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MLB playoffs 2023: 6 things that will decide the ALCS between the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers

From Evan Carter to José Abreu, here's what to watch as the Astros and Rangers duel for the AL pennant and a ticket to the World Series

As someone who had never been to Houston or Dallas until I covered baseball games there, I will refrain from attempting any intra-state analysis that might underpin this series. But even when considering just the teams themselves, there are interesting parallels, the most obvious being recent — and even relative historical — success.

The Houston Astros are the reigning World Series winners; the Texas Rangers are still searching for their first championship. The Astros have played in the ALCS every season since 2016, which is the last time the Rangers were in the postseason. Yet this season, it was the Rangers who jumped to an early lead in the division, ultimately spending 139 days in first place. The then-three-way fight for the AL West ultimately went down to Game 162. After a late-season swoon, the Rangers ended up with the same 92-70 record as the Astros, who won the division by virtue of their head-to-head record. In the regular season, Houston won nine of 13 games against Texas.

The Rangers overcame an arduous road trip to sweep the 99-win Tampa Bay Rays in the wild card and the 101-win Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS before arriving here. The Astros weathered the downtime and beat the Minnesota Twins, making them the only team still in the playoff field that started the postseason with a bye.

The two teams have never faced each other in the postseason, and the World Series is only big enough for one of them (eh?), so let’s consider six factors that could determine the ALCS.

1. How does Max Scherzer feel, really?

The Rangers focused on adding pitching in the offseason, only to see the star of that class, Jacob deGrom, suffer a season-ending injury. And so, with the race against the Astros tightening at the deadline, they acquired perhaps the most talented — and recently unreliable — starter available: Max Scherzer.

In eight starts down the stretch, Scherzer was strong — better than he’d been this season to that point — before he went on the injured list in mid-September due to a shoulder injury. His status for the postseason has been unclear and remains a little murky. With ALCS rosters due to be set Sunday, Scherzer threw a bullpen Friday and told reporters that he is “ready to go,” so it seems very possible that he’ll be in the starting rotation for the ALCS.

For a Rangers rotation that has already had the second-lowest ERA this October, the addition of a future Hall of Famer could be what takes them to the World Series — if Scherzer is truly healthy enough to pitch up to his ability. Now 39, he has struggled late in the season in recent years, including in his one postseason start for the Mets last year. It’ll be a contest within the contest: Scherzer’s propensity to rise to the occasion versus his own body.

2. How much does the small sample size of José Abreu’s playoff success mean?

The 2020 AL MVP, José Abreu was the reigning champion Astros’ big addition last offseason, another proven bat for the middle of their lineup. But after signing a three-year, $58.5 million deal, the 36-year-old turned in his worst season ever, posting a below-average OPS+ for the first time in his 10-year career.

Lately, however, he has looked like the slugger the Astros signed him to be. Normally a couple of games wouldn’t be enough to undo a season-long narrative, but such is the nature of October. Abreu has an OPS over 1.000 in four games so far this postseason, and in the past two games, he has gone 4-for-9 with three home runs. The Astros succeeded largely without Abreu hitting in the regular season, but with him, they’re that much more intimidating.

3. How long can Evan Carter keep this up?

After slashing .306/.413/.645 through his 23-game major-league debut at the end of the regular season, Evan Carter has at least one hit in every postseason game of his very short career (which is: five games). By almost never making an out, he has lengthened a Rangers lineup that features a couple of perennial All-Stars at the top.

Carter’s production would be impressive for a player at any stage of his career. Coming just about a month after he was called up, it’s an especially cool story. But he will slow down at some point. Whether that happens right now or not for another six months could have a major impact on this series.

4. Is the Rangers bullpen better or … due to implode?

The Astros’ bullpen — often bolstered by a regular-season starter or two — has been a strength during the team’s run of October dominance. It looks good again this year, especially if you include the end of the regular season; since Sept. 18, the Astros’ 1.78 bullpen ERA is the best in MLB.

Heading into the postseason, the Rangers’ bullpen was considered one of the biggest liabilities in the field after it earned the team the dubious distinction of being the first to make the playoffs despite blowing more saves than it converted. Thus far, however, Rangers manager Bruce Bochy has managed to make it work, even when high-leverage options such as Aroldis Chapman have had shaky command.

In fact, thus far in the postseason, the Rangers’ 2.16 bullpen ERA is better than that of the Astros. That’s through just five games, though, so it might mean they’re getting it together at just the right time — or it might mean they’re due for an implosion.

5. Have the Astros just solved October?

Houston sees your claims that the postseason is a crapshoot and laughs at them — all the way to the ALCS, if not beyond. Even if you discredit the Astros’ 2017 title, their unfaltering ability to make a deep run every October, without stumbling, while key contributors depart, is impressive — and serves as a counterpoint to the consternation concerning the new postseason format. Last year, the No. 1 seed Astros went all the way to the post-championship parade, despite hand-wringing that the higher seeds might actually be disadvantaged by all the downtime.

This year, they again seem unbothered by the layoff, even as other division winners have faltered. The Astros are the only remaining 1- or 2-seed after the division series, and while I’d hate to say they just ~know~ something about succeeding in the postseason (because of any unintended implied accusations), they do seem to have a knack for winning at this time of year.

6. How well will the managers anticipate and preempt each other?

Much will be made during this series about the illustrious — and long careers of Rangers manager Bruce Bochy and Astros manager Dusty Baker. They’ve both managed 26 seasons and more than 4,000 games (not combined — each). Together, they have four World Series titles as managers. They are both, well, old, relatively speaking, if not explicitly “old-school.”

Asked about the clash, Baker said, “I’ve always said that it's harder to manage against the person than it is against analytics or a computer.” An experienced manager’s feel for the game is less predictable than the statistical recommendation about what to do in each situation. That said, Baker and Bochy have plenty of historical data on each other to pull from after facing off 204 times in the regular season over the years. So they’ve seen each other manage, but how well do they know how the other manages?

ALCS prediction:

The Rangers are really clicking right now, and sometimes that’s enough to take October. But the Astros proved more capable of playing under pressure down the stretch — and historically. Plus, they have fewer injury questions and questionable elements (i.e. the Texas bullpen). A totally healthy Astros team is hard to pick against. Astros in six.