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1,345 words about the Houston Astros: An Oakland A's series preview

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The Astros are good at a lot of things now. The Athletics will face their #4, #5, and #1 starters.

Houston Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick makes the catch as he passes in front of right fielder George Springer.
Houston Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick makes the catch as he passes in front of right fielder George Springer.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros have been in sole position of first place in the American League West division since the end of April 19 and have broken out to a six-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels. After going 2-6 to follow up their 10-game winning streak, the Astros now enter this series against the Oakland Athletics riding a five-game winning streak.

These Astros are 10-2 in one run games (including two wins against Oakland) and at 25-13 are riding the best start in the franchise's history. These Astros, who were projected to win around 79 games this year by Fangraphs, are playing out of their gourd, and are showing little sign of stopping.

Starting pitchers

This club's pitching staff has turned around its reputation as one that loves giving up walks. They had the sixth worst walk rate allowed in the American League in 2014 (7.9%), but now they're the best (6.5%). The A's are slated to face Lance McCullers, Roberto Hernandez, and Dallas Keuchel for the three games in Houston.

Monday vs. Lance McCullers

Monday (AA stats for McCullers)
Drew Pomeranz vs. Lance McCullers
4.42 ERA 0.62
3.80 FIP 2.26
4.17 xFIP
18.6% K% 9.5%
0.94 GB/FB

Instead of Brett Oberholtzer, whose throwing hand blister returned in his first start back from the disabled list, or even Asher Wojciechowski or Dan Straily from Triple-A, the Athletics will get the first crack at 21-year-old right-hander Lance McCullers, who makes the jump to the big leagues after just 29 innings in Double-A. This is kind of a big deal for Astros fans:

The 41st overall selection of the 2012 draft, McCullers is the #7 prospect in the Astros system, according to the Baseball Prospectus Top 10. He struck out 43 of the 116 batters he faced in his 29 Double-A innings and walked 11 while giving up just one home run. Why yes, that is a 0.62 next to "ERA" in that table on the right.

The Crawfish Boxes' Rodney Farva wrote this assessment last December:

McCullers boasts a power arsenal, as both his fastball and curveball project to be 65-70 pitches, but his delivery is high-effort and his changeup hasn't made that much progress. His control gets the best of him too often, unfortunately, and as a result, evaluators and scouts think it's 50/50 that he starts in the long-term. We'll see how he handles Double-A.

Tuesday vs. Roberto Hernandez

Tuesday
Sonny Gray vs. Roberto Hernandez
1.61 ERA 4.12
2.40 FIP 4.92
3.48 xFIP 4.42
24.5% K% 11.3%
1.37 GB/FB 1.95

The Baseball Reference pronunciation guide suggests you pronounce Roberto Hernandez's last name "CAR-moan-ah." Hernandez continues to pitch as a decent fifth starter with an ERA of 4.12 or a 103 ERA-, which is his best ERA- since 2010.

The righty Hernandez gave up on his four-seam fastball a long time ago, with his 90 mph sinker his primary pitch, according to Brooks Baseball. He also throws a changeup and slider, though the slider he pretty much only throws to right-handers, making him a two-pitch pitcher to lefties. Despite this, lefties have a .290 wOBA against him this season while righties have a .348 wOBA. I suspect that will turn around, as he's only ever had an even split.

This will be Oakland's first game against Hernandez this year.

Wednesday vs. Dallas Keuchel

Wednesday
Jesse Hahn vs. Dallas Keuchel
4.42 ERA 1.87
3.21 FIP 2.86
3.85 xFIP 3.29
15.0% K% 18.9%
2.41 GB/FB 3.81

April's American League pitcher of the month has taken a little bit of a downturn in his last couple of starts, giving up four runs and eight hits in games against the Angels and Blue Jays. Keuchel's team is 7-1 in his starts, which includes the extra innings win Houston earned after Keuchel threw nine shutout innings against the Athletics on April 24.

Keuchel, like Hernandez, relies primarily on his 90 mph sinker rather than his fourseam fastball. He also throws a changeup, slider, and cutter. The changeup has induced a whiff 21% of the time he throws it, the changeup 19%. Funny thing is he almost never throws the changeup against left-handed hitters, making the slider his primary strikeout pitch.

