The Mariners played a very weird schedule against the Astros this year: of the 19 times they faced their divisional opponent, 12 of those games—63%—came prior to the All-Star Break. Prior to the All-Star Break, the Mariners were 6-6 against the Astros, but it felt like that number could have been 66-6, as the Mariners finally won a series in Houston for the first time since 2018. It was especially satisfying to win that series in June as they’d been swept in Houston to begin the month. Perhaps, some fans wondered, the tide was beginning to turn in the AL West, finally.
However, post All-Star Break was not as kind to the Mariners. They were swept at home by the Astros directly out of the ASB, then went to Houston and lost another three of four games, for a 1-6 record post-ASB, and a 7-12 record against them on the season. Now that’s a familiar feeling.
But the wackiness of the schedule this year means the Mariners and Astros that faced off in late July aren’t the same Mariners and Astros who finished their seasons in early October, let alone the Mariners and Astros teams that met in April and May. For a team the Mariners are theoretically as familiar with as they are the Houston Astros, there’s still something of a mystery here on both sides. Let’s examine some of the biggest changes each team has undergone since the majority of those early-season matchups, not to mention the ones that occurred in August and beyond.
Difference #1: Pitching staff changes for the Astros
The Astros have made a number of changes to their pitching staff, and that’s not great news for the Mariners. Jake Odorizzi saw the Mariners more than any other team before Houston smartly swapped him away to Atlanta, acquiring Will Smith to bolster their bullpen. The inconsistent José Urquidy, who the Mariners were slashing .324./382/.556 (over 100+ PAs, so a pretty decent sample size) off of, has been moved to the bullpen as well, giving Dusty Baker a new set of options to mix and match with.
Meanwhile, Framber Valdéz has only seen the Mariners for 55 PAs this season after missing the first two months of the season due to injury, but he’s been tough on them—he’s issued just two walks and struck out the Mariners about a third of the time. Since he’s in the zone a lot, he can get hit—the Mariners are hitting .255 off him, which is fourth-best of any team that’s seen him for more than 50 PAs—but making good contact in the zone will be key.
On August 13, the Astros also added perennial Mariner-killer Lance McCullers Jr. from the 60-day IL. McCullers only made eight starts, but didn’t show any signs of rust, posting a sterling 2.27 ERA and peripherals in the 3.5 range while striking out over 25% of batters seen. McCullers remains a high-walk-rate pitcher, so the patient Mariners lineup should be a good matchup for him in that sense, but they’re also at a disadvantage, having not seen him once in 2022 and with several new faces on the team who came from the NL.
Of course, one thing remains dreadfully, annoyingly consistent about the Astros: Justin Verlander. The Mariners haven’t been able to hit the less-terminally-online Verlander brother at all, outside of one brief shining moment at the end of May when they handed him a rare L, one of just four losses he’d take all season, tagging him for three homers (Julio, France, Trammell).
Difference #2: Pitching staff changes for the Mariners
The Mariners have their own secret weapon in Luis Castillo, who was acquired after Seattle was done playing Houston for the year. Also, when the Mariners were swept by the Astros in early May, Matt Brash was a starter, and George Kirby was in Triple-A. In the game Brash started, he was followed by Wyatt Mills for two innings, then Drew Steckenrider. Houston has only seen Kirby once, at the very end of July, when he was in innings management mode and only went four innings, striking out seven and giving up two runs. And what Houston has seen of Brash has primarily been as a starter; they saw him out of the bullpen once a game during the series in July, when his K/BB ratio was 2; it was 7 in August.
Difference #3: ROYs going different directions
When the Mariners opened the season series against the Astros, the AL ROY race was a two-horse race. In some circles (wrong ones), it still is, although now the participants are Julio and Adley Rutschman rather than Julio and Houston shortstop Jeremy Peña. Peña steamed into the season, posting a wRC+ of 116 in April and 148 in May, but fell off sharply after that as opposing pitchers figured out how to attack him with breaking balls. Peña has rebounded down the stretch as the Astros played a schedule in September against largely sub-.500 teams that included the Angels, Rangers, Tigers, Athletics, Rays (who swept them), Orioles, and Diamondbacks, but is looking more like the Very Good player scouts saw him as rather than the Great one residing in Seattle.
Meanwhile, the last time the Astros saw Julio Rodríguez was when Rafael Montero hit him on the wrist on July 31, sending him to the IL and triggering a downturn in play for the Mariners over the month. Half of the Astros’ pre-ASB looks at Julio came in April and the first week of May, when he was striking out 35% of the time and putting up a wRC+ of just 77. Julio would go on to post a wRC+ of over twice that, 157, for the remainder of May and into June, which would be their last look at the eventual ROY for over a month.
Difference #4: All-Stars going different directions
This one is, unfortunately, kind of a bummer. José Altuve played some terrible baseball against the Mariners this year. He made hilarious baserunning gaffes, as detailed by our own Zach Mason, but he also got off to an extremely slow start. Altuve’s April wRC+ of 55 was a career-low for any month for him since 2013, worse even than any month in his injury-addled 2020. Of course, he quickly turned things around, and is now having his best year since 2017 and was named to his eighth All-Star team.
Unfortunately, the Mariners’ All-Star, Ty France, has been trending in a different direction. France was white-hot when the Astros saw the Mariners in April and May, but has scuffled in the second half; his wRC+ has dropped from 148 to 98 between the first and second halves. Encouragingly, France looks to have turned things around since his dreadful August, but he’s not the same player who beat up on Astros pitching and led the Mariners to those thrilling early-season wins over their rivals.
Difference #5: In Our Big Dumper Era
The hero of the Mariners’ post-season hopes seems like he’s been entrenched in the lineup all season, but that wasn’t the case early on. When the Astros saw Raleigh for one game in April, where he went 0-for-3 against Verlander, they saw him at his worst, as he was optioned to Triple-A prior to the series in Houston in the beginning of May. From the beginning of the season to June 8, when the Mariners had completed four of their six season series against Houston, Cal was running a wRC+ of 86, striking out almost 35% of the time. After the Mariners were finished with the Astros for the season, from August on, he raised that to a wRC+ of 134, cutting his strikeouts down to 27%.
Difference #6: Two champion outfielders
If anyone ever wants to contest to me that the baseball gods are benevolent, I will just show them this series of transactions:
Right after coming off the COVID IL, Mitch Haniger went right back onto the IL after spraining his ankle in a miserable 8-6 loss to the Marlins. The Mariners wouldn’t see him again until August, after they were done playing the Astros for the season.
The Astros also have adjusted their outfield after losing Michael Brantley for the year; they acquired Trey Mancini at the trade deadline, who they can plug in at first base or in the outfield. I like Trey Mancini quite a bit and it causes me no small amount of personal anguish to have to root against him, but also he’s played poorly so far as an Astro, with a wRC+ of just 77. Mancini is a champion of a person, but Haniger is the Mariners’ champion on and off the field.