World Series Picks — Nats’ Game 1 Task: Beat MLB’s Hottest Pitcher

By Charles Jay

And so we have a very interesting situation sitting here in front of us for Game 1 of the World Series, where the Washington Nationals have won six games in a row and plowed through the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, and have a three-time Cy Young winner on the mound.

But the Houston Astros have something of an advantage in that they won the World Series just a couple of years ago and are going with a pitcher who has to be considered – and I mean without too much complication required – to be the hottest starter there is in the game right now.

That’s the scenario, or at least part of it, as we head toward the opener, with a starting time of 8:08 PM ET at Minute Maid Park (formerly known as Enron Field).

It’s Gerrit Cole going for the Astros against Max Scherzer for the Nationals.

The WagerWAR odds for this game have the Astros as considerable favorites:

Houston Astros (Cole) -220
Washington Nationals (Scherzer) +180

Over 6.5 Runs -115
Under 6.5 Runs -105

Nationals +1.5 Runs (-130)
Astros -1.5 Runs (+110)

And so yes, you are thinking that with a pitcher like Scherzer, you’d be getting quite a value here, right? Certainly under ordinary circumstances, you’d be absolutely right. But I don’t think these are ordinary circumstances at all.

It is impossible to ignore what Scherzer did in his last outing, as he riddled the Cards, allowing just one hit and striking out eleven batters over seven innings. An effort like that will almost surely get the job done. But could he duplicate it? Well, he has shown the ability to go out there on a consistent basis and mow down hitters; there is no question about it. This season Scherzer led the league in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which is an important stat, as well as strikeout-walk ratio. He established career bests in strikeout rate (per nine innings) as well as FIP. So there’s not much to kick him around about, except for the fact that he was inconsistent down the stretch, clocking in with a 4.81 ERA in his last eight regular season appearances, giving up nine homers in 43 innings.

Still, we know what he can do. So we are hesitant to lay a real big price against him.

At the same time, do we want to play a guessing game as to when some team is going to finally hammer Gerrit Cole?

He has not been charged with a defeat since May 22. From May 27 to the end of the regular season, he had a 2.06 ERA in 16 starts, averaging almost a strikeout and a half per inning. And in the playoffs he simply stepped it up in some respects, with one run allowed in 22-2/3 innings. His last seven starts have produced an ERA of 0.71. He has yielded only 66 hits in his last 125-1/3 innings pitched. He has now gone TWENTY-FIVE consecutive starts without suffering a loss on his record, and is 19-0 during that time. Houston has won the last 16 games he’s started. It’s just other-worldly.

And so what might look like value might not be. Yeah, you can be an optimist and say “he’s due to get shelled,” but that’s more difficult when you actually have to put something behind it.

If there’s something the Astros might suffer from a little, it’s that they haven’t seen Scherzer for some time. He hasn’t faced them since 2014, and that was whole different lineup anyway. Cole’s had history with some of the members of the Nats’ lineup, from his time in the National League. And no one’s really torched him; Anthony Rendon, Washington’s top MVP candidate, has a .385 average and .851 OPS, but all five of his hits against Rendon have been singles.

So who is the guy more likely to “go long” here? Well, Nats manager David Martinez has turned Scherzer loose for seven innings in each of his last two starts, and he’s thrown over 100 pitches in both. There is no indication that he was in anything but great form. Cole has gone a full eight innings in four of his last eight starts.

Still, there is a good possibility that we are going to be hearing from the bullpen for both teams in Game 1. And while Washington addressed some concerns out there before the trade deadline, the Nationals still wound up with the worst bullpen ERA in the majors (5.68), as well as more games lost BY the bullpen – an incredible 33. Think about it – worse than Miami; worse than Detroit; worse than Baltimore. From that standpoint, and in an era when the relief pitchers mean so much, it’s kind of surprising that these guys got to the World Series.

Houston, on the other hand, had the best bullpen in the major leagues in the categories of Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) and strikeout-walk ratio. So they carry a substantial edge there.

So the question we had to ponder here was whether, in the process of making our play for the WagerWAR competition, we wanted to take Washington’s bullpen OUT of the equation or put it very much IN the equation.

If I wanted to do the former, and had a lot of faith in Scherzer, I would do a five-inning play, where we could get +170. That’s not a bad price, but remember, we’d have to come out of the firth inning ahead of Cole, who is lights-out no matter what juncture of the game it is.

Or I could decide to do the latter, which was to bring the respective bullpens into the situation, understanding two things – that perhaps Scherzer is less likely to go past the sixth inning, and that the Nats’ bullpen is more combustible, despite the rest it’s gotten. That would require using the run line.

I could also do both, conceivably, and try to win two plays. Ultimately I took some other things into account – that home favorites have won 16 of the last 19 games when played in the opening set of the Series, and that the average scoring differential is almost two and a half runs.

Houston has not really had too many big breakout moments offensively in the post-season, and they will get into this Washington bullpen for more swings than the Nats will off theirs – at least in my estimation.

So I am taking my chances with the best home team in baseball (65-22, or 74.7%, as of now), the hottest pitcher (Cole) and a nasty fire-breathing bullpen, where I can get a positive price. So I will lay a run and a half with the Astros, getting +110, as we continue with WagerWAR, which is powered by the great folks at PPHVIP.

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