The Five Players Who Could Define The 2021 MLB World Series

This World Series is an old-school National League West Division series. 

From 1969 (the first year in which Major League Baseball had four divisions) through 1993, the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros were both part of the National League West. 

In 1994, MLB began a six-division format with a wild card playoff spot. In this format, the Astros and Braves still remained in the National League, but not in the same division.

In 2005, these two teams played an 18-inning game in the National League playoffs, with each team hitting a grand slam. 

In 2013, the Astros moved out of the National League, going to the American League West. That’s why this matchup is a World Series and not an NLDS or NLCS clash.  

The main figure at the heart of this series is Astro manager Dusty Baker. He has managed in the major leagues for almost 30 years, going back to 1993. Ironically, that first year – 1993 – was a year in which his team was beaten by the Atlanta Braves in an epic division race. The Braves won 104 games, while Baker’s San Francisco Giants won 103.  

Guess what happened this year? The Giants won an epic division race over the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team Dusty Baker used to play for before he became a manager. San Francisco won 107 games, Los Angeles 106. Then the Dodgers beat the Giants. The Braves were huge underdogs to the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, but the Braves pulled off a six-game upset. They will meet Baker, whose professional playing career began in 1968… 

… with the Atlanta Braves. 

You simply can’t make this stuff up. 

Dusty Baker, including postseason games, has over 2,000 hits as a player and 2,000 wins as a manager. He was a well-above-average but not Hall of Fame player. He will make the Hall of Fame as a manager, having reached the playoffs with every team he has managed: the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals, and the Astros. 

Either Dusty Baker will win his first World Series, or the Braves will win their first World Series since 1995, snapping a 26-year drought. This is going to be special. 

Let’s look at five key players who are likely to define this series, which starts in Houston for Games 1 and 2 before going to Atlanta for the middle three over the weekend. If the series goes to a Game 6, it will be back in Houston. 

RELATED: Check out Stat's Insiders Game 1 projections

1 – Jose Altuve

He might have cheated in past playoff series, and we can have a separate discussion about MLB not sufficiently punishing Altuve for his offences, but all of that aside, Altuve is the best player on either team. Power, bat-handling ability, fielding range, throwing arm, speed, baserunning. Altuve is the most complete package on either team. If he plays well, Houston likely wins the series. We don’t need to overthink this. 

KEY STAT- Altuve’s .308 batting average is the second best among all active players, while his career post-season .292 is just as outstanding.

2 – Max Fried  

Charlie Morton gets the ball for the Braves in Game 1, but Fried is still the ace of this team. He will get the ball in Game 2. Game 1 has Morton against Houston’s best available starting pitcher, Framber Valdez. I use the word “available” because Lance McCullers is hurt. Houston was able to get past the Boston Red Sox without McCullers, so Valdez offers a strong presence in Game 1. 

What about the games in which Valdez isn’t pitching for Houston? 

That’s where the Braves have a real chance to win this series.  

It will be up to Fried, against the Astros’ weaker starting pitchers, to dominate games and put the Braves in position to win. If, however, Fried falters as he did in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, Atlanta will be in huge trouble. 

Morton might not be brilliant, but it’s generally known that Morton will pitch five solid innings, maybe six. He might not pitch a shutout, but he won’t get crushed. Fried carries more variance. He could be lights-out and unhittable, or he could be a total mess, or something in between. How Fried pitches is a central key to this series. 

KEY STAT- Fried’s post all-star 1.74 ERA led the entire MLB as did his scorching 0.85 WHIP.

3 – Yordan Alvarez

Yordan Alvarez, a big, strong man with incredible plate coverage who wore out the Boston Red Sox and was the Astros’ best player in the American League Championship Series. Given his majestic home runs, one could call him “You’re GONE, Alvarez!”  

The advantage he had in the ALCS was that he was very familiar with Red Sox pitching. Not so much with the Braves. Alvarez doesn’t have to have a huge series for Houston to win, but he needs to be good. He can’t get ambushed by an Atlanta staff and bullpen which have answered the call in the playoffs. 

KEY STAT- The Astros led the MLB is hits, batting average and total runs scored with Alvarez leading the team in home runs (33) and RBI’s (104).

4 – Joc Pederson  

Joc Pederson has been a difference-making acquisition for the Braves since they dealt for him in the middle of summer. He provided instant offence for a stagnant team and continued his hot hitting in the playoffs, creating the hashtag “ #Joctober.”  

Why mention Pederson and not other important Braves hitters? Very simple: Pederson was on the Los Angeles Dodger team the Astros faced (and, as it was eventually revealed, cheated against) in the 2017 World Series. Pederson obviously wants revenge, but baseball is a game in which wanting revenge can lead to impatience and failure.  

Pederson can’t want revenge so badly that he swings out of his shoes and takes bad hacks at pitches outside the strike zone. He needs to be disciplined and wait for his pitch. If he does, he could hit the biggest home run of this series. 

KEY STAT- Pederson was the king of the Division Series with his 5 RBI’s and outlandish 1.296 slugging percentage leading all National League players. 

5 – Tyler Matzek  

The Braves’ bullpen has had a bumpy ride over the past few years, but it became a rock of strength against the Dodgers, save for one Luke Jackson nightmare in Game 3. The Braves were in trouble in Game 6 against the Dodgers, with Los Angeles having runners on second and third and no men out in the top of the seventh, down 4-2. Matzek had to relieve Jackson and face Albert Pujols and Mookie Betts in a massive pressure situation. 

He struck out them and Steven Souza on 11 pitches. Good morning, good afternoon, goodnight, Dodgers. 

Matzek’s electric relief performance sealed the series championship for Atlanta, giving the Braves their first National League pennant since 1999. 

If the Braves get THAT version of Matzek in the World Series, and their starting pitchers aren’t crushed by the Astros’ elite hitters in the first five to six innings, the Braves are going to push Houston to at least six games and will have a realistic chance of winning it all. 

KEY STAT- Matzek boasts a light’s out 1.42 ERA from his 19 career post-season innings and has a 31:7 strikeout to ball ratio while conceding just a solitary home run. 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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