The 2020 MLB season kept teams in their respective geographic divisions, which means we didn’t play the Astros at all this season. Since they’re a little less-familiar of a foe, we exchanged questions with Dan Martin, one of the writers at our sister site Crawfish Boxes.
His answers to my questions are below, and here are my answers to his questions about the Twins.
1. The Astros are the worst team on the AL side of the playoffs by record. What is different this season for you guys compared to years past, when the team was a juggernaut?
The short answer is the 2020 squad just isn’t as talented as past teams. Here’s the long answer:
Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander were arguably the top two pitchers in all of baseball in 2019, and to lose both has made quite the negative impact. Cole left in free agency and Verlander suffered an arm injury after just one outing this season. To add to that, the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, has also effectively missed the entire ‘20 season, as has closer Roberto Osuna. Due to injuries, the bullpen has essentially been Ryan Pressly and a bunch of rookies.
Having said all of that, the lineup — even without Alvarez — is one of the better ones in the league on paper, especially with the emergence of ex-top prospect Kyle Tucker. The lineup as a whole made the most contact in baseball this year, but finished 29th in barrel %, which led to finishing 20th in home run production. Overall, they were a mediocre offense. It would be an understatement to say that unit disappointed this season, especially given how sorely needed they were due to the decimation of the pitching staff.
2. I’m sure Astros fans have heard it from fans everywhere so I won’t bust on you about it, but how do you think the “trash-gate” is affecting the team, and how will it through the playoffs? Will they be playing with an extra chip on their shoulder, something to prove?
I think going into this season, members of the lineup wanted to shut everyone up and show that they don’t need to cheat to produce big numbers. It would be reasonable to think that what’s transpired the past 10-11 months has affected the players’ mental acuity. Dealing with the fallout and desperately wanting to prove everyone wrong could be why they’ve produced lackluster numbers. At the same time, numerous star players across the league are struggling mightily — probably due to highly abnormal nature of this season — so perhaps that could be why. A mixture of both makes sense to me. In a series against the Yankees, Dodgers or A’s, I could envision the Astros hitters pressing even more than they already have. Against the Twins, it’s difficult to say.
3. Obviously we know Verlander well, but he’s out. We have a little experience with Greinke too, but what does the rest of the Astros pitching staff hold in store for us?
The most improved pitcher on the staff has been Framber Valdez. I would say that aside from Zack Greinke, Valdez is the pitcher that Dusty Baker trusts the most, as he’s let Valdez throw well over 100 pitches in multiple starts. Greinke is slated to start game 1, and while the game 2 starter is TBD at this point, I fully expect Valdez to get the nod. He’s thrown a lot more strikes this year, and while he lacks a viable third pitch, he’s made it work thus far with an elite curveball and an ability to generate a ton of ground balls with a mid-90s sinker that has great downward movement.
Though he’s not going to be used as a starter this series, rookie Cristian Javier should be a weapon out of the bullpen. Like Valdez, he lacks a usable third offering, but his slider’s been statistically one of the best in the league this year. He doesn’t throw particularly hard, but he has a deceptive delivery and a 4-seamer that has tremendous ride up in the zone. Lance McCullers Jr. already had the most explosive arsenal on the team and he’s now been mixing in a cutter his past two starts that’s yielded exciting early results. If he doesn’t pitch in game 2 out of the bullpen, and assuming there is a game 3, he’ll start it. He’s been a mixed bag this year, but when he’s on, he possesses some of the best pure stuff in the game.
4. Which player that we might not have heard of will have the biggest impact on the series, and why?
Because Tucker was an elite prospect, I’d guess that Valdez is someone whom Twins fans actually haven’t heard much about. While he’s been a revelation this season, Valdez has a fragile profile as a starting pitcher. It’s fairly unique and unconventional, so if there’s just one facet of his game that is off in a certain start, he’s liable to give up a handful of runs. Fortunately for the Astros, he’s kept everything in check in most of his starts. He gives up an awful lot of loud contact but it hasn’t bitten him badly yet because of his -0.8 degree launch angle, as well as his improved control and above-average K%. I see that the Twins’ offense has the second highest launch angle in baseball, so that’ll be a fascinating matchup. As I mentioned, Valdez has pitched deep in many games this season, and because the Astros’ bullpen is mostly unreliable, Valdez could make a significant impact on the series by going deep into game 2. He’ll certainly have a long leash, pitch count-wise.
5. What are your predictions for the series? Who wins, how many games, and why? Anything else to watch for?
Sadly for Astros fans, I think the Twins win the series 2-0. This is the playoffs and anything can happen in the playoffs — especially in just a three-game series — but the Astros have been atrocious on the road this year, and the Twins have the best home record in baseball. What concerns me more is the Twins’ offense. I know they’ve been underwhelming this year as the Astros’ offense has been, but y’all’s team still slugged the 6th most home runs in the league. The Twins’ pitching staff has also been quite good this year, as evidenced by allowing the fewest home runs out of all 30 teams. I expect Kenta Maeda will be stellar in game 1, so I think Greinke’s going to have to pitch an absolute gem for the Astros to have a realistic shot at winning the series.
I’d say the thing to watch is Dusty Baker possibly over-managing now that he’s back in the playoffs. He’s not exactly been a competent tactician this season.
6. Anything else you want to tell Twins fans right now?
I’d ask Twins fans this question: which roller coaster player is more frustrating, Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano? And has the Twins organization invented athletic bubble wrap for Buxton yet? They probably have the money to innovate something like that.
Thanks again for being a good sport, Dan.