At the plate and in the field

A's AL Ranks Astros
3rd (4.56) RS/G 7th (4.45)
6th (103) wRC+ 9th (100)
7th (37) HR 1st (57)
4th (.259) AVG 15th (.229)
5th (.319) OBP 13th (.302)
9th (.400) SLG 5th (.419)
11th (.141) ISO 1st (.190)
7th (21) SB 1st (38)
15th (42) Errors 5th (22)
7th (4) DRS 4th (13)
15th (-17.9) UZR/150 9th (-5.2)

Another part of Houston's surge is that it leads baseball in home runs (57), is 3rd in the American League in walk rate (9.1% of plate appearances) and is not particularly worried that they're striking out at the second-highest rate (24.7%) as a result. This club also leads the AL in stolen bases, with 38. Their BABIP of .268 is second-worst in the American League, but what would you rather have? A few extra singles and doubles or see the Astros sock a few more dingers? I say DINGERS! DINGERS!

Leading Houston's offensive juggernaut is Jose Altuve, who is Houston's only hitter eligible for the batting title with a lower than 20.0% strikeout rate. Good thing that, given his .331 BABIP. He's also managed to hit five home runs already this year. His career high is seven.

On the flip side, the Astros have very few players hitting badly. Marin Gonzalez has been hitting poorly lately, having yet to draw a walk in the month of May and hitting .222/.222/.361. Evan Gattis is still climbing out of his terrible 0-for-24 start. In May, his five home runs and two doubles mean his .218/.228/.527 for the calendar month is good for a 102 wRC+. Overall, the Astros have given 330 of their 1,401 plate appearances (23.5%) to batters hitting at or below the Sogard Line of a 68 wRC+, though Carter's 142 plate appearance is right on that line.

A simple rating of a team's defensive capabilities is how many balls in play are converted into outs, which Baseball Prospectus calls "Defensive Efficiency." The Astros are fifth-best in the AL, with a 0.726. Oakland is sixth, with 0.717.

Bullpen

A's AL Ranks Astros
8th (118.2) IP 10th (117.1)
15th (5.08) ERA 2nd (2.15)
12th (4.36) FIP 1st (2.91)
14th (4.47) xFIP 1st (3.01)

The big offseason story for the Astros was the money they spent upgrading their bullpen, with Luke Gregerson closing effectively. The bullpen is no longer giving away game-crushing home runs like it did at a league-worst 1.06 HR/9 rate in 2014. That rate is down to 0.77 HR/9 in 2015, good for fifth-best in the American League.

2015 Stats Recent usage (pitch count from www.rosterresource.com)
Player Hand IP ERA K% GB% FB% 14-May 13-May 12-May 11-May 10-May 9-May 8-May
Luke Gregerson R 17.0 3.18 21.5% 57.4% 29.8% 20 25 13
O
F
F

D
A
Y
Chad Qualls R 14.1 3.14 29.8% 67.6% 17.6% 11 12 10
Pat Neshek R 15.1 2.93 25.9% 33.3% 53.8% 12 15 12
Tony Sipp L 15.1 0.59 25.4% 42.1% 44.7% 15 15
Will Harris R 18.0 0.50 37.5% 51.4% 25.7% 9 21 12
Josh Fields R 8.0 1.13 43.3% 50.0% 50.0% 10 13 6
Joe Thatcher L 7.2 2.35 29.0% 47.6% 33.3%
Jake Buchanan R No 2015 MLB appearances 89

The Games

Time (PT) Probable starters
Monday 5:10 PM Drew Pomeranz vs. Lance McCullers
Tuesday 5:10 PM Sonny Gray vs. Roberto Hernandez
Wednesday 11:10 AM Jesse Hahn vs. Dallas Keuchel

Wednesday's game features the first "Baseball Breakfast" radio simulcast on Comcast Sportsnet California, where the game will be televised with audio from the Oakland Athletics Radio Network. Vince Cotroneo, Glen Kuiper, and Ray Fosse will be on the call Wednesday.

New format for this series' poll: