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Series Preview: Mariners (15-16) vs. Astros (16-15)

The Mariners return home for a big homestand against the Texas teams.

San Francisco Giants v Houston Astros Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

The Mariners salvaged what would have been a losing road trip by sweeping the Oakland Pathetics in what staffer John Trupin declared the “least convincing sweep ever,” but hey, job done and now the Mariners sit just one game under .500 as they welcome their old nemeses the Astros to town for the first time since the Astros ended the Mariners’ playoff hopes last October. They’ll also be debuting their new on-field City Connect jerseys on Friday night, giving away Electric Factory-branded sunglasses on Saturday, and celebrating moms with the “Geno Grigio” wine tumbler on Sunday. Hmm, the Mariners coming into a series against the Astros in a high-profile weekend series at home with a little bit of momentum? What could possibly go wrong? Now to just put on my uniform of a red shirt and descend to this icy alien planet to take the first lookout shift.

At a Glance

Astros Mariners
Astros Mariners
Game 1 Friday, May 5 | 7:10 pm
RHP Cristian Javier RHP Luis Castillo
44% 56%
Game 2 Saturday, May 6 | 6:40 pm
RHP J.P. France LHP Marco Gonzales
57% 43%
Game 3 Sunday, May 7 | 1:10 pm
RHP Hunter Brown RHP Bryce Miller
52% 48%
*Game odds courtesy of FanGraphs

Team Overview

Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Batting (wRC+) 91 (10th in AL) 93 (8th in AL) Mariners
Fielding (OAA) 3 (4th) 7 (2nd) Mariners
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 88 (4th) 84 (3rd) Mariners
Bullpen (FIP-) 89 (7th) 78 (3rd) Mariners
2023 stats

The Astros find themselves in unfamiliar territory–that is, in the middle of the AL West. They are just one game ahead of the Mariners, mostly as they have been playing with some significantly poor injury luck since even before the season started, when José Altuve broke his thumb after being hit with a pitch in the World Baseball Classic. Altuve has reportedly resumed baseball activities but won’t be back for this series; a generous timetable has his return in early June. They’ve also been stung on the pitching side, with three starters on the IL: Lance McCullers Jr., Luis García, and José Urquidy. McCullers has been out since the spring but is targeting a June return. Urquidy has an inflamed shoulder and will be shut down indefinitely. García had an MRI last Tuesday after experiencing elbow pain and is still seeking opinions, which sounds ominous. They’ve also lost outfielder Chas McCormack, who injured his back lifting weights, although he looks to be ready to return after rehabbing in Corpus Christi. And while he hasn’t been officially IL’d, Yordan Álvarez, after dealing with some pesky inflammation in his hand over the spring, has now missed a few games with a neck issue.

The injuries are certainly playing their part, but the team is off to a slow start on both sides of the ball. Houston currently ranks 18th in hitting fWAR, with not a single position player eclipsing the 1-WAR mark yet–Yordan Álvarez is closest, at 0.9, mostly thanks to the six homers he’s already hit this season. José Abreu, brought in to replace Yuli Gurriel at first base, has been underperforming, and Michael Brantley hasn’t played yet as he’s still rehabbing–which is for the best anyway, as Álvarez’s various nagging injuries means he’s spent a fair amount of time at DH so far. It’s also strange to see Houston not in the top three for pitching fWAR, as that’s been their area of utter dominance for so long. Their starting rotation, despite being hit hard by injury, has mostly held things down, but now faces a tough test in replacing not one but two starters. Meanwhile, the bullpen has not been the wrecking crew Mariners fans are familiar with from years past. Part of the culprit: a 1.06 HR/9 that feels like sweet sweet justice for the existence of the Crawford Boxes.

Astros Lineup

Player Position Bats PA K% BB% ISO wRC+
Player Position Bats PA K% BB% ISO wRC+
Mauricio Dubón 2B R 114 10.5% 2.6% 0.083 98
Alex Bregman 3B R 140 11.4% 15.0% 0.136 99
Yordan Alvarez LF L 110 26.4% 12.7% 0.253 150
José Abreu 1B R 131 20.6% 3.8% 0.032 46
Kyle Tucker RF L 130 16.2% 14.6% 0.167 120
Jeremy Peña SS R 133 25.6% 3.8% 0.203 101
Corey Julks DH R 83 26.5% 1.2% 0.123 90
Jake Meyers CF R 85 27.1% 7.1% 0.115 88
Martín Maldonado C R 80 25.0% 8.8% 0.071 48
2023 stats

The Astros’ outfield situation, post-peak-Brantley, has always been a little precarious, as Álvarez simply is not consistently healthy enough to be out there every day, meaning it’s mostly Kyle Tucker and the Kyle Tucker Players. Tucker currently owns the highest wRC+ on the team for a player who’s logged more than 20 games, non-Yordan-division, and is mostly repeating his Kyle Tucker Thing of being quietly All-Star-Adjacent but somehow never a huge star. Chas McCormick was off to a blazing start before injuring his back, but probably isn’t going to slug .500 once he finally crosses the 50-plate-appearance mark.

