Series Preview: Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox, April 20-22, 2018

     Game 1: James Shields vs. Justin Verlander

     Game 2: Lucas Giolito vs. Dallas Keuchel

     Game 3: Reynaldo Lopez vs. Lance McCullers Jr.

The last time the Astros (13-7) came to Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, it was the scene of a disastrous three-game sweep by the White Sox (4-11) from August 8-10, 2017. Between an 8-run meltdown by Dallas Keuchel and a 7-run game by McHugh, the Astros could find no traction in the first two games of that series. And just when Brad Peacock threw 6.1 innings of one-run baseball to try to salvage Game 3, Ken Giles came along and blew a save in the ninth before Chicago scored the winning run in the eleventh on a couple of hits against Francis Martes and an error in right field by Josh Reddick.

This time around, though, the Astros are bringing the MLB’s top pitching staff to town, sporting a 2.45 ERA. For their part, the White Sox pitchers bring up the caboose of the MLB, with a 5.64 ERA.

white sox jumping
Perhaps a lingering effect of the 2005 World Series, it’s always a high-flying affair when the Astros meet the White Sox

In spite of having to play a 14-inning game against Oakland two days ago, lack of rest should not be a problem for the White Sox. After three postponed games in Minnesota, they have managed to play only three times in the past seven days. The White Sox come into the series on a down note, however, having been swept by the Athletics and losing the only game the weather allowed them to play against the Twins in the preceding series.

As it turned out, today’s starting pitcher for the White Sox, James Shields, had to throw 28 pitches and take the loss in that 14-inning affair in Oakland. In spite of the extra work, Shields will still start today’s game on schedule. Should Shields tire early, don’t be surprised to see long men Hector Santiago or Chris Volstad out of the bullpen.

The Astros, in recent games, have rekindled the offensive Grasshopper Magic of Seattle to start putting runs on the board. After dropping 5 of 6 games from April 10-16, the Astros have rallied back to win three straight against the Mariners, racking up 21 runs in those three games while giving up only 4.

The Bruised and the Battered

Lefty reliever Tony Sipp has recently returned to the Astros after spending time on the DL with a sore oblique, sending James Hoyt back to the minors. While not on the DL, righty Ken Giles has been experiencing back soreness and may be used only sparingly this series. The White Sox currently have lefty starter Carlos Rodon on the 60-day DL for shoulder rehabilitation. Additionally, catcher Kevan Smith will be unavailable while undergoing a rehab assignment at AAA Charlotte.

Offensive Leaders

DH Matt Davidson (.894 OPS, 5 HR) and 1B Jose Abreu (.864 OPS, 4 HR) lead the White Sox offensive charge, with catcher Wellington Castillo (.830 OPS) and 3B Yolmer Sanchez (.764 OPS) also hitting well.  Somewhat unexpectedly for the Astros, it’s been the catchers who have provided critical pop in the bats, with Max Stassi slugging his way to a .998 OPS with 2 home runs over 34 plate appearances this season, and Brian McCann hitting his first “McCannonball” against the Mariners and bringing his OPS up to .953. Josh Reddick (.871 OPS) and George Springer (.753 OPS) lead the team in home runs, with four apiece.

marisnick white sox
Jake Marisnick’s speed on the basepaths has never been in question, but can he start hitting?

The Strugglers and Stragglers

It will be interesting to see how much playing time A.J. Hinch wishes to give Jake Marisnick and Derek Fisher, who have collectively racked up 42 strikeouts in 84 plate appearances. With only 10 hits and 2 walks between them, many fans have begun to question how much more patience Hinch and GM Luhnow will afford this pair of outfielders. On Chicago’s side, 2B Yoan Moncada has put up nearly as high a strikeout rate at 39%, but has managed to hit fairly well when he is not striking out, allowing him to build an OPS of .757. Center fielder Adam Engel has gotten off to an especially slow start this year, not yet cracking the Mendoza line after 46 plate appearances. Engel’s platoon mate, Leury Garcia, has also struggled at the plate, hitting for only a .609 OPS.

