Holt (with the first cycle in postseason history) and Christian Vasquez were important in platoon situations.
If you were to run a simulation of this 1000 times, I think each team would win about 500 times. They really are that close in ability, and at a very high level. Some simulations yield boring sweeps for either squad and some are seven game thrillers, but we’re in just one of those. Here’s to hoping it’s the latter.