Astros 2018: The playoff weeks in review and preview

The week of 10-8 through 10-14 in review
The Astros played three games this week and had mixed, but mostly positive results. On Monday they completed a sweep of the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS with an 11-3 pounding that was a 2-1 deficit heading into the 7th inning. They combined bad fielding by pitcher Trevor Bauer with bad pitching by Bauer to take a 4-2 lead and then piled on with 6 runs in the 8th and 1 in the 9th. In the first game of the ALCS against the Red Sox, the Astros held a 3-2 lead (where both teams had only 2 hits) headed into the 9th, when a huge HR by Josh Reddick and a squibber 3 run HR by Yuli Gurriel helped them to a 7-2 win over Boston behind strong pitching by Justin Verlander and the bullpen. Their starting pitching let them down on Sunday as Gerritt Cole gave up 5 runs (4 earned) and the Astros came up short 7-5.

The week of 10-15 through 10-21 in a preview
The Astros could clinch another trip to the World Series by taking the next three games at home on Tuesday through Thursday. If neither team sweeps these games they will return to Boston for games on Saturday and Sunday, if needed. The Astros really need to take advantage of the home field as the Red Sox’s Sunday win rejuvenated a 108 win team that had to be doubting themselves a bit. The starters for game 3 and 4 are Dallas Keuchel, who will be facing a right-centric lineup and Charlie Morton, who is a question mark relative to how rusty he will be coming back from injury and lack of use. Game 5 has not been announced, but it must be Verlander in a game they must have no matter what happens in the next couple of games.

Player of the Week:
This needs to be the guy who stunk up the 2017 playoffs until he became the World Series MVP, George Springer. He had 2 RBIs in each of the three games this week with two HRs and two doubles thrown in the mix. He has been the Astros most consistent weapon as Jose Altuve gets himself out and Alex Bregman gets pitched around and takes walks.

Pop Song That Never Gets Played on the Radio
“Bad Time” by Grand Funk Railroad – This song rose to #4 on the Billboard on the Hot 100 back in 1975, but you would never know it from its total absence from the radio waves. Written by Mark Farner while he was going through a divorce, the music is a lot more joyous than the lyrics, but a really solid pop song with a catchy hook.

Back to baseball: By this time next week we will know if the Astros move on to a second consecutive WS or head home for the winter. Which way do you think it will go and what are the keys for this week?

Advertisements

Head to head playoffs: Astros vs. Red Sox

The Astros finally get to play in prime time, now that THE CURRENT WORLD CHAMPIONS have moved past the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, and that brings to mind in a demented way a famous line from a movie. It is the end of Billy Wilder’s brilliant send-up of Hollywood, “Sunset Boulevard” and Gloria Swanson (who once was a great silent star and the mistress of Joseph Kennedy – JFK’s father – but I digress) playing Norma Desmond, a long time ago great silent star and recent murderer, comes sweeping down the stairs and says “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

This Astros’ team is way ready for their close-up and if Alex Bregman‘s musings on the subject, have a bit of a chip on their shoulders after having given the baseball world one of the great World Series performances ever and being thanked by being given a seat at the kid’s table at Thanksgiving.

The Astros’ dismantling sweep of the Tribe was so complete that Cleveland immediately announced they are removing Chief Wahoo from their uniforms and replacing it with a Block C. Well, that announcement might not have been connected, but you get the idea.

Now the Ready for Prime Time Players head to Boston for the first two games of an ALCS series they hope leads to a second consecutive appearance in the World Series. So what type of opponent are the Red Sox? Well, they won 108 wins as compared to the Astros 103 wins. In the Pythagorean world that looks at run differential, the Astros should have won 109 games and the Red Sox should have won 103 games, for whatever that is worth.

The Bosox’s 2018 offense looked an awful lot like the Astros’ 2017 offense. They led the majors in runs scored (876), BA (.268), OBP (.339), SLG (.453) and OPS (.792), while being 5th best at avoiding strikeouts. Their starting staff had a good, not great 3.77 ERA (8th best in the majors, 4th best in the AL) at more than a half run behind the Astros’ major league’s best 3.16 ERA. Eerily similar, their bullpen had a good, not great 3.72 ERA (tied for 8th best in the majors, 4th best in the AL) and almost 3/4 of a run behind the major league-leading Astros (3.03 ERA). So, will the Red Sox offensive strength break through the Astros’ pitching strength? Can the Astros’ inconsistent offensive find some holes in the good, not great Red Sox pitching staff?

