Written by: Jake Tillinghast & John Storey
Follow him on Twitter: @JTillinghast27 & @JohnStorey_
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An ALCS Preview Rays and Astros are set to kick off the ALCS in a rematch of the 2019 ALDS which saw the Astros win the series in 5 games behind the arm of Gerrit Cole. But the Astros no longer have their horse at the top of their rotation. The Rays just took care of Gerrit Cole and his new team, The Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS.
@JTillinghast27 Is covering the Rays, while @JohnStorey_ has the Astros.
This year, all postseason games will be played at a neutral site. The ALCS will be played at Petco Park in San Diego, home of the Padres.
The Astros really don’t have anyone at the top of their rotation they can truly say “this is our Ace” like the Rays can with Snell and Glasnow. And Morton who might be the 3rd best pitcher behind those 2 in the series. For the ‘Stros, Grienke is dealing with arm concerns and just not the Ace he once was.
Speaking of those Rays arms, and specifically the bullpen… What a job they did in the series vs the Yankees, that Bullpen depth showed throughout that was their biggest strength and the ultimate difference-maker in the Rays win in Game 5 of the ALDS. Clutch performances offensively by a few unlikely sources. The emergence of a potential new Star? Typical Rays’ fashion.
SOMETHING TO WATCH
I’ve already discussed how much deeper the Astros lineup as gotten since they exploded this postseason. There’s no reason to believe it’s not going to continue, that’s probably the safest bet. However, consider how one of the Tampa Bay Rays specialties can hurt Houston.
The Rays’ pitching staff led all of Major League Baseball in inducing swings on pitches outside the strike zone. They got batters swinging at balls 34.5% of the time. They were tenth best at suppressing contact with such swings at 60.4%. While the Astros rank 15th in outside swing rate, nobody made more contact on pitches outside the zone than them this year (67.6%). The Rays will be throwing the kitchen sink at the Astros, so Houston will be hard-pressed to adjust. We could see a lot of strikeouts or a lot of long-fought battles by Astros hitters.
On the flip side, the Astros saw the fewest average pitches per plate appearance in Major League Baseball. That’s something that’s going to have to change if they want to put up a fight in this ALCS. Either way, the Rays deep bullpen of flame throwers (fourth highest average fastball velocity in baseball) and spin artists will offer the Astros a unique challenge. This matchup should provide a ton of very entertaining baseball.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
I would be doing this man a disservice without mentioning him and his ridiculous Postseason run.
Randy Arozarena has been insane. I have no other words. I had a tooooon of words to say about him prior to and during the ALDS getting started when I chose Arozarena as my ALDS X-Factor for the Rays. I guess that was the correct decision.
I couldn’t help myself but dedicate an entire article to the breakout of Arozarena. Take a peek HERE. But the Yankees started to adjust and work Arozarena with Low Fastballs instead of up in the zone where he was killing them in G4 and 5. It was more successful, so Arozarena likely will see more of that against the Astros and will need to adjust. And I am sure he will.
Tyler Glasnow pitched Game 5 of the ALDS on 2 days rest and very likely will be unavailable until likely Game 4.
Blake Snell likely won’t be asked to pitch on short rest due to his comeback from injury throughout the season and the Rays have been cautious, maybe we see him in G6 on 4 days rest.
But due to the fact, the Glasnow pitched on 2 days rest in Game 5 of the ALDS (2.1 IP 37 Pitches) likely won’t be available until Game 4 in the ALCS to make a start. But could force himself into a G7 in a short stint if the opportunity presents itself for the Rays in an all or nothing game.
I feel we could see some interesting things done by the Rays in this series to get their best pitchers in the game as often as possible. With their back end starters, both being Left-Handed, Ryan Yarbrough (Held RH Hitters to a .299 wOBA) and Josh Fleming (.281 wOBA vs RH Hitters) will get their opportunities to make an impact on the series. But the Rays will pick and choose their spots carefully with them against a dangerous lineup. Any stretch of the game they figure into likely will see Michael Brantley in it. Even with the success shown against RH Hitters this season, neither are a trustworthy option when the stakes are so high.
EXPECTED STARTING PITCHING
Game 1: Blake Snell
Game 2: Charlie Morton
Game 3: Yarbrough. Followed by some form of Peter Fairbanks, Nick Anderson, and Diego Castillo, depending on who is fresh. Could get tricky here and go with an Opener followed by Yarbrough. Ryan Thompson?
Game 4: Tyler Glasnow
*Game 5: (Opener) Ryan Thompson. Followed by Josh Fleming or even Shane McLanahan(Left Handed flame-throwing rookie who just made his MLB Debut in the ALDS) and a Stable on RHP to follow either of them.
*Game 6: Blake Snell
*Game 7: Charlie Morton. All hands on deck (other than Snell) Could see Glasnow squeeze out an inning or get a clutch out to end an inning so they are able to pull him after the 1-2 batters he faces.
