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Series Preview: Mariners (1-6) vs. Astros (4-3)

The Mariners open their home slate with a three-game series against the Astros.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

At a Glance:

Astros Mariners
Astros Mariners
Game 1 Monday, April 10 | 2:10 pm
RHP Charlie Morton LHP James Paxton
44% 56%
Game 2 Tuesday, April 11 | 7:10 pm
RHP Joe Musgrove LHP Ariel Miranda
48% 52%
Game 3 Wednesday, April 12 | 7:10 pm
RHP Mike Fiers RHP Yovani Gallardo
50% 50%
*Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Team Overview

Mariners (2016) Astros (2016) Edge
Mariners (2016) Astros (2016) Edge
Batting (wRC+) 107 (2nd in AL) 100 (8th in AL) Mariners
Fielding (UZR) -24.9 (13th) 7.2 (6th) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 107 (10th) 99 (3rd) Astros
Bullpen (FIP-) 95 (11th) 78 (1st) Astros

Note: text appearing in italics has appeared in a previous series preview.

After a nightmare of an opening road trip, the Mariners finally limp home for the first time this season. As slow as the Mariners offense has started, would it surprise you to know that they’ve scored more runs than the Astros this season? And if they had held it together in the ninth inning yesterday afternoon, they would have allowed just one more run than the Astros have. Of course, we can’t just pretend that bullpen meltdown didn’t happen. As it is, the Mariners currently own the worst run differential in the American League.

If the Mariners were struggling through a weeklong stretch against teams from any other division, we could rest a little earlier. Unfortunately, as usual, April’s schedule is stacked with teams from the AL West. So not only are the Mariners working out all the early season kinks, they’re also facing their division rivals and losing critical ground to them. It’s a long season and there are so many more games to be played, but it would be really nice if the Mariners had an excellent opening homestand to ease some of our fears.

The Astros:

What looked like a potent offense on paper turned out to be just league average last year. The Astros downfall was their strikeout rate. As a team, they struck out the second most in the American League and fourth most in the majors. Their offseason acquisitions reflect an effort to cut down on their whiff rates; their four new regulars—Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Nori Aoki, and Carlos Beltran—possess a strikeout rate well below league average. With expected growth from their young and exciting infield, the Astros offense should be one of the best in the league this season.

Key Players

CF George SpringerBy most measures, George Springer had a very successful season last year. He launched 29 home runs and made modest improvements to both his strikeout rate and walk rate. But despite playing in all 162 games, his accumulated fWAR was just 0.7 higher than it was in 2015 when he played just 102 games. His BABIP dropped from .342 to a more believable .317 and he was less than stellar on the basepaths. Still, his power is legit and his ability to get on base as the leadoff man is critical to the Astros success. With the addition of Josh Reddick, Springer has been moved over to center field where he’s a little miscast.

DH Carlos Beltran – One of the elder statesmen of the game, Carlos Beltran just keeps hitting. Since turning 35 in 2012, his wRC+ has been a robust 120 and has dropped below league average just once (97 in 2014). His isolated power has sat right around .200 and his strikeout rate hasn’t deviated from his career average of 16.1%. It’s an incredible run of success for someone in the middle of what should be the rapid decline phase of their career. He’ll turn 40 in just a few weeks but the Astros are hoping that he can continue to draw from the fountain of youth for just one more season.

2B Jose AltuveBy all measures, Jose Altuve had a career year last season. He hit more home runs in 2016 than he had in the previous two years combined. This huge jump in power wasn’t a mirage either. He increased both his average exit velocity and average launch angle to take advantage of every ounce of power in that small frame. He also increased his walk rate by almost four points while continuing to hit over .300 for the third season in a row. While he might not reach the lofty heights of 2016 again, he’s still just 26 years old and has turned himself into the best hitter on the Astros.

SS Carlos CorreaThere are just a select few ballplayers who are able to break into the majors as young as 20 years old. Among 20- and 21-year-olds who have played in the majors since 1980, Carlos Correa possesses the fourth highest wRC+ and sixth highest fWAR. This is an elite group of ball players, many of whom are either in the hall of fame or will be soon. What Correa has done in his first two seasons in the bigs is impressive but there’s so much more room for growth. The only knock on him is his fielding ability, which sits just below average. With Alex Bregman to his right, we may have another situation where the better fielder is stuck at third and the star shortstop gets to stay put.

