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Scouting the Astros
What should we make of the Twins' surprising Round 1 opponent?
Raise your hand if you expected the Minnesota Twins to face the Houston Astros in the first round of the playoffs.
It felt like everyone was resigned to the fact that the Twins were yet again going to play David to the New York Yankees’ Goliath a week ago — maybe even at Yankee Stadium.
Then a weird thing happened. The Twins started winning, and the Chicago White Sox started losing.
The Twins leapt over the White Sox, and into the No. 2 seed for the American League Wild Card round. That has led to this point — a first-round matchup with the defending AL Champion Houston Astros.
And, well, a lot has happened since the Astros lost in seven games to the Washington Nationals last year. Trash can bangin’. Pandemic. Etc.
These aren’t your Astros of 365 days ago — not by a long shot.
The general manager? Different.
The manager? Different.
The starting pitchers? (Largely) different.
The batting order? You don’t have to squint much to recognize it, but production-wise it barely resembles the bunch who posted a collective 119 OPS+ and won 107 games.
Add this all up and you have a team that’s a shell of its former self, and the first team in MLB history — well, tied for first with this year’s Milwaukee Brewers — to make the postseason with a sub-.500 record.
On the surface, it seems like a colossal mismatch. The Twins are a stunning 24-7 at Target Field this season, while the Astros were a woeful 9-23 on the road. Only two teams — Pittsburgh (6-22, .214) and Texas (6-24, .200) — were worse on the road this season than Houston. No team, not even the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers, was better at home than Minnesota in 2020.
But in a world that’s given us the most bizarre year that most of us will ever live through, why should we expect October baseball to follow conventional wisdom?
Here’s what you, a Twins fan, need to know about this year’s Astros.
First of all, they have experience.
They’re led by 71-year-old manager Dusty Baker, who just completed his 23rd season as an MLB skipper. Tuesday will be the 25th MLB playoff game he’s managed, and he’s 11-13 to this point. He won an NL pennant with the San Francisco Giants in 2002 before they lost to the Anaheim Angels — the team that eliminated the Twins that year.
Damn Rally Monkey.
Anyway, Baker’s teams are kind of known for underperforming in the playoffs, but we all know postseason stuff is rife with small samples in big moments. It can all change at the drop of a hat — and what better way than commandeering the ship of the defending AL pennant winners?
Well, not so fast.
Justin Verlander isn’t walking through that door. He’s having Tommy John surgery.
Gerrit Cole isn’t either. He’s on the Yankees. You already knew that.
It appears as though the Twins will get Zack Greinke in Game 1, and if a Game 3 is necessary they’ll face Lance McCullers Jr.
Game 2 is anyone’s guess.
Houston’s rotation was respectable in 2020 even without Verlander. They posted a collective ERA of 4.26, fanned nearly a batter per inning and didn’t really walk anyone. Opposing batters hit .231/.299/.403 against them.
And while Greinke and McCullers are the name brands in the Astros rotation, any one of three remaining pitchers could be a worthwhile option in Game 2.
Jose Urquidy is lined up for Wednesday after starting last Friday, and on the surface, his numbers this season look pretty good: 2.73 ERA in 29.2 innings with a 1.01 WHIP.
Urquidy’s underlying numbers aren’t terribly good, though; he’s a fly-ball pitcher who hasn’t struck anyone out and has benefitted from good luck on balls in play (.209 BABIP), leading to a 4.71 FIP.
If the Twins thought Jake Odorizzi in Yankee Stadium wasn’t an ideal matchup last season, Urquidy at Target Field might be cut from a similar cloth.
Cristian Javier is another option, and he’s coming off pitching against the Rangers on Thursday, so he’s more than able to take that turn if the Astros wish.
Javier is a 23-year-old rookie righty who also had solid numbers this year: 3.48 ERA, 8.9 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in 54.1 innings.
Where Javier ran into trouble was homers (he allowed a stunning 11), and while some of that can be attributed to luck (15.3 percent HR/FB rate), it’s really hard to keep the ball in the yard on a regular basis with just a 29.0 percent groundball rate.
