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What to make of ALDS as Astros head to Minnesota

Astros face a tough task with the series tied 1-1.

MLB: ALDS-Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros
Yordan Alvarez reacts after hitting a 2 run HR in the 8th inning of Game 2, ALDS.
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s game won’t be easy. But, hey, that’s what playoffs are all about.

After splitting the first two games at Minute Maid Park, the Astros now face something similar to a best of three games Wild Card series. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ALDS goes to five games. In fact, I suspect it’s more likely than not.

Sonny Gray

Gray, the Twins’ starting pitcher in Game 2, doesn’t have any identifiable weaknesses. He is a legitimate 5+ WAR starting pitcher. He has pitched over 180 innings with a 2.74 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. And, it’s not like he comes in struggling recently. His ERA over the last two weeks of the season is 1.80, allowing a paltry .184 batting average and .495 OPS.

Gray is not a high velocity thrower, with his 4 seam fastball and sinker both coming in at 92 - 93 mph. He relies on multiple effective breaking pitches to bedazzle hitters. His slider, in particular, is a plus offering. Gray is a groundball pitcher (49% GB rate), and Astros’ batters would be well advised to exercise a patient approach and avoid quick groundball outs.

Although Gray doesn’t have any clear weaknesses, if we squint, we can find a few potential vulnerabilities:

  • Gray has enjoyed some batted ball luck, and should be in line for moderate regression in his ERA, particularly in terms of home run rate. Gray’s x-ERA (3.69) is almost a full run higher than his ERA, and his x-FIP (3.65) is also considerably higher than his earned runs. This is due to a low (and likely unsustainable) 5.2% HR/fly ball rate. However, we have no idea when his HR rate will regress to a more sustainable level. HR rates are very volatile. (Just ask Hector Neris is Game 1.) Astros fans can hope that the power hitters on the team can help Gray’s HR rate normalize in Game 3.
  • Gray platoon splits indicate that LHBs have a better chance against him than RHBs. The OPS split is .580 against RHBs and .636 against LHBs. Gray’s results are not terrible against LHBs, but he is notably tougher on RHBs. If Michael Brantley is not starting in Game 3, the Astros will have only two lefties, Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. But, as we know, Tucker and Alvarez are very special lefthanded batters.

Given how tough Gray pitches to righthanded batters, it is unfortunate that Michael Brantley is not expected to start Game 3. This might have been a good opportunity to start Yainer Diaz at catcher, so that both Brantley and Diaz could be in the lineup against a very tough RH pitcher.

Cristian Javier

This is an important start for Astros pitcher Javier. That’s obvious. The 2022 post-season Javier was practically unhittable. The 2023 regular season Javier has been disappointing. We can hypothesize that some combination of fatigue, mechanical problems, or injury caused a significant drop off in pitch effectiveness from the first to the second half.

This isn’t promising, right? Hold your conclusions, though. Javier has shown marked improvement in the last four games. The hope is that Javier has gradually begun to fix the issues which caused the precipitous decline in performance in the second half. Last month I wrote about the apparent return of the “old” Javier; in particular, his excellent start on Sept. 20 was closer to his 2022 World Series performance than to his 2023 seasonal performance. Is this just a figment of small sample size, or did Javier turn the corner? We will find out.

Over the the four game span from Sept. 15 to season-end, Cristian Javier posted an excellent batting-against line:

Batting Average 0.192 OBP .265 SLG .301 OPS .567

Over that same span, Javier’s ERA and FIP was 3.05 and 3.06, compared to 4.56 and 4.58 for the season. And Javier’s K rate was much better: K/9 11.79 vs. 8.83 seasonal.

Given the small sample size, the change in underlying pitch characteristics may be a more meaningful metric. In his last four starts, Javier’s Stuff+ Location+, and Pitch+ all improved over his seasonal pitch characteristics. Javier’s pitch quality is highly dependent on his 4 seam fastball and slider. The more recent four starts exhibited notably better “stuff,” as indicated by Stuff+ . The fastball and slider were 1% and 8% above average on the season, but the more recent Stuff+ shows a fastball 8% above average and a slider 13% above average.

One of Javier’s most significant improvements from 2021 to 2022 was his command of pitches. If Javier can throw strikes, his stuff is good enough to win. Over the last four starts, he increased his strike percentage from 62% to 64%, which may not sound like much—but even a small increase can reduce the BB% and put batters in worse counts. His excellent Sept. 20 start produced a 68% strike rate. If he repeats that kind of strike percent, the odds are good that he will win.

One of my concerns for Javier in this game is how he will perform against a lineup loaded with LHBs. Javier’s OPS+ against LHBs is 119 and 74 against RHBs. That is a huge split. In that respect, the Twins’ LHB heavy lineup is a poor match up for Javier.

Given the opposing pitcher, the Astros probably need to win a low scoring game in Game 3. And Javier’s performance is a key to keeping the score low.

Can Yordan Alvarez Continue His Mastery?

Gray has been somewhat lucky on the home run front. I think the Astros’ ability to hit HRs will be a key for the Astros. Yordan Alvarez has hit 3 HRs in 2 games so far. He has been a master of the ALDS, both this year and last year. Yordan’s batting stats in the 2 games to this point are really, really good:

Batting Average .429 OBP .500 SLG 1.714 OPS 2.214

Isolated Power (ISO): 1.29

At some point, I suspect that the Twins will begin to pitch around Alvarez, giving him a free pass. That leads to an additional question: Can Kyle Tucker come through when Yordan is on base? In the 2 games so far, Tucker has batted poorly, with a slash line of .143, .250, .285, OPS .535. At this point, he has shown an uncharacteristic proneness to strike outs. Jose Abreu, batting behind Tucker, has been even worse so far. These two “RBI guys” need to reverse course.

ZIPS Playoff Odds for Astros

I now will turn to the ZIPS playoff odds at Fangraphs. The Astros’ ALDS win probability is now 58.3%. In Game 3, the ZIPS model favors the Twins by 50.7% to 49.3%. Looking at the Gray vs. Javier pitching match up, the odds are surprisingly close, almost a toss up. What do I infer? This is telling us that the ZIPS model likes the Astros’ offense a lot better than the Twins’ offense.

The model suggests that it’s reasonably likely that the Astros leaves Game 3, down 2 games to 1. But, if that happens, the model still likes the Astros in the remaining two games. The model projects that the probability of the Astros winning the series in 4 games is 27% and in 5 games, 31%. Together these probabilities sum to 58%.

Have fun watching or listening to today’s ALDS game.