Friday, October 5, 2018

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 5, 2018 -- Indians/Astros



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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 93
October 5, 2018

The Rule: The least important words in a playoff preview are the last ones.

This is when we stop talking about “the opener” and “bullpenning.” The Astros/Indians series features more good starting pitching than the entire National League playoff field. We have five of the top six, and eight of the top 13, pitchers in the AL by Fangraphs WAR. The first three pitching matchups:

Corey Kluber (5) versus Justin Verlander (1)
Carlos Carrasco (6) versus Gerrit Cole (2)
Dallas Keuchel (9) versus Trevor Bauer (3) or Mike Clevinger (8)

If we get to a fourth game, you’d have to settle for Charlie Morton, 13th in fWAR, against whichever Indian didn’t start the third game. In an era where playoff teams are often built around bullpens and offense and even defense, this ALDS is a remarkable convergence of two teams with far and away the best rotations in baseball.

Best Starting Pitching, 2018 (by fWAR)

Indians   22.9
Astros    22.5

Mets      17.5
Dodgers   17.4
Yankees   16.9


That first-game matchup, Kluber versus Verlander, is as good as it gets, two pitchers who have combined for three Cy Young Awards and four other top-three finishes, and who are two of the rare 200-inning starters remaining in MLB. Verlander led the AL in strikeouts, K/BB, and fWAR this year. Kluber led in innings, BB/9, complete games and shutouts (as discussed, the latter two aren’t that impressive).

It’s the Indians’ rotation that gives the team a fighting chance. There’s a path through this series in which Kluber, Carrasco, and whoever starts Game Three mow down the Astros’ righty-heavy lineup, holding the defending champs to four runs in three games, and waltz into the ALCS. The Astros were in a virtual tie with five other teams for the best offense in baseball, but that offense was the worst of the bunch against right-handed pitching.

Right Makes Might? (Five best overall offenses in MLB, splits vs. RHP)

            AVG   OBP   SLG    OPS+  sOPS+

Red Sox    .275  .344  .473    112    123
Dodgers    .255  .337  .458    109    117
Yankees    .250  .329  .445    108    112
Athletics  .255  .327  .446    109    111
Astros     .246  .323  .410    109    101


sOPS+: OPS relative to the league in this split

The Astros can tinker around the edges, but their four best players all bat right-handed, and their first baseman is going to be a right-handed batter most days (Yuli Gurriel or Tyler White), as is the DH (Evan Gattis or White). Kyle Tucker and Derek Fisher failed to launch, so at most the Astros can get four lefties into their lineup. That’s a problem against the Indians; their starters are not only generally effective, but they eat right-handed batters alive.

Right Makes Might! (Indians’ SPs against RHB, 2018)

            AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   sOPS+

Kluber     .220  .247  .329   575     62
Carrasco   .229  .265  .369   634     78
Bauer      .213  .283  .312   595     69
Clevinger  .211  .263  .324   586     66


I’m on record as saying the Astros have managed to win 103 games as defending champions and still be underrated. I’m on record as saying they’re my pick to win the World Series. The primary challenge to those ideas will come in the next 30 hours, as they try to score off Kluber and Carrasco.

Let’s note that Bauer could show up in the bullpen in this series. That would be a boon to an Indians bullpen that was one of the worst in the AL this year. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller are simply not the pitchers they were two years ago. Adding Brad Hand helped a lot, but Adam Cimber pitched poorly as an Indian, striking out just four of the 73 right-handed batters he faced. Terry Francona needs help from the right side, and Bauer (and Shane Bieber) could provide it.

The Astros have no such concerns. They get Lance McCullers Jr. back for the playoffs, and he’ll pitch out of the bullpen. They added Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna to a group that was already very good. In McCullers, Brad Peacock, and Collin McHugh, A.J. Hinch has all the fun multi-inning weapons he did a year ago, plus rookie Josh James, and one-inning options in Pressly and Osuna. [Ed. note: Peacock was left off the playoff roster.--JSS] This staff is so deep that Hector Rondon, who posted a 3.20 ERA and 2.79 FIP, was left off the Division Series roster. Rondon would be the second-best reliever on the Red Sox, and maybe the best on the Indians.

