2022 World Series: Scouts Identify Three Keys For the Astros and Phillies

Image credit: Kyle Tucker (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

When the 2022 World Series begins on Friday, it will mark a clash between two very different teams.

The Astros won an American League-leading 106 games this season and are making their fourth World Series appearance in six years. The Phillies were the last team into the playoffs with 87 wins and are making their first World Series appearance since 2009 (and first postseason appearance since 2011).

The Astros are a finely-tuned machine with an offense, pitching staff and defense that all ranked among the best in baseball. The Phillies have overcome a leaky bullpen and painfully bad defense through sheer force, mashing their way past opponents and often winning ugly.

Despite the different paths they took and their very different styles, both teams are in the same place: just four wins away from a World Series championship.

The Astros are undeniably the favorite, but the Phillies have been the underdog in every one of their postseason series and are yet to lose.

Baseball America spoke with three veteran evaluators who advanced the Phillies and/or Astros this postseason to identify the keys for each team in the World Series. All were granted anonymity in order to discuss their assessments freely.

While all acknowledged the Phillies had a chance, they were universal in their praise for how strong and well-rounded the Astros are.

“Part of a report is keys to beating the club,” said one scout who advanced the Astros. “And every day the guy I was with, I turned to him and I was like ‘I don’t know. I’ve got nothing.’ ”


Navigate Bryce Harper

Harper has been on fire this postseason, batting .419 with six doubles and five home runs in 11 games. He has a hit in 10 straight games and has either scored or driven in 37% (21 of 57) of the Phillies runs this postseason.

While the Astros pitching staff has plenty of firepower, scouts universally opined the Astros best bet is to avoid pitching to Harper and attack other hitters in the Phillies lineup.

“I’d be very cautious with him, especially early in the series,” one of the evaluators said. “You can’t let him get off, because if he gets off, he can just take this series over. Even when men are on base with him, I would be very hesitant to pitch to him, personally.”

In the event the Astros do pitch to Harper, they’re going to have to pitch inside to prevent him from getting his arms extended. Nine of Harper’s 11 extra-base hits this postseason have come on pitches between the middle and outer edge of the plate, and seven of his 11 extra-base hits are to the opposite field. His last three homers have all been pitches on the outer third of the plate that he drove the opposite way.

“You have to crowd him,” another evaluator said. “Ninety-five percent of his damage has been middle to the left-field line. He pulled that one homer against the Braves on a breaking ball to right-center field, but other than that he has just been living in that left-center field alley. You gotta be able to get it up and in and get it to that spot, and I think the Astros guys probably execute that better than anybody.”

While the Phillies have dangerous hitters in their lineup aside from Harper, the consensus is the Astros staff has what it takes to neutralize them. If they can avoid letting Harper beat them, they’ll be in a favorable position.

“I think the Astros, the way their pitch mixes are, I think they’re going to be a real problem for Philly,” one evaluator said. “I just think the power of their entire staff and precision is going to be a problem. These guys execute at such a high level and I do not think they will allow certain people to beat them. The (Rhys) Hoskins’ of the world, the (Nick) Castellanos’, the Alec Bohm’s of the world, I think the Astros are going to handle those guys. You gotta throw strikes and the Phillies are dangerous, but I think once you get to a certain spot, these guys are going to have problems with the Astros pitching.”

Continue The Execution

The Astros had arguably the best and deepest pitching staff in the majors this year, and they have continued to showcase that in the postseason. The Astros have allowed only 18 runs in seven games, have held opponents to a .193 batting average and have averaged nearly 13 strikeouts per game entering the World Series.

It’s no grand secret how they’ve done it. The Astros boast a six-deep starting rotation and a bullpen chock full of pitchers with triple-digit fastballs and/or devastating breaking balls, leaving no weak links anywhere.

But beyond just their pure stuff, it’s the way the Astros pitchers consistently execute that stands out most to evaluators. In their opinions, there won’t be much the Phillies can do if the Astros execute their pitches like they have been.

“When I watched them play that 18-inning game against the Mariners, it was just, like, they execute their pitches as good as any staff that I can remember from top to bottom,” one scout said. “They all have that big carry heater, they have a real out pitch, a real swing and miss, and they’re not making mistakes. Even like the lower guys on their staff, they’re just not making mistakes.”

