World Series 2019: Why Nationals Vs. Astros Could Be the Greatest Pitching Matchup in History

The first pitch of the 2019 World Series is yet to be thrown, but this year's edition of the Fall Classic is already deserving of a place in the history books.

That is not a bold prediction the Nationals will win a first title in franchise history, but an evaluation of the embarrassment of riches both Washington and Houston possess in the pitching department.

For the first time in history, the World Series will feature five of the top 10 pitchers in strikeouts during the regular season.

Astros' aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander rank first and second with 326 and 300 respectively, while Washington's trio of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin featured in the top 10 with 251, 243 and 238 strikeouts this season.

Cole recorded a strikeout rate of 39.9 percent this season—the highest ever by a starting pitcher.

Inspired by Cole, Houston struck out 28.9 percent of the batters during the regular season—the highest ever rate in the history of the MLB.

The Nationals, meanwhile, have turned it up in the postseason, striking out 36.1 percent of the batters in their way.

When it comes to earned run average (ERA) among qualified pitchers, Washington's trio and the Astros' duo all made the top 20 along with Zack Greinke—the third jewel in Houston's crown of starting pitchers.

Cole, Verlander and Greinke ranked third, fourth and ninth respectively, while Washington's trio of Scherzer, Corbin and Strasburg ranked eighth, 13th and 16th.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is only the first time since 1945 the World Series has featured six of the top 20 pitchers in terms of ERA.

If that figure speaks volumes for the performances of the sextet this season, it is not the only statistic that underlines their brilliance.

Cole, Verlander and Greinke ranked first, fifth and ninth respectively in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as measured by FanGraphs.

Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, meanwhile, ranked fourth, seventh and equal 12th, making this only the third World Series to feature six of the top 15 pitchers in FanGraphs' pitching WAR, after 1905 and 1945.

Houston went 58-19 in games started by one of Cole, Verlander or Greinke this season, a winning percentage of .753.

Extrapolated over the course of a season, that winning ratio would have put the Astros on course to finish with a 122-40 record.

Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros throws a pitch against the New York Yankees during the first inning in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 18 in New York City. Mike Stobe/Getty

A glance at both teams' payrolls suggests investing in ace pitchers is worth the risk. Scherzer, Corbin and Strasburg earned a combined $77.8 million this season, the highest in the majors for a team's top three starters.

At $73 million, the Astros trio came second and this World Series will feature four of the seven pitchers that have ever penned contracts worth north of $175 million.

While the Astros matchup against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series was pitted as a clash between starting pitchers and a dominant bullpen, the World Series will be firmly a contest between two sets of starters.

So much so, in fact, that there is a suggestion the two teams might be over-reliant on their starters—the Nationals in particular.

In his baseball newsletter, Joe Sheehan pointed out the Nationals have used just six pitchers to cover 89 percent of their innings in the postseason.

Strasburg has pitched 24 percent of the innings—up from 15 percent in the regular season—while Scherzer has pitched 22 percent of postseason innings, compared with 12 percent during the regular season.

Corbin's usage has increased only slightly, rising from 14 percent to 15 percent, with Anibal Sanchez, Sean Doolittle and Dan Hudson pitching 14 percent, eight percent and six percent of the Nationals' postseason innings so far.

While the percentages suggest Washington might be overstretching their starters, the raw figures tell an interesting tale.

Strasburg, Scherzer and Corbin have pitched 22, 20 and 13.1 innings so far in the postseason, while Verlander, Cole and Greinke have pitched 24.1, 22.2 and 14.

Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals delivers during the second inning of game two of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on October 12 in St Louis, Missouri. Scott Kane/Getty

Both the Nationals and the Astros won the Division Series 3-2, before the Nationals took only four games to dispatch the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, while the Astros needed six games to overcome the Yankees.

At the same time, however, Washington had to play in the Wild Card round against the Milwaukee Brewers, which means the Astros have only played one game more than the Nationals in the postseason.

In other words, both set of starting pitchers arrive into the World Series with a similar workload.

As it was widely expected, Cole will start Game 1, with Scherzer taking the ball for the Nationals.

Game 2 will see Verlander and Strasburg go head-to-head, while Greinke and Corbin will start in Game 3 as the series moves to Washington.

If the World Series can live up to the reputation of the starting pitchers for both teams, the 2019 edition of the Fall Classic could be one to remember.