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Series Preview: Mariners (43-39) at Astros (43-39)

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With the All-Star game quickly approaching, the Mariners head out on their final road trip before the break.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

At a Glance:

Monday, July 4 | 11:10 am

Away Team

vs.

Home Team

Mariners

Astros

LHP Wade Miley

RHP Lance McCullers

42%

58%

Tuesday, July 5 | 5:10 pm

Away Team

vs.

Home Team

Mariners

Astros

RHP Taijuan Walker

LHP Dallas Keuchel

45%

55%

Wednesday, July 6 | 5:10 pm

Away Team

vs.

Home Team

Mariners

Astros

LHP Wade LeBlanc

RHP Mike Fiers

42%

58%

*Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Mariners

Astros

Edge

Batting (wRC+)

111 (2nd in AL)

99 (8th in AL)

Mariners

Fielding (FanGraphs Defense)

-12.0 (10th)

3.0 (7th)

Astros

Starting Pitching (FIP-)

104 (9th)

97 (3rd)

Astros

Bullpen (FIP-)

93 (9th)

70 (1st)

Astros

*Text appearing in italics has appeared in a previous series preview.

Outscoring a division leader 31-15 emphatically reasserted the Mariners’ place in the playoff race. By sweeping the Orioles, the Mariners added around 15 points to their playoff odds in four days. Baseball Prospectus is the still the most optimistic about the Mariners’ chances, giving them a 42.2% chance of making the playoffs. FanGraphs gives the Mariners a 30.5% chance while FiveThirtyEight gives them just 26% chance.

These two teams enter today with the same record, tied for second in the AL West and both a game out of the Wild Card race. They’ll play each other six times in the next ten games. Remember that stretch where the Mariners and Rangers played six times in ten games? I don’t have to remind you what happened after those ten games, but this stretch might be just as important.

The Astros

Since their dismal start to the season in April, the Astros have gone 36-22, a .620 pace. The biggest reason for their turn around? Their pitching staff. As a team, they allowed just 3.38 runs per game in June—and if it weren’t for the Indians, that would be the best mark in the majors. Their starting pitching has been good but it’s their bullpen that’s been truly impressive. Their relief corps has a FIP half a run better than the Yankees bullpen and only the Royals bullpen has a better ERA.

Key Players

2B Jose Altuve Year after year, Jose Altuve has improved far beyond what anyone might have expected. He’s turned himself into a legitimate MVP candidate by simply hitting the snot out of the ball. He’s always had elite contact skills but he’s added excellent power number to his game. At just 5’6", it’s hard to imagine him with an ISO over .200 but that’s where we are. His line drive rate is a career high, he’s chasing pitches out of the zone less often, and has seen the biggest leap in exit velocity in the past year. Right now, we’re witnessing a player completely locked in, with simply no flaws in his game.

SS Carlos Correa Carlos Correa took baseball by storm last year. He was called up at the start of June and compiled 3.3 fWAR in just four months. He showed off his power, his speed, and his hitting prowess with an offensive performance 33% better than league average. He’s just 21 years old so we should expect some ups and downs but he also has a lot of room to grow. He hasn’t even played a full season in the majors yet and he’s already one of the best shortstops in the game.

RF George SpringerWith Carlos Correa taking up most of the spotlight, it can be easy to overlook just how good George Springer really is. George Springer’s massive power has been on display since his debut two years ago. As a rookie, almost a third of his hits were blasted out of the park. Injuries limited his power output a bit last year, but he was able to cut almost nine points off his strikeout rate, boosting his batting average up to .276. He’s regained his power stroke and has maintained the improved plate discipline this year helping him post a career high 141 wRC+.

CF Carlos GomezAt the time, the Mets backing out of their deal with the Brewers for Carlos Gomez was ridiculed for its signs of organizational dysfunction. In hindsight, it might have been the most prescient decision made by Sandy Alderson (it helps that Yoenis Cespedes has thrived in New York as well). Since joining the Astros, Carlos Gomez has not looked the player who accumulated over 16 fWAR between 2012 and 2014. His power has all but dried up and his strikeout and walk rates are both trending in the wrong direction. Since the Astros are batting him in the middle of their lineup, he hasn’t had a chance to show off his speed either. He still plays a decent center field which is just about the only thing that’s gone right for him with the Astros.

