ALDS Preview: Minnesota Twins vs. Houston Astros

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

After nearly two decades of postseason futility, the Minnesota Twins not only won a playoff game, they advanced to the next round for the first time since 2002. Their reward? Facing the Houston Astros, who have held a firm grip on the American League over the last six years, reaching the ALCS in each of those seasons to go along with two championships and another pair of AL pennants to boot. On paper, this seems like a classic David versus Goliath matchup, but there are key distinctions between the clubs that should make this a very entertaining series:

Team Overview
Overview Twins Astros Edge
Batting (wRC+) 109 (4th in AL) 112 (3rd in AL) Astros
Fielding (RAA) -9 (10th) 8 (6th) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 88 (2nd) 104 (11th) Twins
Bullpen (FIP-) 98 (9th) 98 (10th) Twins

The Twins won a weak AL Central with relative ease thanks to one of the best starting rotations in baseball. That pitching staff is a big reason why they’re not simply the token representative from their division but a real threat to make a deep run into the postseason. They might not have quite the same star power of some of the other contenders in the American League, but there are few holes on their roster and it seems like they’re peaking at the right time.

On the other side, this isn’t the same Astros team that’s steamrolled through the postseason in years past. They spent most of the regular season sitting behind the Rangers in the AL West and only clinched the division title, their sixth in the last seven years, on the final day of the season. Injuries have been an issue all season long, but Houston enters the postseason with a lineup that’s fully healthy, while the length of playoff series somewhat mitigates the lack of depth on their pitching staff. Make no mistake, the Astros are built to win in October and our ZiPS Game-by-Game Odds reflect that:

ZiPS Game-by-Game Odds
Team Win in 3 Win in 4 Win in 5 Total
Twins 7.5% 15.3% 13.7% 36.4%
Astros 18.7% 21.7% 23.1% 63.6%
Game Twins Starter Astros Starter Twins Win% Astros Win%
Game 1 @HOU Joe Ryan Justin Verlander 38.1% 61.9%
Game 2 @HOU Pablo López Framber Valdez 38.7% 61.3%
Game 3 @MIN Sonny Gray Cristian Javier 50.7% 49.3%
Game 4 @MIN Bailey Ober José Urquidy 48.9% 51.1%
Game 5 @HOU Pablo López Justin Verlander 37.2% 62.8%

Not only do the projections give the Astros the highest chance of advancing to the ALCS, they also have the second-highest odds of winning the World Series at this point. Houston hasn’t gotten a single inning out of Lance McCullers Jr. this year, lost Luis Garcia to Tommy John surgery in May, and missed José Urquidy for a long portion of the season thanks to a shoulder injury, but all those injury woes can be set aside in a series where only four starters are needed. That said, the young starters the Astros relied upon all season long were gassed by the end of the regular season; Hunter Brown pitched a career-high 155.2 innings this year and limped to a 8.74 ERA and 7.40 FIP in five September starts and a single relief appearance. J.P. France didn’t fare much better, posting a 5.75 ERA and a 6.26 FIP in four starts during the final month of the season.

All those injuries and a little foresight were the big reasons why the Astros went out and traded for Justin Verlander at the trade deadline after letting him walk in free agency during the offseason. Verlander is clearly nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career; his strikeout rate is the lowest it’s been since 2015 while his FIP is the highest it’s been since 2008 (ignoring his single start during the 2020 season). Still, he’s remained effective even if he isn’t dominating opponents in every outing anymore, and as he proved in his second to last start of the regular season, where he held the Mariners to just a single run across eight innings, he’s still capable of greatness on occasion.

Behind Verlander, the Astros will turn to Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and an undetermined fourth starter — the projections above list Urquidy, and he did just turn in a brilliant start against the Diamondbacks during the final weekend of the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a piggyback situation featuring him and Brown in some fashion. Valdez was Houston’s best and most consistent starter during the regular season, racking up both strikeouts and groundballs. Javier played a critical role for the Astros during their championship run last year, but he’s taken a big step back this year thanks to a dip in fastball velocity that’s affected the shape of the pitch as well. Last year, he was able to throw his heater up in the zone with near impunity thanks to elite carry on the pitch. With less velocity and a bit less carry, batters have had a much easier time squaring it up, leading to a higher contact rate and more damage when the ball is put in play.

Do you know which starting rotation this season most closely resembles the Astros World Series rotation from last year? It’s the Twins:

Starting Rotation Comparison
Team K% BB% HR/9 ERA- FIP-
2022 Astros 24.8% (3rd) 7.1% (12th) 0.93 (3rd) 77 (2nd) 87 (3rd)
2023 Twins 26.3% (1st) 6.1% (3rd) 1.24 (12th) 90 (3rd) 88 (2nd)

The only category where they greatly deviate is home runs allowed, which is certainly a concern in the playoffs. Since they swept the Blue Jays in two games, they’ll lead with Joe Ryan in Game 1, followed by Pablo López and Sonny Gray in Games 2 and 3. They’ll have the option of using Bailey Ober or Kenta Maeda in Game 4 based on how those two are used out of the bullpen earlier in the series. That’s an enviable quartet and should allow Minnesota to stick with the Astros’ starters.

