ALDS Preview: Athletics vs Astros

ALDS Preview: Athletics vs Astros

Written by: John Storey
Follow him on Twitter: @JohnStorey_
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Oakland Athletics vs Houston Astros

Things to Know:

– Neither team will be playing in their home parks. Moving forward all remaining games will be played at a neutral site. The Astros and Athletics will play at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
– Series is set to begin this Monday, October 5th. The Astros swept the Twins, permitting them a four-day layoff. Oakland took Chicago to three games and will have just three days off. In both cases, teams will have plenty of time to align their pitching staff however they please. The unusually lengthy layoff may also contribute be a burden to the teams’ routines.
– Until the World Series, matchups will be played only with days off in-between series (not games). Thus, there will be extra pressure on each team’s pitching depth and ability to manage that depth creatively.
– These two teams have had a unique relationship this season:
– They played ten games seven of which went Oakland’s way including two walk-off wins.
– Eight of those ten games were played in Oakland at the Coliseum – one of baseball’s most notoriously (and statistically) pitcher-friendly parks.
– Included in those wins were three that made up a nine-game win streak for the A’s (15% of the season).
– The Astros won three of the four games played in two doubleheaders.
– Regular season games between Oakland and Houston lasted an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes. That’s 8 minutes shorter than the A’s and 23 minutes shorter than the Astros average game length this season.
– These two teams were the best in the American League West, however, Oakland’s spot as the top team in the division was never in question. The A’s average championship leverage index (in essence the importance of each game where the average is 1.0) was 0.5789 versus Houston’s 1.0425. When playing Oakland the leverage of Houston’s games increased by 17.8%. Oakland’s leverage remained virtually unchanged against Houston.
– These two teams have a ton going on between them. Mike Fiers is an A. After testifying to the Astros scandalous activity, he’s considered a snitch by some and could have a target on his back. Moreover, just this August these teams had a run-in after the Astros hit Ramon Laureano multiple times (three times in a single series) and proceeded to become physically and verbally engaged with Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron. The event resulted in suspensions and is likely not yet completely resolved.

Expected Starting Pitching Matchups:

To this point, both teams have only officially announced their starters through the second game of the series. So, anything beyond that is speculation. In-game one Chris Bassitt for the A’s is no surprise. He has, with little question been Oakland’s best starter. After throwing 63 innings across 11 starts, the righty posted a 2.29 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 7.9 K/9 and 1.159 WHIP. A career year to be sure. He pitched against Houston three times totaling 17 innings, giving up 16 hits, six walks and striking out nine. In-game two lefty Sean Manaea will take the hill. It’ll be his first day of work since September 23 when he pitched against the Dodgers. Accepting a small sample size, he’s been strong on extra days rest across his career. Sean made one start against the Astros this year pitching seven innings allowing one run and two hits. And he only needed 61 pitches to do it.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come from either team was the Astros electing not to pitch Zack Greinke in either of the first two games of the series. We still don’t know for sure that he’ll pitch game three, but that’s a safe bet. This is the type of strategy MLB created after deciding not to give teams any off days amid series. Greinke could either pitch to keep Houston alive or send them to the League Championship. The tradition of pitching your ace in-game one not only sets the tone for the series (winning game one is statistically important to winning the series) but it also allows a team to start them in-game five. Without that luxury, there’s much less incentive to pitch your #1 in-game one. That’s what the Astros are doing here, instead choosing to trot out Lance McCullers Jr. Credit where credit is due, McCullers has clawed himself back from a year off after having Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t missed a beat pitching 55 innings with an ERA+ of 115. It appears he’s regained his elite form from four and five years ago after adding to his arsenal. An ace on many teams, McCullers pitched against Oakland in August. He threw six strong innings allowing a lone run whilst striking out 7 seven. In-game two, Dusty Baker will hand the ball to Framber Valdez. Valdez has been one of the young players helping to shape the future in Houston. This year, his third, he threw 70.2 very effective innings. His 9.7 strikeout rate indicated he may have been even better than his ERA (3.57) indicates. Valdez also made a major developmental stride this year after reducing his walks per nine to 2.0, more than half what’s he’s posted in years previous. He too pitched against the Athletics this year, going seven innings and striking out nine.

Beyond that? That’s where things get interesting. As previously discussed, the new format of these playoff series adds a new layer of strategy. Assuming Greinke goes in-game three (any further and the Astros risk not using him at all) Houston is left with Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier. It shouldn’t really matter who pitches when. Especially when the series hasn’t yet begun. Neither pitched great against the A’s this year. Javier threw eight innings in two starts allowing seven runs. Urquidy allowed two runs in a six innings start, only striking out one. If you’re the Astros, you hope it doesn’t come to that – you’d probably rather use them as relievers anyway. But if it does, Javier may be the best choice. He’s allowed much less productive contact and posted a much higher strikeout (than Urquidy) this year. Alternatively, Urquidy has pitched deeper into games and doesn’t have the two rough starts against Oakland on his record. Either is a reasonable option.

