Series Preview: Anaheim Angels at Houston Astros, April 23-25, 2018

     Game 1: Gerrit Cole vs. Tyler Skaggs

     Game 2: Charlie Morton vs. Shohei Ohtani

     Game 3: Justin Verlander vs. Nick Tropeano

The red-hot Astros (16-7) face their biggest challenge of the season to date as they meet the Anaheim Angels (14-8) for three games. Throughout the month, Houston and Anaheim have jockeyed back and forth for control of the AL West, and this week’s series will allow the two contenders to duke it out in front of a pumped crowd at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros’ pitching staff continues to amaze, having held the Chicago White Sox to just two runs over three games in their most recent series. With a team ERA of just 2.22, many fans are comparing the current staff to those of the 1980 and 1981 seasons, which featured starters Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, Verne Ruhle, and Bob Knepper to go with relievers Dave Smith and Joe Sambito. The 1980 Astros finished the season with a 3.10 ERA and the 1981 Astros finished with a 2.66 ERA, though we must keep in mind that the ’81 season was shortened by a player strike, so pitchers did not have to handle the full load of 162 games.

Though the Angels bring a more humdrum 4.16 ERA to Minute Maid, their offense has shined like few others, smashing 32 home runs (compare to the Astros’ 23) and posting a team batting average off .261, good third in the AL. Led by speculative MVP favorite Mike Trout, Jefry Marte, and Shohei Ohtani, the Angels promise to give that stellar Astros pitching staff its toughest competition of the young season.

at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 3, 2014 in Anaheim, California.
Reigning MVP Jose Altuve takes the field against perennial MVP contender Mike Trout

The Bruised and the Battered

Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons is listed day-to-day with a forearm contusion after being hit by a Johnny Cueto fastball in the Angels’ recent series against the Giants. Also, righty relievers Luke Bard and Blake Wood will be unavailable – Bard having been DFA’d and Wood on the 10-day DL with an impingement of his throwing elbow. Replacing the pitchers out of commission will be Justin Anderson, who will look to make his MLB debut in Houston, and Eduardo Paredes, who made his big league debut last year with the Angels, putting up an ERA of 4.43. In a handful of innings at AA and AAA this year, Anderson has held opponents scoreless, but over the course of 64 innings of A+ and AA ball last year, he maintained an ERA of 5.06.

Players to Watch

Shohei Ohtani (3.60 ERA, .997 OPS) has impressed the baseball world with his rare ability to excel as both a hitter and a pitcher. We’ll be watching to see to what extent, if any, his mound start is affected by the finger blister that cut short his last start. Mike Trout has already crushed 9 home runs and leads the Angels with an OPS of 1.088. Although first baseman Jefry Marte has not hit for home runs this season, he has had an annoying knack (to his opponents, at least) of getting on base via the old-fashioned base hit and, on occasion, the extra-base hit. Marte brings an OBP of .425 to the series.

While the Astros offense struggled out of the gate, the team is now one of the few which boasts 7 hitters with a minimum of 30 at-bats who have an OPS of .750 or higher. Leading the pack are Carlos Correa (.993 OPS), backup catcher Max Stassi (.956 OPS), and Josh Reddick (6 home runs, .915 OPS). The only players truly struggling at this point in the season are Jake Marisnick (.130 BA), Derek Fisher (.128 BA), and Evan Gattis (.217 BA). Gattis, however, hit his first home run yesterday, so there is some reason to hope he is one the mend.

The particular Houston pitching trio facing Anaheim happens to be the one leading the team in ERA: Gerrit Cole (0.96), Charlie Morton (0.72), and Justin Verlander (1.10). So just as Astros pitching will face its biggest challenge of the season, the same can be said for Angels hitting. The Houston bullpen has not been much easier on opponents, posting a stingy 2.49 ERA. Leading the Astros relief corps are Chris Devenski (0.90 ERA) and Collin McHugh (1.04).

tropeano
Former Astro Nick Tropeano takes the mound against Justin Verlander in Game 3

Things have been more hit-and-miss for the Angels starting pitchers lined up for this series. Tyler Skaggs has struggled with pitch counts, averaging just five innings per start. However, he has avoided giving up the long ball (just one home run over 20.1 IP) and has also limited walks well, giving up only seven bases-on-balls. Shohei Ohtani is so new and so hyped as a starter that it’s difficult to even predict how he will do. After pitching 7 innings of one-hit ball on April 8 against Oakland, Ohtani managed to pitch only two full innings in his last start, having to exit the game with a finger blister. So far, Ohtani has given up 6 runs in 15 innings of work on the pitching mound. Nick Tropeano will be remembered by some Houston fans as an Astro from the 2014 season. Tropeano will be making his third start of the season. His first start of the year went very well, holding the Kansas City Royals scoreless over 6.2 innings, while in his second start, Tropeano had a much more difficult time, giving up 5 runs over 5.1 innings to the Red Sox.

It’s back to Minute Maid and an enthusiastic crowd for the Astros. Assuredly, they are more pumped to see the Astros than to enjoy Dollar Hot Dog Night… right? Wishing both teams a safe and competitive three-game set, Go Stros!