If the matchup of the 2022 World Series – and that would be the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros – shows us anything, it’s that there are numerous avenues to reach the Fall Classic.
The Astros are winners of 106 regular season games, losers of zero post-season games during these 2022 playoffs, and are making their fourth World Series appearance in the last six seasons. During that time, they’ve won 100 or more games four times, and during their last five 162 game seasons (so not including 2020) they’ve averaged a hair’s breadth over 101 regular season wins. This, friends, is a dynasty. We don’t talk about the Astros that way, probably because they’ve won just one World Series in that time, and it was a tainted one at that, but in our times and especially with the context of the new playoff format, this is what a modern dynasty looks like.
The Phillies aren’t that. This season is Philadelphia’s first trip to the playoffs since 2011. Do you remember where you were in 2011? That’s okay. Nobody does. 2011 was a different universe. That Phillies team was, as it turned out, the last playoff gasp of the 2008 World Series champs. That was the Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard Phillies. Not unlike the Astros, that Phillies team made the playoffs five consecutive seasons, making two World Series appearances and winning one of them. But then they got old and that was that.
We’ll get back to the current Phillies team, but I would be remiss not to note that this is the regular course of great teams. A rise, a plateau of greatness that can include World Series appearances and championships, and then a fall off, followed by an indeterminate number of down seasons. That’s certainly the path the Phillies followed. It is decidedly not the path the Astros have followed.
Houston has managed to off-set the aging process by jettisoning a large part of their core over the past few seasons. What makes them great is they’ve lost George Springer, Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole. Most teams would fold with that kind of talent drain, but Houston replaced that talent with other talent. Some of that has come from spending, like bringing in Justin Verlander who was added in a trade and later re-signed as a free agent. Some of that has come from player development, like rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena, All Star right fielder Kyle Tucker, and starters Framber Valedez and Cristian Javier. Some of that has come from smart contracts, like extending second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman. Some of that has come from smart trades, like fleecing the Dodgers (!) for Yordan Alvarez, possibly the best hitter in baseball at the moment.
So unlike most teams, after six straight playoff appearances, the Astros aren’t on the downswing. Indeed, they’re not going anywhere.
But back to the Phillies, who, despite how I’ve organized this piece, are maybe the more interesting team. There is no question Philadelphia is the underdog in this World Series, but then the city of Philadelphia is no stranger to that concept. This Phillies team was not particularly impressive during the regular season, featuring a poor start to the year that lead to the firing of manager Joe Girardi in early June after a 22-27 start. In the end, they righted the ship, but even so, mustered just 87 wins while squeezing into the playoffs via the new Wild Card format.
Despite that, this Phillies team is built for this particular playoff format. Why? Because they’re better than the team they were during the regular season. Start with Bryce Harper. Harper missed 63 games this year, and of the 99 he played, he was maybe healthy for half. But he’s healthy now. He’s posted an OPS over 1.000 in every round of the playoffs, hit five homers in 11 post-season games, and just generally hit like a postseason boss. A healthy Harper alone makes this playoff Phillies team better than the regular season version.
But Harper isn’t the only reason. Arguably Philadelphia’s biggest move at the trading deadline was trading minor league catcher Logan O’Hoppe to the Angels for center fielder Brandon Marsh. Marsh has a big time prospect pedigree, but has struggled at the plate so far in his time in the majors. He can go get it in center field though, something the Phillies lacked previously. Even more to the point, Marsh actually hit after coming over to the Phillies. Whether he’ll hit again next season is another question (there are still quite a few red flags) but Marsh gave the Phils some all star caliber production in center.
Beyond that, the Phillies are a go-all-in type of team, the kind you’d expect from GM Dave Dombrowski.
This past off-season Dombrowski added two slugging corner outfielders with defensive issues in Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos on big money deals. Schwarber lead the NL in homers while Castellanos struggled. The Phils needed the jolt on offense, but it was always a faustian bargain of sorts, as the Phillies were one of the worst fielding teams in baseball and the worst to make the post-season. In contrast, the Astros were one of the best. The Phillies need to out-slug their defensive deficiencies, something they’ve been able to do thus far.
If you give the Phils a statistical jolt from a healthy Bryce Harper, they’re maybe roughly in line with the Astros in the run scoring department. Pitching-wise, the two teams are probably closer than you might think as well. Especially when you consider that the Phillies added David Robertson at the deadline, a move that allows manager Rob Thomson to use Jose Alvarado and Seranthony Dominguez in less defined roles.
But I keep coming back to the defensive difference between these two squads. The Phillies make more mistakes in the field, yes, but it’s not just that. It’s that the Astros get to batted balls that Phillies fielders just can’t. Or couldn’t during the regular season.
That’s the big difference between the two squads. The Astros are just a bit better everywhere except in the field where they’re a lot better. That doesn’t mean the Astros will win. This is a seven game series. The Phillies could sweep. But I do think there’s a noticeable difference in quality between the two teams, one that should result in the Astros winning the World Series. Again.
Matthew Kory is a Orioles / MLB Analyst for BSL. He has covered baseball professionally for The Athletic, Vice Sports, Sports On Earth, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, two boys, and his cats, Mini Squeaks and The President. Co-Host of The Warehouse.