Game 94, Mariners at Astros

marc w · July 17, 2017 at 5:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Ariel Miranda vs. Lance McCullers, 5:10pm

The Astros have clubbed the rest of baseball into submission. Jeff had a great article during the break about the historic gaps between the Astros’ offensive production and the rest of the league, pointing out what was at the time an 11 point gap in wRC+ between the Astros (at 129) and the Dodgers. The first series of the second half has seen that gap grow to 18 points. My favorite, though, is the summary stat Fangraphs displays called “Offense” or “Off” which is just the runs above (or below) average combining batting runs and baserunning. Now, baserunning is actually one of the few things the Astros are terrible at, so they’re docked 20-30 runs for it, but they still come out as having produced 116.7 runs more than the average big league team. In second place sit the Washington Nationals…with 53 runs more than average. That is, the Astros have had an offense *twice as productive* as the second-best offense in the major leagues. They are playing a different game (their *team* slugging percentage might hit .500 this series), and in doing so, screwing up the math for everyone else. Only 8 of the 30 teams are at or above league average in “Offense,” and only 9 have a wRC+ greater than 100. The Astros are going to force us to use medians instead of means if this keeps up.

They lead the majors in hits, and then for good measure, lead the majors in isolated slugging. They have the lowest strikeout rate in the majors (by a lot) after striking out more than any club from 2011-2016. It isn’t just that they’ve changed and improved, it’s that they did it so thoroughly and so quickly. Bringing in some low-K hitters helps, but a lot of it is the improvement of existing players; George Springer, the actual George Springer, now has a lower-than-average K%. Literally Jose Altuve now is a HR-slugging, middle-of-the-order type. Even Yuliesky Gurriel, who looked lost last year and whose slow start occasioned this article, is now a productive (though unspectacular) player. The Astros have drafted well (Correa!) and clearly have an elite player development group working in the minors, but this offensive juggernaut certainly looks like the product of by far the best major league coaching staff. We often think of player development as something that kind of stops once a player reaches the big leagues, but the Astros clearly don’t see it that way.

I talked about this when the M’s video on their coaching philosophy came out back in December of 2015, and how the M’s wanted to be a team that helped players improve in the big leagues. A huge component of that is an org-wide philosophy that can be tailored, but brings some consistency and predictability to minor league players who are often shuffling between 2 teams per season. However they’ve done it, the Astros have clearly implemented something like this. Back in that 2015 post, I noted how the Astros’ system led the affiliated minors in both HRs as well as K/BB ratio. A few years later, so is the parent club. The M’s have said all the right things on this; they’re aware of what they need to do, and seem to be trying to implement it. But days like this, where you look at the AL West standings, or when Jose Altuve’s SLG% is 30 points higher than Nelson Cruz’s (which is still quite good!), you realize just how big the gap is that they’re trying to close. I talked for years about the huge advantage in player development that the Texas Rangers had opened up – a gap that was made wider with their international scouting prowess feeding talented youngsters into that PD system – and how much of a cushion it gave them. For a variety of reasons, that gap isn’t as big as it once was, and the Rangers and M’s are pretty evenly matched right now. But for 3-4-5 years or so, the Rangers had this big, obvious advantage that allowed them to trade for help at the deadline or cover injuries. If the Astros advantage lasts that long, the M’s – and the AL – are in trouble.

