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Series Preview: Mariners (84-71) vs. Astros (85-71)

The Mariners limp home with their playoff destiny still in hand.

Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Swept up and tossed aside by the Rangers’ power-hitting lineup, the Mariners come home demoralized but not yet deceased. They are three games behind Texas in the AL West and half a game behind Houston for the third Wild Card spot. This final homestand — two series, two Texas teams, two starts each for the rotation’s top two — will decide everything. What more is there to say? I’ll be watching for Julio’s bat to heat up and for a final hot week to cap off the best season of J.P. Crawford’s career so far.

At a Glance

Astros Mariners
Astros Mariners
Game 1 Monday, September 25 | 6:40 pm
RHP Justin Verlander RHP Luis Castillo
42% 58%
Game 2 Tuesday, September 26 | 7:05 pm
RHP Cristian Javier RHP George Kirby
40% 60%
Game 3 Wednesday, September 27 | 6:40 pm
LHP Framber Valdez RHP Bryce Miller
50% 50%
*Game odds courtesy of FanGraphs

Team Overview

Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Batting (wRC+) 112 (3rd in AL) 108 (4th in AL) Astros
Fielding (OAA) 7 (6th) 17 (2nd) Mariners
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 106 (12th) 94 (3rd) Mariners
Bullpen (FIP-) 99 (9th) 91 (3rd) Mariners

The Astros are limping into this series as well, coming off a 1-5 homestand and a sweep at the hands of the 102-loss Royals. This solidifies the team’s first losing record at Minute Maid Park since 2014. The players and fans have been vocal about how bad they’ve been and why that might be. Though the lineup has more holes that we may be used to seeing from Houston, it’s still the fifth-best in the majors by both fWAR and wRC+. No, it’s the pitching that’s struggled (the Astros are right in the middle of the league in FIP and pitching fWAR), and in particular the starting rotation that has regressed in the second half. While Framber Valdez and trade deadline re-acquisition Justin Verlander have been pretty good, the back-end guys have been less so. The Mariners are 8-2 against Houston this year, including most recently a three-game sweep in Houston last month. That’s not only promising for this series, but means the Mariners hold the tiebreaker against the Astros no matter what happens this week.

Astros Lineup

Player Position Bats PA K% BB% ISO wRC+
Player Position Bats PA K% BB% ISO wRC+
Jose Altuve 2B R 383 16.7% 11.5% 0.225 159
Alex Bregman 3B R 697 12.1% 12.9% 0.176 125
Yordan Alvarez DH L 470 18.5% 14.0% 0.289 172
Kyle Tucker RF L 648 13.4% 11.9% 0.228 138
José Abreu 1B R 569 22.0% 7.2% 0.140 84
Chas McCormick LF R 437 25.6% 8.9% 0.226 139
Yainer Diaz C R 372 19.1% 3.0% 0.259 129
Mauricio Dubón CF R 478 13.4% 4.0% 0.130 98
Jeremy Peña SS R 611 20.5% 6.7% 0.121 96

The Astros lineup is studded with familiar names having familiar success. Five players have over 4 fWAR. The first is Kyle Tucker (4.7) who finally stands out as Houston’s best hitter this year with a top-ten-in-baseball wRC+ of 138. The second is Alex Bregman (4.5); Bregman is having a great and possibly underrated year, including his characteristically low 12% strikeout rate. Yordan Álvarez is Yordan Álvarez’ing it around the bases again this year, slowed only by injury struggles. He boasts a wild 170 wRC+ in 465 PA (just a couple dozen under the minimum to qualify for the league leaderboard). The final two players over 4 fWAR are the neverending José Altuve and surging outfielder Chas McCormick. Left fielder Michael Brantley missed a year because of shoulder surgery, returning to the field August 29th. He’s missed six consecutive games prior to today; rumor has it he may return for this series against the Mariners.

Probable Pitchers

Updated Stuff+ Explainer

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

RHP Justin Verlander

149 1/3 21.1% 6.6% 9.1% 35.0% 3.44 4.00
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Four-seam 50.4% 94.3 96 85 113 0.348
Changeup 4.5% 85.2 105 104 51 0.340
Curveball 19.7% 78.3 106 77 106 0.266
Slider 25.4% 86.9 128 83 100 0.245

It was such a relief when the Mets signed Justin Verlander to a three-year contract this offseason after he had terrorized the Mariners for half a decade as a leading member of the Astros rotation. Of course, Houston had to go out and trade for him this summer, bringing him back into the AL West fold. This year’s version of Verlander is a little diminished from his peak; his strikeout rate has fallen to 21.1% and his FIP is the highest it’s been since 2008. The velocity on all of his pitches has dropped a tick this year and the whiff rates on his breaking balls have suffered.

RHP Cristian Javier

151 1/3 23.1% 8.8% 10.5% 25.8% 4.64 4.71
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Four-seam 58.2% 92.7 100 124 84 0.352
Changeup 3.8% 83.5 79 135 106 0.270
Curveball 7.5% 76.5 89 65 106 0.326
Slider 30.5% 79.5 107 81 106 0.276

After a huge breakout season last year, Cristian Javier has taken a pretty significant step back this season. His strikeout-minus-walk rate has fallen ten points to just 14.3% and he’s now allowing a ton of hard contact off his fastball. Everything that went right for him during the Astros championship run has turned sour this year. The most likely explanation is a dip in fastball velocity that’s affected the shape of the pitch as well. Last year, he was able to throw his heater with near impunity thanks to elite carry on the pitch. With less velocity and a bit less carry, batters have had a much easier time squaring up the pitch.

LHP Framber Valdez

194 24.6% 6.6% 13.3% 54.1% 3.39 3.44
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Sinker 46.8% 95.3 97 82 76 0.378
Cutter 12.9% 85.5 128 181 115 0.244
Changeup 15.8% 90.1 96 101 95 0.297
Curveball 24.2% 80.2 118 123 98 0.229

From a previous series preview:

Framber Valdez has ascended to the top of the Astros rotation this year. He enjoyed a big breakout back in 2020 but he’s been even better this year as the Astros ace. He’s throwing all of his pitches with more velocity this year and the cutter he introduced into his repertoire last year has been even better this season. He’s racking up both strikeouts and groundballs and has a pretty good case to make as one of the best pitchers in the American League.

This will be Valdez’s third outing against the Mariners this year. Previously, he allowed two runs in six inning back in July and then was blown up for six runs in five innings in August.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Rangers 87-68 0.561 -- W-W-W-W-W
Astros 85-71 0.545 2.5 L-W-L-L-L
Mariners 84-71 0.542 3.0 W-W-L-L-L
Angels 70-86 0.449 17.5 W-L-L-W-L
Athletics 48-108 0.308 39.5 L-L-W-W-L

The Wild Card Race

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Tampa Bay 95-62 0.605 +9.5 L-W-L-W-L
Blue Jays 87-69 0.558 +2.0 W-L-W-L-W
Astros 85-71 0.545 -- L-W-L-L-L
Mariners 84-71 0.542 0.5 W-W-L-L-L

Four teams. Three spots. Of the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, and Toronto Blue Jays, one will be AL West Champion, two will be the second and third AL Wild Card teams, and the fourth will miss the postseason. At the end of this series, some of those roles could become clear, but it’s unlikely that all will be decided and tied up with a bow. Obviously, the outcome of the Mariners/Astros series could clear or block the way forward for either of those teams. The Rangers play the farcical Angels in Anaheim, while Toronto plays the just-eliminated New York Yankees. Therefore, go Angels (ew), go Yankees (more ew), and GO M’S.