Ryan Thompson will very likely make at least 1 appearance as an opener in the series. The Rays could play their cards right with their deep bullpen and do their best to keep Thompson out of G1 and G2. Use him as an opener in G3 for 1-2 innings. Get his rest in G4. And get right back out there in G5 for an Inning to Open the game before handing it over to one of the Lefties I mentioned, Fleming or McLanahan. It would make more sense to get 2 innings out of Thompson in the game one of these 2 starts rather then Yarbrough due to a bit more track record with Yarbrough.
RAYS’ X-FACTOR: The Bullpen… “The Stable”
The Bullpen was phenomenal in the ALDS working overtime in virtually every game of the series. And if the Rays’ want to find themselves playing in the World Series, will need another stellar performance out of The Stable here.
Rays Bullpen ALDS Performance…
Game 1: 4 IP – 5 H – 5 ER – 3 BB – 2 K ——— John Curtiss blow up in 9th .2 4 H 5 ER 2 BB 1 K
Game 2: 4 IP – 2 H – 1 ER – 3 BB – 8 K
Game 3: 4 IP – 3 H – 1 ER – 0 BB – 3 K
Game 4: Opener Ryan Thompson 1.2 IP – 2 H – 2 ER – 3 BB – 3 K …. Ryan Yarbrough 5 IP – 6 H – 2 ER – 1 BB – 1 K …. Aaron Slegers 1.1 IP – 3 H – 1 ER – 0 BB – 1 K … (Let’s count Thompson and Slegers as BP arms here).
Game 5: 6.2 IP – 3 H – 1 ER – 2 BB – 9 K
Bullpen Totals in ALDS…
21.1 IP – 18 H – 11 ER – 11 BB – 26 K
Take out that ugly inning by Curtiss in Game 1… And we get…
19.2 IP – 14 H – 6 ER – 9 BB – 25 K
Much cleaner. Against a powerful lineup. That has just as much talent as they will face against the Astros. As well as a ton of righties.
With the Rays likely seeing Snell take the ball in G1. Charlie Morton in G2. I think G is when the Rays get tricky and work some type of Bullpen game. Ryan Thompson is extremely tough on RH Hitters with his Horizontal approach and tough arm slot to pick the ball out of. I could see him grab another Opener “Start” here followed by Ryan Yarbrough and some form of the Stable behind that. As I am unsure those 2 will be able to get 6.2 IP completed as they did in G4 of the ALDS which turned to be vital in their G5 effort keeping some major back of the pen arms healthy for that deciding G5.
With no days off. There is no team better in baseball to figure out a way through this type of situation then the Rays. They know which buttons to push at the right times and how to navigate their way to a Win even when it might not look so great. This Bullpen is lights out and filled with electric arms as we have seen for the past few years. This year is no different. And will be the key reason the Rays’ will be able to advance into the World Series.
With the Right-handed Power arms the Rays can throw out after one another, it is going to be tough for the Astros to put together these big crooked numbers they have been throughout the playoffs. The Rays simply don’t have those blow-up innings to often (Ignore Curtiss’ inning, who likely won’t be seeing any significant innings with a lead here).
– The Rays led the league with 608 Strikeouts offensively
– Offensively the 2nd worst xBA (Expected Batting Average) in the entire MLB. (.228; Tied with Oakland Athletics. Rangers were last with a .226)
– The Rays pitching staff was the best in baseball at getting hitters to swing at balls 34.5% of the time. (These dudes are filthy) and consistently bring high velocity to the table from a number of different are angles and slots.
I see this series as a similar one to that of the Yankees vs Rays ALDS. Rays are obviously the same team, but the Astros have a similar brand of ball tot he Yankees but they are lacking that Ace, in Gerrit Cole to lean back on. And a pen that has been spotty at times, but has their share of arms that can lock you down for a few innings.
I ultimately think it just won’t be enough to take out the Rays depth and talent they have throughout their roster. With the emergence of so many arms down there and not to mention the clutch hitting they seemingly continue to find night after night. With any added production offensively from a few key contributors, this team will be nearly impossible to stop.
Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, and the addition of Austin Meadows who hit 2 HR in the ALDS vs the Yankees including that clutch HR off Gerrit Cole in the 6th to tie to game up at 1 are going to be huge in the ALCS. Arozarena simply can’t carry them again. Or can he?
Jake’s Prediction: Rays 4-2
It was Houston’s bats that carried the team to this Championship series. A year ago, that would have been no surprise. However, after their lineup produced at a pedestrian level (at best) this regular season their capabilities were certainly in question going into the playoffs.
