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Series Preview: Mariners (82-67) at Astros (94-55)

Limping down the home stretch

Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Fun fact: I’ve managed LL for about two years now, and been writing here for three, and I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever done a series preview. Jake is on vacation this week, though, so I will do my best to fill in. In the meanwhile, please tweet at Jake (@jakemailhot) or leave him a comment here and let him know how appreciated he is. Doing the series previews is always kind of a slog, especially when with a quirk of scheduling you wind up playing the exact same series twice in a row, like with Tampa Bay earlier this season, and Jake always manages to pack in all kinds of interesting details that make each installment feel fresh.

Speaking of “oh boy am I sick of seeing these guys,” I regret to inform you this upcoming series is against the suddenly resurgent Astros. The Astros haven’t lost a series yet in September, and have recorded two sweeps against the Twins and the Tigers. The A’s got a little too close for comfort for the Astros there for a while, at one point pulling within just a couple of games of the division, but the Astros have pushed the lead back out to four and a half games, and will open the series with Seattle eager to gain a little more breathing room and shove the Mariners more fully under their spurred boot. Fun times!

At a Glance

Mariners Astros
Mariners Astros
Game 1 Monday, September 17, 5:10 pm
LHP Wade LeBlanc LHP Framber Valdez
38%% 62%%
Game 2 Tuesday, September 18, 5:10 pm
RHP Mike Leake RHP Gerrit Cole
33%% 67%%
Game 3 Wednesday, September 19, 5:10 pm
LHP James Paxton* LHP Dallas Keuchel
36% 64%
*Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Team Overview

Overview Mariners Astros Edge
Overview Mariners Astros Edge
Batting (wRC+) 101 (8th in AL) 112 (5th in AL) Astros
Fielding (UZR) -12.7 (12th) -12.6 (11th) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 100 (6th) 80 (1st) Astros
Bullpen (FIP-) 93 (5th) 71 (1st) Astros

The Astros are healthy now, not the weak team the Mariners knocked around in a four-game sweep back in the halcyon days of August. Even with Lance McCullers sidelined, Houston has managed to maintain its stranglehold on other team’s offenses, with Framber Valdez stepping in to take McCullers’ spot, plus long relief from former starter Colin McHugh. Meanwhile, the Astros’ bats have rebounded from a slump that saw them tumble all the way to the bottom five in the AL in wRC+ for July (of course, the Mariners were below them even then), rebounding to fourth-best in August and third in September, trailing just the red-hot A’s and Rays.

Astros Lineup

Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
George Springer CF R 577 0.307 119 -2.5
Jose Altuve 2B R 549 0.355 137 4.7
Alex Bregman 3B R 654 0.296 164 2.9
Yulieski Gurriel 3B R 524 0.295 100 -0.3
Tyler White DH R 195 0.325 171 -0.5
Carlos Correa SS R 445 0.282 100 -0.2
Marwin Gonzalez RF S 512 0.302 102 -2.5
Martin Maldonado C R 87 0.241 89 -1.3
Tony Kemp LF L 264 0.319 128 -2.2

With rosters expanding, the Astros can mix and match from the above players plus lefty Josh Reddick (93 wRC+) or his righty twin Jake Marisnick (80 wRC+), catcher Max Stassi (106 wRC+), or the Mountain Twins, Evan Gattis (102 wRC+) and Brian McCann (74 wRC+). Youngsters White and Kemp have been outpacing their more senior brethren, however, and offer more youth and agility in the field and on the bases.

