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Series Preview: Mariners (74-82) vs. Astros (82-74)

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The Mariners enter the home stretch as they take on the Astros for the last time this year.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

At a Glance:

Date

First Pitch

Away Team

Probable Pitcher

Home Team

Probable Pitcher

Monday, September 28

7:10 pm

Astros

RHP Lance McCullers

Mariners

LHP Roenis Elias

Tuesday, September 29

7:10 pm

Astros

RHP Mike Fiers

Mariners

LHP Vidal Nuno

Wednesday, September 30

7:10 pm

Astros

LHP Scott Kazmir

Mariners

TBD

Mariners

Astros

Edge

Batting (wRC+)

102 (5th in AL)

102 (4th in AL)

Astros

Fielding (FanGraphs Defense)

-33.6 (13th)

-17.2 (11th)

Astros

Starting Pitching (FIP-)

107 (11th)

92 (2nd)

Astros

Bullpen (FIP-)

102 (9th)

83 (3rd)

Astros

The Mariners have been officially eliminated from the playoffs. It was inevitable but the offensive explosion in the second half kept our hopes alive longer than was reasonable. Now, the Mariners return home for their last homestand of the year. They’ll get one last chance to affect the playoff races before wrapping up the season against the Athletics. The Mariners were hoping that James Paxton’s finger would heal quick enough to make Wednesday’s start but it’s looking like that might be a bullpen day instead.

The Astros have suffered through the big ups and downs you would expect from a young team. Their pitching staff has been the most impressive part of their success. Their rotation has the second best park adjusted FIP in the AL despite giving 28 starts to the likes of Brett Oberholtzer, Roberto Hernandez, Asher Wojciechowski, Brad Peacock, Dan Straily, and Samuel Deduno. The fifth spot in the rotation has been manned by a rotating cast of replacement level pitchers, but as a group, they’ve been very successful. Having a Cy Young candidate headline your rotation certainly helps.

The Astros:

In September, as they ran the gamut through their AL West rivals, the Astros have started to fall apart. They lost the division lead they held for the majority of the year to the Rangers and now they’re barely clinging onto the second wild card spot. Their record this month is 9-15 and they finish the year with six games on the road, where they’ve played significantly worse than at home. They’ve gone 10-6 against the Mariners this year.

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. Altuve’s numbers have regressed towards his career averages like expected but he’s still put up a very successful season. The biggest improvement has been a surge of power that he’s shown late this year. His ISO in September is a robust .257 and that’s helped him push his overall offensive line well above average.

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.

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 97. 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 21 homers and swipped 12 bases since making his major league debut and has already accumulated 3.4 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 a 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 .243/.291/.393 and his wRC+ is just 85. Not what the Astros were expecting. Gomez has been dealing with an injured back that’s kept him out of the lineup since early September.

Probable Pitchers

RHP Lance McCullers

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

114 2/3

24.5%

8.3%

8.1%

46.8%

3.22

3.18

Pitches

Four-seam

Changeup

Curveball

95.3 mph;

54.0%

89.7 mph;

9.7%

85.0 mph;

35.7%

McCullers PA

Lance McCullers throws gas. His fastball regularly sits in the mid-90s, his changeup has the second highest average velocity in the league, and he throws the hardest curveball in baseball. When he was first drafted, his limited repertoire looked like it was destined for the bullpen. His fastball and curveball are both plus pitches but his changeup needed some work. He’s made some adjustments to the pitch and was able to post a 0.62 ERA in 29 innings in Double-A before being called up. His changeup is now consistently above average and he’s been able to use it as a reliable third pitch. His first full year in the majors has been a resounding success—he leads all AL rookie pitchers in fWAR. He pitched in back-to-back starts against the Mariners back in June and held them hitless for five innings in one start and then gave up five runs the next.

RHP Mike Fiers

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

174 2/3

23.4%

8.5%

11.2%

37.8%

3.66

4.06

Pitches

Four-seam

Cutter

Changeup

Slider

Curveball

90.3 mph;

56.0%

86.3 mph;

7.8%

83.8 mph;

15.6%

82.4 mph;

3.3%

73.2 mph;

15.8%

Fiers PA

The Astros acquired Mike Fiers from the Brewers at the trade deadline with Carlos Gomez. Since July, Fiers has solidified the fifth spot in their rotation and has given their rookie pitchers valuable time to rest their arms. He’s able to rack up big strikeout totals by relying heavily on his fastball. It has a huge amount of "rise" to it—the seventh most in the majors—which helps him generate a good amount of whiffs with the pitch. His best secondary pitch is his curveball and it’s a big weapon for him when he’s ahead in the count. Since joining the Astros, he’s struggled to keep the ball in the park as his extreme fly ball tendencies don’t really fit well in his new home park.

LHP Scott Kazmir

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

178 2/3

20.5%

7.7%

9.4%

42.8%

2.97

3.85

Pitches

Four-seam

Sinker

Cutter

Changeup

Slider

Curveball

93.0 mph;

31.8%

91.8 mph;

25.9%

87.8 mph;

13.1%

77.1 mph;

18.0%

81.7 mph;

7.3%

77.6 mph;

3.9%

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 twelve starts for them. This will be the third time the Mariners have faced Kazmir this year. He held them scoreless over eight innings while he was still with the Athletics but was knocked around in his other start.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Rangers

84-71

.542

-

W-W-W-L-L

Astros

82-74

.526

2.5

L-L-L-W-W

Angels

81-74

.523

3.0

W-W-W-W-W

Mariners

74-82

.474

10.5

L-L-L-L-L

Athletics

65-91

.417

19.5

L-L-W-L-L

The Wild Card Race

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Yankees

86-69

.555

+4.5

L-W-L-W-W

Astros

82-74

.526

-

L-L-L-W-W

Angels

81-74

.523

0.5

W-W-W-W-W

Twins

80-75

.516

1.5

W-L-L-W-W

Indians

77-77

.500

4.0

L-W-W-W-L

The Blue Jays clinched their playoff spot over the weekend after sweeping the Rays. They join the Royals as the two AL teams who are guaranteed to play in the postseason. The Yankees could stamp their ticket as soon as today with some help from the Mariners. The Twins are still hanging around hoping that the AL West beats each other up enough for them to sneak into the playoffs. They’re in Cleveland to start the week. Sweeping the Mariners helped the Angels push to within a game of the Astros in the Wild Card race. Houston only help on to their spot by winning two of three against the Rangers. The Tigers travel to Texas to face the Rangers while the Angels host the Athletics. It looks like both the division and the Wild Card are going to come down to the wire.