In their divisional series against the Chicago White Sox, Astros hitters slashed .322/.388/.594. Their batting average remains unmatched in any series by any team this year. The Padres were able to meet a .388 on-base percentage in the NLDS against the Cardinals, and the Yankees beat out both Houston and San-Diego with a .409 OBP against Cleveland in the American League Wild Card Series. They also forced Houston’s slugging percentage into second place after slugging .653 in that same series. But otherwise, the Astros have roughly sat atop the baseball in terms of offensive production this October.
Those hitters improved the team’s chances of winning the World Series by 17.93% compared to Houston’s pitching staff who hurt their chances by 5.10% in their last series (the ALDS) against Oakland. That offensive impact is the greatest by any offense or pitching staff in any series this year by more than 8%. Again, the Yankees against Cleveland come the closest with a 9.21% championship probability added.
On the mound, things were far bleaker. While the bullpen depth has been strong, only Framber Valdez was able to offer a strong start. In the ALDS, no other Astros starter was able to pitch through the fifth inning or allow fewer than four runs. In the Wild Card series, the Astros got two reasonable starts from Zack Greinke and Jose Urquidy although neither pitched more than four and one-third innings.
Zack Greinke has been dealing with arm soreness the past week or two. While the club insists it is a non-issue, it’s difficult to ignore, especially if Greinke isn’t immediately slatted for a start in the ALCS (a red flag).
That aforementioned bullpen depth was big for the Astros. The trio of Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, and Blake Taylor was clutch. They combined to throw 6.2 innings in the divisional series, allowing two hits, two walks, and striking out six. Three rookies, all making their postseason debuts in the last week. More on that in a bit.
EXPECTED STARTING PITCHING
The Astros pitching plans are likely going to depend on the progress of their ace, Zack Greinke. The former Diamondback has been managing arm soreness throughout this postseason. Despite a rough start in game four of the ALDS, he and the club insist he is ready to go and the arm issues are behind him, however, only time will truly tell. Assuming he is free of any ailments, he is lined up to start game three of this series. The Astros have two obvious choices for the first two games in Framber Valdez and Lance McCullers Jr.
Assuming, Greinke goes in game three, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier will pitch games four and five. While Urquidy has the postseason starting experience that Javier doesn’t, Javier has been excellent out of the bullpen and both arms will need to make a start if the Astros are to play five games. They’ll need five starters to get through this continuous seven-game series – something teams haven’t had to grapple with in a very long time if ever. This also places extra importance on deciding who starts games one and two – more than it did in the previous series’ (McCullers and Valdez remain the likely candidates). The biggest adjustment for the Astros will be losing Cristian Javier from their bullpen.
Game 1: Framber Valdez
Game 2: Lance McCullers Jr.
Game 3: Zack Greinke
Game 4: Jose Urquidy
*Game 5: Cristian Javier
*Game 6: Framber Valdez
*Game 7: Lance McCullers Jr.
This is a team that has turned their status as public enemy number one into fuel. Entering the playoffs as one of two teams with a sub-.500 records they were seen as heavy underdogs. After defeating the Minnesota Twins in two games and the Oakland Athletics in four, they are beginning to prove that they are still the team we’ve gotten to know over the past half-decade even if it took until the postseason for their offense to show up.
The biggest departure from the 2017 World Series Championship is the pitching. With Justin Verlander’s arm on the mend, and Gerrit Cole a New York Yankee, gone are the days of an elite, workhorse pitching staff. The Astros haven’t lost any of their batters to injury or other teams. Instead, they saw a significant decline in performance. Over the regular season, the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa produced career lows in a myriad of offensive stats, both posting a sub-100 wRC+.
The thunder and depth were gone from the Astros lineup. However, all was not lost. Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley both met expectations and had strong campaigns. George Springer had an excellent season before he hits the free-agent market this off-season. Another force came from a less likely source: Kyle Tucker.
The young outfielder, playing in just his third major league season graduated from rookie status last season and has finally put it all together. After being drafted in the first round (fifth overall) in the 2015 draft, Tucker climbed through the Astros organization, ranking as their third-best prospect in his draft year, and gaining a spot each year, ascending to and maintaining the top spot in 2017 and ’18. After playing in just 50 games through 2018 and 2019 he spent 2020 as a starter, amassing 58 games as one of the team’s top bats. He’s also been a huge part of their playoff effort and looks to continue to going forward. He’s already collected 10 hits in 25 at-bats with just one strikeout.
Jose Altuve and Carlos Correra, who saw the biggest regression from their all-star primes, are also returning to their old selves. Correra has been red hot. He’s dominating right now, not just for the Astros but across the entire postseason landscape. He’s slashing .500/.615/1.100. Those numbers rank third, fourth, and second, respectively, in this postseason. Among non-eliminated players, he leads in all three averages.
