Is it that time again? The Astros wake up and go into playoff mode? Or will Carlos Correa be pointing to his watch again?
Time for some random observations and opinions. And then a look at how the ZIPS playoff specific projections portray this series.
IT’S THE PITCHING, STUPID!
Pitching is important in the regular season, but it’s even more important in the playoffs. At least that’s my opinion. Over 162 games, a random pitching melt down can occur without long term consequences. But in a five game series, a pitching melt down in one game can reduce the odds of winning the game to a single digit percent. Good pitching reduces the run environment of a series, which in turn means that the offense has a much better chance of winning with 3 or 4 runs.
The Astros are favored to win this series. But if there is something that should scare the Astros’ fans, it’s the Twins’ starting pitching. The Minnesota pitching is ranked 5th (3.87 ERA) which is better than the 8th ranked Astros pitching (3.94 ERA). Of course, seasonal rankings can only carry you so far. The 1st (Brewers), 4th (Blue Jays), and 6th ranked pitching staffs have already been eliminated in the Wild Card round.
Breaking the overall pitching results into starters and relievers, the Twins’ rotation is ranked much higher than the Astros, and the Astros’ bullpen is ranked much better than the Twins. The Twins are ranked 2d in Starter ERA and 15th in reliever ERA. The Astros are ranked 12th in Starter ERA and 7th in reliever ERA.
But five game playoffs also provide an opportunity for teams to re-structure how they use their starters and relievers. The Astros can truncate their rotation to three front line starters, which mitigates the rotation’s main weakness this season. Assuming he makes the post-season roster, I would like to see former starter Hunter Brown used as a bridge reliever who can be inserted in the 4th, 5th, or 6th inning. Brown’s strike out capability can play up in a reliever role. This was a role that Brown briefly played in the 2022 playoffs.
I know this isn’t a shocking prognosis—but my conclusion is that the Astros’ chances will depend on how well the pitching returns closer to the form shown in the 2022 playoffs.
Much has been made of the fact that the Astros have a losing home record. That’s extremely abnormal for a playoff team. (The 2001 Braves were the last team to enter the playoffs with a losing home record.) But after reviewing the Astros’ home field disadvantage, my previous article concluded that the abnormal H/R split likely results from random variation. Abnormal things occur randomly—but with low probability.
So, the Astros shouldn’t go into this game thinking they are at a disadvantage at MMP. And, to the extent that home field advantage ordinarily increases due to crowd noise and excitement, the playoffs are a different scene than the regular season. The playoffs at MMP are much louder and noisier than the regular season games. And keep in mind that the Twins are not a good road team, with a .494 record on the road.
If the Astros want to eliminate the concerns about their home field record, they should take an early lead in the 1st and 2d innings. A constant feature of baseball home field advantage is that home teams tend to gain much of their scoring advantage in the 1st inning. It’s better not to play from behind at home.
ASTROS PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE
We know that the Astros are comprised of more players with experience in previous playoffs. The Astros clearly have the advantage over the Twins in playoff experience. The Twins’ playoff experience primarily results from the addition of former Astros Carlos Correa. From a sabermetric standpoint, it’s unclear how much—if any—weight we should give to this factor.
However, a 2008 Hardball Times study seems to support the notion that more playoff experience is associated with better performance in the playoffs. This was true of both hitters and pitchers in the study, with five years of post season experience as the most significant threshold for better performance. And there are intuitive reasons to believe that post-season experience will help players deal with the post season environment.
Lefty / Righty platoon advantages are often put under the microscope in the playoffs. As for lineup construction, the Twins are more LHB heavy than the Astros. (However, the Astros’ everyday LHBs, Alvarez and Tucker, are individually very big pieces of the offense.)
Given the LHBs available to the Twins, I think we will see Astros’ RH starters face more lineups dominated by LHBs. This is an opponent strategy which became more common during the regular season. Cristian Javier, in particular, fared much worse against LHBs.
However, at the overall pitching staff level, the Astros do not have significantly different splits against LH and RH bats. The OPS vs. LHB is .716 and .718 vs. RHB. The Twins’ pitching staff is significantly better against LHB than RHB (.720 OPS vs. RHB and .690 OPS vs LHB). However, the splits of Twins’ starting pitchers may provide a good opportunity to add LHB Michael Brantley to the Astros’ lineup. In particular, Joe Ryan and Sonny Gray are notably worse against LHBs.
Astros’ batters in the aggregate crush LHPs (.809 OPS), but also exhibit a lower split against RHPs (.751 OPS). The Twins’ batters exhibit a split which is the polar opposite of the Astros’. They hit worse against LHPs (.726) than RHPs (.762). Given that the Astros have few LHPs, this may give the Twins an advantage.
ZIPS PROBABILITIES FOR ALDS
My previous articles have focused on the Fangraphs Playoff Odds Model. You may have noticed that this model places a 56% probability for the Astros to win the ALDS. However, Fangraphs now offers an interesting alternative playoff odds model, the ZIPS post season-specific model.
The ZIPS model has several differences with the Fangraphs model—the most important is the use of specific game-by-game starting pitcher match ups to determine odds. In addition, it is based on ZIPS projections at the player level and an emphasis on team characteristics most important in a playoff setting. The ZIPS model arrives at a higher probability of the Astros winning the ALDS: 63.6%.
The Fangraphs ZIPS results game-by-game for the Astros in the ALDS are shown below.