Probable Pitchers

Minnesota Twins v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

LHP Framber Valdez

23.2 18%% 14%% 22.2%% 68.8%% 2.66 4.89

Pitch Arsenal:

I don’t know how to source all Jake’s fancy info for this and Valdez wasn’t announced as the starter the last time the Mariners faced him, so I can’t even copy. Instead I’m just going to give you my scouting report on Valdez, who I watched a few times in AA with Corpus Christi last year. I had Valdez tabbed pretty firmly as a reliever; he’s a sinker-fastball-curve guy whose fastball can play into the mid-90s but sits lower as a starter, and he struggled with command (BB/9 of over 4). He wasn’t even starting regularly in the Astros organization until this season, when he magically stopped walking people at Double-A. Those command issues have cropped up again over his 23 innings in the majors; his K-rate is just four points higher than his BB rate. The Astros are currently deploying Valdez as “the Opener” in order to get a look at what he can offer out of the bullpen in a postseason run. What he does offer, when he’s commanding his pitches: a heavy sinker and a hard curve, both of which result in a bonkers number of ground balls. While his GB% won’t stay near 80% forever, Valdez is a groundball specialist in the model of Clayton Kershaw who arose with very little prospect hype, signing for a modest 10,000 out of the DR at the advanced age of 21. It must be nice to have nice things like that.

RHP Gerrit Cole

187.1 34.7%% 8.4% 10.5% 36.7% 2.88 2.75

Pitch Arsenal

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (mph) Spin Rate (z-score) Whiff+ BIP+
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (mph) Spin Rate (z-score) Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 51.5% 97.1 2362 (2.29) 165 90
Sinker 3.9% 96.6 2312 (1.61) 98 120
Changeup 4.7% 88.2 1733 (-0.29) 112 40
Slider 20.9% 89.1 2568 (0.57) 115 88
Curveball 19.0% 83.0 2850 (1.35) 113 112

Gerrit Cole has continued to dominate the American League after coming over from the Pirates in the offseason. He’s running the second highest strikeout rate in the majors and is on pace to accumulate the most fWAR of his career. Still, he’s also running the highest walk rate of his career and has continued to be plagued by a home run problem, something that developed last season in Pittsburgh. Because he’s basically abandoned his sinker and has focused his repertoire on his four-seam fastball, he’s allowing much more air contact, leading to a suppressed BABIP. Combined with his insane strikeout numbers, that’s given him all the tools he needs to kill rallies and run a strand rate well above average.

There’s nothing really new to say about Gerrit Cole, whose numbers are maddeningly consistent. Also consistent: my inability to spell his first name. I always guess the wrong number of r’s or t’s.

LHP Dallas Keuchel

191.2 17.6% 6.4 11.8%% 53.9%% 3.57 3.66

Pitch Arsenal

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (mph) Spin Rate (z-score) Whiff+ BIP+
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (mph) Spin Rate (z-score) Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 13.4% 90.2 2160 (-0.36) 83 108
Sinker 40.3% 89.6 2051 (-0.96) 85 92
Cutter 15.8% 86.5 2167 (-0.60) 83 113
Changeup 12.3% 80.0 1560 (-1.74) 122 106
Slider 18.3% 79.0 2181 (0.00) 96 68

It’s unlikely that Dallas Keuchel will replicate the same level of production that earned him a Cy Young award. Everything about that year looks like an outlier when compared to what’s come since. Still, his brand of contact management will always be useful, even if he’s only the fifth best pitcher in the Astros rotation now. After struggling through the first couple of months of the season, Keuchel has tinkered with his repertoire to try and get his groove back. In July, he’s almost completely abandoned his cutter in favor of his changeup. That pitch was one of the big reasons why he was so successful in his award-winning season so getting back to it seems like a good plan. In the seven starts since making the adjustment to his repertoire, he’s allowed ten runs total, with the only hiccups coming in his starts against the Rangers and Mariners where he gave up three runs in each game.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Astros 94-55 0.631 -- W-W-L-W-W
Athletics 90-60 0.600 4.5 L-L-W-L-W
Mariners 82-67 0.550 12.0 L-W-W-W-L
Angels 74-76 0.493 20.5 W-L-L-L-W
Rangers 64-85 0.430 30.0 L-W-W-L-L

With respect to Jake, I’m skipping the Wild Card stuff this week. It makes me too sad.