So, on a position basis how do these two teams matchup heading into their playoff matchup?

Starting Pitching
The Red Sox ace Chris Sale (12-4, 2.11 ERA, 13.5 K/9 IP) is as good or better than anyone the Astros can throw against him or in this case Justin Verlander (16-9, 2.52 ERA). After that…the Astros should have a marked advantage at each spot and they did have success against Sale last October. David Price is in the 2nd spot. He is solid (16-7, 3.58 ERA) and has had a good history against the Astros, but he is not as good as Gerrit Cole (15-5, 2.88 ERA). Rick Porcello again has had a season where his won-loss does not match his ERA (17-7, 4.28 ERA). Dallas Keuchel (12-11, 3.74 ERA) is better than Porcello. Nathan Eovaldi is good (3-3, 3.33 ERA) or at least good with producing the number 3, but Charlie Morton (15-3, 3.13 ERA) is better.

The Red Sox have a good starting staff, but the Astros just beat a better staff with Cleveland.

SP’s – Astros Advantage

Relief Pitching 

Craig Kimbrel (5-1, 42 saves, 2,74 ERA) is one of the top closers in the game, but as everyone saw Tuesday night, looked a whole lot like Ken Giles in trying to close out the Yankees. After him their bullpen consists of very good Ryan Brasier (2-0, 1.60 ERA), good Brandon Workman (6-1, 3.27 ERA) and Matt Barnes (6-4, 3.65 ERA, 14 K/9 IP) and very average Heath Hembree (4-1, 4.20 ERA) and Joe Kelly (4-2, 4.39 ERA) and starter Eduardo Rodriguez (13-5, 3.82 ERA) who may or may not take the 4th starting spot away from Eovaldi.  The Astros have the deepest bullpen they have ever had with closer Roberto Osuna (2-2, 1.99 ERA, 12 saves), set-up man Ryan Pressly (1-0, 0.77 ERA, 0.600 WHIP), Collin McHugh (6-2, 1.99 ERA, 0.912 WHIP), Tony Sipp (3-1, 1.86 ERA), former starter Lance McCullers Jr. (10-6, 3.86 ERA) and likely Will Harris and Josh JamesNote – we are guessing at the end of the bullpen for both clubs at this point. 

The Astros are better man for man than the Red Sox bullpen…..on paper. And they looked better in the ALDS.

SP’s – Astros Advantage

Infield and Catcher 

SS Xander Bogaerts (.288 BA, .883 OPS, 23 HR and 103 RBIs) has been one of the best shortstops in the league, but basically the Sox normal infield configuration of Bogaerts, 1B Mitch Moreland (.245 BA, .758 OPS, 15 HR, 68 RBIs), 2B Ian Kinsler (17 games – .242 BA, .604 OPS, 1 HR, 16 RBIs) and 3B Rafael Devers (.240 BA, .731 OPS, 21 HRs, 66 RBIs) is a step below the Astros. Throw in poor hitting C Sandy Leon (.177 BA, .511 OPS, 5 HR, 22 RBIs) or Christian Vazquez (.207 BA, .540 OPS, 3 HR, 16 RBIs) and the step is even bigger.

The Astros, on the other hand, have Jose Altuve (.316 BA, 13 HR, 61 RBI), Carlos Correa (.239 BA, 15 HR and 65 RBI), Yuli Gurriel (.291 BA, 33 doubles, 85 RBIs) and Alex Bregman (105 runs, 51 doubles, 31 HRs, 103 RBIs) on the infield with Martin Maldonado (.225 BA, .627 OPS, 9 HR and 44 RBIs), behind the plate.

