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Series Preview: Mariners (23-30) vs. Astros (27-26)

The Mariners return to Seattle for their last home games of the 2020 season. Somehow, they’re important.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Whatever slim postseason hopes the Mariners are clinging to will be decided in this three-game series against the Astros. They head into the last week of the season four games behind the Astros for second place in the AL West and four games behind the Blue Jays for the last Wild Card spot. The odds aren’t as bad as attempting to successfully navigate an asteroid field but they’re not good either. FanGraphs and FiveThirtyEight give them about a one percent chance of overtaking either the Astros or the Blue Jays, with a slightly higher chance of a miracle in the Wild Card race. Either way, the Mariners need to win, and winning against the Astros should give them more avenues to pull off that miracle.

At a Glance

Astros Mariners
Astros Mariners
Game 1 Monday, September 21 | 6:10 pm
RHP Lance McCullers Jr. LHP Marco Gonzales
58% 42%
Game 2 Tuesday, September 22 | 6:10 pm
LHP Framber Valdez RHP Ljay Newsome
63% 37%
Game 3 Wednesday, September 23 | 3:40 pm
RHP Zack Greinke LHP Nick Margevicius
68% 32%
*Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Team Overview

Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Batting (wRC+) 98 (10th) 93 (11th in AL) Astros
Fielding (DRS) 10 (6th) 13 (3rd) Mariners
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 99 (6th) 100 (7th) Astros
Bullpen (FIP-) 100 (9th) 132 (15th) Astros

This Astros team isn’t the juggernaut we’ve become accustomed to over the last few years. Numerous injuries have ravaged their pitching staff and their high-powered offense that had carried them to World Series appearances in two of the last three years has really struggled this year. They were 19-14 through the end of August and seemingly coasting into a playoff spot but have fallen flat in September, going 8-12 this month. Their inability to score runs has been their greatest downfall. They’re averaging just 3.65 runs per game this month, a significant dip from their offensive output during the first half of the season.

Astros Lineup

Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
George Springer CF R 199 0.238 138 1.2
Jose Altuve 2B R 179 0.254 66 -0.7
Michael Brantley DH L 162 0.339 136 -1.6
Alex Bregman 3B R 148 0.267 121 -0.9
Kyle Tucker LF L 199 0.288 122 2.6
Yuli Gurriel 1B R 202 0.252 94 0.8
Carlos Correa SS R 199 0.323 94 -0.3
Josh Reddick RF L 184 0.280 88 -1.2
Martín Maldonado C R 150 0.319 110 -2.2

The Astros lineup is back to near full strength after the return of Jose Altuve from a knee sprain — Yordan Alvarez is the lone missing regular. But despite all the familiar names playing regularly, their on-field performance is severely lacking. Here’s just a glimpse of a few of their offensive outputs from last year compared to this year:

  • Altuve: 138 wRC+ in 2019 -> 67 wRC+ in 2020
  • Bregman: 168 -> 121
  • Gurriel: 132 -> 94
  • Correa: 143 -> 95

Michael Brantley and George Springer are the only two batters performing anywhere close to their preseason projections and the development of Kyle Tucker as a middle-of-the-order bat is another bright spot. Still, with so many of their core pieces struggling, they’re particularly vulnerable this year and enter the last week of the season an underdog in the American League pecking order.

Probable Pitchers

Stuff+ Explainer

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

RHP Lance McCullers Jr.

44 1/3 21.5% 8.6% 15.4% 61.0% 4.87 3.97
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Sinker 40.2% 94.0 2073 126 85 118
Changeup 20.7% 86.5 1773 134 124 92
Curveball 36.3% 83.5 2792 164 131 94

From a previous series preview:

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.

McCullers has been really inconsistent this season. He’s had a few brilliant starts where he’s looked fully recovered from his surgery but they’ve been marred by clunkers where he’s lost all command of his pitches. He missed one turn in the rotation earlier this month because of a neck issue, but he returned with his best start of the year last week against the Rangers, a seven inning shutout with eight strikeouts.

LHP Framber Valdez

63 2/3 26.1% 6.1% 14.7% 59.9% 3.82 3.01
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Sinker 54.5% 93.2 2259 127 90 81
Changeup 10.4% 88.7 1716 74 91 92
Curveball 33.4% 80.6 2980 109 139 104

Framber Valdez has seemingly put everything together this season. He’s always possessed good strikeout potential and an elite ground ball rate, but he’s been held back by terrible command. Well, he finally knows where his pitches are going now. A slight adjustment to his mechanics has given him more consistent release points leading to vastly improved command. He’s cut his walk rate by more than half and both his ERA and FIP have dropped as a result. His emergence as a dependable starter has given some stability to the Astros rotation this year.

RHP Zack Greinke

62 1/3 24.8% 3.2% 9.8% 40.1% 3.90 2.88
Pitch Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 45.4% 88.1 2328 40 57 75
Sinker 24.7% 86.2 1690 54 307 108
Changeup 6.5% 78.6 2034 130
Curveball 15.6% 70.2 2409 90 86 174
Slider 17.0% 84.8 2423 125 60 106
Greinke’s changeup does not have a large enough sample size for pitch arsenal scores.

The evolution of Zack Greinke this season has been fascinating to watch. There are five pitches listed above but you could make an argument that his repertoire consists of seven or eight pitches. The most interesting of the “hidden” pitches is his eephus or slow curveball that comes in as low as 60 mph and sits below 70 mph on average. That pitch has given batters fits this year, generating a decent number of whiffs and an insane number of popups. His changeup could probably be split into two separate pitches too, a straight change coming in at 78 mph and what he calls a “batting practice” fastball that comes in at 85 mph. All of this tinkering with his repertoire is all in an effort to give batters a vast array of pitches at different speeds, keeping them off balance for the entire at bat. The results have been good, mostly. He’s posting the third lowest FIP of his long career, driven by the lowest walk rate of his career, but his ERA is more than a full run higher than his FIP.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Athletics 33-20 0.623 -- L-W-W-W-L
Astros 27-26 0.509 6.0 L-W-L-W-W
Mariners 23-30 0.434 10.0 L-L-L-W-L
Angels 23-31 0.426 10.5 L-W-W-W-L
Rangers 19-34 0.358 14.0 W-L-L-L-W

The Wild Card Race

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Cleveland 29-24 0.547 +2.0 L-W-W-L-W
Blue Jays 27-26 0.509 -- L-L-L-L-W
Mariners 23-30 0.434 4.0 L-L-L-W-L
Orioles 23-31 0.426 4.5 L-L-L-L-W
Angels 23-31 0.426 4.5 L-W-W-W-L

If the Mariners are able to make up ground against the Astros, they’ll likely make up ground against the Blue Jays as well. They’re hosting the Yankees for four games to start this week and no team has been hotter than the Bombers. The Blue Jays were swept by the Yankees last week in New York, allowing a ridiculous 43 runs in three games. They were nearly swept by the Phillies over the weekend but managed to salvage a win in the last game of the series.