Outside of Yordan and Tucker (and small-sample-size-McCormick), the rest of the team has been quietly scuffling along at replacement level or poorer. Alex Bregman and Jeremy Peña have five and six homers each, respectively, propping up the power part of their line, but neither are hitting for average, and Peña isn’t walking and is striking out a lot, which is bad news for hitters Houston needs to get on base and impact the game with their speed. That’s also rough for the Astros because basically everyone else in Houston’s lineup is chugging along at well below replacement level, including José Abreu, whose red-hot Statcast sliders in 2022 look like they’ve been dunked into a deep freeze. The Astros lineup is too talented to remain this poor for long, so it’s key that the Mariners use this window to try to extract some wins over a scuffling team, even as they themselves haven’t rounded into form yet.

Probable Pitchers

Updated Stuff+ Explainer

Philadelphia Phillies v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

RHP Cristian Javier

33 2/3 25.2% 5.0% 10.6% 31.3% 3.48 3.92
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Four-seam 55.7% 92.7 96 109 84 0.366
Changeup 2.1% 83.3
Curveball 10.9% 76.1 98
Slider 31.3% 78.8 103 96 128 0.308
2023 stats

Cristian Javier enjoyed a breakout season in 2022 behind a fantastic fastball and two excellent breaking balls. He improved his strikeout-minus-walk rate by more than six points, all the way up to 24.3%, the eighth best mark in the majors last year. Not only did he improve his ability to generate swings and misses, his repertoire was nearly impossible to barrel up. His .308 expected wOBA on contact sat in the 96th percentile in the majors and batters managed to put hard contact in play on just a third of their batted balls against him. Those improvements haven’t all carried over to this season — his strikeout rate is down and he’s allowing more hard contact than before — but he’s still been a solid starter for Houston while the rest of their rotation succumbs to the injury bug.

RHP J.P. France

19 1/3 33.8% 14.3% 0.0% 53.8% 2.33 3.06
2023 Triple-A stats

Speaking of injuries, the Astros will have to figure out how to cover for both Urquidy and García in their rotation. Chandler Rome of The Athletic reported this morning that Houston will be calling up J.P. France to make his major league debut against the Mariners on Saturday. France has been an effective swingman throughout his minor league career, working with a deep, five-pitch repertoire out of the rotation and the bullpen. He’s struggled with a high walk rate which has held him back from really climbing the prospect lists, though his strikeout rates have always been impressive.

RHP Hunter Brown

34 2/3 25.7% 10.7% 0.0% 51.2% 2.60 2.84
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Four-seam 31.4% 95.8 100 83 92 0.443
Splitter 2.4% 88.9
Curveball 31.2% 83.4 118 83 133 0.203
Slider 34.9% 91.9 101 84 115 0.282
2023 stats

After facing Mason Miller in his major league debut, Bryce Miller is lined up to face another top pitching prospect in Hunter Brown in his second big league start. Brown’s development gave the Astros a convenient excuse to let Justin Verlander walk in free agency during the offseason. The 24-year-old made his debut last year, quickly jumping through Houston’s organization after being drafted in the fifth round in 2019. There have been plenty of comparisons made between the youngster and Verlander — Brown grew up outside Detroit and idolized Verlander as a kid. On the mound, the similarities continue; both rely on a hard, riding fastball located up in the zone accompanied by a pair of breaking balls that are used to generate weak contact and whiffs alike.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Rangers 18-12 0.600 -- W-W-W-W-L
Angels 18-14 0.563 1.0 L-W-W-W-W
Astros 16-15 0.516 2.5 L-W-W-L-L
Mariners 15-16 0.484 3.5 L-W-W-W-W
Athletics 6-26 0.188 13.0 L-W-L-L-L

It brings us no joy to report that the Angels did what the Mariners could not do and swept the abysmal Cardinals (of St. Louis, for you football fans out there), rocketing them into second place in the division. However, they now get Texas for three games, and Houston for three games after that, playing the inverse of the Mariners’ schedule, which could shake some things up here in the division over the next week. A fun side effect of the rejiggered schedule is it makes these divisional matchups so much more important when they do happen. Here’s hoping the Mariners decide to meet the moment. Now where’s that red shirt?