Infield/Catcher – Advantage Astros

Outfield and DH

This is the category where the Red Sox are running the Astros out of the park. MVP candidate OF Mookie Betts (.346 BA, 1.078 OPS, 129 runs, 32 HRs, 30 SBs), Andrew Benitendi (.290 BA, .830 OPS, 16 HRs, 87 RBIs, 21 SBs), Jackie Bradley Jr. (.234 BA, .717 OPS, 13 HRs, 59 RBIs) and super DH J.D. Martinez (.330 BA, 1.031 OPS, 111 runs, 43 HRs, 130 RBIs) are a force to be reckoned with.

For the Astros, the plus side is that with a recent resurgence, the OFs and DHs are outperforming their numbers for the season.  Marwin Gonzalez (.247 BA/.733 OPS/ 16 HRs/68 RBIs), George Springer (.265 BA/.780 OPS/ 102 runs/22 HRs/ 71 RBIs), Josh Reddick (.247 BA/.718 OPS/17 HRs/47 RBIs) and Tyler White (.276 BA/ .888 OPS/ 12 HRs/ 42 RBIs) are a good group, but….. not up to the Red Sox.
OF and DH – Advantage Red Sox

Bench
The Red Sox give their bench players a lot of chances to play. They are a solid group, led by Steve Pearce (50 Games – .279 BA, .901 OPS, 7 HRs, 26 RBIs), Eduardo Nunez (.265 BA, .677 OPS, 10 HR, 44 RBIs), Brock Holt (.277 BA, .774 OPS, 7 HRs, 46 RBIs), and Blake Swihart (.229 BA, .613 OPS, 3 HRs, 18 RBIs) along with whichever catcher is sitting.

The Astros counter with Brian McCann (.212 BA/ .640 OPS/ 7 HR/ 23 RBIs), Evan Gattis (.226 BA/ .736 OPS/ 25 HR/ 78 RBIs), Jake Marisnick (.211 BA/ .674 OPS/ 10 HRs/ 28 RBIs), Tony Kemp (.263 BA/ .743 OPS/ 6 HRs/ 30 RBIs/ 9 SB) and Myles Straw (In 9 games – .333 BA/ 1.067 OPS/ 4 runs/ 1 HR/ 1 RBI/ 2 SBs).
This one is really close.
Bench – Slight Advantage Red Sox

Summing it up… To win the Red Sox need to derail the Verlander – Cole – Keuchel – Morton – Osuna – Pressly – McHugh – McCullers express while hoping the Astros’ bats go silent against a lesser pitching staff than the Indians had. Are you betting on that? Me neither.

Astros in 6 games

In praise of the 2018 Houston Astros

Despite winning a club record 103 wins in 2018, the Astros have left their fans wanting more from them. By the Pythagorean formula for wins, the team should have won something more like 109 wins based on their huge 263 run differential for the season. Though they were a marvelous 37-8 in blowouts (games decided by 5+ runs), they were a non-Champion 24-24 in one-run games. Though they were a wonderful 57-24 on the road, one of the best records in decades, they were a just above average 46-35 at home (which was a really blah 35-32 heading into September).

After being the very best offense in the world in 2017 (First in all of baseball in runs scored, BA, OBP, SLG, OPS and avoiding Ks), they were a big step down in 2018 as they were 5th in the AL (not baseball) in runs scored. Yes, they had the best pitching in all of baseball with the best starting pitching ERA (3.16) and the best bullpen ERA (3.03), which is unusual for an AL team that is not facing pitchers hitting most of the season. The team was frustrating at times; even when they were winning steadily, there were quite a few great starts wasted with an inconsistent offense.

Injuries to some of their best players (George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa) not only upset the offense when they were gone but lingered due to rustiness or perhaps hangovers from a not quite healed thumb, knee and back, respectively. The Astros played well down the stretch to hold off the Oakland A’s, but this came against questionable competition. Could the Astros take things to another level once the playoffs began?

The answer through a complete domination of the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS is a resounding “YES!” The Astros questionable offense? Well the team as a whole is hitting .327 BA/ .421 OBP / 1.037 OPS – easily first in each category. They’ve scored 21 runs and the Dodgers are second with 20 runs (in one extra postseason game).  For teams still alive, they have the second best 2.00 ERA behind the unreal Milwaukee Brewers (0.74 ERA). The Astros are first in WHIP (0.70) and batting average against (.144 BA) and second in OPS against at 0.418 OPS.

