Friday, October 6, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 6, 2023 -- Astros/Twins Preview


This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: AL Division Series Previews
Vol. 15, No. 110
October 6, 2023
The Rule: The least important words in a playoff preview are the last ones.
I blew out a bunch of my Twins notes in Thursday’s Newsletter, in thrall to their power staff and anonymous, flamethrowing bullpen. The central conflict in this series, then, is the best strikeout staff in baseball against the third-best contact lineup in baseball, and the best contact-hitting team among the ones with good offenses. The Astros have been combining power and contact for years now, and but for the sign-stealing, it would be the thing this dynasty is best known for.

All that velo the Twins bring out of the bullpen? The Astros were one of the five best teams in baseball at hitting fastballs 95 mph and up, with a .330 wOBA and .339 xwOBA. (The latter is wOBA based on quality of contact, as measured by Statcast.) Only the Braves had more barrels on fastballs 95+ or better. We just saw the Twins shut down a Blue Jays team that struggled with velocity this season; the Astros are a different challenge.

Both these teams come in as nearly the best versions of themselves after a season spent managing around injuries. The Twins remain down Byron Buxton, but Buxton isn’t a star, or even much of a player, when limited to DH. The Royce Lewis/Edouard Julien/Matt Wallner Twins are now 15-9 after the sweep of the Blue Jays. The Twins had a 125 OPS+ after August 2, third in MLB to the Braves and Astros.

Draw the line at 400 PA, and the Astros had the fourth- (Yordan Alvarez), 11th- (Jose Altuve), 13th- (Kyle Tucker), and 24th- (Chas McCormick) best hitters in baseball this year. Jose Altuve has continued his mid-30s power surge, hitting 17 homers in 90 games for his second straight .500 slugging campaign. Altuve missed time to a broken thumb and a strained left oblique. When he started, the Astros scored a full run a game more than when he did not, 5.6 per to 4.5 per. Mostly with Altuve down the stretch, the Astros were right there with the Braves as the best offense in baseball, with a 130 wRC+ from August 2 onward. These teams can hit, and we should be in for some fireworks.

A year ago, the Astros rode one of the best pitching staffs ever to a championship, notching a World Series no-hitter along the way. This team...will not do that. They come into the playoffs ranked eighth in ERA and 17th in FIP, and as I wrote Monday, neither their rotation nor their bullpen has been all that effective down the stretch. No playoff team walked batters at a higher rate (8.8%) than the Astros did or allowed a higher home-run rate (1.25 per nine innings). The playoff rotation should be better than that, with Justin Verlander taking innings from the likes of J.P. France and Brandon Bielak. The playoff bullpen, though...Astros’ relievers walked nearly 10% of the batters they faced this year, with leverage relievers Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, and Kendall Graveman all above 10%. Astros relievers had the eighth-worst HR/9 allowed as well.

The Twins? They’re third in baseball in homers hit, fourth in walks drawn. These games are not going to be over until they’re over.

Adding to the Astros’ late-game woes in the absence of any viable left-handed relief. They used three left-handed relievers during the season for a total of 27 2/3 innings. Journeyman Bennett Sousa was effective in September, however, he was claimed off waivers September 3 and is ineligible for the postseason roster. The Astros may not have a lefty in their pen, which frees Rocco Baldelli from any concerns about matchups and even allows him to stack Wallner, Alex Kirilloff, and Max Kepler in ways he normally wouldn’t be able to do. The Astros’ core right-handed relievers are effective against left-handed batters, but Dusty Baker won’t be able to make those young Twins lefties uncomfortable, or force Baldelli to pinch-hit.

On the margins, the Twins could gain an edge on the bases. They didn’t steal much, just 104 attempts, but they’re facing a catcher who struggled to stop the running game. Baserunners were 86-for-100 stealing on Martin Maldonado. Just three catchers allowed more steals. (Mike Petriello provides a defense for Maldonado, pinning the blame on his pitchers.) Maldonado’s framing skills deteriorated as well. At this point, he’s a mascot, and any innings he plays at the expense of Yainer Diaz push the Astros closer to the door. Given that Maldonado started the Astros’ final six games, all must-win, Dusty Baker sees it differently.

Big picture, there isn’t much to separate these teams. The Astros were three wins better in the standings, the Twins had a similar edge by third-order record. They’re two of the best offensive teams in baseball, and by most metrics -- Statcast doesn’t like the Twins -- similar defensively. The skills matchup is fascinating; can the Astros beat the Twins’ heat with their combination of contact and power? Can the Twins exploit the lack of lefty arms and the Astros’ tendency to issue walks and allow homers? Will the Twins take advantage of Maldonado on both sides of the ball? The headline series in this round is the Phillies/Braves. Twins/Astros, though, may be the best of the bunch. Twins in five.