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Series Preview: Mariners (61-70) at Astros (72-59)

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The Mariners head into the final month of the season with their focus on the future.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

At a Glance:

Date

First Pitch

Away Team

Probable Pitcher

Home Team

Probable Pitcher

Monday, August 31

5:10 pm

Mariners

LHP Vidal Nuno

Astros

LHP Dallas Keuchel

Tuesday, September 1

5:10 pm

Mariners

LHP Roenis Elias

Astros

RHP Scott Feldman

Wednesday, September 2

5:10 pm

Mariners

RHP Taijuan Walker

Astros

LHP Scott Kazmir

Mariners

Astros

Edge

Batting (wRC+)

100 (7th in AL)

100 (6th in AL)

Astros

Fielding (FanGraphs Defense)

-21.0 (12th)

-16.4 (10th)

Astros

Starting Pitching (FIP-)

107 (9th)

89 (1st)

Astros

Bullpen (FIP-)

108 (13th)

80 (1st)

Astros

With September a day away, the Mariners will begin to shift their focus towards roster expansion. There are a few players who aren’t on the 40-man roster who could see some time in the majors at the end of this season but there are few spots available. Felix Hernandez was scheduled to start on Monday but he’ll have his spot in the rotation skipped to give him an extra week of rest.

The Astros found themselves in uncharted territory at the trade deadline—they were buyers instead of sellers. With such a young roster, they’ve had their fair share of ups and downs but they acquired Scott Kazmir and Carlos Gomez to solidify an already strong roster. With the Angels falling apart, the Astros look like the odds on favorite to win the AL West, something no one could have predicted at the start of the season.

The Astros:

Towards the end of July, the Astros struggled through a team-wide slump and allowed the Angels to catch up to them atop the division. On July 27, they were one game behind Los Angeles and were headed into a three-game series against them. The Astros swept that series and retook the division lead. Since that series at the end of July, they have just a .500 record but have maintained their lead over the Angels and now the Rangers.

Key Players

2B Jose AltuveJose 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—he had the third best O-Contact% in the Majors last year. 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. Regression has come swiftly; Altuve’s strikeout rate has jumped back over 10% and his BABIP is a much more human .304.

RF George Springer In 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. He’s been able to cut his strikeout rate down to 26.3% and his contact rate is just fourth worst in the majors now. He’s walking more often which has offset some of the loss in power he’s suffered through in the early part of this season. Springer has been out with a fractured wrist for two months. He’s currently on a rehab assignment and could rejoin the team this week.

3B Luis ValbuenaLuis Valbuena was never a stand-out minor leaguer when he was in the Mariners’ farm system and was below replacement-level with the Indians. He didn’t put everything together until he was picked up by the Cubs. In Chicago, his plate discipline flourished as he learned how to take a walk. His above average power for an infielder allowed him to put together three seasons where he averaged 2.0 fWAR in part-time duty. He was traded to the Astros for Dexter Fowler and is now their starting third baseman. He’s already shown off his power this year but has struggled with a very low BABIP.

1B Chris CarterChris Carter had a slow start to 2014 and he ended up blasting 37 homers by the end of the year. His strikeout rate is still within his career norms and his walk rate is as robust as ever. I guess he’s just a slow starter, and once the calendar turned over to May, he started looking like the Chris Carter who has averaged over 30 home runs over the last two years. His ISO is still below .200 and he’s lost some playing time to various others on the roster.

DH Evan GattisAfter coming out of nowhere to hit over 20 home runs in each of the last two seasons, Evan Gattis is well on his way to matching those totals. Despite all that power, his overall offensive line has been brought down by a poor walk rate and a low BABIP—both marks are in the bottom 20 among all qualified batters in the majors—leading to a wRC+ of just 96. Combined with his positional adjustment for DHing, he’s been worth -0.2 fWAR so far this season.

SS Carlos CorreaIf there was a blueprint for how a top prospect should make their major league debut, Carlos Correa has followed it to a T. He’s slugged fifteen homers and swipped eleven bases in just three months and has already accumulated 2.8 fWAR. He’s flashing the leather at shortstop and is showing off all the skills that made him the Astros’ top prospect. Pitchers are eventually going to adjust to his weaknesses, but for now, he’s taking the league by storm.

CF Carlos Gomez – After the Mets whiffed on acquiring Gomez at the trade deadline, the Astros swooped in and picked him up. After a month of play in Houston, he hasn’t really shown why he was so prized on the market. Since the beginning of August, he’s slashing just .210/.245/.305 and his wRC+ is just 46. Not what the Astros were expecting. When he’s right, Gomez is a dynamic player who features great speed, decent power, and a good glove.

