Time for Houston to face their next challenge

Astros playoff report presented by APG&E: ALCS Game 1 Preview

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

It took more games than expected, but the outcome was as predicted: the Astros are in the ALCS. Their opponent is also no surprise; the New York Yankees who were dominant in a sweep of the Twins. Houston continues to own home-field advantage, so the Yankees have made the trip to Houston (I'll practice self-control and avoid the Seinfeld reference) for Games 1 and 2 on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

To start the series, the Astros will be sending Zack Greinke to the mound after a disappointing start in St. Petersburg in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Rays. New York will turn to Masahiro Tanaka, who holds very stout numbers in his postseason career. Here is a quick rundown of ALCS Game 1:

Game Facts

When: Saturday, 7:08 p.m Central.

Where: Minute Maid Park - Houston, Texas.

TV: FOX.

Streaming: Fox Sports App.

Pitching matchup: Zack Greinke vs Masahiro Tanaka.

Series: tied 0-0.

Series schedule

Date & Time (Central) Location Pitching matchup
Game 1 Saturday 10/12, 7:08 PM Minute Maid Park, Houston TX Greinke vs Tanaka
Game 2 Sunday 10/13, 7:08 PM Minute Maid Park, Houston TX Verlander vs Paxton
Game 3 Tuesday 10/15, 3:08 PM Yankee Stadium, Bronx NY Cole vs Severino
Game 4 Wednesday 10/16, 7:08 PMYankee Stadium, Bronx NY TBD vs TBD
Game 5* Thursday 10/17, 7:08 PM Yankee Stadium, Bronx NY TBD vs TBD
Game 6* Saturday 10/19, 3:08 PM Minute Maid Park, Houston TX TBD vs TBD
Game 7* Sunday 10/20, 6:38 PM Minute Maid Park, Houston TX TBD vs TBD

* If necessary
+ Projected Starters

Game Storylines

Rebound game vital for Greinke and his new team

As mentioned, Greinke did not meet the hype in his first playoff appearance for the Astros. In ALDS Game 3, he went just three and two-thirds innings during which he allowed six earned runs, including three homers. Things will be even more difficult against a potent Yankees lineup looking to capitalize against him and build offensive momentum.

Greinke will have to channel in behind his home crowd and give his team an efficient start. New York will not provide any Houston pitcher many easy outs throughout this series, so the Astros should be prepared to use their bullpen much more often than they did in the ALDS. With that, they cannot afford for Greinke to make an early exit after falling apart again. It will be even more critical for Greinke to limit runs allowed because going opposite of him will be Masahiro Tanaka, who holds a 1.54 ERA in the playoffs in his career over 35 innings of work.

Astros can't allow the Yankees to steal one

Houston wanted and needed home-field advantage for this exact matchup. Everyone remembers how much the Astros struggled in New York in the 2017 ALCS. It took having the four games in Houston and winning them all to come out victorious in that matchup. The Astros are a more experienced and arguably improved team from that 2017 squad, but the Yankees even more so. These Yankees are not the same team that folded in the final two games of the 2017 ALCS.

The Astros will have to fight hard to ensure that they don't let the Yankees steal one of these first two games at Minute Maid Park because it will not be any easier to go into Yankee Stadium in October 2019 than it was two years ago. They are playing with confidence, and have the dangerous lineup to do enough to catch Houston on the wrong foot and take advantage. To combat that, it will be vital for Houston to capture and maintain momentum early and often in Game 1 and try to hold on to it as far into this series as they can.

An offensive showdown

Just looking at these lineups is a mouthwatering gift for those who are hopeful to see some of the game's best sluggers. On Houston's side, you've got George Springer, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, and Yuli Gurriel, all ready to change the complexion of a game with one swing. But the Yankees have bombers of their own, with Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Gardner, and Gleyber Torres all ready to get some swings of their own.

