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

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Here we go again, this time with absurdity in full effect.

MLB: Houston Astros-Workouts Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Under normal circumstances, Opening Day would be a time for excitement and hope. A marker signalling the cold winter had passed and the warmer days of spring and summer were ahead. We’d listen to Dave Niehaus’s famous poem “Welcome Back Baseball” and feel the old comfort of another baseball season.

Nothing is normal in 2020 and there were many who wondered if we should welcome baseball back at all this year. Yet here we are. Spring has passed and we’re already in the midst of summer. Feelings of excitement and hope have been replaced by trepidation and anxiety. The return of professional sports should have been a cause for celebration, a signal that the nation had brought the COVID-19 pandemic under control. Instead, positive cases and deaths continue to rise and the health and safety protocols that baseball introduced have been less than 100% effective. Yet here we are.

Once complete, there will be a constellation of asterisks applied to the 2020 season. With just 60 games to play in the regular season, every team is thrown into the gauntlet of a stretch run from the get go. Sure the Mariners have a sliver of a chance to beat their pre-season projections, but there’s now twice the number of playoff slots available to them. With the expanded playoff field, FanGraphs gives them a 5.5% chance of ending their historic playoff drought. In a weird season filled with weird new rules and weird circumstances, the Mariners making the playoffs would be very on brand for this year.

At a Glance

Mariners Astros
Mariners Astros
Game 1 Friday, July 24 | 6:10 pm
LHP Marco Gonzales RHP Justin Verlander
30% 70%
Game 2 Saturday, July 25 | 1:10 pm
RHP Taijuan Walker RHP Lance McCullers Jr.
34% 66%
Game 3 Sunday, July 26 | 11:10 am
LHP Yusei Kikuchi RHP Zack Greinke
28% 72%
Game 4 Monday, July 27 | 4:10 pm
RHP Kendall Graveman RHP Josh James
34% 66%
*Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Team Overview

Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Batting (wRC+) 126 (1st in AL) 99 (9th in AL) Astros
Fielding (DRS) 96 (1st) -88 (14th) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 85 (2nd) 114 (12th) Astros
Bullpen (FIP-) 94 (7th) 108 (13th) Astros
2019 stats

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. This will be my (Jake’s) seventh year writing these previews—I really love writing them. Above, you’ll see a brief overview of the upcoming series: probable pitchers, game times, and a rundown of the Mariners and their opponents. Below, you’ll see the Mariners’ opponents laid out in more detail: projected lineups, key players, and pitcher analysis. You may have seen the new Stuff+ metric I introduced last year—you’ll see those scores integrated into my pitcher analysis throughout the year. Finally, you’ll get a view of the big picture: AL West and Wild Card standings. As always, I appreciate your feedback and hope that these features continue to be helpful and educational.

I was told it is not “professional” to just write “pain” here, so we’ll give it a go. The Astros, as always, project to the top of the AL yet again. We have to re-learn what a good number of wins is in this short season, but FanGraphs has them running off 35 wins in 2019, the equivalent of just 93 in a full 116 game season. Vulnerability? Likely more a result of their relatively (relatively!) difficult schedule compared to other elite contenders. The offense is superpowered, projecting to be one of just three teams to crack the five runs per game mark, and while the pitching isn’t Rays-level good, they are still expected to be one of the top five or so run prevention squads in baseball.

Astros Lineup

Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
George Springer CF R 556 0.305 156 0.9
Jose Altuve 2B R 548 0.303 138 -5.0
Alex Bregman 3B R 690 0.281 168 -2.1
Michael Brantley LF L 637 0.320 133 0.0
Yuli Gurriel 1B R 612 0.289 132 -2.6
Josh Reddick RF L 550 0.288 94 0.4
Carlos Correa SS R 321 0.303 143 0.5
Kyle Tucker DH L 72 0.326 122 0.7
Martín Maldonado C R 374 0.250 76 -3.1
2019 stats

This lineup doesn’t get any easier over the years, does it? The Astros return SIX regulars in this lineup with a wRC+ of 132 or higher. Seattle’s best returning hitter, Tom Murphy, posted a 126 last year. And oh, don’t worry: those six regulars don’t include Yordan Alvarez (out with something undisclosed, 178 wRC+ last year) or Kyle Tucker, last year’s #10 prospect in baseball. What does that mean? After this season is underway, the Astros could well end up with a 1-8 set of hitters that produce somewhere north of a 140 wRC+ collectively—those top 8 players in 2019 posted a 148 wRC+, and they’re all back with the team. In all of baseball in 2019, 8 hitters posted a wRC+ higher than 148. I want to say that’s not likely, but they’re young, talented, and I wouldn’t bet against them. Anyway, these hitters will all be expensive in a few more yea—[breaks into muffled sobs].