As a result, his FIP resembles a Twin Cities thoroughfare (4.94) and when paired with an even less sustainable BABIP (.194) and lack of experience makes for a risky start in a potential do-or-die Game 2.
That leaves Framber Valdez, and the smart money seems to be on him.
Valdez made 10 starts this year and 11 appearances in all, and his numbers look terrific. He fanned more than a batter per inning, kept the ball in the park and induced grounders at a 60 percent rate.
After struggling with his command in his previous two big-league seasons, Valdez walked a sliver over two batters per nine innings — and to top it all off, he’s left-handed.
The Twins have been abysmal against left-handed pitching this season, hitting just .236/.309/.349.
So while the Astros are still listed as “undecided” for Game 2, it would be downright stunning not to see Valdez.
And frankly how good Greinke still is — and how good Valdez has been this year — should be reason enough for Twins fans not to get overconfident.
Yes, the Astros were under .500 this year. Yes, they were 4-13 against teams who finished above .500.
(For reference, the Twins were 18-12 against teams who finished above .500, and 18-12 against those who did not.)
But how much does postseason experience matter?
How do we weigh what someone like Jose Altuve did this season (.629 OPS) in a small sample while also acknowledging the elephant in the room that some of these Astros likely benefitted in some form or fashion from their extracurricular activities?
Oh, and by the way — Kenta Maeda is on the mound for Game 1. He was on the Dodgers team that lost to the now-infamous Astros in 2018.
Kinda bananas, right?
The Astros bullpen has been merely average this season as well, ranking exactly 15th in ERA (4.39) with very, very uninspiring secondary numbers (1.52 WHIP, .764 OPS against).
There are very obvious candidates in that bullpen to come in and blow guys away — like former Twin Ryan Pressly, of course — but this isn’t a team that can line ‘em up and knock ‘em down like the 2019 Yankees can.
Heck, not even like the 2020 Twins are capable of.
Roberto Osuna is out of the picture. So is Chris Devenski. Josh James will be back but has been all over the place this season. Andre Scrubb and Blake Taylor have great ERAs but sketchy peripherals. Enoli Paredes and Cy Sneed also don’t have the greatest numbers overall.
Offensively, the Astros are all over the place as well. A big part of them is missing with Yordan Alvarez sidelined with a knee issue. After slashing .313/.412/.655 in 87 games to win AL Rookie of the Year in 2019, Alvarez got into just two games this year before his season was waylaid.
The rest of the group hasn’t been in a good place either, really.
Altuve has obviously struggled. Carlos Correa has stayed healthy, but in the process hit just .264/.326/.383. Alex Bregman has only played in about two-thirds of Houston’s games, and hit .242/.350/.451 — a far cry from his 2019 MVP runner-up numbers.
Yuli Gurriel has tanked (76 OPS+). Josh Reddick (88 OPS+) isn’t having a very good season, either.
The primary driving forces on this offense are impending free agents George Springer (140 OPS+) and Michael Brantley (126 OPS+) as well as youngster Kyle Tucker (123 OPS+), who has broken through with a strong run in 2019 and ‘20 after a rough 2018 debut.
One of the key takeaways from this offense is that they’ve been entirely uninspiring against right-handed pitching — and the Twins have a lot of it.
Against right-handed starters, the Astros are hitting just .252/.320/.431.
Against right-handed relievers, it’s even worse at .235/.315/.388.
The overarching theme here is that there’s really no reason the Twins shouldn’t win this series. Because it’s baseball and it’s 2020 there are plenty of reasons why it might not happen.
But things have lined up for the Twins to have a good chance to get the monkey off their proverbial back when it comes to succeeding in the postseason.
They have almost all of their pitching healthy.
They have most — and possibly all — of their offense healthy, pending the status of Josh Donaldson and/or Byron Buxton on Tuesday morning.
Their bullpen is not only deep, but good.
They’ve been unbeatable at home.
The Astros have been dreadful on the road.
The pick: Twins in 3.