The 2021 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros comes together in one game each as it heads to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday.
What have we learned so far in the series? What can we expect next? Did anything we see make us rethink our initial predictions for the Fall Classic?
We asked ESPN baseball experts Bradford Doolittle, Buster Olney, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to answer some of the key questions.
What surprised you the most about these World Series through the first two games?
Doolittle: Charlie Morton’s imitation of Bob Gibson was quite surprising. There haven’t been a lot of things that you would consider totally off-script. The Astros have widened the area more than they usually do. Their two-game chase rate (39.1%) is well above their regular season average and well above any team’s worst number in the regular season (Marlins, 31.0%) . It’s only two games, but it’s worth watching, especially since it’s not just Jose Siri’s debut that drives the numbers up. Alex Bregman has a 50% chase rate and is always on the hunt for his first hit, and Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve and Chase McCormick are also at 50% or more. Nonetheless, a bettor would put his money on it not to continue.
Olney: Alex Bregman has always been one of the most confident baseball players. For example, his self-confidence is so strong that he wears No.2 because he thought he should have been the No.1 pick against Dansby Swanson. But he seems completely lost at home plate, in search of the ball. This confidence in Teflon is shaken.
Roger: I’m going to add more than the first two games to this discussion because I covered the Astros all through the playoff season. They have played exactly one game decided by an end in their 12 playoff games this month. Just one. And even that one approached with a home run in the ninth inning. In fact, every other game they’ve played – winning or losing – has been decided by four or more innings. The first two games of this series weren’t convincing, and it has been a trend throughout the playoffs for Houston.
How much have the Braves lost their ace, Charlie Morton?
Olney: I put this question to Astros manager Dusty Baker before Game 2, and he was pretty blunt. “Fat,” Dusty said. “It’s like we lose Lance McCullers.” He is right. Morton would have started Game 5 and possibly worked in relief in Game 7 if necessary. Now the Braves will be spending the next few days trying to figure out how to cover those innings. The Atlanta rotation was a theoretical force on the Astros, but that advantage might wane unless a hero emerges.
Rogers: This will be felt at the end of the Series. He had money in the bank for a late start or relief appearance, while Braves skipper Brian Snitker admitted they may have to replenish of them games together using their enclosure. Which is why Max Fried only played five innings in Game 2 was a topic of conversation afterwards. He ate a few innings after being hit a bit. They’ll need every arm they can get for Games 4 and 5. But the biggest blow will just be missing Morton’s start when he returns to the rotation. He’s a big game launcher.
Schoenfield: That’s the ripple effect, beyond just losing not having Morton for Game 5. The Braves had to use their best four relievers to secure Game 1 and at a minimum, AJ Minter was probably unavailable. for Game 2. It didn’t matter in the end, since the Braves never came back in the game, but looking ahead, let’s see what happens in games 3-4-5. Not only what will the Braves do in Game 5, but does Snitker handle his team differently in Games 3 and 4, knowing that he will need a lot of reliever innings in Game 5 without Morton?
Which player is going to make the biggest difference in the future?
Doolittle: It’s hard to predict, but let’s go with Carlos Correa. Game 3 will be crucial and with Ian Anderson leaving for Atlanta, Correa’s penchant for mash changes could come in handy. He has a .930 OPS against changes for his career and 1.066 this season. If the Astros get base traffic for him, Correa could be on the verge of cash.
Olney: Framber Valdez. He turned the American League Championship series with his Game 5 domination over the Boston Red Sox, and the Astros need him to do it again. He will be the pivot of this series.
Schoenfield: We mentioned Bregman above, so let’s go with his third base counterpart Austin Riley hitting a lukewarm .245 / .288 / .429 in the playoffs with 19 strikeouts and just three walks. That’s a strikeout rate of 36.5%, up from his regular season rate of 25.4%. In other words, he looks a lot more like Riley 2019-20 than the guy who will finish in the top 10 MVP votes this year. He might not be the biggest difference maker, but the Braves will need him to have more of an impact.
What storyline will you follow more closely as the series moves to Atlanta’s Truist Park?
Olney: I’m fascinated by the choices the Braves are making with their upcoming rotation – and the possible (even likely) role Kyle Wright has to play. No one ever doubted his talent, but like Snitker said the other day, he didn’t have a lot of innings in the minors, so when he had opportunities in the majors he had to. bad – most notably that playoff game against the Dodgers last year where he didn’t come out of the first inning and LA scored 11 points in the frame. He was added to the Braves roster for the World Series, just in case, well, that moment may have come with Morton’s injury. That’s why Snitker got him a working round in Game 2 – and he looked exceptional. Will that foster enough confidence for the Braves to give him another chance on the big stage? Will they bet on his talent and the 137 good runs he has had in AAA this year? They need him.
Roger: Weather. I know it’s a cliché, but Houston hasn’t faced a lot of adversity this season in this department, despite having experienced cooler temperatures in the ALCS. Games 3 and 4 could be cold and wet as they are expected to be in the 40’s or 50’s with rain. Maybe it will show up in defense, where Yordan Alvarez will wear a glove for the first time in a long time. The elements should be a factor in Atlanta.
Schoenfield: I’m curious to see what the Astros do with their off-field defense without the DH. Alvarez and Kyle Tucker were the team’s best hitters in the playoffs and Michael Brantley is hitting .352. If Baker wants to get all three bats in the lineup, that means moving Tucker to centerfield, where he’s only played 28 innings all season. Defense matters, but it’s also difficult to seat Brantley or Alvarez. I’d go with the defense and play Chas McCormick down center and Alvarez on the left, saving Brantley to strike for pitcher, wide receiver Martin Maldonado or McCormick if that’s a key situation.
With the Series tied at 1, what must each team do to win three more games?
Doolittle: Mash potatoes. The puzzle of the two teams is complicated and it will be a race between the collective fatigue of the two staffs and the final of the Series. Both of these attacks should be able to feast on tired throws when they meet them, so the team with the most successful rallies like the Braves ‘first three innings in Game 1 or the Astros’ second inning in Game 2 will go to win.
Rogers: Houston just needs to throw a little. The Astros’ offense doesn’t sit dormant for very long, so as long as they don’t get several really bad starts, you’ll be fine. Atlanta needs a surprise performance or two. That probably means on the mound, but it could be at the plate, where they can drop into a game but end up beating the Astros when everyone least expects it. If the Braves win the Series, it will be through unpredictable means. They’ve done as much so far in the playoffs. See Eddie Rosario for the evidence.
Schoenfield: Defeat the starter of the other team. Both enclosures look really tough right now. We love our World Series end-of-round drama, but I’m not sure if we’re going to see any late-game leader changes. (OK, I don’t fully trust Will Smith. He has to give up a high leverage home run.)
Doolittle: I had the Astros in seven. With a split in Houston, the most important thing that changed is that the Braves lost one of their three big pitchers. I don’t see why I would want to change course now, although for now Atlanta has taken home advantage.
Olney: I picked the Braves in six games and I’ll stick with that, but not too much confidence. They’re two very close teams right now, I have no idea what’s going to happen. And that’s awesome.
Rogers: I took Houston in six. Like the ALCS, they will win two of the three on the road and win it at home. Atlanta losing Morton only helps this prediction. Nothing I have seen so far has made me change my mind about the outcome.
Schoenfield: I’ll stay with the Astros. Morton’s injury is huge and it feels like all those right-handed relievers in the Houston relievers box can stop the back half of the Atlanta roster, especially with Riley’s brawl. If we see the same Luis Garcia in Game 3 that we saw in ALCS Game 6, we might not even be coming back to Houston.