Behind Verlander’s Arm and Alvarez’s Bat, Astros Snatch Game 1 Victory

Yordan Alvarez
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

This was an unfamiliar place to be for the Twins, after snapping a playoff losing streak dating back to 2004 and winning their first postseason series since 2002. Generations of Twins players have gone by without experiencing a playoff win with the team, but the current squad, coming off a two-game sweep of Toronto, was rewarded with a matchup against last year’s World Series champions. But while they had opportunities to break the game open, especially in the early innings, they were unable to fully capitalize, dropping the series opener, 6–4.

Houston starter Justin Verlander threw six scoreless frames, but through his first couple innings, it was an open question as to how long he would remain in the game. He allowed three baserunners in the first, throwing just 10 of 23 pitches for strikes. After walking Edouard Julien and allowing a hard-hit single to Jorge Polanco, he served a fastball right down the middle to Royce Lewis — a scary pitch given Lewis’ string of excellent performances, especially in the Wild Card series. But he swung over the pitch and tapped it to shortstop for the tailor-made double play. Verlander allowed another walk, but he escaped the inning with a groundout.

His second inning went similarly, as he erased singles by Carlos Correa and Ryan Jeffers with another 6-4-3 twin killing, this time off the bat of Michael A. Taylor. Julien doubled to start the third, the sixth Twins baserunner through 10 batters, but he was tagged out in a baserunning blunder. Verlander would allow just two more men to reach over the next four innings.

Verlander’s transition from shaky to dominant came through significant improvements in command as the game progressed. In an interview after leaving the game, he said that he was finding the feel for his delivery in the early innings, especially with his curveball. Indeed, of the 16 curveballs he threw in the first three innings, eight were either in the dirt off the plate or missed up and armside. After ironing out his mechanics, he took off. Despite throwing fewer pitches in the zone overall and drawing fewer chases than his standard, he still struck out six batters, earning 16 swings and misses. By far his most effective pitch was the slider; Twins hitters waved through eight of 11 swings against it. Some of his best sliders came in this fifth-inning matchup against Polanco, who was no match for their sharp break off the plate:

When looking at Verlander’s final line, it may be hard to notice how badly he struggled through his first two frames. His pitch location map tells a similar story. You can see the mistake pitches — the curveballs that ended up high or the fastballs over the heart of the plate — but the sliders were immaculate, and he landed enough strikes to get the job done. He took the chances afforded to him by the Twins’ inability to capitalize with runners on base and shut them down with the poise of someone who had been there before — 35 times, to be exact.

While our original projections had Joe Ryan getting the start for Minnesota this game, the Twins instead opted to give the ball to Bailey Ober, possibly due to Ryan’s 6.09 ERA in the second half. Ober thrives with excellent command; thanks to his 6-foot-9 frame and 98th-percentile extension, he practically gets to place the ball in the catcher’s mitt. He relentlessly spams the zone with his fastball and changeup, running a tiny walk rate of 5% during the regular season. But pitches in the strike zone can sometimes invite loud contact from opponents, and it took Ober just one pitch to learn that lesson here.

Jose Altuve, who has made a career out of pulling balls into the Crawford Boxes, pulled a ball into the Crawford Boxes (though it would’ve been a homer in all but one park) for his 24th career postseason home run, second to Manny Ramírez on the all-time leaderboard. Ober avoided any more damage through two innings, consistently landing his fastball at the top of the zone and getting weak contact. His other pitches, though, were a bit more shaky. He threw seven sliders in total, none of which ended up in the strike zone. One of them ran in on and hit Alex Bregman to lead off the third inning, bringing Yordan Alvarez to the plate.

Ober has one of the better changeups in baseball. With his command low and armside in the zone, it plays nicely off his high fastball as hitters stay guessing between the two offerings. Its +8 run value ranked in the 93rd percentile, and it’s the pitch that’s allowed him to run reverse splits this year, holding lefties to a .276 wOBA. After throwing a first-pitch fastball for ball one (on a pitch in the zone), Ober went to the changeup against Alvarez. But he missed his spot right down the middle, and Alvarez crushed a line drive homer to push Houston’s lead to 3–0.

Trying to come up with a plan to beat Alvarez seems like an exercise in futility for any opposing pitcher. Changeups are often the best weapons they have against opposite-handed hitters, but he slugs over .700 against them. His “worst” performance comes against fastballs, but he still has a .406 wOBA and .450 xwOBA on heaters. Try to bring in a lefty to gain the platoon advantage? The Twins tried that in the seventh inning, pulling right-handed reliever Chris Paddack for southpaw Caleb Thielbar, who allowed just a .128 OBP to fellow lefties this year. Unfortunately, Alvarez is basically immune to platoon splits, slashing .301/.382/.565 against lefties in his career. He took a Thielbar sweeper into the right field stands for his second homer of the game, which effectively iced the game for the Astros.

Verlander and Alvarez almost singlehandedly took down the Twins, but Minnesota didn’t go down without a fight. Up five runs entering the seventh, the Astros elected to bring in reliever Hector Neris, who hit Matt Wallner with a pitch and allowed a single to Jeffers, then quickly retired the next two hitters via strikeout. With the Twins’ win probability sitting at just 2.8%, Polanco put his team on the board with a three-run homer into the second deck in right, followed by Lewis smashing his third round-tripper in three career postseason games.

Minnesota’s offensive output would end there. Neris was lifted for Bryan Abreu, who ended the inning with a strikeout after a Max Kepler double. Abreu added a clean eighth, and closer Ryan Pressly earned the save against his former team with a perfect ninth. Houston’s bullpen has taken a step back from 2022 — it ranked eighth in ERA and 17th in FIP this season compared to second and first the year prior — as pitchers like Rafael Montero and Ryne Stanek have looked considerably worse this season. But the last seven outs of this game showed how dominant the back of this bullpen is in high-leverage situations.

Astros Backend Relievers
Pitcher ERA- FIP- K% BB% Stuff+
Ryan Pressly 84 80 27.6 6 156
Bryan Abreu 41 70 34.8 10.8 140

With this victory, the Astros take a commanding lead in the series; ZiPS projects the Twins’ odds of advancing at just 22.3% with two more road games remaining. On Sunday, they’ll have Pablo López on the mound facing Framber Valdez, a tricky proposition given their best hitters’ struggles against lefties; as Jake Mailhot pointed out in his series preview, their right-handed platoon options simply don’t match up to the caliber of Julien, Wallner and Alex Kirilloff. But while it’s unclear how much longer this streak-breaking Twins team will remain alive, they’re guaranteed at least two more games to turn things around.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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4 months ago

After much was made of the Astros home record this season, with the D-backs up 9-0 on the Dodgers as of the time of this comment, they will be the only home team to win game 1 in the LDS. That’s baseball. The Astros 2nd half offense was stellar, the starting pitching not so much. However, do the playoffs work to their advantage with less need of back end starters and low leverage arms? Time will tell.

4 months ago
Reply to  jradMIT

There should allow teams to use as many hitters as the opponent uses pitchers for multiple innings. If the Twins want Martin Maldonado to bat they should have to pitch Griffin Jax for 2 innings.