López and Gray were nails against the Blue Jays, combining for 10.2 innings with just a single run allowed. Ryan has had an up-and-down season but has been dominant at times. He started out with a 3.44 ERA and 3.36 FIP through the first three months of the season but limped to 6.09 and 5.43 marks, respectively, after the All-Star break. His elite strikeout-to-walk ratio hasn’t wavered at all throughout the season — his struggles are largely the result of the amount of damage he allows when batters make contact. His HR/9 nearly doubled in the second half of the season, which explains away nearly all of his problems, even if it doesn’t necessarily provide any solutions. Ryan will likely always have an issue with the long ball since he relies so heavily on a flat fastball that he locates up in the zone; if that pitch is missing bats, he’s usually doing fine, but if one thing is off (velocity, location, shape), it can really get lit up.

Offensively, these teams’ seasons played out in similar fashion. During the first half of the season, both teams limped to below-average overall offensive performances, with the Twins scoring 4.18 runs per game and posting a 96 wRC+, while the Astros were a little better at 4.58 R/G and a 99 wRC+. Injuries and slow starts were the main culprits for both clubs. In the second half, meanwhile, they’ve both been among the most dangerous run scoring units in baseball. Minnesota improved to 5.61 R/G and a 124 wRC+, which was right behind Houston at 5.77 R/G and a 127 wRC+.

Getting a healthy Jose Altuve back from the finger injury he suffered during the WBC certainly helped out the Astros; he posted a 164 wRC+ during the second half of the season and generally wrecked house. Yordan Alvarez also put an early season oblique injury behind him and posted a 174 wRC+ after the All-Star break. The man who has been driving the offense all season long, though, is Kyle Tucker. He was (sort of) one home run short of a 30/30 season on his way to posting a 140 wRC+, just six points short of his career high from 2021. Unfortunately, last year’s postseason hero, Jeremy Peña, has scuffled a bit in his sophomore season, posting a 96 wRC+; he shockingly hasn’t hit a home run since July 5. José Abreu has likewise struggled in his first year in Houston, though he did have his best month of the season in September where he had a 123 wRC+ and seven home runs.

The Twins don’t have as many big names as Houston does and the one they do have is a former Astro himself. Carlos Correa’s lingering foot injury caused him to struggle through the worst season of his career. He got two weeks off his feet at the end of the regular season and was activated off the IL for the Wild Card Series; he was instrumental in both of the Twins victories, contributing on offense and defense. Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco have both been solid veteran contributors as well, but it’s been the youngsters who have really made Minnesota’s lineup exciting.

Royce Lewis powered the Twins to a Game 1 victory against the Blue Jays, continuing a torrid second half that saw him post a 172 wRC+ with 11 home runs in a month and a half of play. Like Correa, he was activated off the IL prior to the Wild Card round, and his injured hamstring was clearly hampering his ability to run at full speed earlier this week. But when you’re blasting home runs as often as he has been, jogging around the bases will do just fine. Another pair of rookies were right behind Lewis on the team’s offensive leaderboards. Edouard Julien led the team with 2.8 WAR and was fourth in wRC+ with a 136. Just ahead of him was Matt Wallner, who posted a 144 wRC+ in 76 games and has helped the team weather a forgettable season from Joey Gallo.

There are a couple of weaknesses in the Twins lineup that the Astros pitching staff should be looking to exploit. First, Minnesota hitters led all of baseball with a 26.6% strikeout rate, which also means their team led the league in strikeout rate on both sides of the ball — they really do live and die by the strikeout. Houston pitchers had the eighth-best strikeout rate in baseball during the regular season, which makes this an even tougher matchup for the Twins. Of course the flip side is that they do a ton of damage when they do put the ball in play; the Twins trailed only the Braves in wOBA on contact and expected wOBA on contact.

The other weakness will be a little harder for the Astros to exploit: The Twins struggle against left-handed pitching. Julien, Wallner, and Alex Kirilloff all sit when facing a southpaw, and their platoon-mates simply aren’t as potent at the plate; Kyle Farmer (99 wRC+), Donovan Solano (116 wRC+), and Willi Castro (109 wRC+) have all been solid role players for Minnesota this year, but they’re not who you want to be relying on in a postseason series:

Twins Platoon Pairs
Player Bats Career wOBA vR Career wOBA vL
Edouard Julien L .388 .202
Kyle Farmer R .287 .354
Alex Kirilloff L .330 .279
Donovan Solano R .312 .313
Matt Wallner L .405 .198
Willi Castro S .302 .301

As a team, Minnesota’s wOBA against left-handed pitching falls from .330 to .315, a pretty significant split compared to the league average (four points of wOBA leaning towards left-handed pitching). Luckily, the Astros only have two southpaws on their pitching staff, though one of them is Valdez. That makes Game 2 a particularly tough challenge for Minnesota.

The Twins will certainly have their hands full with a tough Astros ballclub that’s proven it can overcome any challenge it might face in October. There’s plenty of talent on both sides, but that playoff experience just might be the biggest differentiator.

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.

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4 months ago

I’m not so sure Joe Ryan is the apparent game 1 start. Bailey Ober easily out-pitched him in September, and all it takes is mild contact from a righty to send one of his high fastballs into the Crawford boxes.

Also, the Twins do not struggle against left-handers: they were dead even in wRC+ overall and were third-best in the majors in the second half once Ryan Jeffers, Kyle Farmer, Michael A. Taylor, and Carlos Correa stopped being weirdly bad against them.

4 months ago
Reply to  gallade3

So you’d start Ober in Game 1 and Ryan in Game 4?

4 months ago
Reply to  gallade3

Now they announced Ober. You must have a direct line to Baldelli

4 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Ryan has been hurt. Maybe they think more rest will continue to benefit him. It’s defensible.

4 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I don’t reveal my secrets!