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Astros: It’s a new series now!

The see-saw ALCS battle continues with yet another critical game.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Texas Rangers
Alex Bregman and Jose Abreu celebrate Game 4 victory.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When the Astros headed to Globe Life Park last weekend, the situation felt like their backs were against the wall. Down 0-2 in the ALCS, another loss might have been close to a death blow for the Astros’ chances. How have things changed in the next two games? The Astros dominated Games 3 and 4 at Globe Life Park, and the series is now tied 2-2.

Is it a new series now? Yes. The ALCS has turned into a Best of Three Games.

“Momentum? Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.” —Earl Weaver

Justin Verlander is the next day’s starting pitcher for the Astros. Verlander is one of the most experienced post-season starting pitchers in baseball history. Today’s Verlander undoubtedly exhibits different skills than he did 17 years ago in the 2006 playoffs. He is not a flame thrower anymore and his ability to induce the swing and miss is noticeably lower than previous seasons. He relies more on command and guile. But he has produced good pitching results in his two starts in the post season:

Oct. 2 - 15 (ERA/FIP/BA-Against/SLG-Against/OPS-Against)

1.42 ERA / 3.97 FIP / .222 BA / .333 SLG / .647 OPS

So far in this post-season, Justin Verlander has been very good at suppressing hitter exit velocity. Analysts may disagree on how much control pitchers have over exit velocity. Certainly there is some luck involved, but some pitchers appear to be better at suppressing or managing hard hit balls. Verlander’s pitching opponent in this game, Jordan Montgomery, could well be classified as a “contact manager.” Verlander’s 2023 post-season exit velocity ranking among Astros’ pitchers is shown below.

Astros 2023 Post Season Exit Velocity
Fangraphs Leaderboard

Verlander has done a better job at managing exit velocity than other Astros’ starting pitchers. The only pitchers with better exit velocity results are relievers Bryan Abreu, Phil Maton, and Ryan Pressly (albeit in small sample sizes).

As noted previously, Verlander’s ERA is considerably lower than his FIP this post-season. For 35 starting pitchers in the 2023 post season to this point, 17 have a FIP below their ERA and 18 have a FIP above their ERA. Verlander’s FIP is 2.5 runs higher than his ERA, which is the 8th largest margin among the 18 starting pitchers with a post season FIP higher than their ERA.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Verlander is due for regression. Some pitchers habitually beat their FIP. Verlander’s FIP has exceeded his ERA in each of the last eight years. A recent Fangraphs article “Outperforming Peripherals in the Post Season” is also informative. In the x-stat era, post season x-wOBA almost always exceeds actual wOBA. Post season pitchers have outperformed their FIP in 24 of the last 28 post seasons, according to that article. The post-season hitting and pitching is different than the regular season, which means that FIP and x-stats may not have the same relevance.

As stated in the Fangraphs article: “What’s interesting is that the postseason seems to select for pitchers who outperform their FIP.”

Here are some things to watch in Game 5. Can Verlander elicit swings and misses early on? Verlander had half as many swinging strikes in the ALCS game as the ALDS game (7 to 14). It would be a good sign if he can get a whiff count more similar to his ALDS game against the Twins. Home runs are another important factor. Over his career, Verlander gives up a fair number of HRs, but he manages to deal with them if they are solo HRs. Moreover, as the Fangraphs article, above, notes, although HRs are more important in the post-season, they are more frequently of the solo variety. Hopefully, Verlander can manage the sequencing of any HRs so that they don’t produce multiple runs.

An equally compelling part of the Game 5 story is Jordan Montgomery vs. Astros batters. Montgomery completely shut down the Astros in Game 1. Anytime a pitcher posts a 100% LOB rate, that’s bad news for the batters in the game. Montgomery is not a hard thrower, but instead is a finesse pitcher who is effective at mixing his off-speed, breaking, and fastball pitches. He also throws a sinker which elicits a moderate ground ball tendency (career 44% GB and 36% Fly). However, Montgomery’s ground ball rate is lower this post season (36%).

According to Baseball-Reference, the Astros’ batters have a t-OPS+ five percent lower against finesse pitchers and 13% lower against ground ball pitchers. But it’s possible that the batters will adjust to Montgomery’s finesse pitching in Game 5. Montgomery has pitched well this post season, but his ALCS start was much better than his previous pitching lines.

I think the Astros batters’ dominance over Lefthanded pitchers this year will work in their favor. During the regular season, the Astros had a 125 OPS+ (.845 OPS) against LH starting pitchers. Can Montgomery continue to shut down the Astros’ lefty mashing hitters? That may be difficult to repeat. But we will see.

The Fangraphs’ game-by-game playoff odds have not been updated since yesterday’s Astros’ win. However, the previously posted probabilities for today’s game favors the Astros by 53% to 47%. Those odds show the Astros with favorable probabilities of 56% and 52% for Games 6 and 7.