Series Preview: Arlington Rangers at Houston Astros, April 13-15, 2018

      Game 1: Gerrit Cole vs. Cole Hamels

     Game 2: Charlie Morton vs. Mike Minor

     Game 3: Justin Verlander vs. Bartolo Colon

Today the Silver Boot race continues at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros and Rangers will play three games. Both teams are coming off disappointing results in their previous series, with the Rangers being swept by the Angels and the Astros losing two of three games to the Twins. In the coming days, the Astros will try to climb back into first place in the AL West, having been overtaken by this year’s strong team out of Anaheim.

The Astros bring an AL-leading 2.57 ERA into their homestand, while the Rangers’ 4.94 ERA is second-worst in the league. Offensively, the Astros have outperformed the Rangers to this point in the season, posting a team OPS of .730 to the Rangers’ .655. Owing to a more patient approach at the plate, the Astros have racked up the walks in 2018, bringing their on-base percentage to .341, second only to the Angels in the AL.

The Bruised and the Battered

The Rangers come to Houston without the services of some key players. Center fielder Delino Deshields is recovering from hamate bone surgery, while Rougned Odor is nursing a sore hamstring. Starting pitcher Doug Fister is on the disabled list with a bad hip and, most recently, Elvis Andrus has headed to the DL with a fractured wrist sustained on a hit-by-pitch. Andrus had been leading his team with a .411 wOBA and will be replaced by infielder Ronald Guzman, who hit .298 for AAA Round Rock last year. Replacing Odor is infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who hit .288 at the AA level last season and has not spent significant time at AAA. Relief pitcher Tony Barnette has joined the big league club in Fister’s absence.

yuli 2
Astros fans eagerly await the return of Yuli Gurriel, recently recovered from hand surgery

The Astros are in much better health than their Silver Boot opponents. Most importantly, Yuli Gurriel will be rejoining the club for his first game of the 2018 season after undergoing hamate bone surgery and serving a five-game suspension. In order to make room for Gurriel on the active roster, third baseman J.D. Davis has been reassigned to AAA Fresno. Lefty reliever Tony Sipp is still on the DL with a strained oblique and is replaced by righty James Hoyt.

Players to Watch

Alex Bregman, who started the season in a hitting slump, has started to catch fire and looks poised to continue his offensive barrage against Arlington. Evan Gattis is due for a similar breakout. Although Gattis has struck out at an uncharacteristically high pace this season, he has made good contact on the ball, limiting himself to a 3.7% whiff rate. Good fortune is bound to return to Gattis pretty soon, so don’t be surprised to see El Oso Blanco shoot a couple baseballs over the train tracks this weekend.

For the Rangers, infielder Jurickson Profar looks primed to reverse his early-season bad luck at the plate. Profar has struck out only 3 times in 24 at-bats, gathering 4 hits and 7 walks in that time.

rangers astros
Carlos Correa has been a top offensive performer for the Astros to start the season

 

Offensive Leaders

For the visiting Rangers, Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Gallo pose the chief home run threats, each having three long-balls to their credit already. Adrian Beltre and Nomar Mazara further bring above-average bats to the series. For the Astros, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, and Max Stassi bring some of their team’s hottest bats. Particularly as the Rangers’ catching duo of Juan Centeno and Robinson Chirinos has yet to throw out a base stealer this season, be on the watch for Jake Marisnick, Derek Fisher, Altuve, and Correa to swipe a base or two.

The Strugglers and Stragglers

Not everyone has gotten off to a hot start for Texas’ major league baseball teams. For Arlington, Drew Robinson and Robinson Chirinos have been strikeout machines at the plate, as have Jake Marisnick and Derek Fisher for Houston. Rangers sluggers Joey Gallo and Ryan Rua have been beset by an unusually high swing-and-miss rate, and would like to start making more contact with the ball soon. The swing-and-miss bug has also affected Houston’s Marwin Gonzalez, who would like to start hitting more like he did in 2017 than he did in 2016.

