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Series Preview: Mariners (13-2) vs. Astros (8-5)

The Mariners return home to face a gauntlet of tough pitching.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve run out of superlatives to describe what the Mariners have accomplished in these first fifteen games. They’re still leading the major leagues in almost every significant offensive category. They’re setting franchise and major league records. Their run differential, a major point of contention last season, is a ridiculous +42 already. These fifteen games have improved the Mariners playoff odds across the board: +14% per FanGraphs, +10% per Baseball Prospectus, +23% per FiveThirtyEight. There’s still 90% of the season left to play, and there’s no way the Mariners can continue scoring almost eight runs per game, but it’s clear we’ve all underestimated this team.

At a Glance

Astros Mariners
Astros Mariners
Game 1 Friday, April 12 | 7:10 pm
LHP Wade Miley LHP Wade LeBlanc
54% 46%
Game 2 Saturday, April 13 | 6:10 pm
RHP Justin Verlander RHP Félix Hernández
62% 38%
Game 3 Sunday, April 14 | 1:10 pm
RHP Gerrit Cole LHP Marco Gonzales
57% 43%
Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Team Overview

Overview Astros (2018) Mariners (2018) Edge
Overview Astros (2018) Mariners (2018) Edge
Batting (wRC+) 111 (3rd in AL) 101 (7th in AL) Astros
Fielding (DRS) 25 (6th) -23 (11th) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 79 (1st) 100 (6th) Astros
Bullpen (FIP-) 75 (1st) 94 (4th) Astros

This homestand should be an interesting test for the Mariners offensive juggernaut. The top two starting rotations in the American League are on deck, including the 2nd, 5th, and 6th place finishers in the 2018 AL Cy Young award voting. Of course, the Mariners have already capably handled the 4th place finisher, so this should be a piece of cake.

The Astros come into 2019 a little weaker than their championship club from two years ago. They’re still clearly one of the best teams in the American League but their starting rotation is a little diminished without Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers, and Dallas Keuchel. Their bullpen is as deep as ever and their lineup is potent. They should have no problem coasting into the playoffs for the third consecutive year.

Astros Lineup

Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
George Springer CF R 620 0.303 119 -0.9
José Altuve 2B R 599 0.352 135 4.7
Alex Bregman 3B R 705 0.289 157 3.4
Michael Brantley LF L 631 0.319 124 1.4
Carlos Correa SS R 468 0.282 101 -0.2
Yuli Gurriel 1B R 573 0.306 107 -3.1
Josh Reddick RF L 487 0.258 99 -0.1
Tyler White DH R 237 0.307 144 0.1
Robinson Chirinos C R 426 0.304 103 -3.5
All stats from 2018

All the familiar faces are still present in the Astros lineup. You’d be hard pressed to find a better 1–5 in the major leagues. Marwin González left via free agency so the Astros brought in Michael Brantley to be their everyday left fielder. They won’t be as flexible with Brantley, but his bat is clearly better than González’s, and he gives them a left-handed bat in a lineup filled with right-handed batters. Despite the prodigious raw talent, Carlos Correa has been held back the past two years due to a laundry list of injuries. He’s missed time to hand, thumb, toe, side, and back injuries. He had some issues with his neck that delayed his start to the season by a couple of games, but he’s looked healthy since returning to the field.

Probable Pitchers

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

LHP Wade Miley

80 2/3 14.8% 8.0% 5.2% 52.8% 2.57 3.59
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 20.9% 91.3 2217 56 164 98
Cutter 44.0% 88.1 2261 122 79 114
Changeup 17.5% 82.9 1867 117 102 120
Curveball 17.6% 75.8 2486 99 70 112
Stuff+ Explainer

One of the biggest reasons why the Astros didn’t try to re-sign Dallas Keuchel is because they were able to sign a replica for a pittance. Wade Miley completely reinvented himself with the Brewers last year, fully embracing some newfound contact management skills. He scrapped his slider in favor of a harder cutter and started throwing that pitch almost half the time at the expense of his mediocre fastball. With three pitches that induce contact on the ground more than half the time the batter puts the ball in play, he easily generated a career-high ground ball rate. Even more impressively, he allowed just three home runs all season long, holding opposing batters to just a .330 slugging percentage. The cutter itself isn’t all that notable from a stuff perspective. But he uses it like Marco Gonzales uses his cutter, busting inside to right-handed batters to generate weak contact. That new pitch also helped his fastball play up since he didn’t have to rely on it as much. The Astros have had Miley lean even more into these changes he made last year and he might now be an even better contact manager than Keuchel himself.

RHP Justin Verlander

214 34.8% 4.4% 11.1% 29.1% 2.52 2.78
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 62.5% 95.4 2618 161 161 100
Curveball 14.7% 79.9 2894 137 113 112
Slider 22.8% 86.9 2684 113 118 98

Joining the Astros has helped Justin Verlander discover the fountain of youth. At 35 years old, he arguably posted his best season ever last year, setting career-bests in strikeout rate, walk rate, and FIP. He also allowed the highest fly ball rate of his career as his high-spin, “rising” fastball rose even further. Of course, with all those fly balls comes a pretty high home run rate as well. That seems to be his one weakness in his old age. But when you’re not walking anyone and allowing very few base hits, a few solo home runs don’t really hurt all that much. When he needs to generate weak contact, he can turn to either of his breaking balls. Opposing batters managed just four extra-base hits off his curveball last year and posted a .144 ISO off his slider.

RHP Gerrit Cole

200 1/3 34.5% 8.0% 10.0% 36.0% 2.88 2.70
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 55.0% 97.0 2379 166 160 95
Changeup 4.6% 88.2 1667 86 104 53
Curveball 19.9% 82.9 2842 156 111 110
Slider 20.5% 89.1 2571 114 109 96

If Justin Verlander hadn’t been a teammate, Gerrit Cole might have made a little more noise in the Cy Young race last year. Like his rotation-mate, he’s completely reinvented himself after joining the Astros. He scrapped his sinker, increased the spin rate on his four-seam fastball, and started throwing his breaking balls far more often. The result was a career-high strikeout rate ten points above his previous best. And like Verlander, leaning into his four-seam fastball resulted in a career-high fly ball rate. He hasn’t been as prone to the long ball as his teammate, though his breaking balls aren’t as good at inducing weak contact. Instead, they’re whiff machines, both generating a swinging strike more than a third of the time a batter swings at them.

The Big Picture:

AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Mariners 13-2 0.867 -- W-W-W-W-W
Astros 8-5 0.615 4.0 W-W-W-W-W
Angels 7-6 0.538 5.0 W-W-W-W-W
Athletics 9-8 0.529 5.0 L-L-W-W-W
Rangers 6-6 0.500 5.5 L-L-L-L-W

It’s weird to see every team in the AL West with a winning record. Both the Astros and Angels have kept pace with the Mariners with matching six-game win streaks. The Angels will hope to keep that streak alive on the northside of Chicago. After being swept by Houston last weekend, the Athletics demolished the Orioles, scoring 35 runs in four games (and losing one of them). They’ll travel to Arlington to face the Rangers who have faltered after their own hot start to the season.