Of course, hitting’s only half of the game. Unfortunately, the Astros appear to know this, and have a very good pitching staff as well. Today’s starter Lance McCullers has been, by fWAR, their best starter, especially with Dallas Keuchel on the DL. McCullers pairs plus stuff with two key, identifiable Astros core tenets: first, throw bendy pitches all the time, and second, keep the ball down. The Astros have thrown the highest percentage of low pitches in the AL (they rank 2nd in MLB behind Arizona), and they have the 2nd-lowest average pitch height for balls in play in the AL (behind Oakland). It’s no big surprise then that the Astros have the highest team-wide GB% in the AL, too. But they’re not a pitch-to-contact club: they lead baseball in K/9. They lead the league in whiff rates and allow weaker-than-average exit velocities when batters DO manage to make contact. They’re not perfect, as all of those breaking balls may be a reason why they’ve had some injury issues. McCullers has had shoulder AND elbow problems in his brief MLB career, and may never be a rotation workhorse. Dallas Keuchel says he pitched through shoulder pain all of 2016, and is now on the DL for a neck issue. Collin McHugh’s missed all of 2017 with an elbow injury, though he’s slated to rejoin the rotation imminently. Still, how they got to this point looks kind of similar to what we saw with the batters: huge jumps in ability after arriving in MLB. Dallas Keuchel was AAAA garbage for 230+ innings before becoming Dallas Keuchel, McHugh was waiver-wire fodder, as was Brad Peacock. Sure, McCullers was always a top prospect, and Chris Devenski’s turnaround happened in the minors, but even that just shows the Astros have multiple paths to success. Damn them.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Dyson, CF
8: Heredia, LF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Miranda

Mitch Haniger’s still out with an injured finger, so Heredia starts in LF tonight with Ben Gamel shifting to RF. The M’s have their lefty-heavy line-up in there against the right-handed McCullers, though McCullers actually has reverse platoon splits for his career (and 2017). McCullers’ insane curve/slider hybrid pitch is death on a stick to lefties and righties, but it seems especially tough for left-handers to pick up. Lefties are slugging .207 on the pitch in McCullers’ career, worse than righties. They’re also whiffing on it much more often than righties, and hitting more grounders. All in all, this isn’t the time for a lefty-stacked line-up, though of course Haniger’s injury doesn’t give them much of a choice.

Minor league probables tonight include Dylan Unsworth, Randy Bell, and top prospect Nick Neidert. Robert Dugger of Clinton’s already thrown today, and he led the Lumberkings to a 1-0 win with 7 shutout innings against Bowling Green. Unsworth faces off against spot starter Tim Shibuya of Tulsa. Shibuya’s a well-traveled 27-yr old who’s bounced between AA and AAA a few times in his career. He’s only made one appearance up in the PCL this season, though, but it was a memorable one. On May 5th, Shibuya faced Colorado Springs as a member of the Oklahoma City Dodgers. In 2 2/3 IP, Shibuya yielded 14 hits and *13 runs* before being sent back to AA. In the Texas League, however, he’s given up only 29 hits in 41 2/3 IP, mostly out of the pen, and put up a 1.30 ERA. Baseball is strange.


8 Responses to “Game 94, Mariners at Astros”

  1. WTF_Ms on July 17th, 2017 7:25 pm

    Apparently nobody else is watching this implosion of a 6th inning? Wow…

  2. Sportszilla on July 17th, 2017 7:30 pm

    Oh, I’m watching. Not sure there’s much to say beyond the fact that the Astros are not fun to play against.

  3. WTF_Ms on July 17th, 2017 7:31 pm

    This is the entire season in a nutshell.

  4. stevemotivateir on July 17th, 2017 8:44 pm

    And Segura successfully gets us through the 9th.

  5. WTF_Ms on July 17th, 2017 8:56 pm

    Power from 1st base! I guess we got ourselves a shortstop too! Now, if our bullpen can get us outta here.

  6. LongDistance on July 17th, 2017 11:35 pm

    It can be done. That’s nice to know. Good one.

  7. Notfromboise on July 18th, 2017 1:03 pm

    Watching most of these at work, I’m still around. This is the best hitting team we’ve had in 15 years. I think Dipoto might have been in the running for GM of the year had the entire pitching staff not gotten hurt/fallen off a cliff.

    I mean, in the preseason if someone had told you Mike Zunino would be the weak link in the lineup at .233 (flirting with a .750 OPS somehow!) with an improved walkrate…. You would have to assume we were competing for the division lead.

    Haniger, Gamel, Zunino, Segura, Valencia, Dyson, Guerrero…. Just about anyone swinging a stick for the Mariners has worked out this season. Its both exciting and frustrating as heck lol.

  8. Mid80sRighty on July 18th, 2017 4:47 pm

    I’m sure there’s been streakier teams, but this one has got to be up there.

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