Yes, this could collapse quickly, but watching this team they have the definite air of a team that has been there before, believes in itself and knows that it can win against anyone anywhere.

They now have four days off and head into the ALCS with nicely rested Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Dallas Keuchel not to mention Charlie Morton, who might have too much rest, but might have needed too much rest. The Astros bullpen led by Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Collin McHugh, and Lance McCullers Jr. does not look like the group that melted down as often as it didn’t last playoffs.

So far the Astros have four of the top six players in the playoffs with OPS in Alex Bregman, George Springer, Tyler White and Marwin Gonzalez. Carlos Correa showed life with his opposite-field homer on Monday, Josh Reddick has had some big hits and Jose Altuve is starting to hit.

If the Astros offense comes within 90% of the 2018 model during the playoffs, this team is supremely dangerous and will be the team no one wants to play over the balance of October.

Playoffs 2018: The week in review, the week ahead

The week of 10-1 through 10-7 in review
The Astros only played two games this week and they played them brilliantly, getting out of the gate with a super solid “play from ahead” 7-2 win on Friday afternoon and following it up with a tough come from behind 3-1 win on Saturday to take a 2-0 lead in their best of five series with the Cleveland Indians. They got great pitching, timely hitting and did not boot the ball around in either game.

The week of 10-8 through 10-14 in a preview
The Astros know they will play a range of games this week. They could finish off the ALDS with a win Monday behind Dallas Keuchel at Cleveland. If not then, they must win either Tuesday’s game on the road or Wednesday’s game at home, if necessary, to move on to the ALCS starting Saturday and Sunday. If the Astros make it to the ALCS, they will either play the Red Sox with two in Boston or if the Yankees beat the Sox, they will start the ALCS at Minute Maid.

The best scenario would seem to be to finish off the Indians early and not have to bring Justin Verlander back for a potential Game 5. Oh, it would be nice if New York and Boston wear each other’s pitching staffs out leading into the ALCS.
Players of the Week:
With only two games to tie to, this will focus on more than one player’s performance:

  • Justin Verlander. Pitched a brilliant no-no for five innings and though he was charged for two runs after he left the game in the sixth, he did not relent until after he had a 4-0 lead. He went 5.1 IP, allowing 2 runs on 2 hits with 7 Ks and 2 BBs.
  • Gerrit Cole. Pitched a great 7 innings in his first post-season start for the Astros (he had 3 previous starts for the Pirates) giving up 1 run on 3 hits with 12 Ks and 0 BBs.
  • Alex Bregman. With 3 runs scored, 3 RBIs and 2 home runs he was Mr. Clutch again.
  • Marwin Gonzalez. He is off to a 5-for-7 start to the postseason and hit the clutch two-run double Saturday that flipped a 1-0 deficit to a 2-1 lead in the 6th that gave the Astros a lead they never relinquished.
  • Ryan Pressly. Yes, he threw a terrible wild pitch with the bases loaded and one out, Friday, but he did not melt down as he minimized the damage and went on to record a solid 1.2 IP outing followed by a 0.2 outing on Saturday.
  • Roberto Osuna. He finished off both games solidly and had 4 pitch save on Saturday.
  • Others. Jose Altuve has a homer and a couple runs scored, George Springer and Martin Maldonado both had homers, Josh Reddick had three hits and two big RBIs and Tyler White, while not being part of the scoring was on base six times as he helped flip that lineup over a number of times.

Stat focus: Alex Bregman and the HR Scalps
After two playoff games, Bregman has two home runs against absolutely top notch pitchers, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. This goes along with the four he hit last off-season – Chris Sale (2), Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw. Pretty impressive set of pitchers to start his playoff career with….

Pop Song That Should Have Been a Hit

“Turn the Page” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band…

This 1973 song was never released as a single by Seger, though the version on his 1976 Live Bullet album received a lot of album-oriented FM play. A 1998 version of it by Metallica did become a hit, but this is about the Seger version.

This was a very personal song, related to the difficulties of travelling on the road and even of being a “long hair” back in the day with truckers looking at them at truckstops inspiring the lyrics “Is it a woman or a man?”

There are two highlights to the song, Seger’s gritty vocals and the fantastic saxophone lead in by Alto Reed. This was a song that turned the spotlight on the truth about touring and gave a little lesson to all aspiring musicians.