For Oakland, things are less clear cut. If they have to select three starters to go behind Bassitt and Manaea they’ll be choosing between four. Jesus Luzardo, Frankie Montas, Mike Fiers and Mike Minor. Mike Minor is most likely on the outside looking in. He hasn’t quite been able to replicate the success he achieved in Texas in on the West Coast. At game three, the A’s may be content with Jesus Luzardo who they seem to hold in especially high regard. Montas and Fiers offer similar potential in different ways. Montas has been striking batters out while Fiers’s strikeout rate is nearly half that of Montas’. It’s likely a toss-up. And the A’s, like the Astros, will hope they won’t have to choose.

Game 1: Chris Bassitt (OAK) vs Lance McCullers Jr. (HOU) – Monday October 5th (4:07 pm ET)
Game 2: Sean Manaea (OAK) vs Framber Valdez (HOU) – Tuesday October 6th (4:37 pm, ET)
Game 3: Jesus Luzardo (OAK) vs Zack Greinke (HOU) – Wednesday October 7th (3:35 pm, ET)
Game 4: Frankie Montas (OAK) vs Jose Urquidy (HOU) – Thursday October 8th (3:35 pm, ET)
Game 5: Mike Fiers (OAK) vs Cristian Javier (HOU) – Friday October 9th (3:35 pm, ET


The A’s were able to weather the only three-game Wild Series Series in the American League. Despite the White Sox’ strong offense, Oakland’s own lineup was able to push enough across the plate to win the final two games of the series. It’s the A’s roster construction that makes them so difficult to beat. If you asked a group to name an Oakland Athletic everyone would come up with a different answer. This team has received contributions from far and wide. Especially with MVP Matt Chapman on the IL, they’ll need to continue to receive those types of efforts if they have any interest in advancing further into October.

PlayerfWARRank (A’s) – Pitchers and Position Players IsolatedRank (MLB) – Pitchers and Position Players Isolated
Mark Canha1.7135
Ramon Laureano 1.3280
Robbie Grossman1.3382
Liam Hendricks1.4118
Chris Bassitt1.3227
Sean Manaea1.1332 (If Qualified)

Especially at the plate, the Athletics don’t rely on a single hitter or core of hitters. They hurt you one through nine.

As effective as it’s been, the A’s strength is certainly their pitching. With a dominant bullpen and serviceable starting staff, they rank fourth in MLB in ERA, runs allowed per game, and third in walks per nine. They’ve also got one of baseball’s oldest pitching staff with an average age of 29.9, which ranks 27th.

Back to that bullpen, which has the second-fewest blown saves in baseball (4). They ranked fifth in WAR and second in WPA. The back end combo that is Liam Hendricks, Jake Diekman, Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria has been lockdown for the A’s. And their depth has taken the burden off of the starters. Much of this series will come down to Oakland’s starters being able to put up a few zeros before handing things onto the bullpen.

A Summary: Stats to Know:

– Oakland’s roster, particularly their lineup packs punch throughout. Their three most productive hitters according to fWAR lay outside the top 30 in the league ranking yet the team’s hitters rank eighth in aggregate WAR.

– Despite their age (average 29.9 years, fourth oldest in baseball), the Athletics’ pitching staff is strong – especially there bullpen, which is second-best in baseball according to WPA.

– A’s relievers have the third-highest first-pitch strike percentage in baseball – 62.8%. Don’t forget that the entire league saw a 32% decline in OPS after seeing strike one this year, which is nothing unusual!


The Astros are not the team many may remember from even a year ago. Last year’s American League Champions were driven by a historic pitching staff and enough elite relievers to get them through virtually any game. Especially when they only needed to use only two or three starters in each series they played. Led by free agent to be Gerrit Cole, the Astros were an unstoppable force. Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke were able to shut down almost any offense. Now, in the wake of Cole’s departure and no Justin Verlander who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery performed just a few weeks ago the Astros face a much more difficult task. Their offense plummeted at a historic rate. The likes of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman used to instill fear into both fans and pitchers…

Not anymore. This sub-.500 team failed to eclipse a wRC+ of 100 after sitting eight points ahead of anyone else just last year. Houston’s infamous cheating scandal has certainly impacted the team. Even if it’s not evident on the field, this is a struggling team, a shell of what it was last year. Whether the degradation in performance is an emotional byproduct of the off-season they suffered or otherwise doesn’t matter. If they were playing in a better division, they likely wouldn’t be here today.

In fact, they definitely wouldn’t be. In any other division, the Astros place third at best. That doesn’t take into account additional losses that may incur as a result of playing better teams more often. The only reason the Astros are here is that they play in the American League West.

