Series Preview: Astros Brave Frigid Minnesota to Take on Twins, April 9-11, 2018

As the Astros head to Minnesota for three games against the Twins this week, the big issue is not so much the strength of Miguel Sano’s bat as much as it is the freezing temperatures the city is experiencing. Yesterday’s game in Minnesota had to be postponed due to threat of snow but so far it seems this week’s games will be played as scheduled.

Both teams sit atop their respective divisions, the Astros with an 8-2 record and the Twins going 4-3.

Minnesotans would probably not be wise to write off the Astros as subtropical weaklings unable to play in the ice and frost. As recently as Opening Day 2016, the Astros bundled up at Yankees Stadium and won a rematch of the 2015 Wildcard Game against the Yankees that pitted Dallas Keuchel against Masahiro Tananka.

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Don’t tell the Astros they don’t know how to play in cold weather

That’s not to say that the cold won’t be an issue this week – especially in the first two games of the series, which will be played in the evening hours. We’ve already seen Ichiro Suzuki and Bryce Harper play very conservatively in the outfield this week, allowing balls to drop that they probably would otherwise have caught, simply because they (wisely) decided not to throw their bodies at the hard frozen outfield walls. It’s possible that frozen fingers will create some extra throwing errors, wild pitches, or hit batsmen.

The most important thing for both teams may be to come out of the series healthy.

The Bruised and the Battered

For the Twins, pitchers Ervin Santana and Phil Hughes will be on the disabled list this series – Santana returning to health after undergoing surgery on his right middle finger, and Hughes nursing a strained left oblique. For the Astros, first baseman Yuli Gurriel will continue his rehab assignment with AA Corpus Christi and is scheduled to rejoin the team for Friday’s game against the Rangers in Arlington. Though not on the DL, outfielder George Springer will probably be restricted to DH duty early in the series after experiencing some leg pain running to first base in yesterday’s game. Also, it was announced just before game time that Josh Reddick will be unavailable to play in Monday’s game due to illness.

Former Astro Sightings

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Former Astros Jason Castro and Robbie Grossman will have a chance to meet up with their former teammates

The Minnesota series will give Astros fans a chance to see a couple of familiar faces in Jason Castro and Robbie Grossman. Castro is hitting just 1 for 16 this season and Grossman, 1 for 10. However as Luis Valbuena shows, former Astros often display flashes of unexpected brilliance when they play their old pals in the orange and blue, so Astros pitchers ought not sleep on those two players.

Where the Astros Stand

With World Series rings fresh on their fingers and probably glad to have all of the early-season pomp and ceremony behind them, the Astros come into the series in the midst of their worst regular season hitting slump since they were swept by the Cleveland Indians May 19-21, producing just 14 hits over the three games. In the series just concluded versus the Padres, Astros bats managed 16 hits. Perhaps the good news is that just a couple of weeks after that miserable series in Cleveland, the Astros capped off the month of May with a slugfest against these very same Minnesota Twins that included one of the Astros’ greatest offensive explosions in franchise history. Yeah, I’m talking about the Memorial Day Comeback, in which the Astros scored 11 runs in the eighth inning on May 29.

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Minneapolis is the scene of one of the Astros’ greatest comebacks in franchise history

Even as the bats have struggled, the 2017 World Series champs are showing why they are serious contenders to repeat in 2018. The Astros pitching staff now boasts an MLB-leading 2.00 ERA (no, I’m not rounding), making it difficult for opponents to beat the Astros unless their own starting pitcher puts up a Cy Young-level performance.

Be on the alert for an offensive breakout by Alex Bregman this series. While Bregman brings a puny .184 batting average to Minnesota, he has managed to strike out just 11% of the time, putting lots of balls in play and giving himself many chances to get on base. The BABIP dragon stays on no one’s back forever, so once Bregman is free and clear of the beast, opposing pitchers should be on guard.

Where the Twins Stand

The Twins, for their part, bring one of the American League’s higher-revving offenses into the series. They boast a .769 team OPS, good for third place in the AL, and they are led by Miguel Sano (1.147 OPS with 3 home runs), Eduardo Escobar (1.131 OPS), Brian Dozier (1.063 OPS with 4 home runs), and Joe Mauer (.962 OPS).

The cold may not be enough to slow down speedster Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario, both of whom have swiped two bags this season. Neither have been thrown out.

