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2018 AL Division Series FaBIO Pitching Preview: Houston Astros versus Cleveland Indians

Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

On the eve of 2018 AL Division Series Game 1, the tables that follow detail how current 2018 Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians pitchers rated versus starting pitcher or relief pitcher peers of their league(s) per my Fielding and Ballpark-Independent Outcomes (FaBIO) statistical evaluation system. Ratings will be presented both on a full-season basis and a second-half-only basis.

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Methods

Each non-bunt, non-pitcher-batting plate appearance is sorted into 1 of the following 12 categories, and the pitcher is charged with the league's typical 2018 runs value for said event.

1. BB or HBP, 2. K, 3. IFFB, 4. GB to pull-third, 5. GB to center-third, ..., 7. LD to pull-third, ..., 12. OFFB to oppo-third

Each pitcher's final runs per plate appearance value is compared to the league peer group's mean and standard deviation for that parameter to obtain their Overall Rating, which can be further split to examine how the pitcher performed versus Opposite-Handed Batters (OHB) and versus Same-Handed Batters (SHB). A Batted Ball Rating is determined similarly after omitting all BB+HBP and K events (individual components of the Batted Ball Rating are also computed such as GB Rating, IFFB Rating, etc., using GB per batted ball, IFFB per batted ball, ... to better assess its origins and sustainability). A Control (CTL) Rating (using BB+HBP per PA) and K Rating (using K per PA) are also determined. A Youth Rating is determined by comparing the pitcher's age relative to the mean and standard deviation (SD) for that role (SP or RP) in their league.

Each rating will be expressed on a 100 to 0 scale where the number indicates the expected percentage of league peers beaten on the stat. 50 denotes league-average with 84 being one SD above average ("plus", indicated by a green number in tables), 97 being 2 SD above average ("plus plus"), 16 being one SD below average ("minus", red number in tables), and 3 being 2 SD below average ("minus minus"). Asterisks denote southpaws.

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Results: 2018 Regular Season and Second Half Ratings of Houston Astros

Be advised that the full season and second half ratings of a pitcher who only appeared after the All-Star break will differ somewhat owing to that the sample of qualifiers' data to which theirs in being compared differs between the full regular season and second half.

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Starting Pitchers

The full season data looks as follows.

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And the 2nd half ratings follow immediately below this paragraph. The good news regarding the Astros dual aces is that Verlander and Cole rate in the 95th percentile or better overall in both tables. They are each triple plus at 100 against opposite-handed batters (OHB) over both timeframes, which is favorable in so much as 6/9 Indians batters set to face them figure to be lefthanded or switch-handed (likely all save for Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, and Yan Gomes). On the down side they have each allowed a relative ton of LD in the 2nd half and LD usually beget singles (2018 AL batters posted a 0.620 AVG and 0.911 SLG on LD). That Verlander is far more likely to surrender a pulled OFFB exposes him to increased risk of the extra-base hit (2018 AL batters posted a 0.489 AVG and 1.797 SLG on pull-third OFFB). With semi-mortal-in-August/cold-in-September switch-batter Jose Ramirez known to hit high-velocity four-seamers from RHP well, the duo figure to toss a high percentage of offspeed pitches to him around carefully located heaters.

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That McCullers' LHB-stifling curve seems to have returned to its dominant pre-2018 form over a limited body of 2nd half work bodes well for he and his squad headed into the ALDS. The K and batted ball profile ratings of Morton are down a surprising amount in the 2nd half, and that and his late season shoulder discomfort figures to have shortened his leash by a few innings (and calls his 2019 prospects for a return into greater question). Like Morton, Keuchel may well amount to more of an opener than starter in this series. A 17 LD Avoid Rating is especially low for such an extreme GBer as Keuchel, and that along with earlier OFFB contact has his overall Batted Ball Rating grading out as poorly as it ever has during the 2nd half.

Given James' dominance of same-handed batters (RHB, for him) at both the MLB and MiLB levels in 2018 (see below), the strategic play would be to use Keuchel as a 2- to 3-inning Game 3 starter who should compel Francona to put a few extra RHB in the starting lineup and then bring James in to face those RHB before any of the opposite-handed batters get a second PA look at Keuchel (daring Francona to PH early and thin his bench too much too soon). Even allowing for zero prior MLB postseason experience, James is clearly better than Keuchel as things stand now and the more the lineup can be stacked in his favor prior to his summoning the better he and the Astros stand to fare in that potentially pivotal game. For such a high-velocitied fastballer, James has had some trouble with early OFFB contact this season and more so against LHB (quite possibly related to overuse of the changeup).

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Despite to be expected spells of wildness, Valdez' extreme GB inducement and above-average K ability makes him a potential postseason bullpen wildcard that would not have to be hidden from RHB a la how Francisco Liriano was last October. The Astros have him on a regular throwing program at their spring training facility with a likely plan of adding him to the AL Championship Series roster should they advance and reports come back reasonably positive from West Palm Beach.

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Relief Pitchers

The full season data looks as follows.