1B A.J. Reed First base was a position of some concern for the Astros this offseason. It seemed like there were no good internal candidates to hold the position until A.J. Reed was ready for the show. Enter Tyler White. He emphatically won the competition during spring training but quickly flamed out. Three months into the season, A.J. Reed finally got the call up. He wasn’t exactly dominant in Triple-A (a .266/.345/.509 slash line), but the Astros need at first base overruled any concerns about his readiness. In his first seven games in the majors, he’s accumulated just three hits, one of them a home run.

Probable Pitchers

RHP Lance McCullers

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

46

26.9%

13.9%

4.0%

57.0%

3.91

2.90

Pitches

Four-seam

Changeup

Curveball

94.0 mph;

42.3%

88.5 mph;

10.1%

85.8 mph;

46.4%

McCullers PA

A bum shoulder held Lance McCullers out of action for the first month of the season but he’s picked up right where he left off. As a 21-year-old with just five starts above High-A, McCullers struck out almost a quarter of the batters he faced in his debut season. He’s increased his already excellent strikeout rate by two points this year but has struggled with maintaining his command as his walk rate has jumped up to 13.9%. He’s been able to avoid serious damage by inducing a ton of ground balls while keeping the ball in the park. His fastball and changeup are decent pitches but he may possess one of the best curveballs in all of baseball. No pitcher throws a curve as hard or as often as McCullers throws his, and when batters swing at the pitch, they miss more than 40% of the time.

LHP Dallas Keuchel

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

107

20.1%

7.4%

18.7%

57.1%

5.13

4.14

Pitches

Four-seam

Sinker

Cutter

Changeup

Slider

88.9 mph;

4.1%

89.0 mph;

47.2%

86.2 mph;

12.4%

79.9 mph;

11.1%

78.7 mph;

23.8%

Keuchel PA

Last year, Dallas Keuchel lived at the bottom of the zone with his sinker and got more called strikes on pitches outside of the zone than any other pitcher. With the strike zone under so much scrutiny—particularly the low strike—it was only a matter of time before the league adjusted to Keuchel’s game plan. Batters are also swinging at his pitches outside of the zone less frequently leading to a big leap in walk rate. To compensate, he’s pitching in the zone a little bit more frequently but batters are squaring up his pitches much more often leading to a spike in home run rate. His pitcher slash line is a perfect picture of his struggles this year: 5.13/4.14/3.60.

RHP Mike Fiers

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

89 2/3

15.8%

5.0%

15.1%

42.2%

4.12

4.55

Pitches

Four-seam

Cutter

Changeup

Slider

Curveball

90.4 mph;

43.3%

87.2 mph;

12.0%

83.4 mph;

20.6%

82.1 mph;

8.5%

74.5 mph;

15.5%

Fiers PA

Despite a fastball that averages right around 90 mph, Mike Fiers was able strikeout almost a quarter of the batters he faced between 2012 and 2015. His strikeout rate of 24.2% was 17th highest in baseball during that period. That excellent strikeout rate has cratered this year, dropping all the way to 15.8%. Batters are chasing his pitches out of the zone less often and all of his secondary pitches have lost their effectiveness. He is running the lowest walk of his career so it’s not all doom and gloom, but without the strikeouts, he’s just a league average starter.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Rangers

52-31

.627

-€”

L-L-W-L-L

Mariners

43-39

.524

8.5

L-W-W-W-W

Astros

43-39

.524

8.5

W-W-W-L-L

Athletics

35-47

.427

16.5

W-L-L-L-L

Angels

33-49

.402

18.5

L-L-L-W-L

The Wild Card Race

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Red Sox

44-37

.543

+0.5

W-L-W-L-W

Tigers

44-38

.537

-€”

W-W-W-W-W

Blue Jays

45-39

.536

-€”

W-L-L-W-W

Royals

43-38

.531

0.5

W-W-L-W-L

Mariners

43-39

.524

1.0

L-W-W-W-W

Astros

43-39

.524

1.0

W-W-W-L-L

The Rangers lost more games in their last five games than they had in their previous 17 games. They split a series with the Yankees and then lost two of three to the Twins in Minnesota. They’ll travel to Boston to start this week. The Astros also lost two of three this weekend to the White Sox. The Tigers have won six straight and have pushed themselves into the Wild Card race. Their only losses in their last 13 games have come against the Indians (they have yet to win against the Indians this year). They’re in Cleveland to start this week.