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Series Preview: Mariners (5-7) vs. Astros (6-6)

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The division-leading Astros come to town as the Mariners continue their long homestand.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

At a Glance:

Date

First Pitch

Away Team

Probable Pitcher

Home Team

Probable Pitcher

Monday, April 20

7:10 pm

Astros

RHP Asher Wojciechowski

Mariners

RHP Hisashi Iwakuma

Tuesday, April 21

7:10 pm

Astros

RHP Collin McHugh

Mariners

RHP Taijuan Walker

Wednesday, April 22

7:10 pm

Astros

RHP Roberto Hernandez

Mariners

LHP J.A. Happ

Mariners (2014)

Astros (2014)

Edge

Batting (wRC+)

94 (12th in AL)

97 (9th in AL)

Astros

Fielding (FanGraphs Defense)

-11.7 (7th)

-84.7 (15th)

Mariners

Starting Pitching (FIP-)

102 (9th)

101 (6th)

Astros

Bullpen (FIP-)

87 (1st)

108 (13th)

Mariners

The Seattle Nelson Cruzes were able to escape with a series win against the Rangers after an offensive showdown on Sunday. Now, they'll face the other team from Texas and they're the early AL West leader.

The Astros are entering year four of their massive rebuild program. They added a number of pieces this offseason that have them looking like a team that could challenge for a Wild Card spot within a year or two. That's a bit earlier than expected and is driven by the challenging win curve over the last few years. The Astros addressed one of the two major weaknesses from their 2014 squad, overhauling their bullpen by signing Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. The jury's still out on whether or not their defense is improved or not.

The Astros:

The Astros have raced out to an early division lead by playing .500 baseball. That's not really indicative of their overall play but more of a reflection on how bad the rest of the division has been. They're last in the American League in runs scored but their run differential is just -6. That's because their pitching has been very stingy as well, giving up the fourth lowest amount of runs in the AL.

Key Players

2B Jose Altuve Jose Altuve rode a .360 BABIP to win the American League batting title last year. It wasn't just luck that drove his success last year—he was able to cut his strikeout rate by 5 points, down to just 7.5%. Much of that was driven by his ability to make contact outside the strike zone as he had the third best O-Contact% in the Majors last year. Still, regression should come but probably not as sharply as one might think. Altuve was also successful on 86& of his steal attempts on his way to 56 stolen bases last year. That rate is way out of line with his career rate and should come back down to earth.

SS Jed Lowrie In 2012, Jed Lowries was able to post a wRC+ of 110 and accumulated a 2.4 fWAR in just 97 games for the Astros. After two years in Oakland, he's back in Houston and will hold down the fort at shortstop until the Astros' top prospect, Carlos Correa, is ready for the bigs. His decent power should play up in Houston as he already has three homers to start this young season. Defensively, he's received mixed grades—UZR thinks he's been an average defender over the last three years but DRS is much less impressed. He's probably somewhere a bit below average in reality.

RF George SpringerIn 78 games last year, George Springer showed why he was considered one of the best prospects in baseball. His .237 ISO and 11.3% walk rate showed an ability to hit for power with a patient approach at the plate. The only problem was his whiff rate was the third highest in baseball and his contact rate was the worst in baseball among batters with at least 300 plate appearances. This year, his contact rate is even worse than last year and if he's going to take the next step forward, he'll have to figure out how to get the bat on the ball.

Probable Pitchers

RHP Asher Wojciechowski (2014 Stats—AAA)

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

76

17.9%

6.4%

4.74

4.85

Pitches

Four-seam

Cutter

Changeup

Slider

91.0 mph;

58.8%

86.4 mph;

3.4%

79.6 mph;

20.3%

82.2 mph;

17.6%

Asher Wojciechowski was a supplemental first round draft pick by the Blue Jays in the 2010 draft. He's worked through an inconsistent delivery and mechanics to rise through the Astros' organization. To top it all off, he battled injuries that limited him to just 76 innings in Triple-A last year. His fastball will get up to the mid-90's and he throws a slurvy slider and a changeup with some healthy arm side movement. This will be his second start of the season and his third appearance.

RHP Collin McHugh (2014 Stats)

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

154 2/3

25.4%

6.6%

9.5%

42.1%

2.73

3.11

Pitches

Four-seam

Sinker

Changeup

Slider

Curveball

92.4 mph;

38.9%

91.6 mph;

2.0%

84.4 mph;

5.1%

86.6 mph;

31.5%

73.7 mph;

23.3%

McHugh_PAgraph

The emergence of Collin McHugh is one of the reasons the Astros pushed their plan forward. He and Dallas Keuchel make a formidable pair atop their rotation but questions still remained about the sustainability of McHugh's success. After two starts this season, McHugh has struck out almost a third of the batters he's faced while allowing just two runs to score. He uses two plus pitches, his fastball and his curveball. He's able to generate a huge amount of whiffs with both pitches and he'll use them against both righties and lefties. His slider usage is of note as well. Since August 1 of last year, McHugh has thrown his slider at a much higher rate, with more velocity, and he started using it against lefties more often. That change in usage coincides with a run of twelve starts with an ERA of 1.77 and a FIP of 2.42.

RHP Roberto Hernandez (2014 Stats)

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

164 2/3

14.5%

10.1%

12.2%

49.7%

4.10

4.85

Pitches

Four-seam

Sinker

Changeup

Curveball

91.2 mph;

7.0%

91.1 mph;

57.4%

84.0mph;

24.5%

84.7mph;

11.1%

Hernandez_PAgraph

This will be Roberto Hernandez's tenth year in the Majors and in that time, he's established himself as a fungible back-end-starter who will reliably give you replacement-level production. He won't strike out that many batters, he'll give up a few too many walks, but generates enough grounders to survive. He mainly relies on his sinker which has led to a fairly even platoon split. He'll mix in a slider to righties and a changeup to lefties as well.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Astros

6-6

.500

-

L-W-L-W-W

Athletics

6-7

.462

0.5

W-L-L-W-L

Angels

5-7

.417

1.0

L-W-W-L-L

Mariners

5-7

.417

1.0

L-L-L-W-W

Rangers

5-8

.385

1.5

W-L-W-L-L

The Wild Card Race

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Royals

9-3

.750

+2.0

L-L-W-L-W

Red Sox

7-5

.583

-

W-L-W-L-L

Yankees

6-6

.500

1.0

L-L-W-W-W

Athletics

6-7

.462

1.5

W-L-L-W-L

Blue Jays

6-7

.462

1.5

W-L-L-W-L

The Angels lost two of three to the Astros in Houston and the Athletics lost two of three in Kansas City over the weekend. Neither team has looked good out of the gate leaving the AL West wide open. The Yankees swept the Rays to move up in the Wild Card standings. Alex Rodriguez hit two home runs on Friday and it was incredible to watch the internet react with equal parts scorn and wit.