This matchup is what we've been waiting to see for several months, and I expect it will deliver. Will Houston perform and play up to their expectations? We'll find out Saturday night.

Be sure to check SportsMap after the final out for an in-depth recap of the game, and follow me on Twitter for updates and reactions throughout each playoff game: @ChrisCampise

The Astros playoff report is presented by APG&E.

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What do the numbers say about him? Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Carlos Correa endeared himself in the heart of Astros fans during his 2020 postseason run. He talked the talk off the field, and he walked the walk on the field. Correa slashed .362/.455/.766 in the postseason, hitting more home runs in 13 postseason games than he did in 58 regular season games. His performance has sparked discussions about whether or not the Astros should seek an extension with him this offseason.

Aside from the gaudy postseason numbers, he asserted himself as a team leader. The images and stories of Correa talking to Framber Valdez on the mound, telling Dusty Baker he was going to hit the walk off, and saying this is the most fun he's ever had playing baseball are fresh in everyone's minds.

However, that's just thirteen games out of a 667 game career (counting the postseason). The postseason games are the most important, and Correa seems to show up when the lights shine brightest, but the Astros have to assemble a team good enough to play under the bright lights for Correa to get that moment to shine. What do the numbers say about him?

Hard Hit % - 41.8%

Barrel % - 5.9%

K% - 21.8%

BB% - 7.3%

Chase % - 31.8%

(Numbers from 2020)

By the numbers, Correa didn't have the greatest regular season in 2020. He slashed .264/.326/.383 with a 97 wRC+, meaning he was 3% worse in run production that the average hitter. He was tied for 14th amongst qualified shortstops with Nick Ahmed of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Francisco Lindor (100 wRC+) was one spot ahead of Correa, while Orlando Arcia (96 wRC+) was one spot behind. His Hard Hit % was in the 65th percentile in MLB, and his Barrel % was in the 34th percentile.

His expected numbers suggest that the dip in performance wasn't a matter of bad luck. His .256 xBA is slightly worse than his actual batting average. His .406 xSLG is slightly better than his actual .SLG, but not by much. Correa had a wOBA of .305 and a nearly identical xwOBA of .306. Lastly, his .324 BABIP was actually a .021 point jump over last year, and it's a touch above his career mark of .316.

Correa likely struggled during the regular season because of a downturn in production to the opposite field. Correa pulled the ball 49% of the time in 2020. That was 16th amongst qualified hitters, and it's a complete outlier for him in his career. It was 14.4% higher than 2019, and it was 15.6% higher than his career average. In 2019, Correa had a 9% HR% on batted balls to the opposite field. He had an average exit velocity of 87.7 MPH with an average launch angle of 27°. His batting average was .368 with a xBA of .349 to that part of the field. In 2020, Correa had a 0% HR% to the opposite field (meaning he didn't hit one). He had an average exit velocity of 86.8 MPH with an average launch angle of 30°. His batting average was .382, but his xBA was .259. Keep in mind, Correa missed most of the 2019 season with injury, so the sample sizes aren't all that different (57 AB's in 2019 versus 34 AB's in 2020).

It's a similar story for the straightaway portion of the field. In 2019, Correa had an 11% HR%, 90.4 MPH avg. exit velocity, 8° avg. launch angle, .370 BA, and .424 xBA between the gaps. In 2020, Correa had a 5% HR%, 88.5 MPH avg. exit velocity, 4° avg. launch angle, .349 BA, and .362 xBA.

That all changed in the postseason.

Here is an overlay of Correa's spray charts from postseason games in which he hit home runs. Five of his six postseason homers were to center field, and three of the five to center field were on the opposite field side of second base.

Correa also made some physical changes at the plate over the course of the season, particularly late in the season, which means that the uptick in offensive performance is related to a physical change, not just some sort of ability to turn it on in the postseason. Correa mentioned that he and Alex Cintron compared video to his rookie season to look at hand positioning, and Correa started to mimic that. Then, there's the already-famed story of Correa and Cintron running to the cages mid-game to open up his shoulders and be less closed off. All of those changes are clearly visible on video.

