Entering their ALDS matchup, the key battle between the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox was destined to pit the vaunted Astros lineup against a dominant White Sox rotation.
Chicago’s pitching staff led the majors in strikeout rate. Houston’s hitters struck out less than any other team’s, and — not all that coincidentally — also boasted the best overall offense. It shaped up as an unstoppable force vs. immovable object situation, but through two games, the unstoppable force that is the Astros’ lineup has clearly advanced.
Houston’s ability to repeatedly put the ball in play has put pressure on the White Sox and now pushed them to the brink of elimination. After besting Lance Lynn in Game 1, the Astros climbed out of two early-game holes against Lucas Giolito, then piled on against the White Sox bullpen, taking control of the series with a 9-4 Game 2 win.
First baseman Yuli Gurriel’s two-run single to tie the game at 4 came on a two-strike count. The 37-year-old had the fifth-lowest (read: fifth-best) strikeout rate of any qualified hitter this year, which isn’t even the best among Astros batters, but exemplifies Houston’s emphasis on making contact. Gurriel struck out only 24.6% of the time in two-strike counts in 2021, just a hair higher than the rate at which MLB hitters struck out overall (23.2%).
Later on, Carlos Correa smacked a double to right field that eluded Leury Garcia. The White Sox had presumably moved Garcia to right, replacing Adam Engel, to bolster the offense, but it cost them when his uncertain route to the ball allowed Correa’s line drive to fall and break the game open.
Kyle Tucker followed with a back-breaking home run shortly thereafter.
Taking a commanding ALDS advantage and looking primed to again advance in the postseason, the Astros are adding evidence to the idea that limiting strikeouts in an age where they are far more common — accepted as a trade-off for discipline and power — provides a significant edge.
But it may also be that the Astros’ abilities are just on the extreme end of the scale. Four of the past five Astros teams have ranked among the 20 best strikeout-avoidance teams since 1995 when era-adjusted for the league average. Even more uncommon is a team this good, relative to the league, at making contact that also registers a slugging percentage at league average or better. Houston's slugging percentage of .444 ranked third in MLB this season.
Only 10 wild-card era teams prior to this Astros squad have been 15% better than the league at avoiding strikeouts and simultaneously at least average at slugging. Five of them reached the World Series and three won it, including the 2017 Astros.
This year's team will have the chance to take another step in that direction in Game 3 on Sunday in Chicago.