But back to baseball – will the Astros clinch the ALDS and when? If they clinch, do you care if they play the Red Sox or the Yankees next?

Head to head playoffs: Astros versus Indians

The ALDS matchup that will be getting national attention is the Red Sox – Yankees media darling series, where the East Coast bias wishes they could meet again in the ALCS and the World Series. But there is another ALDS matchup occurring outside prime time that is likely a closer match than the two team’s records (Astros 103-59 / Indians 91-71) would indicate.

The Astros’ fans were not looking forward to playing Cleveland in the 2017 playoffs after being dominated 1-5 by the Tribe during the season and thanks to the Yankees that matchup never occurred. This season, the Astros took 2 of 3 at home with Cleveland and then split 4 on the road.

In 2018, the Indians got off to a slow start and were 25-25 after the first 50 games, they then went 66-46 the rest of the way and coasted to the AL Central title by 13 games. The Astros played much better than the Indians early (they were 32-18 after 50 games), but due to great play by the Mariners early and the A’s late they never had a comfortable lead the whole season. Their 6 game lead at the end of the season was the biggest they ever held.

So how do these two teams matchup heading into their playoff matchup?

Starting Pitching

If the teams had to use a five-man rotation, the Astros would get the nod here, but with a more likely 4 or perhaps for the Indians 3 man rotation, this area is really close. The Indians top three are Corey Kluber (20-7, 2.89 ERA), Carlos Carrasco (17-10, 3.38 ERA) and Mike Clevinger (13-8, 3.02 ERA), while the Astros boast Justin Verlander (16-9, 2.52 ERA), Gerrit Cole (15-5, 2.88 ERA) and Dallas Keuchel (12-11, 3.74 ERA). The fourth starter is where it gets interesting. Due to injury, Trevor Bauer (12-6, 2.71 ERA) has not pitched more than 4 innings in a game since Aug. 11. Similarly, Charlie Morton (15-3, 3.13 ERA) has pitched only 4 innings total since Sept. 15. The series could be decided on this spot.

SP’s – Toss Up

Relievers

This was an area that hurt the Indians in the early going and so they traded one of the top catching prospects in the game Francisco Mejia to the Padres for All Star closer Brad Hand (8 saves, 2.28 ERA since coming over) and reliever Adam Cimber (0-3, 4.05 ERA, 1.650 WHIP, but on the playoff roster). Behind Hand they have former Astro killers, Cody Allen (4-6, 4.70, 22 saves), whose struggles led to the trade and Andrew Miller (2-4, 4.24 ERA, 2 saves) who missed June and July with injuries. Former Astro Oliver Perez has been murder on both righties and lefties this season (1-1, 1.39 ERA, 0.742 WHIP). Dan Otero (2-1, 5.22 ERA) like Cimber is a weak spot for the Indians out of the ‘pen.

The Astros have been so strong that they have left off pitchers who would easily slide into the  Indians bullpen. New closer Roberto Osuna (2-2, 1.99 ERA, 12 saves), shutdown set-up man Ryan Pressly (1-0, 0.77 ERA, 0.600 WHIP), Collin McHugh (6-2, 1.99 ERA, 0.912 WHIP) and Tony Sipp (3-1, 1.86 ERA) have been very good in 2018, though McHugh slid down the stretch. Lance McCullers Jr. (10-6, 3.86 ERA) comes back from injury to give them a multi-inning option, Will Harris (5-3, 3.49 ERA) slides into the bullpen based on strong numbers down the stretch and Josh James (2-0, 2.35 ERA, 0.957 WHIP) gives them 100 mph X-factor as needed. Again, it is hard to see the Indians being able to leave off their roster, Hector Rondon, Brad Peacock, Joe Smith and Framber Valdez.