RF Josh Reddick – I love talking about Josh Reddick and his transformation at the plate. When he joined the Athletics in 2012, his strikeout rate was 22.4%; last season, it was just 12.8%. But increasing his contact rate hasn’t come at the expense of his power. He’s accomplished the impossible by reducing his strikeouts while continuing to punish pitches at the plate. Unfortunately, a poor history against left-handed pitching and a long injury history have held him back from truly thriving. It’s likely the Astros will end up platooning Reddick more often, hoping that a decreased workload will help him stay on the field.

Probable Pitchers

If you’ve been reading these series previews the last few years, you’re probably familiar with the pitch arsenal scores I’ve calculated for opposing pitchers. In short, I calculate z-scores for whiffs per swing rate and ground ball to fly ball ratio for each pitch thrown by a particular pitcher, giving us a quick look at which pitches are more effective than others. This year, instead of z-scores (which can be hard to read if you’re unfamiliar with them), I’ve calculated these scores using an index scale (similar to wRC+, where 100 is league average and every point above or below is a percent above or below league average). I’ve also added pop-up rate to a pitch’s ground ball rate since the previous version heavily punished fly ball pitchers and a pop-up is almost always as good as a strikeout; I’ve called this new metric BIP+.

Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros

Charlie Morton (2016)

17 1/3 26.8% 11.3% 14.3% 62.8% 4.15 3.09

It was just 17 innings but Charlie Morton’s performance last season was enough to earn him a two-year contract with the Astros. It was the only addition they made to their starting rotation. So what happened in those 17 innings that convinced the Astros to invest in an oft-injured, ground ball specialist? For starters, his average fastball velocity jumped up to 94-95 mph after averaging 92-93 for the majority of his career. That added oomph on his fastball helped him add almost ten points to his strikeout rate. It’s a calculated risk by the Astros. The early results are promising. In his start against the Mariners last week, Morton averaged 95 mph on his fastball.

Joe Musgrove (2016)

62 21.5% 6.3% 13.8% 43.4% 4.06 4.18

Pitch Arsenal

Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Four-seam 92.9 37.8% 58 108 75
Slider 82.5 34.5% 120 92 111
*The sample size for Musgrove’s changeup and curveball was not significant enough in 2016.

Joe Musgrove had a fairly successful major league debut last season as a 23-year-old rookie. His strikeout rate was right around league average and his excellent command transitioned well to the majors. He did struggle with the long ball and it pushed his FIP back towards league average. His fastball has some unique movement to it but it hasn’t translated into whiffs. His slider is probably his best pitch and he’ll also mix in a changeup and a curveball infrequently. If he’s able to get his home run problems under control, he could be a sneaky good starter at the back of the Astros rotation.

Mike Fiers (2016)

168 2/3 18.5% 5.8% 15.2% 42.2% 4.48 4.43

Pitch Arsenal

Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Four-seam 90.5 38.3% 143 80 122
Cutter 87.0 14.2% 37 117 64
Changeup 83.3 19.4% 95 96 95
Slider 82.2 5.9% -23 79 11
Curveball 74.8 19.3% 82 122 95

Mike Fiers has done his best to make the most of a fastball that averages around 90 mph. He’s able to generate a healthy whiff rate with the pitch not by blowing it by hitters but by elevating it with excellent “rise.” Despite all those whiffs off his fastball, his strikeout rate dropped significantly last season. Opposing batters were making more contact and were laying off pitches out of the zone. He pairs his fastball with a good curveball that he used more often last season to keep the ball on the ground. Still, his elevated fastball will inevitably lead to problems with the home run and last year was no different.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Angels 5-2 0.714 -- W-L-W-W-W
Astros 4-3 0.571 1.0 W-L-L-L-W
Athletics 3-4 0.429 2.0 L-W-L-W-L
Rangers 2-4 0.333 2.5 L-L-W-L-W
Mariners 1-6 0.143 4.0 L-W-L-L-L

The Rangers finally got their first wins of the season, taking two of three from the Athletics over the weekend. The A’s travel to Kansas City and the Rangers travel to Los Angeles to start this week. The Astros barely avoided a three game sweep by the Royals, winning a 13-inning affair on Sunday.