The third-seeded Twins host the sixth-seeded, defending American League champion Astros in a best-of-three American League Wild Card series. The Astros finished the regular season 29-31 in second place in the AL West, seven games behind the second-seeded Athletics. The 36-24 Twins clinched the AL Central by one game over Cleveland and Chicago. Houston, along with Milwaukee on the National League side of the bracket, made history this season in becoming the first teams in Major League Baseball history to qualify for the playoffs with a losing regular season record. Only in 2020 (maybe?). Both teams have their pitching staffs lined up and will be sending their preferred starters to the hill in each game.
Statistically, the Twins hold the advantage over the Astros in most categories. The disparity is most obvious on the pitcher’s mound, where Houston’s stable of arms has been ravaged with serious injuries to veterans throughout the season. Houston pitchers’ collective 476 days lost to the injured list was easily the most in baseball. Ace Justin Verlander is undergoing Tommy John surgery and will not be participating in the 2020 playoffs. Other familiar names from recent season playoff runs, like Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, Josh James, Roberto Osuna, Joe Smith, and Frances Martes also are likely to be unavailable. What remains is mostly right-handed and very inexperienced. Of Houston’s likely active pitchers, only Game 1 starter Zack Greinke, and fellow righthanders Lance McCullers Jr. and Ryan Pressly (an old friend) have more than a single year of MLB service time. As a result, Houston’s once dominant pitching fell to the middle of the pack statistically in 2020. Despite the youth and relative inexperience, it’s still a solid and talented group.
A year after finishing first (Astros, 125 wRC+) and third (Twins, 116 wRC+) in offense, the teams are again evenly matched by the 2020 numbers – separated by only a few points in most categories. This time though, both offenses have regressed from those peaks and were just average. Both remain capable of being more potent if for no other reasons than name recognition and track record. The struggle to score runs was the main reason behind Houston’s 10-17 September record. After averaging 5.3 runs per game through August, the output fell to just 3.8 per game in September. Behind those struggles were down years from core pieces Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel. As a group, Houston hitters compiled a .240 / .312 / .408 line that was good for a perfectly league average 100 wRC+. Despite making the most contact in the game (22.3% whiff rate, 1st), the Astros had the second lowest barrel percentage at 5.7%.
Both clubs are strong defensively, finishing around the top ten in the various defensive metrics. Enabling their prowess in turning batted balls into outs is a heavy reliance on shifting. The Astros deployed shifts 44.1% of plate appearances in 2020, fifth most in MLB. The Twins were just behind, in seventh, at 41.3%. As a result, the teams finished with an identical .288 BABIP allowed.
Breaking down four keys to the matchup
★ ★ ★
Holding down Jose Altuve
The Astros lineup is deep, full of current and former stars, any one of which could ignite on a hot streak to carry their team enough to win two games. George Springer has had the team’s best year in 2020, while familiar foe for Twins fans Michael Brantley has been his patient, steady self. Former top prospect outfielder Kyle Tucker delivered in his first full season opportunity and is a power threat from the left side. Those three, along with Alex Bregman will need to be controlled by the Twins pitchers for Minnesota to advance, but the real key for the Twins might be extending second basemen Jose Altuve’s season long slump another few days. When he’s right, his contact and on-base skills at the top of Houston’s lineup provide needed balance and run scoring opportunities to the power that lurks in the rest of the lineup. A career .290 / .345 / .527 post season hitter, Altuve stumbled to a .219 / .286 / .344 line in 2020, uncharacteristically striking out in 18.6% of his plate appearances.
What to look for:
The root of Altuve’s offensive struggles in 2020 has been against breaking balls. Opponents have attacked him all season with spin. 33.6% of pitches thrown his way have been breakers, the highest rate of his career, and he has responded with a career-worst .135 batting average and .135 slugging percentage against them – managing only 7 singles in 54 PAs ending on a breaking ball. His Statcast expected numbers back this performance up, estimating a .151 expected batting average and .178 slugging percentage. Against right-handed pitchers, his actual numbers are a somehow even worse .122, with similarly poor expected stats.
Twins pitchers are well suited to exploit this weakness. Minnesota hurlers threw MLB’s highest percentage of curveballs and sliders in 2020 (40.6%). Not only did they throw a bunch of breaking balls, they found great success with them. Twins’ sliders (32.4 wSL) and curveballs (11.0 wCB) both were ranked as the most valuable in the sport from a pitch type linear weight perspective. Twins’ starters Kenta Maeda (38.6% sliders) and Jose Berrios (29.8% curveballs) rely on their breaking balls as their most often used offerings, and bullpen arms Tyler Duffey (56.3 curveballs), Sergio Romo (64.6% sliders), and Matt Wisler (83.4% sliders) follow suit. Deploying these breaking balls effectively to control the postseason hero will go a long ways toward Minnesota winning the series.
★ ★ ★
Scouting the Probable Starters for Games 1 and 2
Zack Greinke versus Kenta Maeda figures to be a command and control aficionado’s dream – the pair finished with the third and fourth lowest walks per nine innings among qualified starters, 1.21 and 1.35 respectively. Greinke no longer possesses the powerful raw stuff Twins fans remember from his Kansas City days, but he’s as creative and crafty as anyone in the sport from the right side in terms of mixing pitches, changing speeds, and hitting spots. Despite averaging just 88.1 mph on his fastball (3rd percentile), Greinke is aggressive with the his heaters, throwing his four-seamer and sinker more than 60% of his total pitches. He next uses a mid-80s slider/cutter and curveball about 15 percent each. The curveball is his toy pitch and he manipulates the velocity anywhere from the high-50s (yes, you read that right) to the high-70s. I think Nelson Cruz or Miguel Sano are the most likely candidates to receive a 58 mph eephus from Greinke later today. Despite the limited stuff, Greinke still averages about a strikeout per inning, and limited opponents to a solid 86.8 mph average exit velocity, good for an expected batting average allowed of .249. Because of the slow curveball, and occasional changeup, Greinke has reverse platoon splits – he’s tougher on left-handed hitters than right.