RP’s – Advantage Astros

Infield and Catcher 

After 2017’s great season, it is hard to believe that the Astros team would face a team with a better infield, but with great performances on the Indians side and injury-plagued and performance plagued seasons by Jose Altuve (.316 BA, 13 HR, 61 RBI) and Carlos Correa (.239 BA, 15 HR and 65 RBI) it is so.  Yuli Gurriel (.291 BA, 33 doubles, 85 RBIs) is a bit better than Yonder Alonso (.250 BA, 23 HRs, 83 RBIs). Altuve is not as good as new 2B (formerly at 3B) Jose Ramirez (110 runs, 39 HR, 105 RBIs) and Correa is not near Francisco Lindor (129 runs, 38 HR, 92 RBIs). Yan Gomes (.266 BA/.313/.762) is a better hitter at catcher than Martin Maldonado (.231/.257/.655), though Maldonado has been gunning runners down at a huge rate compared to Gomes.  The X-Factor here is newly acquired 3B Josh Donaldson, picked up at the waiver deadline in a controversial move (the Astros protested that he was not healthy when traded having played in one rehab game and immediately going back on the DL). Alex Bregman (105 runs, 51 doubles, 31 HRs, 103 RBIs) is not better than the Donaldson of 2014-2017, but he may be better than the current one, who had been injured most of the year. This is a key battle and the series may be greatly affected by the performance of these two players.

Infield/Catcher – Advantage Indians

Outfield and DH

The Astros assumed starting outfield would be Marwin Gonzalez (.247 BA/.733 OPS/ 16 HRs/68 RBIs), George Springer (.265 BA/.780 OPS/ 102 runs/22 HRs/ 71 RBIs) and Josh Reddick (.247 BA/.718 OPS/17 HRs/47 RBIs) against the Indians’ Michael Brantley (.257 BA/ .832 OPS/ 17 HR/ 76 RBIs), Jason Kipnis (.230 BA/ .704 OPS/ 18 HR/ 75 RBIs) and Melky Cabrera (.280 BA / .755 OPS/ 6 HRs/ 39 RBIs). Hitting-wise there might be a small plus on the Indian’s side. Fielding-wise the Astros are miles ahead. The DH battle will be interesting as Edwin Encarnacion (.246 BA/ .810 OPS/ 32 HR/ 107 RBIs) has tons more experience, but Tyler White has much better numbers (.276 BA/ .888 OPS/ 12 HRs/ 42 RBIs) in a smaller 2018 sample.

OF and DH – Toss Up

Bench

The Astros bench consists of Brian McCann (.212 BA/ .640 OPS/ 7 HR/ 23 RBIs), Evan Gattis (.226 BA/ .736 OPS/ 25 HR/ 78 RBIs), Jake Marisnick (.211 BA/ .674 OPS/ 10 HRs/ 28 RBIs), Tony Kemp (.263 BA/ .743 OPS/ 6 HRs/ 30 RBIs/ 9 SB) and Myles Straw (In 9 games – .333 BA/ 1.067 OPS/ 4 runs/ 1 HR/ 1 RBI/ 2 SBs). The Indians bench consists of C Roberto Perez (.168 BA/ .519 OPS/ 2 HRs/ 19 RBIs), OF Rajai Davis (.224 BA/ .559 OPS/ 1 HR/ 6 RBIs/ 21 SBs), OF Greg Allen (.252 BA/ .654 OPS/ 2 HR/ 20 RBIs/ 21 SBs), OF Brandon Guyer (.206 BA/ .671 OPS/ 7 HR/ 27 RBIs) and IF Yandy Diaz (.312 BA/ .797 OPS/ 1 HR/ 15 RBIs).

The Astros would seem to have an advantage at backup catcher and with Gattis’ power off the bench. Both teams have speed off their benches and it would seem that if the teams have to substitute on the infield they may look to their outfield (Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Kipnis) before their bench.

Bench – Advantage Astros

In the end this looks like a very tight series with the Astros getting a slight nod. I’m not an Astros’ homer (Pinocchio’s nose growing by the minute). This will be a huge test for the Astros and their experience in the playoffs last year may prove to be the difference.

Oakland finally blinks,: Astros are AL West champions

If you told an Astros fan before the season that the Astros would be the AL West Champs they might have yawned at you and said “But of course”. If you told them they were in for a tough struggle and would only pull it out in the last week of the season their interest might be piqued by the tale. And if you told them the Oakland A’s were their closest challengers and outplayed the Astros for more than 1/2 the season they might have gone “Huh?”

Continue reading