Indeed, the Astros have not been giving opponents many chances to do damage this postseason. They have allowed only five home runs, the fewest among any team that has played at least five games. They not only throw strikes at one of the highest rates in the majors, but they put the ball where opponents can’t do much of anything with it.

“The Astros fastball command is, like, No. 1 in the league,” a scout said. “It’s like a video game to me. They can throw the glove side fastball to the top of the strike zone like no one else. It’s a problem. It’s a tough pitch for people and they nail it. They probably throw more competitive pitches than any staff in the league.

“It’s to where they get you in swing mode. You have to respect the velocity and the command and then they get you in that swing mode where they can start to expand on you and they have real weapons coming out of their hands. They all can command that fastball. They do things and they execute them at a very, very high clip.”

Liftoff for Kyle Tucker

Tucker delivered his second consecutive 30-home run season this year, but he has yet to find his stride in the postseason. He has hit just .214 with just one extra-base hit in seven games and has the second-lowest OPS of any qualified regular in the Astros lineup.

That said, he showed signs of breaking out toward the end of the ALCS and matches up favorably with the Phillies best pitchers. If he gets hot, it will make the Astros offense even more dangerous than it already is.

Kyle Tucker can be a real problem in this one,” one evaluator said. “I think he ends up being the MVP of the World Series. I just think he’s ready to pop. His at-bats have been good and I think his swing matches up with these guys pretty well. I think you’re going to see him take an (Aaron) Nola changeup deep or a (Zack) Wheeler cutter.”

Tucker is significantly better against righthanders (.275/.359/.491) than lefthanders (.228/.279/.456), which bodes well with the Phillies likely to rely heavily on righthanded co-aces Nola and Wheeler in the series. He also has the benefit of not being the focal point of an opponent’s gameplan against the Astros.

“I just think they’re going to be so fixated on Yordan and Bregman and they’re going to spin the hell out of Peña,” the scout said. “(Jose) Altuve is an x-factor. He’s been terrible, but he’s Jose Altuve. He can get 10 hits in the next four games. But if I had to bet, I would say Kyle Tucker is going to be the guy in this series. I just like how his swing works versus their stuff.”


Ride The Aces

The Astros have a decided pitching edge over the Phillies by just about any measure.

The Astros had the second-lowest ERA, WHIP and opponent average in the majors this season. The Phillies ranked 18th, 14th and 16th in those categories, respectively. The Astros boast a six-deep rotation and have a bullpen that led the majors with a 2.80 ERA. The Phillies don’t have a clear fourth starter and a bullpen that ranked 23rd in ERA.

To make up for those shortcomings, the Phillies are going to have to get dominant performances from Nola and Wheeler atop the rotation. If that doesn’t happen, the series is likely to be a short one given the Astros significant advantages in the back of the rotation and the bullpen.

“Wheeler’s gotta get two starts and win both of his starts,” one scout said. “Wheeler’s gotta dominate both of his starts and win those. That’s first and foremost for me. And then there is a pathway. If Nola wins one of two and Wheeler wins both of his, then you’re in a coin flip for one more. Wheeler and Nola get a lot of love and they’re going to have to really show up. That’s the only way I think they can win.”

Both Wheeler and Nola are pitching in the postseason for the first time this year and have been up to the task.

Nola, who will start Game 1, didn’t allow an earned run in his first 12.2 innings before running into trouble against the Padres in his lone NLCS start. Wheeler, who will start Game 2, has a 1.78 ERA in four starts with 25 strikeouts in 25.1 innings.

Importantly, both have exceptional control. Nola had the lowest walk rate in the National League this season and has only three walks in 17.1 innings this postseason. Wheeler has long boasted plus control and has just three walks in 25.1 postseason innings. Against an Astros team renowned for its strike-zone discipline, pounding the zone will be especially critical.

“They have to beat them in the strike zone because the Astros don’t chase,” one scout said. “They just don’t chase. Wheeler is Wheeler and he’s going to pitch like he is. It’s front-of-the-rotation power and all that good stuff. Nola is going to have to really command the baseball. He cannot get behind. All these guys, they can’t get behind, ever.”