On the left is Correa early in the 2020 season when the Astros were in San Diego playing the Padres. In the middle is Correa's first career home run in 2015. On the right is Correa's walk-off homer against Tampa Bay. There are four clear and obvious changes. First, he's holding the bat nearly straight up, which he wasn't doing at the beginning of the season. It supports Correa's claim that he and Cintron were looking at video from 2015 and trying to mirror that swing again. Then, there's the change with Correa's shoulders. In the first photo, if it weren't so grainy, you could read "C-O-R-R-E" in Correa. Same deal with the second photo, except it's even more clear. In the third photo, you can only read "C-O" which also supports the story of that mid-game adjustment with Cintron. Third, Correa has a lot less forward body lean with his torso. Correa hasn't spoken as to why he made that change, but it is probably tied to shoulder and bat orientation and helps him feel more comfortable. Lastly, Correa opened his stance, which is almost always going to help with vision.

The changes all probably help Correa feel more free when he swings. His postseason swing was much more North-and-South than East-and-West. His hands are able to work freely underneath his shoulders, and he has to do a lot less work to clear space for his hands to work. It's encouraging that the uptick in performance is clearly tied to physical work in the cage.

Correa did bring solid defense to the table as well. He's a finalist for the AL Gold Glove Award at SS along with Niko Goodrum of the Detroit Tigers and J.P. Crawford of the Seattle Mariners. Correa will likely win the award. However, the defensive metrics are mixed on his performance.

Errors don't count as an advanced statistic, but they still bring value to the table. There's a direct correlation between making errors and giving up free bases. Now, just because a player doesn't make many errors doesn't mean he's an elite defender, but it's hard to be an elite defender if you make lots of errors. Correa takes care of the baseball, as his one error was tied for the least amongst shortstops. Correa also performed glowingly by DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). His DRS of 8 was second amongst shortstops, second behind only Dansby Swanson. However, UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) had Correa at -0.7, which is below average. His OAA (Outs Above Average) of 0 roughly agrees with his UZR rating. Essentially, the numbers say Correa makes the routine plays about as well as anybody, but he isn't particularly rangy. His arm is also impressive and brings a lot to the table. Correa isn't a bad defensive shortstop by any means, he's above average, but this is probably the only Gold Glove he'll ever be nominated for, much less win.

When Correa is healthy and on his game, he is one of the most electric players in baseball. The problem is he hasn't been healthy and on his game nearly enough in his career. Over his five full major league seasons, Correa has missed 203 out of 708 games. He's been unavailable, mostly due to injury, in 30% of games over that time. That's quite a bit. The three injuries that have caused him to miss the most time are all back and torso related. The fact that the back issues have recurred is alarming, and it's something to monitor. It is really hard to be a good baseball player with a bad back. Credit to Correa, he stayed healthy for all of 2020, but it was only a 60 game season, which means there were fewer opportunities for injury. If he has another healthy season in 2021, it'll be enough to put the injury prone label to rest, but he hasn't done it yet.

And again, there's the issue of his performance being up-and-down over the years. In 2018, Correa missed 52 games due to injury, and had a wRC+ of 100, meaning he was exactly league average. That means he's been only league average or worse in two of his six big league seasons. Correa played extremely well in 2019, racking up 3.2 WAR and 143 wRC+, but he only played 75 games.

Between COVID, injury history, and streaky performance, there's too much uncertainty to give Correa a long term deal right now. However, his peaks, leadership ability, and apparent willingness to stay in Houston certainly make him a candidate for one. 2021 will be a "prove it" year for Correa, and it will go a long way in ranking him amongst the crop of shortstops hitting the free agent market after next year. Is Correa at the top of that market with Francisco Lindor, or is he at the bottom of that market with Javy Baez?

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