Framber Valdez is probably not as well known to Twins fans but matches up well with Minnesota. 5’11 and 240 pounds, the stocky lefty relies on a power sinker (55%, 93 mph) and curveball (33%, 80 mph). Valdez will throw a changeup about one out of ten pitches, but it’s a distant third offering compared to the other two. The calling card here is groundballs, which he generates in bunches – Valdez led all qualified pitchers with a 60% groundball rate this season. A rarity, Valdez has posted negative average launch angles in each of his three seasons, including -0.8 degrees in 2020. This season, he’s cut his walk rate (5.6%) to less than half it’s prior rates (13.4% 2019), which has allowed him to post the lowest ERA (3.57) and WHIP (1.12) of his career. He does allow a lot of hard contact – his 91.4 mph average exit velocity and 48.7% hard hit rate are both in the bottom five percent – but the challenge for hitters is getting those hard-hit balls elevated to go for extra bases, of which Valdez only allowed 14 all season. It promises to be a fascinating clash of styles with Valdez against the fly ball and extra base happy Twins hitters, to say nothing of the Twins 2020 struggles against left-handed pitching (81 wRC+ vs. LHP, 108 wRC+ vs. RHP).
★ ★ ★
Scouting the Bullpen lefties
Speaking of the Twins’ challenges against left-handers, let’s take a look at Houston’s bullpen lefties:
The surface stats indicate 25-year old rookie Blake Taylor has put together a marvelous first campaign, with a 2.18 ERA, 51% groundball rate, and 83 mph average exit velocity allowed. Primarily a two-pitch reliever, Taylor relies heavily on a 93-94 mph four-seam fastball (76.5%) and slider (22%). The batted ball analytics think highly of Taylor, estimating just a .180 expected batting average and .278 slugging percentage, driven largely by success with his fastball. Astros manager Dusty Baker uses Taylor against righties and lefties and Taylor has not shown a major discernable platoon split in just over 20 innings this season. The top line success doesn’t seem to be supported by the fielding independent estimators, evidenced by his 4.55 FIP and 5.25 xFIP. Those models cast doubt on Taylor’s true talent being this good, likely due in large part to an unsustainably low .196 BABIP, much too high 5.23 BB/9, and below average 7.40 K/9.
32-year-old veteran Brooks Raley is back in the MLB in 2020 after spending the prior five seasons playing in Korea. A starting pitcher internationally, Raley return to the U.S. as a reliever, beginning the year with Cincinnati before being traded to Houston in early August. Much like Taylor above, Raley is suppressing hard contact at league-leading rates (81.7 mph exit velocity, 21% hard hit rate), albeit in a different way. In Raley’s case, his success is on the back of a six-pitch mix, led by a 87 mph cutter that he throws 45% of the time. He works off the cutter with a slider that he throws away from lefties as chase pitch, a sinker and four-seamer that he also most often uses similarly out of the zone, and he will occasionally bounce a curveball. Altogether, the strikes most often come from the cutter, and the other offerings are various different looks hoping for swings and misses.
★ ★ ★
Road Woes against Home Strength
Interestingly, this matchup is a pairing of baseball’s best home team (Twins, 24-7 record at Target Field) and worst road team (Astros, 9-23 away from Houston). The Astros struggles on the road are due in large part to pitching. The team has a 5.58 ERA (3rd-worst, MLB) and 5.29 FIP on the road, allowing a .273 opponent batting average that was fourth worst in the league. That road performance pales in comparison to Houston’s mound success at home – 3.08 ERA, 3.39 FIP, .205 batting average against – which all rank among baseball’s best.
Offensively, the Astros also performed just slightly worse away from home, where there .241 / .308 / .409 line was good for 95 wRC+.
By contrast, Minnesota loves pitching at home. Minnesota’s staff home ERA of 2.91 was 3rd-best and supporting by a 3.40 FIP (3rd) and .216 opponent batting average allowed that was fifth-best.
What the projection models say:
Despite Houston’s losing season, pitching injuries, and offensive slump, the projection systems are still relatively bullish on their postseason chances. The Astros possess some of the American League’s best chances of advancing to the World Series.
FiveThirtyEight.com’s MLB predictions models assigned Houston the fourth best chances among the eight AL playoff teams, predicting the Astros winning the world series in 5% of their simulations. Those same simulations give the Twins the third-best chances in AL, coming out on top in 8% of projections. Any American League team advancing to the World Series looks to be a heavy underdog to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won the World Series in 32% of the simulations.
FiveThirtyEight is showing Minnesota as 55% to win this American League Wild Card Series, favoring Minnesota in each of the three games as of this writing on the morning of Game 1.
Fangraphs’ models are more conservative, limiting the Dodgers’ chances to around 20% and giving the Astros an even higher 6.6% chance of winning the tournament – a figure that is 3rd best in the American League, behind New York (9.1%) and Minnesota (7.1%).
Fangraphs’ models see this Wild Card Series as essentially a toss-up, favoring Minnesota 51% to 49%.
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.