AL Division Series Preview: Houston Astros vs. Oakland A’s

All four Division Series matchups pit division rivals against each other, but none have the same kind of recent history as the one between the Athletics and the Astros, their first ever meeting in the playoffs. These two teams have battled for the AL West crown the last three seasons, with Houston coming out on top in the two seasons prior before stumbling in this year’s shorter slate. That kind of familiarity and competition is a breeding ground for animosity. Tempers flared in early August when, after being hit by a pitch for the second time and a subsequent shouting match with Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron, Ramón Laureano charged the Astros dugout. On the other side, former Astro and current A’s starter Mike Fiers, the whistleblower who revealed the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing scheme during the offseason, has become a popular villain in Houston. There’s no love lost between these two clubs.

Houston dominated this matchup in 2018 and 2019, going a combined 23-15 against Oakland during those two seasons, the A’s worst record against an American League opponent during that period. They just couldn’t compete with the Astros’ high powered offense and elite pitching staff. But the A’s took advantage of Houston’s recent struggles to score and slew of diminished and injured arms to win seven of the 10 games these two teams played this year:

Astros vs A’s Team Overview
Category Astros Athletics Edge
Batting (wRC+) 99 (10th in AL) 101 (8th in AL) Athletics
Fielding (DRS) 13 (6th) -19 (13th) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 97 (4th) 98 (6th) Astros
Bullpen (FIP-) 101 (10th) 84 (2nd) Athletics

The Astros haven’t done much to put the concerns about their ability to score runs in the playoffs to rest. They scored just 3.8 runs per game in September and only pushed seven runs across against the Twins in their two game sweep in the Wild Card round; three of those runs came in the ninth inning of Game 1 after an inning ending ground out was botched on a bad throw to second by Jorge Polanco.

But their lack of production at the plate didn’t end up hurting them because their pitching was dominant in Minnesota. The Astros’ staff lost more days to injury than any other in baseball. Eleven pitchers — including staff ace Justin Verlander and closer Roberto Osuna — lost a cumulative 476 days to the Injured List. That didn’t stop six different pitchers from holding the Twins to just two runs in two games:

Astros Wild Card Pitching
Player IP H R BB K
Zack Greinke 4 2 1 3 1
Framber Valdez 5 2 0 2 5
Jose Urquidy 4.1 2 1 2 3
Brooks Raley 0.2 1 0 1 1
Cristian Javier 3 0 0 2 2
Ryan Pressly 1 0 0 0 2
Total 18 7 2 10 14

The Astros won’t have the luxury of piggybacking Framber Valdez or Cristian Javier in this five game series, especially since there are no off days in this year’s format. Valdez has already been named the starter for Game 2, while Lance McCullers Jr. get’s the start in Game 1. Conspicuously absent from these first two games is Zack Greinke. He started the first game of the Wild Card series so he’s plenty rested to start the Division series. It’s possible Astros manager Dusty Baker is waiting to set the rest of his rotation until after the results of the first two games are known. That way he can deploy Greinke in the game with the most series leverage — Game 3 if Houston is looking to sweep or prevent a sweep, or later in the series if not. Perhaps that’s overthinking what should be a pretty straightforward decision, but there’s also an argument to be made that Greinke is currently the Astros third or fourth best starter.

Valdez was easily the best starter for Houston in 2020. His 3.02 FIP was 31 percent better than league average and 12th among all qualified starters in the American League. Greinke’s FIP was better than Valdez’s but his ERA was more than a run higher at 4.03. McCullers looked like he was still shaking off the rust from Tommy John to start the year but he really came on strong late in the season. He allowed just four runs across his last three starts while striking out 24 in 17.2 innings. Jose Urquidy started Game 2 of the Wild Card Series and was excellent into the fifth inning. He’ll probably be tabbed to Game 3 or 4, depending on which game Greinke pulls. If the series goes to five games, Houston will have Cristian Javier available to start — if he isn’t used out of the bullpen earlier in the series — but an all-hands-on-deck approach with McCullers or Valdez coming in for bulk work wouldn’t surprise me either.

The A’s will counter with Chris Bassitt in Game 1 and Sean Manaea in Game 2. Bassitt started Game 2 of the Wild Card Series and held the White Sox to just one run in seven strong innings. With his playoff start included, he allowed just two runs across five starts in September. The A’s will hope his run of excellence continues into October. Manaea didn’t pitch in the Wild Card round but he’s been selected as the second man in Oakland’s rotation. His best start of the season came against the Astros back on September 10 when he went seven innings and allowed just two hits and a single run.

