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Do we really want to play the Astros?

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Sleeping giant, or flawed shell of what they were?

I listed the Astros as my number two pick behind the Blue Jays as the most favorable matchup for the Twins in the wild card round. I referenced their lack of pitching, injuries and underperformance as the main reason they were a team struggling to stay over .500 (and in the end, couldn’t even win those 30 games).

It would then seem that playing the Astros in the first round would be a blessing, especially when it seemed 99% certain a week ago that the Twins were lined up to face the Yankees, who had just won ten games in a row and are the Yankees. There didn’t seem to be a chance for us to pass the White Sox, then three games ahead, or for the Blue Jays to pass the Yankees. But the White Sox, who have shown the Twins so many kind gestures over the years, once again held the door open for us. To their credit, the Blue Jays nearly passed New York, as well.

The Minnesota sports market rarely receives such gifts, and when they do, they tend to be Trojan horses. The gift of Randall Cunningham and Randy Moss turned into the misery of Gary Anderson, just as the Minneapolis miracle turned into the legend of Nick Foles. The magic of game 163, defeating the Tigers in 2009 to complete a grueling September comeback in a thrilling game, led to the Twins starting Brian Duensing in game 1 in the Bronx. Beating the Yankees out for the home run record last year came alongside losing Byron Buxton and Michael Pineda and the crippling of Max Kepler, Luis Arraez and Mitch Garver.

So I will not take this stroke of fortune for granted, and I will assume there is a decent chance that winning against the Reds, maybe by letting Arraez and Cruz hit in the 10th, and getting the slumping and familiar White Sox would have been a better play than letting it ride with the ‘Stros. Let me explain.

The Astros are still a good offensive team, and their lineup is full of stars from past postseasons. George Springer, in his walk year, had a brilliant season, collecting 2.0 bWAR to lead his team, along with a 144 OPS+, which is a number surpassed only by his 2019 season. I never quite believed in Springer his first few seasons in the league, but he keeps getting better, and we can assume that the sign stealing system wasn’t something he needed. He also has fifteen postseason home runs.

Most of the other players have seen their numbers drop on the offensive side. Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve have been brutal, and Alex Bregman never really got it going this year, with injuries playing a part. In the end, the Astros scored more runs than the Twins anyway, speaking to the depth of their lineup as well as the emergence of outfielder Kyle Tucker, who put up a 125 OPS+ in his first season as a full time player.

The question mark is Altuve. He turned 30 this year, and his numbers dropped off the map, slashing .219/.286/.344 which is worse than his rookie year cup of coffee in 2011 when he hit .276/.297/.357 in about 60 games. The problem, the Twins better hope, is mental, because his batted ball numbers don’t suggest such a drop-off. He is hitting the ball just as hard; in fact his average exit velocity is higher than his 2017 MVP year. He is hitting more line drives than last year, and the same number of ground balls. He is pulling the ball less, and going the opposite way a little more, which may suggest he is a little behind the fastball compared to previous years, although the home run he hit Sunday, an inside fastball off of Jordan Lyles, looked pretty quick on its way to crashing off of the second deck. The raw data collected last year indicated that Altuve benefited less from the trash can scheme than anybody else on the team. Then again, he has inexplicably struggled this year and was suspected of wearing a buzzer that told him what pitch was coming under his uniform last year. That leaves four explanations:

1.) Altuve is in his own head

2.) He doesn’t have the bat speed he once did, possibly due to injury

3.) He was wearing a buzzer last year, and playing clean this year has led to the performance decline

4.) He has been unlucky and can bust out at any time

Three of those four options lead to the conclusion that Altuve doesn’t have it this year. The fourth option is what Minnesota sports fans know to be true.

What about the pitching? The Astros lost both Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, and their offense was decent, so their pitching must suck, right? ERA-wise, yeah. Contextualized into a three game series?

I’ll just say they aren’t the Twins equal in terms of pitching overall, but it is close. They will throw Zack Greinke in the first game, most likely. Greinke holds the distinction of being the first pitcher with Asperger’s to win the Cy Young since Steve Carlton. He is very intellectual on the mound, and seems to get ego boosts from tricking hitters moreso than he would get from actually getting them out. His eephus curveball can register in the mid 50’s and his fastball can barely get to 90 these days. During his Cy Young campaign with the Royals thirteen years ago, he could throw a two-seamer at 98 down and in to lefties similar to what Luis Castillo was trying to do to the Twins on Saturday. That was a long time ago, but Greinke still possesses great command and makes few mistakes, which doesn’t bode well for the Twins, as Dallas Keuchel has proven. Greinke has been known as not a great big game pitcher, but he pitched pretty well in game seven of the World Series last year. His team probably feels they are playing with house money, and it will be an empty ballpark, so I don’t think Greinke will be too worried if he accidentally gives up a solo bomba to Miguel Sano.