Pitching Matchups

All six starting pitchers scheduled for this series bring high strikeout rates. For the Rangers, Cole Hamels has K’d 32% of opposing hitters so far this year. Mike Minor has whiffed 29% of batters, and Bartolo Colon, 24%. The Astros, who have been striking out at a much higher rate this season than last, will have to be especially careful as they face these pitchers.

In Game 1, Hamels will face off against Gerrit Cole. Hamels brings a 5.90 FIP over 16 innings pitched this season. While he has managed to strike out a lot of batters, he has also been prone to the home run ball, giving up 5 dingers in just 3 starts. Cole has K’d 22 batters while giving up just one earned run and 3 walks over 14 innings this season. In his April 1 start against Arlington, Cole went 7 innings, striking out 11 batters and walking 3. He is off to one of the hottest starts of any newly-inducted Astros starter in the franchise’s history.

In Game 2, Arlington’s Mike Minor faces off against the Astros’ Charlie “Salt Man” Morton. Minor, who faced the Astros exclusively as a reliever last season when he was a member of the Kansas City Royals, has seen his fastball velocity dip over two mile per hour to 92.5 mph this season, something not terribly unexpected for a pitcher converting from a relief role to a starting gig. On April 1, Minor gave up two earned runs to the Astros over 4.2 innings. He has had difficulty inducing ground balls, so the Astros will try to capitalize on line drives and hard-hit fly balls in this game. Morton has yet to allow an earned run this season over 12 innings of work. In that span, he has whiffed 13 hitters and given up 5 walks. He has already won games over the Orioles and Padres, and will attempt to earn his third victory on Saturday. In 2017, Morton had two starts against Arlington, giving up a total of four earned runs over 11.2 innings.

correa colon.jpg
Veteran starter Bartolo Colon struggled against the Astros in Atlanta last year

On Sunday, Bartolo Colon will square off against Justin Verlander. When the Astros last faced Colon on May 9 last year, he was a member of the Atlanta Braves, and the Astros tagged him for 8 earned runs over 5.2 innings. Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran all homered off of the portly vet, and Alex Bregman added a triple. MLB’s oldest player (yes, even older than Ichiro), Colon will turn 45 on May 24. This year, Colon has made one start and two relief appearances, limiting opponents to just one walk in 11 innings pitched. He has done a solid job of inducing ground balls (53%) and, by all appearances, is in better shape than he was when he last faced the Astros in Atlanta.

Justin Verlander will already be making his second start of the season against the Rangers, having won his Opening Day contest with Arlington in which he threw 90 pitches over 6 innings. In three starts, Verlander has racked up 23 K’s while giving up only 4 walks and 3 earned runs in 18.2 innings pitched. In his most recent start, manager A.J. Hinch allowed Verlander to throw 109 pitches, so there is reason to expect Verlander will go at least 7 innings on Sunday.

Battle of the Bullpens

Both bullpens will be well-rested for today’s game, as both teams had the day off yesterday. Long man Jesse Chavez is the only reliever who may not be available today, as he pitched three innings in relief on April 10. Notably, Arlington closer Keone Kela and righty Jose LeClerc have yet to give up an earned run this season. Kevin Jepsen and Matt Bush are also pitching well. Several of the Rangers relievers – chief among them Jake Diekman – have been beset by high walk rates, something which may cause them particular trouble given the Astros’ penchant for patience at the plate this year. Matt Moore, Nick Gardwine, Jesse Chavez, and Alex Claudio are also struggling out of the pen.

For the Astros, Hector Rondon has yet to give up a run, pitching to a ridiculously low FIP of 0.23 after five innings of work. Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski, Will Harris, and converted starter Collin McHugh have also been very sharp. The only two Astros relievers to really have struggled this season are Ken Giles and Joe Smith. However, the excellent career numbers of both these pitchers give considerable reason to expect them to return to getting the good results they are known for.

At long last, the Astros are out of the cold and back in the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park. May the players of both teams enjoy good health and compete to the best of their ability this weekend.