Probable Pitchers

Stuff+ Explainer

Houston Astros Summer Workouts Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

RHP Justin Verlander

223 35.4% 5.0% 16.0% 35.9% 2.58 3.27
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 49.9% 94.6 2577 158 151 90
Changeup 4.2% 86.9 1866 92 114 126
Curveball 17.3% 79.4 2821 129 86 96
Slider 28.7% 87.5 2612 144 114 105
2019 stats

Justin Verlander won the Cy Young award last year over his teammate Gerrit Cole, who arguably had a better season. He certainly earned the accolades as he posted the highest strikeout rate and the second lowest walk rate of his career last year. The elite strikeout-to-walk ratio seems to be his new norm since joining the Astros. But his batted ball outcomes were really odd last year. He’s always been a fly ball pitcher making him fairly susceptible to the long ball. His home run rate was off the charts in 2019, easily the highest of his career, and likely a result of the dragless ball now in full effect. Not only was his home run rate extreme, but when opposing batters didn’t deposit a ball in the seats, they had an extremely difficult time earning a hit off him. His .218 BABIP allowed was the lowest among all qualified pitchers last season by more than 20 points. That certainly helped him keep his ERA low even though his FIP increased by half a run as a result of all those dingers.

LHP Julio Urias

79 2/3 26.1% 8.3% 8.8% 38.7% 2.49 3.43
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 59.3% 95.1 2511 145 134 132
Changeup 16.7% 82.2 1855 153 113 108
Curveball 6.3% 77.3 2586 115 146 43
Slider 17.7% 84.6 2199 84 109 142
2019 stats

Lance McCullers Jr. is back on the mound after recovering from Tommy John surgery. The last time he was on the field was in 2018. He’s still just 26 and the delayed start helped him fully recover for the start of the season. Possessing a deadly sinker/curveball combo, the usage of his changeup is something to monitor. He was using it much more often back in 2018 before his injury and it was generating a higher whiff rate than both of his other pitches. If he has a good feel for that pitch, it’s a third elite weapon he can use to avoid the trouble he’s had facing a lineup three times.

RHP Zack Greinke

208 2/3 23.1% 3.7% 10.9% 45.2% 2.93 3.22
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 41.4% 89.9 2326 52 88 102
Sinker 5.3% 90.4 2253 57 49 58
Changeup 22.2% 87.4 1780 69 93 92
Curveball 14.8% 70.6 2446 97 105 132
Slider 16.3% 83.7 2517 100 78 93
2019 stats

Traded to the Astros at the trade deadline last year, Zack Greinke showed no signs of slowing down with his new team. Now 36-years-old, his stuff has deteriorated from his peak but he’s able to use guile and excellent command to keep batters off balance. He may not have the whiff rates of a front line ace, but his contact management skills have helped him avoid a steep decline. At some point, his mediocre fastball just isn’t going to cut it anymore but he has three good secondary pitches that he can turn to if and when that happens.

RHP Josh James

61 1/3 37.6% 13.2% 16.9% 34.6% 4.70 3.98
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 64.4% 97.1 2645 162 143 88
Changeup 14.8% 89.0 1870 123 170 126
Slider 20.8% 84.5 2584 111 101 67
2019 stats

Josh James has plenty of stuff to spare but just hasn’t found a way to harness it for good. He burst onto the scene in 2018 with a tantalizing September debut. But command issues relegated him to the bullpen for all of 2019 and he was in the middle of a fierce competition for a spot in the rotation this spring. Undisclosed health issues for Jose Urquidy essentially guaranteed him his current #4 spot this summer and he has an opportunity to show he belongs in the rotation for good. His fastball has incredible velocity and his slider is very gif-able but his best pitch is his changeup. Batters swung and missed over half the time they offered at the pitch, the 6th highest whiff rate among all changeups thrown at least 50 times last season. He uses it primarily as a weapon against left-handed batters but it’s nearly as effective against righties too. Harnessing that pitch will be key if he’s going to take a big step forward this year.

The Big Picture:

AL West - 2019 Final Standings

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Astros 107-55 0.660 -- Banging Scheme
Athletics 97-65 0.599 10.0 One and Done, Again
Rangers 78-84 0.481 29.0 New Shed, who dis?
Angels 72-90 0.444 35.0 LOL
Mariners 68-94 0.420 39.0 It's a Rebuild

Last year’s standings go out the window tonight, folks. It’s a new year with a new playoff format. Five, count em five, wild card spots (three of which are accessible to Seattle) plus a 60 game season mean, while the Mariners’ odds remain small, a combination of a youthful breakout and a sprinkling of uncertainty around positive tests around the league mean we’ve got more to watch than we otherwise might, standings-wise. So yes, Lloyd (McClendon) Christmas, I’m saying there’s a chance.