That sounds pretty rough – and it is. But this is a team whose offensive production was league average at best. They rank 18th in wOBA and ISO, 16th in OPS and 17th in wRC+. Now, some teams have similar or worse lineups. However, they offer some supplementary pitching. And the Astros do deserve some credit for what they’ve done it their rotation. It’s a far cry from last year’s three-headed beast, but youngsters Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier have been bright spots and Lance McCullers Jr. has bounced back admirably. That’s given Houston a handful of arms they can trust – especially on nights their offense is able to perform the way it’s capable of.

The bullpen is where the problem lays. While most playoff bullpens feature elite strikeout relievers, the Astros’ is merely pedestrian with a 9.58 K/9. Worse yet, their walks per nine was 5.03, third-worst in baseball. They got outs – but with closer Roberto Osuna on the IL and once serviceable arms Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock no longer reliable, the relief corps is far from what it could and should be.

At the end of the day, still playing in a series where you can’t afford to give away baserunners that bullpen could seriously harm Houston. Oakland’s offense, coincidentally, has the third-highest walk rate. If you’re an Astros fan, that’s a recipe for disaster. If the Astros advance they’ll be doing it on the backs of some strong and lengthy starting pitching as well as an offensive resurgence.

A Summary: Stats to Know:

– The American League West is the only division that allows the Astros to make the Postseason.
– The Astros have done an excellent job at reassembling their rotation after the departures of Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley. This season the rotation averaged roughly 5 and one-third innings per start, down less than one out per start from 2019.
– Houston’s bullpen had the third-highest walks per nine (5.03) while the A’s offense had the third-highest walk rate in baseball (10.8%). The Astros could run into serious trouble if they’re putting runners on before some of the bigger hitters at the top of the lineup.

Series X-Factors:

Athletics: 3B Jake Lamb

Jake Lamb will be filling in for the guy who should be the most important player on this roster: Matt Chapman. Instead, Matt is nursing a hip injury. While Lamb’s production thus far has been rather ho-hum, he’s shown signs he can contribute at a much higher level.

Lamb has had a rough last few years. He struggled mightily in Arizona before being traded to Oakland, not just in 2020, but going back to 2018. However, since arriving in Oakland, he’s flourished. He’s not exactly putting up all-star numbers, but after failing to crack the Mendoza line in 2019 and again this year there’s no question he was thrilled to finish strong. He slashed .267/.327/.556 and hit three home runs in 13 games for the A’s. That earned him an OPS+ of 143, a massive ascension from his OPS+ of 6 with Arizona through this first 18 games of the season.

Consider also, his expected batting average this season: .239. That goes along with a .431 xSLG and .314 xwOBA. Not terrible. He’ll fit right into the A’s postseason plans.

He may not be the flashy super-star that carries a team on their back, but he doesn’t need to be. No one on the Athletics has to be. That’s how they’ve gotten here, working together to achieve greatness. Now, Jake Lamb has a chance to be a part of that. Expect Jake to play some role in this series – even if it seems small.

Astros: 1B Yuli Gurriel:

Yuli Gurriel might be Houston’s best-kept secret. And now, days after he signed a contract extension, is the perfect opportunity to prove the Astros right. Even at age 36, Gurriel has continued to mash. However, this season was a little different. Just like nearly all other Astros hitters, Gurriel took a step back. He was just unable to collect hits at the same rate he had in the past.

A deeper look at this profile reveals that Gurriel is still providing value. His expected numbers are right on par with what they’ve been in recent years. In essence, Gurriel’s been unlucky. More so than any other Astros hitter. He’s also got the benefit of being one of the league’s least prolific strikeout victims (top 3% of the league). Which means he’ll have even more opportunity to move toward the mean. This Postseason could be the perfect opportunity to do that.

Yuli’s batted ball profile matches what he’s done throughout his career. He’s a great player who’s spent this year underachieving.

Something to Watch:

The thing to watch in this series is pitching management. I’ve already discussed both teams’ bullpens and it doesn’t take much imagination to draw up scenarios where games are decided entirely by relief pitching.

When you’ve got two rotations of similar stature and two bullpens of very different, contrasting stature things can get really interesting really quick. I’ve already touched on this, so it’s senseless to expand extensively, but much of the Astros flaws, particularly their tendency to serve batters free passes, plays right into the A’s strengths. Oakland is a team that will beat you on their terms. Houston’s bullpen hasn’t done a great job at showing they can wrestle that power away from hitters.

Expect to see some extensively debated bullpen usage. On both sides. There will be mistakes that cost games. And there will be decisions that win games.

The thing to watch in this series is pitching management. I’ve already discussed both teams’ bullpens and it doesn’t take much imagination to draw up scenarios where games are decided entirely by relief pitching.

Series Prediction:

The bullpens in this series are going to be critical. If the A’s can put themselves in a position to leverage their strength, their bullpen, they are golden. Moreover, the sooner they can force Dusty Baker’s hand and crack into the Astros bullpen, the better. Much of this series will likely come down to the bullpens. And if that’s the case, the Athletics have a strong advantage. I pick them to win this ALDS in four games.


All data sourced from, and

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