On the pitching side, the Twins have been a walk-happy bunch, issuing an average of 6.2 bases-on-balls per 9 innings (highest in the AL). Strikeouts have not been plentiful for Twins pitchers either; the trio of starters lined up against the Astros have K’d only 21 batters over 24.2 innings pitched. If those woes continue, it could be a relief for Astros hitters, who have struck out nearly 30% of the time this season – a mark painfully worse than the excellent 19.4% they put up in 2017.

Having had days off on Friday and Sunday, the Twins bullpen will be well-rested, which is a stark contrast to its situation when the Astros pummeled the Twins in late May of last year. Zach Duke, Ryan Pressly, Addison Reed, and Taylor Rogers are all pitching well in the early weeks of the season. On the other hand, Gabriel Moya, Trevor Hildenberger, and Fernando Rodney are still trying to hit their stride in regular season play. Tyler Kinley is something of an unknown in the Twins ‘pen at present. He has recently been promoted from AAA, where he carried an ERA in the mid-threes.

Pitching Matchups

Game 1: Lynn vs. Verlander

Lance Lynn, the former Cardinal, gave up 5 earned runs, 3 hits, and 6 walks over 5 innings pitched in his last outing against the Pirates, a game which included a grand slam by former Astro Colin Moran. Lynn’s poor showing last time out is not suggestive of future perormance, however. A veteran of the 2011 and 2013 World Series, Lynn is a hardened pro who is going to come into today’s game determined to win.

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The Pittsburgh crowd demanded a curtain call when former Astro Colin Moran hit a grand slam off today’s Twins starter, Lance Lynn

Justin Verlander is coming off an outing that didn’t quite measure up to his unusually high standards, giving up 6 hits (including two home runs), a walk, and 3 earned runs over 5.2 innings while striking out nine hitters. Verlander has been quoted in the press as saying he believes the cold is, overall, harder on hitters than pitchers. Having played in Wisconsin for many years, he is certainly accustomed to the chilly weather. In his one game against the Twins last season (which he pitched as a member of the Detroit Tigers), Verlander took a loss, giving up four earned runs over five innings, striking out just four and walking six.

Game 2: Jake Odorizzi vs. Dallas Keuchel

This will be a battle of the soft-tossers, with both pitchers keeping their fastball in the low-90s.

2018 is Odorizzi’s first year as a Twin after serving as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays since 2013. Odorizzi has given up only three earned runs over 10.1 innings (comprising two starts) this season, striking out nine and walking five. In his recent appearances, Odorizzi has displayed a willingness to go to his curveball much more often than in previous years. Perhaps as a result of going to more breaking pitches, Odorizzi has induced opposing hitters to whiff 11.7% of the time in this young season, which would be a career mark for him if he can sustain it.

Last time out, Keuchel got into pitch count trouble, throwing 104 pitches over just five innings. He has given up four earned runs over 11 innings this season, striking out only seven batters and walking five. Appearing to lack control at times, Keuchel already has two wild pitches on the season. It must be said that to an extent, his woes last time out were due to poor infield defense, which could have shortened some innings and kept his pitch count down. One positive note from Statcast is that the spin rate on Keuchel’s pitches (for all pitch types combined) is 2114 rpm, a higher mark than he has posted since Statcast began collecting this type of data in 2015. That bodes well for the degree of deceptive movement Keuchel will be able to create with his pitches this season.

Game 3: Kyle Gibson vs. Lance McCullers Jr.

Kyle Gibson began this season by pitching six innings of no-hit baseball against the Orioles, but was pulled after throwing 102 pitches, presumably to avoid injury. Might Gibson have nothced his first no-no had manager Paul Molitor not pulled him from the game? We will never know. In his second outing, Gibson was much more hittable, surrendering seven hits and a walk but only one earned run over 4.1 innings against the Mariners. Gibson, who is coming off a couple of disappointing seasons, each of which ended with a 5.07 ERA, has surprisingly thrown just 26% of his pitches in the strike zone this year.

McCullers, who was selected to the All-Star Game last year, has given up four earned runs over 10.1 innings pitched, including 17 strikeouts and four walks. He has thrown his signature “power curve” ball 57% of the time, which is significant because that is not only more often than he threw it last year, but also because he has added a couple more mph in velocity. The pitch now comes at hitters at around 88 mph. This combination of speed and deceptive movement has garnered for Lance an excellent 17.6% whiff rate over his first two games of 2018. He is also doing a much better job of starting out hitters with an 0-1 count this year, throwing 68% of first pitches to batters for strikes, up from 56% last year.

All in all, it looks set to be a memorable few days of baseball in Minnesota. Wishing all the players health and safety on the field as they deal with the chilly weather.