Kenta Maeda will likely have to be on his game, in other words.

The rest of the rotation rounds out better than I want to believe. Framber Valdez is a hard throwing lefty and formerly a prized prospect of Houston who seems to have figured it out, posting a 126 ERA+ over 70.2 innings this year. Considering the Twins’ struggles against lefties this year, this isn’t a great match up, either.

If the Twins get to a game three, the Astros have a few options. It could be Lance McCullers, who pitched Saturday and was pulled after four scoreless, presumably to prepare him for a playoff start. McCullers has good stuff and had a decent year coming back from Tommy John surgery, posting a 115 ERA+ and more than a strikeout per inning, throwing 90% breaking balls. The Astros might be wise to use Jose Urquidy instead. He has pitched in only five starts due to testing positive for COVID-19 in summer camp. But in those starts he has not given up more than two runs in any of them, and if you recall, he was pretty good in the World Series last year, as well. Christian Javier is another rookie who should be noted because he posted a 130 ERA+, but it appears he will be relegated to long relief in the post.

So Houston has four good options to throw at the Twins, which is fine because the Twins do, as well. The bullpen is more of a mystery, as Houston at one time had an all-rookie bullpen early in the year. Gone is domestic abuser Roberto Osuna, who sustained an elbow injury he deserved and probably won’t appear again in 2020. Ryan Pressly is still around, and pitched pretty well as Houston’s closer this year. Supporting him are Javier, Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor and Enoli Paredes, who were all effective as rookies. The caveat to their success is that they played in the worst division in baseball, and hitters haven’t gotten the book on them, yet. The Twins do tend to feast on middling relievers.

The Twins will have to play well to win this series, which is pretty obvious but worth stating since even the MLB Network hosts were telling the Twins to lose once the White Sox lost their game (There was a fifteen minute period where the Twins had won their division, but winning meant playing the White Sox, and losing meant playing the Astros). The Astros can hit and they have enough pitching to mystify an easily mystified lineup. A couple of important factors:

Miguel Sano: He might be turning a corner- he has hit some sharp ground balls and isn’t missing on EVERY swing like he was a few game ago. Good Sano is good, but bad Sano isn’t worth rostering.

Byron Buxton and Josh Donaldson: I think both will play, but Donaldson will run the bases like Miguel Cabrera (which is FINE) and Buxton may only last a game. If they can both contribute that makes a huge difference, obviously.

Taylor Rogers: I know all the stat-heads are convinced that Rogers has actually been better than ever this year but how many times does he need to give it up for people to realize he’s got some issues? I’m not saying those issues are new, just that he tends to miss in the zone with fastballs and I don’t like my closer doing that. Yes it is at 96 MPH and his slider is really good, but I think he gets a little too concerned with not walking people (And I swear if someone brings up his 2.84 FIP to claim he’s just as good as last year as if that is not a predictive stat). I am honestly hoping that he gives up a lead in game one, we get it back and Tyler Duffey closes it out and becomes the closer for the rest of the playoffs. Which leads me to:

Sergio Romo: Again, how many times must he give it up before we can all agree he’s got problems? He let four men reach base on Sunday with the White Sox coming back late against the Cubs. If they had come back and the Twins ended up the four seed playing the Yankees, would you be mad at him then? He has to trick hitters, and some hitters don’t get tricked. I don’t like my closer doing that. But maybe the playoffs makes hitters tight and they chase his slider all day and he gets ALCS MVP. Who knows?

Rocco Baldelli: He’s the perfect media relations guy. His players all love him (or claim to). He doesn’t make huge tactical errors and his focus on rest and recovery has really helped some players. But at some point there is going to be a conflict, particularly if the playoffs start going sideways on the Twins. Is Rocco going to hang back and not intervene when Donaldson starts barking at Cruz for chasing a stupid slider when we needed a fly ball in a key situation? What happens then? He’s best friends with the front office and he’s best friends with the players, but if the Twins make an early exit again, both of those friendships will be tested. During the celebration last year when the Twins clinched, he actually expressed some fire and expletives in his speech to the players (rather than just prattling on about how interesting and unique all his players are). The Twins may need some more of that.

Overall, this is a good scenario for the Twins. They can’t play the Yankees until the ALCS, and if they get to the ALCS, that will mean they won two playoff series which is twice as many as they have won since I was an infant. The Astros will be tough, and will almost certainly win at least won game, but we could have been facing Shane Bieber or Gerrit Cole game one, so let’s just count our blessings.

Prediction: Twins in three