While the Astros were waiting for the Oakland A’s and the Chicago White Sox to play their third game of the Wild Card round, some interesting storylines were being tossed out there.
On the White Sox side, Astro fans were hoping for revenge from their team’s 2005 loss in the World Series. That is, of course, the only World Series loss for a team that has only been to the WS in 2 of their 59 seasons. Another side story might have been facing their former ace, Dallas Keuchel, who had over-priced himself in the off-season after the 2018 season and ended up signing a one-year make-good contract with the Atlanta Braves. He rolled that opportunity into a 4 year / $72 million signing with the White Sox and was their best 2020 starting pitcher (6-2, 1.99 ERA) in the first season of that contract.
But the White Sox were derailed by the A’s, and now other side stories jump to the forefront. There is, of course, the divisional rivalry between the two teams where they play 19 times in a normal year and 10 times in a COVID year. There is the flip around of fortunes as the A’s went from going 8-11 against the Astros last year to 7-3 this season. There is the result of the 2020 season where the A’s finished with the second-best record in the AL (36-24), while the Astros backed into the playoffs with the worst record of the 8 AL playoff teams at 29-31.
But actually, THE story of the clubs is “IT”. And the biggest part of “IT” is the fact that Mike Fiers, who is either the noblest player to walk the earth or the Judas of baseball, plays for the A’s. Fiers is the inside source who turned the Astros in on their 2017 cheating scandal. The fact that there has not been a Mike Fiers coming forward for any other team (Red Sox? Yankees?) means other teams have not gone through the shame the Astros have faced. It may be true that the other teams did not cheat to the extent of the Astros, but it may also be true that without an inside source, the other teams and players stonewalled the issue.
The A’s and the Astros have played a very eventful 10 games in 2020. The Astros were swept in three games fairly forcefully by the A’s in Oakland in the second week of the season. Former Astro farmhand, Ramon Laureano was hit by a pitch three times in the series including twice in the finale. This led to a confrontation for which Laureano was suspended six games (reduced to four) and Astros (non) hitting coach Alex Cintron was suspended for 20.
When they met next in Houston, Friday night was the game where both teams walked off the field in support of social justice issues. The Astros gained some momentum, winning both ends of a doubleheader on Saturday, but that mo’ seemed to evaporate when the Sunday game was postponed and moved to Oakland due to a positive COVID test with the A’s. This forced the Astros to play five games in four days in their next trip to Oakland, and the A’s took four of the five with the Astros scoring 3 runs total in those four losses.
So the Astros played Oakland twice at home (2-0) and eight times (1-7) on the road. But now the road games are in Los Angeles at the home of the Astros 2017 WS rival, the Dodgers. The league has the teams playing up to five days in a row in the ALDS as they held back the start of the series until after Sunday (can you say “we can’t compete head to head with the NFL”?). Playing five games in a row takes away the terrific weapon Dusty Baker had in the AL Wild Card series against the Twins, where he had his #4 and #5 pitchers, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier pitch very effectively in relief of starters Zack Greinke and Jose Urquidy. An interesting question is – will Mike Fiers, who did not pitch against the Astros in the regular season dare show his face in the ALDS? You would think he would have to, but in this uncertain season, who knows?
So, how does this matchup work out?
Both teams are basically average offensive teams in this down year for offenses. The Astros slash (.240 BA/ .312 OBP/ .720 OPS) is slightly better than the A’s (.225/ .322/ .718) and they score slightly better at 4.65 runs/gm vs. 4.57. The A’s are without the injured Astro killer 3B Matt Chapman (replaced by weaker hitting Chad Pinder and Jake Lamb) and are led by the Kingman-esque 1B Matt Olson, who pairs up a .195 BA with 14 HR and 42 RBIs. Former Astros OF Robbie Grossman is one of their better hitters (.241/.344/.826 with 8 HRs/23 RBIs), OF Mark Canha and his 33 RBIs has been a top run producer, and C Sean Murphy has been a pleasant surprise (.821 OPS). 2B Tommy LaStella (.289 BA/.369 OBP) has been a sparkplug since being traded from the Angels.
