In a normal season (and don’t we all long for normalcy), the Astros would be home for the playoffs and that does not mean playing at Minute Maid Park. Their Wild Card round opponent the Minnesota Twins (36-24), won the AL Central division in a down to the end dog fight over the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians (both 35-25).
In a normal season with five teams instead of eight in the AL playoffs, the 29-31 Astros would have been six games out of the second Wild Card spot and seven games out of first place in the AL West division held by the Oakland A’s.
We can kid ourselves that in a real 162-game schedule, the Astros could have righted the ship and rolled into the playoffs behind a solid second half of the schedule. But in fact, the Astros are lucky to be in the playoffs and based on most meaningful data will be headed home in quick fashion after losing to the superior Twins.
But in a three-game series anything can happen, so let’s take a look at both sides of this matchup.
Why The Twins can win
- They are the better team. They not only finished the 60-game season with seven more wins than the Astros, but they also did so in a much tougher division than the Astros with three AL Central teams finishing in the top five in the league, while four of the AL West teams finished under .500.
- The Twins are also taxi-tested tough as they had to play hard down the stretch to hold onto their division title and earn a spot against the lowly Astros. The Astros limped into the dry dock as they backed into the playoffs thanks to a win by the Dodgers over the Angels on Friday night.
- Minnesota, who hosts the Wild Card round against Houston has the best home record in the majors at 24-7 this season. The Astros 9-23 road record was the 14th worst in the AL and only the Rangers, and Pirates won the worst percentage of games on the road this year in the majors.
- The Minnesota Twins starting pitching is 22-12 with the 2nd best ERA in the AL at 3.54. The Astros’ starters are a respectable 19-15 with a 6th best 4.26 ERA. For the 3 game playoff, the announced starters are a very solid trio of Kenta Maeda (6-1, 2.70 ERA), Jose Berrios (5-4, 4.00 ERA) and Michael Pineda (2-0, 3.38).
- The Twins’ relievers are 14-12 with a fourth best 3.62 ERA in the AL. The Astros’ bullpen is 10-16 with an eighth best 4.39 ERA and a 13th best 1.52 WHIP in the AL. The Astros bullpen gives up an average of five walks per nine innings pitched, which bodes poorly against the powerful Twins lineup. The Twins’ saves have been split between Taylor Rogers and grizzled veteran Sergio Romo and they are backed up by a cadre of relievers including former Astros Tyler Clippard.
- The Twins lineup hit a little better than the Astros lineup, slashing .242 BA/ .315 OBP/ .743 OPS vs. .240 BA/ .312 OBP/ .720 OPS. And the Twins hit the third-most homers in the AL this season with 91 vs. only 69 for the Astros. They are led by the ageless (OK – he’s 39) Nelson Cruz and his .303 BA/.397 OBP/.992 OPS slash and 16 HRs and 33 RBIs and Eddie Rosario with his 13 HRs and 42 RBIs. It appears that both Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton will miss this series, but a former Astro hero Marwin Gonzalez will be with them.
Why the Astros can win
(Yes this was almost a “crickets” section of the post)
- It is only 3 games. The biggest cliché out there, but it is true. The Astros only need to bow up their backs for 2 wins in 3 games to move onward.
- Playoff history. The Twins have lost an amazing 16 straight playoff games (and even more amazingly 13 of those to the Yankees) since winning the first game in the 2004 ALDS over those Yanks. The Astros have won 6 of their last 8 playoff series over the last 3 seasons.
- While the Twins have hit for a bit better batting average and power this season, the Astros have outscored them 4.65 to 4.48 runs per game on the season.
- Though not all announced, it is likely the Astros pitching trio for the series Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy and Lance McCullers Jr. all have big-game experience. Just last season Urquidy won the 5th game of the World Series with a strong effort and Greinke threw six innings of one-hit ball in Game 7 before a homer and walk knocked him out of the game. McCullers played a big role in the Astros’ 2017 championship run including four innings of scoreless relief in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Yankees.
- Besides having scored more runs than the Twins this season, the Astros have a large set of players who have pulled off postseason heroics over the last three seasons. Point to any of Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel over the last three post-seasons and Michael Brantley in 2019 and you can find some critical post-season highlights from each.
So, what does this all mean? Who knows. The Twins definitely have the better team this season. The Twins also definitely have the biggest post season gorilla sitting on their shoulders.
In the end, we will very quickly know by the end of Thursday whether the off-season begins or the “off” season continues.