Pitching Matchups

In Game 1, James Shields will make the start for the White Sox in spite of having to pitch a long (28-pitch) inning in relief two days ago. Shields has walked more batters than he has struck out this year, allowing 9 earned runs in 18 innings en route to a 1.56 WHIP. The 36-year-old starter is now down to just above 90 mph on his fastball, leading some to question whether he may choose to develop a knuckleball as a way of extending his career. The Astros put Cy Young winner Justin Verlander on the mound, behind whom the team has won three of four starts. Verlander’s most recent start (April 15 against the Rangers) was his most masterful of the season, going 8 innings and giving up just 1 hit – which happened to be a solo home run. Verlander took a tough-luck no-decision in that game as the Astros went on to lose by a score of 3-1.

palehose davidson
‘Containing red-hot White Sox DH Matt Davidson will be a major challenge for Astros pitching

In Game 2, Dallas Keuchel will look to put to rest the ghosts of his most recent start at Guaranteed Rate Field. In that August 8, 2017 outing, Keuchel gave up 8 runs – 3 of them in the first frame alone – and the Astros went on to lose the game, 8-5, in spite of strong relief appearances by James Hoyt and Joe Musgrove. Like Verlander, Keuchel is coming off his best start of the year, going 8 innings while giving up only 2 runs against the Mariners on April 16. Keuchel’s success this year has seemed to hinge to a large extent on the willingness of the home plate umpire to call the strike at the knees. Against Keuchel, the White Sox will put up Lucas Giolito. Giolito has managed two quality starts in his three appearances this year, but has walked 12 while striking out only 8. Partly as a result of giving up so many free passes, Giolito has allowed 11 earned runs this year in 18 innings of work, earning him a 5.50 ERA.

The third game of the series will pit Lance McCullers Jr. against the relatively obscure arm of Reynaldo Lopez. McCullers came back from a horrible 8-run outing against the Twins to hold the Mariners to a single hit in 7 innings of work on April 17. McCullers currently leads the MLB in 14.6 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched, with mound colleague Gerrit Cole in fourth place at 13.2 K/9. Though not nearly as well-known, Reynaldo Lopez should not be taken lightly by the Astros. Lopez has emerged as his team’s WAR leader in the young season, allowing just 3 runs in 19 innings. No doubt a source of frustration to the 24-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, lack of run support and subpar fielding have conspired to prevent Lopez from winning a single game this year in spite of his success on the mound. In eight starts last season, Lopez was not nearly as successful, pitching to a 4.72 ERA over 47.2 innings.

Battle of the Bullpens

Although former Astros farmhand Juan Minaya began the season with the White Sox, he has recently been optioned to AAA Charlotte.

The White Sox bullpen as a whole has failed to support the starting rotation well, running a 5.71 ERA which is surpassed only by the Royals’ bullpen at an incredible 7.94. However, manager Rick Renteria has recently moved some of his most underperforming relievers to the minors, including both Minaya and Gregory Infante. Some sources of hope for the Chicago bullpen have included Nate Jones (1 earned run allowed in 6.1 innings) and Bruce Rondon (2 earned runs allowed in 6.1 innings).

Although Astros fans are perhaps a little spoiled by the performance of the team’s starting rotation (2.26 ERA, 2.94 FIP over 123.2 innings), the bullpen really has not performed all that badly in comparison to bullpens around the American League. The Houston bullpen boasts a collective 2.89 ERA, good for third place in the AL behind the relief staffs of the Blue Jays (2.30 ERA) and Indians (2.79 ERA). It is also among the best-rested of bullpens in MLB, throwing only 56 innings over the team’s first 20 games or an average of 2.8 innings per game. (Compare that to the White Sox bullpen, which has had to throw an average of 3.9 innings per game.) Really only Joe Smith and Ken Giles have struggled early on for the Astros; and given their stellar recent seasons, it would be overly pessimistic to write them off at this point. On the other hand, Collin McHugh (.179 average against), Chris Devenski (.194 average against), and Will Harris (2 earned runs allowed over 8.1 innings) have all been difficult for opponents to score on.

It’s back to cool weather for the Astros, with temps in the Chicago area in the low 50s about an hour before game time. However, the way the bats heated up in Seattle, the Astros will try to quickly knock off the chill of the Windy City. May both teams play well and safely. Go Stros!