The Astros have more guys who have performed well in past playoffs though not many who have performed well in this regular season. Michael Brantley, Kyle Tucker and Carlos Correa led the team through the first playoff round against the Twins. Will George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel step up in the next round as they have in the past? That well could be the difference in the offenses.
Advantage – Slight advantage Astros
The Starting Pitching
The Astros starting staff in the regular season, despite the loss of Justin Verlander and the late return of Jose Urquidy from COVID, were a half step ahead of the A’s. They put up a 19-15/ 4.26 ERA/ 1.17 WHIP vs. the A’s 22-19/ 4.49 ERA/ 1.30 WHIP in 2020. The matchups for the first two games have been announced with Lance McCullers Jr. (3-3/ 3.93 ERA/1.164 WHIP) against A’s ace Chris Bassitt (5-2/ 2.29 ERA/ 1.159 WHIP) on Monday and Framber Valdez (5-3/ 3.57 ERA/ 1.118 WHIP) vs. Sean Manaea (4-3/ 4.50 ERA/ 1.204 WHIP) on Tuesday. McCullers has not pitched in 9 days and has not given up an earned run in his last 3 starts (though he gave up 4 unearned runs in one of those). The next three starters for the Astros would likely be Zack Greinke (3-3/ 4.03 ERA/ 1.134 WHIP), Jose Urquidy (1-1/ 2.73 ERA/ 1.011 WHIP) and Cristian Javier (5-2/ 3.48 ERA/ .994 WHIP). This looks a heck of a lot better than the next three on the A’s slate, Mike Fiers (6-3/ 4.58 ERA/ 1.373 WHIP), Jesus Luzardo (3-2/ 4.12 ERA/ 1.271 WHIP) and Frankie Montas (3-5/ 5.60 ERA/ 1.509 WHIP) or Mike Minor (1-1/ 5.48 ERA/ 1.031 WHIP). Of course, this is all on paper, the Astro often struggle with lefties and the A’s could be throwing Luzardo, Manaea and Minor all from the portside at them.
Advantage – Astros, but barely
If the series comes down to the bullpen as so many playoff series do, the Astros would seem to be dead meat. The A’s have the best bullpen in all of baseball (14-5/ 2.72 ERA/ 1.13 WHIP), while the Astros are middle of the road (10-16/ 4.39 ERA/ 1.52 WHIP) with a propensity to walk the opposition. The A’s can roll out closer Liam Hendriks (3-1/ 14 SV/ 1.78 ERA), Jake Diekman (2-0/ 0.42 ERA – that is not a misprint), Yusmeiro Petit (2-1/ 1.66 ERA), and J.B. Wendelken (1-1/ 1.80 ERA) and still have solid relievers behind them in Lou Trivino, Joakim Soria and Burch Smith. Behind closer Ryan Pressly (1-3/ 12 SV/ 3.43 ERA), the Astros bullpen is young and shallow featuring Blake Taylor (2-1/ 1 SV/ 2.18 ERA), Enoli Paredes (3-3/ 3.05 ERA) , and Andre Scrubb (1-0/ 1 SV/ 1.90 ERA). Veterans Brooks Raley (0-1/ 3.94 ERA) and Josh James (1-0/ 7.27 ERA) will also be in the mix. But there will not likely be starters helping out in this series as they did against the Twins.
Advantage – A’s
The A’s are feeling pretty good about themselves right now as they just won their first playoff series since beating the Twins in the 2006 ALDS when Barry Zito ????? was their best player. Will this good feeling, plus a superior regular-season and better head to head stats carry them to the ALCS? Will the Astros get fired up by the sight of Mike Fiers and ride their deep recent playoff experience to their fourth straight ALCS appearance?
Tune in to find out.