After Bassitt and Manaea, the A’s will turn to some combination of Jesús Luzardo, Frankie Montas, Mike Fiers, and Mike Minor. Luzardo started the first game of the Wild Card Series against the White Sox and was knocked around in 3.1 innings. His stuff is unquestionably good but he’s been prone to leaving his fastball out over the plate a little too often this year, leading to tons of loud contact off his heater. Montas struggled in his return from a PED suspension in June of last year. It seemed like he was wrestling with the feel for his splitter for most of the season. He did record a 13 strikeout performance in his final start of the regular season and looked good in a two-inning relief appearance in the decisive Game 3 in the Wild Card round. If the A’s need to use a fifth starter, Fiers or Minor could see the initial call, but with one of the best bullpens in baseball, they’ll have a very short leash before A’s manager Bob Melvin turns it over to the relief corps.

Offensively, the Astros will need to figure out how to get their stars to start hitting again. After leading the majors with a 125 wRC+ last year, that mark dropped to a hair below league average this season. I included this table in my Twins/Astros Wild Card preview showing the struggles of many of their key contributors during this season:

The Astros Struggling Batters
Player 2019 ISO 2019 wRC+ 2020 ISO 2020 wRC+
Jose Altuve 0.252 138 0.113 77
Alex Bregman 0.296 168 0.219 122
Yuli Gurriel 0.243 132 0.156 79
Carlos Correa 0.289 143 0.106 97

In the series against the Twins, Altuve went hitless, and Bregman and Gurriel collected a single hit apiece. Luckily for Houston, Correa showed some signs of life, hitting a game-winning solo home run in Game 2, one of just two extra-base hits Houston collected in the first round.

The A’s have also suffered through struggles from key offensive contributors. Beyond losing Matt Chapman for the year to hip surgery, they’ve also seen step back seasons from Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, and Laureano:

The A’s Struggling Batters
Player 2019 ISO 2019 wRC+ 2020 ISO 2020 wRC+
Marcus Semien 0.237 137 0.152 91
Matt Olson 0.277 134 0.229 103
Ramón Laureano 0.233 126 0.153 102
Mark Canha 0.244 146 0.162 127

Olson has looked particularly lost at the plate recently. He struck out in half of his plate appearances in the Wild Card round and made weak contact with the ball when he wasn’t swinging and missing. Against the White Sox, Sean Murphy, Tommy La Stella, and Semien led the way with three hits apiece.

With the offenses and starting rotations looking fairly even on paper, the deciding factor in this series could come down to the bullpens. The A’s hold a distinct advantage there. Their relief corps led the majors in ERA and was third in FIP. They weren’t perfect against the White Sox — A’s relievers allowed six of the 11 runs scored during the series — but their bullpen is deep and talented.

The Astros bullpen is young and lacking serious experience in the majors. Three rookies pitched heavy workloads in 2020: Andre Scrubb led the bullpen with 23.2 innings pitched and both Enoli Paredes and Blake Taylor threw more than 20 innings each. Another complicating factor is that many of the arms populating Houston’s bullpen are converted starters. That makes using them on back-to-back days an unfamiliar challenge. Baker was cognizant of this limitation during the regular season, but in the playoffs, their usage is proving trickier, as Baker told MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart:

“We’re very conscious of not using their arms because they’re not used to it. Now, all of a sudden, we’re asking them to relieve. It made it hard on me not to have a guy available. Half the time, they weren’t ready two days in a row. We just have to try to mix and match and do what we’ve got to do.”

With Valdez and Javier pushed into the rotation during this series, Houston’s bullpen will likely be far more stressed against the A’s, with many of their relievers getting thrown into the playoff crucible.

By virtue of their bullpen, the A’s probably have a slight edge over the Astros in this series. The Astros have the talent to make things very interesting but they really need their superstars to show up. The A’s haven’t advanced past the Division Series since 2006. They broke out of their Wild Card woes against the White Sox and now have a chance to definitively declare their dominance over Houston and the AL West.





Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

newest oldest most voted
JJWattsArmBrace
Member
JJWattsArmBrace

I don’t think people are talking about the Astros rotation enough. By DRA- (deserved run average) the Astros have 3 of the 12 best starters in the AL not including Verlander. Valdez is 3rd at 3.35 (with an excellent FIP to match), McCullers is 10th at 3.69, and Greinke is 12th at 3.75 (and also has an excellent FIP to match).

The A’s best starter (Bassitt) outperformed his DRA- of 4.10 by almost 2 full runs in large part because of an 85.6% LOB rate that was nearly 10% higher than his previous career hit. Minor, Fiers, Luzardo, and Montas were all dreadful this season.

Given the A’s and Astros offenses are nearly equal by 2020 performance I think this series is almost exactly a coin flip with the difference almost certainly going to come down to how Houston is able to leverage their starters in relief given the lack of off days from here on out.