Wheeler and Nola throwing just five or six effective innings isn’t going to cut it, however. With No. 3 starter Ranger Suarez largely ineffective the third time through the order (.260/.355/.463) and a bullpen game likely for Game 4, it’s imperative Wheeler and Nola go deep to keep the Phillies limited bullpen—namely top arms Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado—fresh.

That shouldn’t be a problem for Nola, who finished second in the majors in innings pitched this season and threw a pair of complete games. Wheeler, however, hasn’t thrown more than seven innings since May 4 and saw his velocity decrease sharply after seven innings and only 83 pitches in Game 1 of the NLCS.

“Wheeler is going to have to do one of these big-time performances where he throws 7-8 innings, which is hard to, right?” one scout said. “His stuff starts to go, and can he handle that workload? But that’s what they’re going to need, in my opinion. They’re going to need him to win twice, Nola is going to have to win one out of his two, and then if Ranger Suarez can neutralize for 5-6 innings and they have a fresh pen—because the last two guys in their bullpen, they’re good—that’s their formula. Those two horses, they gotta do what they’re paid to do.”

Be Aggressive Early

As much as the Astros’ pitching staff has dominant stuff, the Phillies offense doesn’t have an obvious weakness. They hit both lefties (.770 OPS) and righties (.727), they rank in the top 10 in the majors in weighted on-base average (wOBA) against fastballs, breaking balls and offspeed pitches and, while they don’t control the strike zone as well as the Astros, they still finished in the top half of MLB in both walks and strikeouts during the regular season.

In the opinion of evaluators who advanced the Astros, the Phillies success at the plate will likely hinge on how aggressive they are in their approach.

“At the plate you need to be aggressive against the Astros. I would not sit around and wait and take,” one scout said. “You have to be pretty aggressive against their arms. You don’t want to get to two strikes against any of their guys. I know that’s a general rule, but it’s especially the case with these guys. You’re not going to wait them out.”

For the Phillies, that will be especially crucial in Game 1 against Justin Verlander. Verlander is one of the game’s best pitchers but has struggled in the World Series, going 0-6 with a 5.68 ERA in seven career World Series starts.

The Mariners showed the formula for getting to Verlander In Game 1 of the ALDS earlier this month. They came out swinging early and jumped on him for 10 hits and six runs in only four innings.

“Verlander wasn’t sharp but I think Seattle did a good job and they came out and they were aggressive against him,” the scout said. “They didn’t wait around, and that’s part of it.”

“Verlander doesn’t try to get a bunch of chase. He tries to get you out in the zone. You better swing against Verlander and I thought Seattle did a good job against him.”

Keep It Clean

The Phillies defense has been among the worst in baseball in recent years and frequently targeted for ridicule. Things have improved since early August when Bryson Stott became the everyday shortstop and Brandon Marsh was acquired from the Angels to play center field, but first base, third base, left field and right field all remain potential problem areas.

The Astros showed their ability to take advantage of mistakes in the ALCS, most prominently in Game 4 when they rallied to take the lead after the Yankees threw away a potential inning-ending double play ball.

With little margin for error against a favored Astros team, the Phillies are going to have to be sharper defensively than they’ve been.

“It’s the non-converted outs that get them in trouble,” one scout said. “You can attack Bohm. You can attack Hoskins obviously. You make these guys have to handle the baseball a lot, they have problems with that.”

The Phillies defensive weakness has a chance to be exposed early. The Astros put the ball in the play more than all but one team this season. Righthanded hitters Bregman, Altuve and Peña all pull the ball at rates above the major league average—meaning Bohm at third base and Kyle Schwarber in left field will be tested often—and Tucker and Alvarez both pull the ball above the major league average from the left side, potentially exposing Hoskins at first base and Castellanos in right field.

Defense is often magnified in the postseason, and against an Astros team that is poised, experienced and well-rounded, whether or not the Phillies convert the plays they should will have a significant effect on their outlook.

“There’s going to be like a relay that’s going to have to be executed,” one scout said. “There’s going to be something where Bohm gets extended and he has to move and he’s going to throw it into right field. And then Hoskins, he’s had a lot of problems the last month.”

“Houston is going to put the ball in play and Philadelphia’s defense isn’t very good. It’s not a great formula.”


Scout 1: Astros in five.

Scout 2: Phillies in six.

Scout 3: Astros in six.

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