Probable Pitchers

LHP Dallas Keuchel

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

185 2/3

22.8%

5.7%

10.5%

62.6%

2.28

2.65

Pitches

Four-seam

Sinker

Cutter

Changeup

Slider

90.4 mph;

7.5%

90.6 mph;

51.2%

87.4 mph;

8.6%

79.6 mph;

13.9%

80.3 mph;

18.8%

Keuchel PA

The emergence of Dallas Keuchel has helped the Astros accelerate their plan. He was never a highly touted prospect and his minor league career was unremarkable. Then, in late 2013, something clicked and he completely transformed himself. He was able to leverage pinpoint command of his sinker to generate an obscene amount of ground balls while avoiding walks and striking out an above average amount of batters. When all three main components of your FIP are well above average, the results should follow and we’ve certainly seen that over the last two seasons. This year, Keuchel is relying on his sinker even more and he’s throwing that pitch over half the time. Batters still haven’t figured out how to hit it and it’s continued to force batters to weakly knock the ball into the ground. Keuchel has pitched his way to the forefront of the AL Cy Young conversation. The Mariners were able to get to him in their only game against him; he gave up five runs on five hits, including three homers, walked four and struck out seven.

RHP Scott Feldman

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

105 2/3

13.6%

5.1%

12.6%

49.0%

3.75

4.10

Pitches

Sinker

Cutter

Changeup

Curveball

91.1 mph;

26.4%

89.2 mph;

43.2%

84.9 mph;

3.6%

75.3 mph;

25.0%

Feldman PA

Scott Feldman has put together a successful career as a back-end starter. His strike out rates and his walk rates have never stood out and he generates an average amount of ground balls. Unsurprisingly, all of that adds up to a league average starter. He mainly relies on a sinker/cutter mix with a four-seam fastball and a changeup tossed in every once in a while. His best pitch in the past has been his curveball, but his whiff rate on that pitch is way down this year.

LHP Scott Kazmir

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

154

22.0%

7.7%

8.2%

44.0%

2.45

3.38

Pitches

Four-seam

Sinker

Cutter

Changeup

Slider

Curveball

93.2 mph;

29.9%

91.9 mph;

27.1%

87.8 mph;

13.4%

77.1 mph;

18.4%

81.8 mph;

7.2%

77.7 mph;

4.1%

Kazmir PA

Now two years removed from his improbable comeback in 2013, Scott Kazmir has proven that his newfound success isn’t a mirage. He’s still striking out a ton of batters but his walk rate has jumped up to almost 9%. He’s almost completely abandoned his two breaking balls in favor of more cutters. He’s been able to induce an above average whiff rate on all four pitches he relies on the most. He’s using his cutter like he used his slider, primarily against left-handed batters. It’s been very effective as a weapon against lefties and it’s helped him correct the reverse platoon split he ran last year. The Astros acquired Kazmir well before the trade deadline and he’s made seven starts for them. He faced the Mariners while he was still with the Athletics and held them scoreless over eight innings, giving up just two hits and striking out seven.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Astros

72-59

.550

-

W-W-L-W-L

Rangers

68-61

.527

3.0

L-W-W-W-W

Angels

65-65

.500

6.5

L-W-L-L-L

Mariners

61-70

.466

11.0

W-L-W-W-L

Athletics

57-74

.435

15.0

L-L-L-W-W

The Wild Card Race

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Yankees

72-57

.558

+4.0

L-L-W-W-W

Rangers

68-61

.527

-

L-W-W-W-W

Twins

67-63

.515

1.5

W-L-W-L-W

Angels

65-65

.500

3.5

L-W-L-L-L

Rays

64-66

.492

4.5

L-W-L-L-W

The Rangers maintained their tenuous grip on the second Wild Card spot by sweeping the Orioles over the weekend. Baltimore has now fallen four games under .500 and five and half games back in the Wild Card race. The Twins are trying to keep pace with the Rangers and won two of three against the Astros to stay within striking distance. The Rangers are in San Diego to start the week while the Twins host the White Sox. The Angels were swept by the Indians over the weekend and are now sitting at .500 with a month left to play; they’re in Oakland hoping to get their season turned around. Meanwhile, Cleveland has strung together five straight wins and are now just five games back in the Wild Card race, just below the Rays.