The Indians’ rotation, and how it matches up with the Astros' bats, makes them dangerous. Still, it probably gets them just one win. Astros in four.

Brewers/Rockies

In Tuesday’s wild-card game, Adam Ottavino left an 0-2 slider in the strike zone and Javier Baez roped it into left-center for a game-tying double. I remembered thinking I’d seen this before, and I had. During the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run, there were two separate instances of a pitcher getting two strikes against Baez, who was even less disciplined a hitter then, and then delivering a hittable pitch that Baez turned around to drive in a key run. On Tuesday, the likelihood of a positive event in that situation was vanishingly small. As CJ Nitkowski reported, batters were 0-36 with 31 strikeouts against Adam Ottavino in 0-2 counts this year.

This brings us to last night in Milwaukee, with Ottavino back on the mound, protecting a 2-2 tie in the tenth inning, runners on the corners with two men out, Mike Moustakas at the plate. Ottavino got ahead of Moustakas quickly with fastballs up, Moose swinging through one and fouling off a couple more. Ottavino went back to the well on 0-2, and Moustakas lined a single into right to end the game.

Moustakas isn’t Baez, and in this case Ottavino was throwing fastballs instead of spinning a slider, but at some point, don’t you have to consider just burying something?  (On Twitter, @timcDC brought up Ottavino’s wild pitch three batters prior as a potential factor in the decision making here.) This marked consecutive outings in which Ottavino has given up the big hit by pounding the strike zone in a situation where there is simply no need to do so. Baez isn’t wired to take a pitch in a big spot with runners on base; he’s Andre Dawson, not Frank Thomas. You can let him get himself out. Moustakas is a bit more disciplined, but he’s still going to strike out in 0-2 counts half the time. Throwing a fourth straight fastball up and away is just giving him a chance to get the timing down. This wasn’t bad execution of a good idea; this was a bad idea, and it helped end the game.

Casual fans tuning in for the playoffs have gotten to watch the Rockies score seven runs in 32 innings this week, a reminder that this is a bad offensive baseball team. On the road, they hit .225/.295/.370 in 2018, and while we’ve spent 25 years talking about why raw road stats are not a fair representation of the Rockies’ ability, you can’t wave away a sub-.300 OBP. We got a good look last night at why the Rockies are unlikely to play past the Division Series: 12 strikeouts, two walks, one extra-base hit.

Braves/Dodgers

There’s not much to talk about here. The Dodgers scored four runs in the game’s first 12 batters, all on homers, and it was over. Hyun-Jin Ryu threw seven shutout innings in what was his longest outing, by pitch count, in more than four years. It was hard to not watch this game and see the enormous gap between a team that has been trying to win a World Series for six years, and one that has to be a little surprised to be trying to win one this year.

Mike Foltynewicz had velocity and nothing else. I’ve expressed concern over his innings before, and it’s facile to say that what we saw last night is related to him being 30 innings past his career high. I will say that it’s not just innings for me; I wonder about guys who’ve never been asked to play this deep into a year as well. It usually comes up with rookies in September, but it’s also a point you can make about all players heading into their eighth month of baseball, and pitchers who have been working since the middle of February.

The Braves were not competitive last night; tonight, they face Clayton Kershaw. Give them all the credit in the world for just getting to this point, but they could just end up as cannon fodder for a Dodgers team that is the best in the NL.

Read This Stuff

Ben Reiter on Chris Correa, the Cardinals’ exec who accessed the Astros’ computers

Yahoo’s Jeff Passan collected ballots (including mine) for an All-MLB team

Andy McCullough looked back at Game Five of the 2017 World Series

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