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Of the four teams advancing from the weekend, the Mariners start their Division Series in the best shape. They’ll run Logan Gilbert out to the mound against the Astros this afternoon, easily the best pitcher any of the wild-card teams have left in their pocket. Gilbert didn’t hold the high note from early in the season, when he had a 0.40 ERA in April, but by taking the ball every fifth day -- he was one of just 21 starters to make 32 starts -- he established himself as a true #2 starter.
The Mariners’ pitching depth will come into play here. They traded for Luis Castillo, who can pitch Game Two on full rest. They signed Robbie Ray, who probably comes back for Game Three. If there’s a Game Four, that should be rookie George Kirby, who walked 22 batters in 25 starts as a rookie. That’s enviable rotation depth, even for a playoff team, and there are a lot of opponents, including the one they just beat, against which the Mariners would have a big edge on the mound.
Unfortunately, they drew one of the other ones. The Astros, like the Braves, won’t have any bad pitchers starting playoff games. They won’t even have any bad pitchers on their playoff roster. It’s possible they’ve banned bad pitchers from Harris County. The Astros allowed just 518 runs this year, the fewest of any AL team in the DH era. But for the stupid runner (they allowed 21 extra-inning runs), they might have become the first team in 50 years to allow fewer than 500 runs. (Another team this year can make the same claim.) Astros pitchers struck out 26% of the batters they faced, second in baseball. When those batters weren’t striking out, they were hitting for the second-lowest BABIP (.268) and lowest HR/FB (9.3%) in baseball.
When you look at pitching statistics for the last few seasons, and particularly this year, you see staffs seeming to get control of the things that, not so long ago, we did not think were controllable. The Astros’ pitchers miss bats, and across the staff they seem to have unlocked the key to generating weak contact: low average exit velocities, few barrels, the lowest barrel rate allowed in the game. They do this, mind you, while throwing more fastballs than all but a handful of teams -- which is supposed to be what good pitchers don’t do any more.
There are good reasons to ignore regular-season results when projecting playoff matchups. Rosters change, teams improve or get worse, there’s a lot of randomness in any set of baseball games. With that said, man, what the Astros did to the Mariners this season gets your attention: a .219/.303/.343 line in 19 games, just 3.4 runs allowed per contest. The Mariners have one of the weakest offenses left in the field, and it’s hard to see how they repeat the weekend’s offensive explosion against the Astros’ staff. They’re not getting Jesse Winker back; even in a lost year Winker’s ability to work counts and get on base would have had value in this series.
The Astros remain a good offensive team, sixth in the majors in wRC+, but not at the level of their recent squads. They’ve lost George Springer and Carlos Correa to free agency, Michael Brantley to the frailty of the human form, and have not found adequate replacements for any of them. It’s really a four-man lineup at this point; the Astros will have just eight players on their playoff roster who were average or better at the plate this year. That includes Jeremy Peña, who hasn’t been anything like that since April; Trey Mancini, who had a 77 wRC+ with the Astros; and David Hensley, an infield prospect with 34 MLB PA.
(I’ve had a great email exchange about Peña with a subscriber, who passed along this story about his mechanical adjustments of late. Peña is hitting .274/.307/.512 since making the change. I’d still bat him down in the order, but Dusty Baker seems committed to him in the #2 hole. I’d watch to see how many innings he ends in front of Yordan Alvarez.)
The Astros’ lineup isn’t quite as unbalanced as the Jays’ was, but just four teams had more right-on-right PAs. Unless the team recalls J.J. Matijevic -- who didn’t hit at all in sporadic playing time -- they’ll have just two left-handed batters on the roster: Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. (Those three are the only left-handed batters on the team’s 40-man roster.)
The Mariners’ path through this series is on the mound. As we discussed in advance of the wild-card series, they have a deep well of good right-handed relievers behind that strong rotation. Those guys should be able to eat in this series. They are one of the few teams who can go inning-for-inning with the Astros’ pitchers. Seattle can score quickly, tenth in the majors in homers, ninth in isolated power. There’s a path where they allow nine runs in four games and steal this thing.
One Big Question: Will we see the third postseason no-hitter this year? Justin Verlander left the game with a no-hitter intact three times in his last six starts. The Dodgers (1114) and Astros (1121) allowed the second- and third-fewest hits of any team since 1968, and two of the bottom-15 totals of all time.
One Big Stat: The Astros used 22 pitchers this season. Just two of them, Pedro Baez and Ronel Blanco, had ERAs of 4.00 or higher. It’s the first time since the 1991 Dodgers any team can say that, and just the fourth time a team in a DH league has turned the trick. Now, neither Baez nor Blanco pitched even seven innings for the Astros. If we draw the line at 10 IP, the Astros stand alone as the only team to play a full season in a DH league with no bad pitchers.
Even if I have real doubts about the Astros’ lineup, and a lot of faith in the Mariners’ ability to keep these games close, I’m just not sure the Astros will allow runs this week. Astros in four.