When last you heard from this author, constant reader, we discussed the chances of a sub-.500 team making the postseason (http://diamond-digest.com/2020/09/16/mlb-postseason-too-much-of-a-good-thing/).
Say hello to your 29-31 Astros, the sixth seed in the American League. We now pause for laughter, tears, vomiting, or your other physical processing of emotions related to this.
Thanks for coming back. Despite the near-complete collapse of the Astros (10-17 in September), they play postseason baseball for the fifth time in the last six years. They face the Minnesota Twins, who rode a late hot streak and an opportune fade by the White Sox to claim the AL Central crown with a record of 36-24. The Twins last won a postseason series in 1991 (the famous Jack Morris game 7); they last won a postseason game in 2004. Since then, they lost ten straight games to the Yankees over four postseasons; drawing the Astros must come as a favorable omen.
|On base percentage||.312||.315|
The Astros and Twins come in with roughly equivalent offenses, albeit offenses that significantly underperformed compared to expectations – almost a full run below FanGraphs preseason projections in both cases. The difference between the two teams clearly lies in their pitching: Houston found themselves decimated by injuries while the Twins saw a number of pitchers improve.
When the Astros are at bat…
The Astros will find themselves hard-pressed to jump out to an early lead against game one starter Kenta Maeda. The Twins acquired Maeda in the offseason from the Dodgers, and the change of scenery helped propel him to the best year of his career. Maeda went 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA and 0.75 WHIP, and will likely finish second in the Cy Young voting behind AL Triple Crown winner Shane Bieber. Maeda improved in part by decreasing his usage of his fastball in favor of his slider and changeup. By doing so, his fastball has become much more effective, with opposing batters only managing a .111 slugging percentage against the fastball.
Probable game 2 starter Jose Berrios presents a much different profile. He leans on the fastball – both four-seam and two-seam – over fifty percent of the time, mixing these with a curve and change. While Maeda features the fastball as a less frequent put-away pitch, hitters have teed off on the four-seamers from Berrios, slugging .704 on the season. (For comparison, no player slugged over .700 overall on the season.) George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman all historically feast on four-seamers, so expect them to go hunting for fastballs early in the count.
Should a game 3 prove necessary, the Twins will likely opt for Michael Pineda over Rich Hill, given the Astros’ righty-heavy lineup. Pineda features a killer slider as his calling card, getting a swing-and-miss rate of over 46% and allowing opposing hitters only a .119 slugging percentage on the pitch. This would lead the Astros to again hunt fastballs early in the count.
When the Astros get into the bullpen, things get no easier; Twins relievers posted a 3.62 ERA and struck out over 10 batters per 9 innings. While Sergio Romo will probably handle closing duties, the combination of Tyler Clippard, Trevor May, and Tyler Duffey could present a greater challenge in the late innings. This trio of Twins combined to allow only 52 hits and 17 walks over 70 1/3 innings of work, and could shut down the Astros over two games. The Astros will hope get through those first two games, because the Twins bullpen lacks depth behind these relievers, possibly giving the hitters an advantage if all three go in the first two games.
When the Twins are at bat…
The Twins bring a more all-or-nothing style to the plate than the Astros: they hit 91 home runs to the Astros 69, yet scored 10 fewer runs and had fewer base runners overall. Center fielder Byron Buxton had only 33 hits on the season, but 13 went for home runs, giving up an unusual .254/.267/.577 line. Three other Twins joined Buxton with at least 13 home runs (roughly equivalent to 30 in a full season): first baseman Miguel Sano, left fielder Max Kepler, and designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
Game 1 starter Zach Greinke will have to turn around his recent trends to deal with this lineup. In his first six games of 2020, he did not allow a home run, but in the last six games, he surrendered six – and watched his ERA soar from 2.29 to 4.03. If he can avoid the gopher ball, then the Astros have a good chance to find themselves in a pitcher’s duel.
Dusty Baker has not yet committed to a game 2 starter, likely choosing between Framber Valdez and Jose Urquidy. Valdez has had a more consistent season, and could even pick up some down-ballot Cy Young votes; more importantly, he allows home runs at half the rate of Urquidy. On the other hand, the Astros may feel that Valdez’s stuff profiles better out of the bullpen than Urquidy’s and would give Baker another lefty option for late innings. Ultimately I expect them to go with Valdez, as the Twins slug 96 points lower against lefties.
Should a game 3 prove necessary, the Astros could gain an advantage given the postseason experience of Lance McCullers Jr. The season numbers for McCullers looks decent overall, but since an 8-run disaster against Arizona, McCullers has posted 8 starts with a 2.18 ERA and a .182/.267/.301 line allowed. This also presents the possibility that if the Astros go into game 2 up 1-0, Baker could choose McCullers as a multi-inning relief weapon, knowing he had either Valdez or Urquidy in reserve.
The Astros bullpen has proven nothing short of disastrous this season, blowing 13 saves on the 60-game season – trailing only the Angels for worst in the league. Only New York and Toronto have worse bullpen ERAs among American League playoff teams. Losing closer Roberto Osuna might have impacted this season as much as the loss of Justin Verlander, given the way other starters stepped up. Ryan Pressly still has not captured the dominant form of much of 2019, and while Dusty Baker will still turn to him in the ninth inning, you can’t imagine he does it with any gusto. The only good news is that the Astros seem to have narrowed down their bullpen options to a steady diet of Pressly, Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor, and Enoli Paredes. The bad news is that with no off days, the Astros have to hope for deep efforts by their starters because they lack good options after those four.
Predicting a three-game series seems a fool’s errand – even the most lopsided mismatch could still turn into basically a coin flip’s chance. So that leaves nothing but a gut reaction, and I think it comes down to a clutch performance by Lance McCullers in game 3.
Prediction: Astros in 3
Featured image courtesy mlb.com