He’s also second in home runs (4) and RBIs (12), trialing only recently eliminated Giancarlo Stanton in both categories. He’s boasted a 15.38% strikeout rate with six walks (23.08%) in 26 plate appearances. Altuve has also regained a bit of success at the plate. After failing to collect a hit in seven tries in the Wild Card Series (walking twice) he joined the party in the Division Series. Against the A’s, Jose collected six hits in 15 at-bats including a pair of dingers.
On the mound, the Astros starting struggles have continued. The ALCS could be even more dangerous for Houston who doesn’t have enough pitching depth to carry six starting pitchers on their roster. While that’s not necessary, they’re going to need arms to eat innings with their lack of a legitimate long-relief option in their bullpen.
They’ll be counting on Zack Greinke to bounce back and contribute a strong start in game three or four. This postseason, their most effective starter has been Framber Valdez, who’s already made two strong starts, going five and seven innings, allowing a total of two runs (both home runs) while striking out nine, allowing seven hits and three walks.
Lance McCullers Jr. should also be expected to pitch well. Though he was roughed up by the A’s in game one of the ALDS, he was strong in the regular season, and should rebound – it was only one bad start.
Cristian Javier will now move into the rotation and if he can replicate what he’s done in the bullpen he will be a big part of this series for the Astros. Still, arms like Javier and Greinke, are bigger question marks, risks than they are constants. That should worry Astros fans. The upside is high, but even one short start is going to tax a bullpen that is required to fill in the gaps of seven games in seven days.
Speaking of which, Houston’s bullpen has been excellent this October. It’s a collection of diamonds in the rough. Without the aid of any big market free agents or household names, this Astros bullpen has held strong thus far in the postseason. That’s thanks to Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, and Blake Taylor. Paredes was signed in 2015 as an amateur free agent, Taylor was acquired in a minor league deal with the Mets and Scrubb was acquired from the Dodgers for Evan White.
Three relatively inconsequential transactions have solidified this team’s bullpen. In the regular season, they combined for 65 innings. According to ERA+, Paredes was the worst of the three at 49% better than league average. Scrubbs and Taylor were each 138% and 109% better than league average. Pretty good. Their shortcoming was their propensity to walk batters. They walked a total of 43 batters, giving Houston’s bullpen the third-highest walks per nine innings in baseball this year. It also inflated each of their WHIPs (the Astros bullpen had the 6th highest bullpen WHIP in baseball). There’s no reason for this not to continue into October.
It is worth noting that they’ve already shown signs of improvement. Only Taylor has allowed a walk (2) in two innings of work. Scrubb allowed a single hit in one inning of work while Paredes has been perfect in three and two thirds. Even if they begin to allow more batters to reach base, they remain effective relievers. In any case, something to keep an eye on.
Of course, they all set up to Ryan Pressly, who’s been Houston’s shutdown arm. Despite a rocky inning to end the fourth game of the ALDS against Oakland he figures to continue in that role. Overall, the Astros have done an excellent job polishing an originally shaky bullpen.
ASTROS’ X-FACTOR: OF George Springer
Going into the ALDS my selection for the Astros’ X-Factor was Yuli Gurriel, who, in retrospect, was about the worst selection I could have made. For this series, I’m going to be a bit more chalky and suggest George Springer. He’s consistently made an impact for this team, through the regular season and here in October. As a solid defensive center fielder, he has the opportunity to save runs (1 out above average this season, 8 in 2019). And nobody should need an introduction to the offensive value he can provide.
He’s also got a bit of an edge against the Rays pitching as he hasn’t disproportionately struggled against any single pitch. He’s hit fastballs, off-speed, and breaking balls roughly equally well. He’s been susceptible to pitches down in the zone (something Tampa Bay will surely exploit) however maintained a strong strikeout rate being one of the league’s more patient hitters. Simply put, he’s going to be more difficult than some of the other Astros hitters to defeat. He’s got fewer weaknesses. He’s about as complete a player as any. In his free-agent year, he’s also got something to prove. With the world watching, he’s got a chance to show everyone what type of payday he deserves.
The Astros have convinced a lot of people to take them seriously over the past week (myself included). They’re going to be using many of the same, proven players that won them a World Series three years ago and saw them come very close just last year. If they have put it all together here in October and can maintain this offensive resurgence they pose a serious threat to Tampa Bay’s pitching staff. Which is the other part of this equation…
Tampa Bay is going to have to get creative and lucky to get through seven consecutive days of high leverage baseball. Only four teams asked their starters to pitch fewer innings. The Rays will also be unable to use Tyler Glasnow, arguably their best starter, for a second start having just pitched in game five of the ALDS to secure the win against the Yankees. Ultimately, this Rays pitching staff isn’t built to play seven consecutive games. They may not have to. But the Astros can make them. And if they do, they’ll have the upper hand. That will be the key for the Astros: Work the count, burn through Tampa Bay’s bullpen.
John’s Prediction: Astros 4-3
Jake’s Prediction: Rays 4-2
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