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The 2nd half ratings are situated below this paragraph. Pressly has been outstanding as an Astro and amounts to the Verlander/Cole of the bullpen given the 100/99 OHB Overall Rating and half plus to plus SHB Overall Rating. Osuna has not been the K artist that he was before a tumultuous 2018 and now operates more as a strikethrowing semi-weak-contact-inducer. Osuna will close for the Astros this October owing to both his prior postseason experience in that role and that Pressly is just too valuable working against a LHB-heavy lineup over longer pre-9th stretches.

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Few modern-era postseason teams would have the luxury of omitting 3 of the McHugh/Sipp/Smith/Harris/Peacock/Rondon sextet from a Division Series roster, as the Astros are expected to do come Friday AM. McHugh should make the roster owing to plus to better RHB K Ratings and tolerable average to half-minus OHB Overall Ratings. Sipp's role for the ALDS would stand to be flipping the still dangerous Ramirez around to his far less powerful side once a game (perhaps in all of them) and facing another RHB or two (not surnamed Lindor) before/after him owing to 2nd-half extreme reverse splits. Joe Smith just has not been strong enough against RHB down the stretch to command a roster spot against a team that stands to start just 3 pure RHB regularly. A 2nd-half return of Harris' pre-2018 reverse splits profile garners him some consideration given the LHB skew of the opposing lineup, but he probably loses out to Rondon in this round based on Hinch's semi-recent deployment of the duo (in a mild upset, Harris did indeed make the announced-Thursday roster over Rondon). Peacock can rival McHugh at the RHB K but Brad's beyond bad batted ball profile and OHB performance has him sitting this round out. The lone saving grace of Devenski's distastrous injury-interrupted 2nd-half would be that the Control Rating was not red, too.

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Results: 2018 Regular Season and Second Half Ratings of Cleveland Indians

Starting Pitchers

The full season data is not particularly comforting for Astros fans, what with 4 RHSP rating plus or better and a 5th one missing out on joining them by a mere 3 percentile points.

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One silver lining would be that only Carrasco rated better than plus in the 2nd half, although he rates in Cole/Verlander territory at 99 Overall and without the batted ball blemishes that appear on that duo's 2nd half scorecards. None of the other four RHSP have dropped off too far though as all rate half plus or better in the 2nd half. Kluber, while still good, has not been the his former perennially elite FaBIO standout self down the stretch. Bauer has not quite been ramped back up to prior K form in the wake of his month off after being felled by a shin rocket. Rookie Bieber likely gets the Game 4 start nod and could prove a very tough foe for Houston in a scenario where their 3 less fearsome LHB are not producing offensively owing to a very strong anti-RHB repertoire.

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Fellow rookie Plutko seems unlikely to be rostered in any capacity owing to extreme trouble with pulled OFFB.

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Relief Pitchers

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Astros fans should be thrilled if Francona continues to use 2015 postseason Astro Perez over but 2-batter spurts, cognizant of his relatively shocking 2018 dominance of OHB and SHB alike. Key deadline trade acquisition Hand has fared nearly as well as Pressly overall since then, though he does sport a forward splits bias that gives Houston's key RHB more than a fighting shot against him. Still-a-third lefty Tyler Olson has been surprisingly similar to Hand down the stretch over a smaller sample of work while inducing more GB. The K ability of submariner Cimber has sunk since accompanying Hand from San Diego, and he figures to lose out to 2017 holdover Otero for a groundballing RHRP role on the ALDS roster. Miller and Allen are shadows of their formerly dominant FaBIO selves and we should be elated were the Indians to continue to trot them out into high-leverage situations and cross our fingers that the Astros batters do not miss the hittable/sluggable pitches they are sure to see.

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Look for the Indians to roster the 5 earlier SP standouts plus 6 true relievers in Perez, Olson, Hand, Otero, Miller, and Allen.

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The Forecast

The Astros hold some measure of an advantage in Game 1 in Houston with Verlander going against the not nearly so dominant as in seasons' past Kluber, and more so if Verlander can manage to keep the flyballs in the ballpark. As great as Cole has been, Carrasco seems a hair or two better right now and that may put some added pressure on the Astros lineup to hit whoever follows Carrasco in Game 2. That the Indians stand to have a definite starting pitching advantage in Games 3 and 4 back at home has to prod Hinch in the direction of quicker hooks for both Keuchel and Morton and especially so for the former.

Among key pitching-related questions to watch are ...

Does Francona turn too often to no longer so super super reliever Miller when other lefty options project to be better?

Can the Indians hold late leads against the Astros while relying so much on LHRP?

Does Hinch stick too long with fading former postseason standout starter Keuchel? Or does he shrewdly turn the reins over early to true rookie James in that tilt?

Will the too fidgety Clevinger get even more fidgety to his detriment in his first go as a postseason starter?

Can under-the-radar rookie Bieber continue his relative dominance of RHB in a projected Game 4 start?

Do one or both of recent injury returnees and probable ALDS relief options Bauer and McCullers get back up to plus performance speed during the series?

To what extent will the managers be willing to bring their Game 1 starters (Verlander and Kluber) in as Game 4 relievers on 3 days rest (as Hinch and John Farrell each did not so successfully in 2017)? Or instead could we see Kluber plus Carrasco taking on Verlander plus Cole on extra to ordinary rest in a winner-take-all Game 5 in Houston?

Can Francona and his pitching and bullpen coaches keep the nicknames straight when placing phone calls down to the bullpen?

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