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Series Preview: Mariners (0-0) at Astros (0-0)

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The Mariners get the season started on the road in Houston.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

At a Glance:

At a Glance:

Mariners Angels
Mariners Angels
Game 1 Friday, April 7 | 7:07 pm
RHP Yovani Gallardo RHP Jesse Chavez
50% 50%
Game 2 Saturday, April 8 | 7:07 pm
RHP Felix Hernandez RHP Ricky Nolasco
49% 51%
Game 3 Sunday, April 9 | 12:37 pm
RHP Hisashi Iwakuma RHP Matt Shoemaker
47% 53%
*Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

*Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Team Overview

Mariners (2016) Angels (2016) Edge
Mariners (2016) Angels (2016) Edge
Batting (wRC+) 107 (2nd in AL) 100 (7th in AL) Mariners
Fielding (UZR) -24.9 (13th) 36.5 (1st) Angels
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 107 (10th) 116 (15th) Mariners
Bullpen (FIP-) 95 (11th) 106 (14th) Mariners

Out of the cold, dark winter we emerge. Driven by hope, by great expectations, we return to the familiar fields. Back to baseball. For fifteen years, the regular season has ended in defeat, some years more agonizing than others. But for all those Augusts and Septembers toiled away in irrelevance, there’s an April filled with hope for what could be. What if the King has returned? What if Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano continue to defy father time? What if…

The Astros are very familiar with “what if.” If you believe Sports Illustrated, this is the year the Astros will win it all. They’ve certainly assembled a roster that looks capable of making a deep run into the postseason. Of course, we thought that was the case last season as well and look how that turned out. By FIP, the Astros starting rotation was one of the best in the American League, but when it came to actual run prevention, their starters slipped to 10th in the league per ERA-. But rather than addressing their starting rotation this offseason, the Astros added a number of players to their lineup. With an improved offense and a pitching staff whose run prevention aligns with their peripherals, the Astros are definitely the team to beat in the AL West.

Welcome to another year of series previews. If you’re a regular Lookout Landing reader, welcome back. If you’re a new face, welcome home. Above, you’ll see the upcoming series laid out in the barest of details: probable pitchers, game times, and an overview of the Mariners and their opponents. Below, you’ll see the Mariners’ opponents laid out in more detail: key players, pitcher analysis, and individual pitch metrics. Finally, you’ll get a view of the big picture: AL West and Wild Card standings. Due to some changes on the back end, some of the tables you might be familiar with might look different, particularly in the probable pitchers section. As a result, I’ve revamped the way I present the individual pitch metrics (explained below). As always, I appreciate your feedback.

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—each 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

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 a +/- 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+.

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros

RHP Jesse Chavez (2016)

IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
67 22.3% 6.4% 15.4% 42.9% 4.43 4.49

Pitch Repertoire

Pitch Arsenal

Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Four-seam 94.1 26.6% 100 121 107
Cutter 92.1 44.8% 87 66 80
Changeup 87.3 9.5% 59 99 72
Curveball 79.5 11.4% 147 120 138

Since breaking into the majors in 2012, Dallas Keuchel possesses the third lowest Zone% of any pitcher in the majors. While that approach worked for him in 2015 when he won the Cy Young, hitters caught on last season and they stopped offering at pitches outside the zone as often. His strikeout rate tumbled, his walks increased, and he wasn’t generating as many ground balls. With less than overpowering stuff, his margin for success is razor thin. I don’t expect him to adjust by pitching in the zone more often so he’ll have to find success through deception and pitching intelligence.

RHP Ricky Nolasco (2016)

IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
197 2/3 17.6% 5.4% 11.1% 43.1% 4.42 4.14

Pitch Repertoire

Pitch Arsenal

Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Velocity (mph) Frequency Whiff+ BIP+ Avg Pitch Score
Four-seam 91.2 24.7% 20 65 35
Sinker 90.9 23.8% 56 -6 35
Splitter 80.0 7.3% 98 75 90
Slider 81.8 32.9% 114 90 106
Curveball 73.8 11.1% 72 73 72

The Astros are counting on Lance McCullers’s health to help their pitching staff take a big step forward. His stuff is already dominant. His devastating curveball is one of the best in the majors, generating a swinging strike more than a fifth of the time he throws it. He also increased his ground ball rate to well above average last season. The only thing holding him back is his walk rate. Five walks per nine innings is outrageously high. Even a slight improvement in command would help him take a big step forward, that’s how good the rest of his peripherals are.

RHP Matt Shoemaker (2016)

IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
160 21.4% 4.5% 10.3% 39.8% 3.88 3.52

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. Reports out of spring training have him maintaining the bump in velocity. Now Morton just needs to stay healthy and prove that the added velocity is really a difference maker.

RHP Joe Musgrove (2016)

IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
62 21.5% 6.3% 13.8% 43.4% 4.06 4.18

Pitch Repertoire

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
*Musgrove’s Changeup & Curveball did not have a big enough sample size.

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.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Astros 3-1 0.750 -- W-W-W-L
Angels 2-2 0.500 1.0 L-W-W-L
Athletics 2-2 0.500 1.0 W-L-L-W
Mariners 1-3 0.250 2.0 L-L-L-W
Rangers 0-3 0.000 2.5 L-L-L

The Wild Card Race (2016)

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Orioles 89-73 0.549 -- --
Blue Jays 89-73 0.549 -- --
Tigers 86-75 0.534 2.5 --
Mariners 86-76 0.531 3.0 --
Astros 84-78 0.519 5.0 --