Game 147, Astros at Mariners
King Felix vs. Collin McHugh, 7:10pm
In September of 2014, the M’s returned home following an inordinately successful road trip. Their record was 78-64 as they prepared to host the Houston Astros, and they had King Felix on the hill. Their wildcard odds at that point were right about 50%. While Felix won that one, the Astros and then the Blue Jays conspired to ruin what had been an out-of-nowhere playoff push. As late as the final week of the season, the M’s still had playoff odds of better than 1/3, but Collin McHugh and the Astros held the M’s at bay, and then a disastrous series in Toronto put an end to the M’s hopes. I recount all of this not to revel in pessimism, but to point out the almost eerie parallels between this year and 2014, and how nice it is to have another shot at this.
It’s also to point that Houston’s played a remarkably outsized role in two AL playoff races in the last three years. In 2014, the M’s lost 4 of 6 critical games to the Astros, who’d go on to finish 70-92. This year, the Astros are much better, so it’s less of a surprise that they’re 8-5 against the M’s, but it’s a key reason why the M’s trail Toronto in the Wild Card race. The Astros themselves are in 3rd in large part because of their complete inability to compete with Texas, who’s an astonishing 15-4 against them. Houston and Seattle are normal, in that they have much better records against worse-than-.500 clubs, while Texas, perhaps the oddest team in recent memory, is actually better against .500+ teams, largely because that group includes the Astros (and Mariners).
Collin McHugh came out of nowhere to post a great 2014 season, but he’s struggled to regain that form. While the Astros’ improvement helped his record, he declined quite a bit in 2015 thanks to a much higher BABIP and a decline in his K-BB%. While his K-BB% has rebounded some this year, it’s been more than offset by a spike in home runs – the problem that got him waived by New York and Colorado before his Houston renaissance. As fortunate as his 2014 was, his 2016 is Chris Snelling-level cursed. His BABIP is now a about 100 points higher than it was in 2014, and coupled with his HR trouble, he’s been a mediocre starter by fielding-dependent metrics.
For a guy who uses a roughly equal mix of fastballs, slider/cutters, and curves, he’s got surprisingly little in the way of platoon splits. In the past, his success against lefties was a key component of his value. Now, his LACK of success against *righties* is driving his slide into back-of-the-rotation status. I’ve said that many times this year (this’ll be McHugh’s 4th start of the year against Seattle) and it hasn’t mattered; McHugh is 3-0 against the M’s, who’ve managed just a .640 OPS against him. In his last start against the M’s back in July, McHugh K’d 10 in 6 IP. That’s surprising, given just how bad McHugh’s struggled against everyone else. Righties have teed off on McHugh’s underpowered four-seam fastball; they’re slugging .727 off of it. Meanwhile, lefties are feasting on his cutter, against which they’ve slugged .713.
The key to this game, though, is Felix. In 2014, Felix had a rough ending to the year, culminating in a 10-1 loss in Toronto that was essentially the M’s death knell. He recently suffered through back-to-back disaster starts, and he’s had some pretty bad Septembers in recent years. That said, I think this is the outcome every M’s fan wanted: Felix starting the first game of a crucial homestand, with the M’s riding an 8 game win streak. I don’t want to take too much comfort in these “playoff-like” substitutes that Felix has had to settle for, but it’s pretty awesome to see meaningful baseball in September again. Like Larry Stone, I have no idea how this team is in this position all of the sudden, but I’ll take it.*
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Martin, CF
8: Vogelbach, 1B
9: Marte, SS
SP: KING FELIX
The M’s get a bit of a break, as new Astros 3B Alex Bregman’s not making the trip after injuring his hamstring. After starting off his MLB career with an absymal 2-38 slump, Bregman’s hit .310/.353/.582 in 37 games. Of course, he’s not the only addition the Astros have made since the last time these two clubs met back in July. The Astros now feature Yuliesky Gurriel, the Cuban corner IF/OF, who’s off to a great start in MLB – the 32 year old has played 21 games, and he’s hitting .338/.360/.521.
The Jackson Generals won the Southern League Championship last night in Mississippi with a dominant 11-3. Jackson knocked out the opposing starter after 2/3 of an inning. Tyler O’Neill was named the series MVP after winning the season MVP. Jackson had the league’s best record as well. Really can’t see how this season could’ve gone any better except for maybe avoiding that weird late-season slide that kept them from having the best record in both halves. It’s going to be fun to see Tyler O’Neill in Seattle next year (figure he’ll get a call-up at some point).
The last club still playing is Clinton, who’ll start Kevin Gadea in Game 3 of the MWL championship series on Saturday. Great Lakes counters with Caleb Ferguson, a 38th rounder out of an Ohio HS who’s been a nice surprise for the Dodgers org this year. He began the year in Rookie Ball, but moved up to make 10 starts for Great Lakes. In 50+ innings, he’s walked just *3* and struck out 41. Over 3 levels in the low minors, Ferguson’s K:BB ratio is 63:5. Mind you, Gadea’s no slouch either. He’s at 95:14 on the year, and he misses a lot more bats than Ferguson. Gadea’s struck out 31 more batters than Ferguson in the exact same number of innings at this level.
* The Astros facing Texas for 2 series while the M’s dealt with LA and Oakland certainly helped, of course.