Houston Astros Playoff Run

Breaking down Astros vs. Indians

Justin Verlander gets the call in Game 1. Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros and Indians begin the ALDS on Friday at Minute Maid Park.  The series features two teams with dominant rotations and deep lineups.  While the Astros come in with home field advantage and a much gaudier regular season win total, the Indians shouldn’t be overlooked.

ROTATIONS:

Game One: Corey Kluber vs Justin Verlander

Kluber and Verlander might be the best pitching matchup anyone will see throughout the entire postseason.  Yes, that includes a possible Sale and Verlander matchup. Kluber is a two-time Cy Young Award winner that turned in another Cy Young worthy campaign in 2018,  leading the league in innings pitched with 215.0. He turned in a 2.89 ERA, striking out 222 hitters.

Kluber dominates with movement and effective pitch tunneling, as shown here.

There’s hundreds of examples of this sort of tunneling from Kluber.  For those unfamiliar with the term tunneling, it means that pitches look like the same for an extended period of time.  For instance, in the video link above, two pitches are overlaid from the same at-bat, a 90 MPH two-seam fastball and an 88 MPH cutter.  They look like the same pitch out of the hand, but the two-seamer darts away late and the cutter runs in on the hitter’s hands. This leads to extremely uncomfortable at-bats for hitters, because they don’t know what pitch to look for.

Kluber will be opposed by another Cy Young candidate in Verlander.  Verlander has found the fountain of youth in Houston, dominating the 2018 season at the age of 35.  Verlander was just as much of a workhorse for Houston as Kluber was for Cleveland, throwing one less inning than Kluber, but striking out 70 more hitters, which led the league.  Verlander’s 2.52 ERA is also slightly better than Kluber’s. Put simply, these two will be an amazing matchup to watch, and my guess is the first team to two wins.

Game Two: Carlos Carrasco vs Gerrit Cole

Game two features another marquee pitching matchup between Carrasco and Cole.  Cole certainly had a better season than Carrasco, as he had a lower ERA and FIP, more strikeouts, and more innings pitched.  

Digging deeper into the numbers, game two looks even more encouraging for Houston.  Carrasco started two games against Houston this year, both in May. Houston touched up Carrasco in game one.  While he did last 7 ⅔ innings, the Astros scattered eight hits, scoring three runs. Brian McCann had a homer for Houston, and both Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel had doubles.  In his second start against Houston, Carrasco got roughed up even more, allowing five runs and seven hits in 5 ⅔ innings. Carrasco came away with the win that day, as Lance McCullers struggled, giving up seven runs in 4 ⅓.

Cleveland has seen Gerrit Cole once this year, which was a wild Sunday day game in Cleveland that went to extra innings.  Cole lasted seven innings, allowing four hits. Three of the four hits he allowed were homers, and Cleveland went on to win 10-9 in 10 innings.  

These numbers bode well for Houston.  The Astros will be seeing Carrasco for the third time this year while the Indians will be seeing Cole just for the second time.  Not to mention, Carrasco has been a member of the Indians since 2009, and the Astros have seen him a lot over the last few seasons.  Cole has been pitching in the NL, so Houston will be much more familiar with Carrasco than Cleveland will be with Cole. Cole will obviously be looking to defend against the long ball since Cleveland mashed three of them against him earlier in the year, but getting to pitch at Minute Maid Park instead of at Progressive Field on a hot day in May where the ball carries well will help.

Game Three: Mike Clevinger vs Dallas Keuchel

The Astros win game three off of name recognition, but it will still be quite the pitching matchup.  Clevinger had a fantastic season for Cleveland, logging 200 innings, the first time he’s hit the mark in his three year career.  He also had a 3.02 ERA and a 3.52 FIP while striking out 207 batters. Keuchel struggled with inconsistency in 2018. He routinely started off games rough before settling in and pitching better late in games.  In the playoffs pitchers don’t get the luxury of time, and A.J. Hinch will certainly have a quick hook. Keuchel pitched 204 ⅔ innings in 2018 to the tune of a 3.74 ERA, which was in line with a 3.69 FIP.

Similar to Carrasco, Clevinger struggled against Houston in 2018.  Clevinger lasted 6 ⅓ in his first start against the ‘Stros, allowing eight hits and four walks, leading to three Astros runs.  George Springer homered off of Clevinger in that game. In his second start against Houston, Clevinger lasted 5 ⅓, giving up five runs on seven hits and three walks.  Alex Bregman homered and doubled off of Clevinger.

In a microcosm of his season, Keuchel was inconsistent against the Indians in 2018.  He was touched up in his first start against them, allowing four runs and lasting just five innings.  In his second start, he was much better, allowing two runs in six innings, scattering eight hits.

ASTROS KEYS TO SUCCESS:

Look for the Astros to grind out long at bats against the Cleveland starters and try to get them to turn it over to the bullpen.  Cleveland’s bullpen is better than it was when the teams played six games against each other in May, but it still has a fair share of holes.  Starting pitchers Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber will be available to provide length out of the bullpen, but the back end is spotty. Andrew Miller hasn’t had the type of year baseball fans are used to seeing him have, and he hasn’t been any better down the stretch.  Over the last 28 days, Miller has a 6.30 ERA in 10 games pitched. Cody Allen has also had a really tough year, with a 4.70 ERA in 70 games pitched. His numbers over the last month are similar to Miller’s, as he’s pitched in 10 games with a 6.48 ERA. Adam Cimber also hasn’t been the reliable arm the Indians expected him to be when they acquired him alongside Brad Hand at the trade deadline.  Cimber has a 4.05 ERA and a 6.06 FIP in an Indians uniform. While he’s been much better than Miller and Allen in September, he’s been far from shutdown. The only worrisome arm in Cleveland’s bullpen will be Hand, whose been just as spectacular as an Indian as he was as a Padre.

INDIANS KEYS TO SUCCESS:

While the Astros will be looking to grind out at bats, the Indians should be looking to combat that.  Expect the Indians pitchers to really attack the Astros hitters and try to force them to swing the bat early in counts.  It sounds like a scary strategy considering the Astros lineup, but the Houston offense isn’t nearly as good this postseason as it was last postseason.  While Springer has swung the bat for a high average as of late, the thumb injury he suffered against the Los Angeles Dodgers has zapped his power, hitting just seven extra base hits in the month and a half since suffering the injury.  Altuve hasn’t hit for as much power this year, Carlos Correa has been lost at the plate, and Gurriel isn’t a power hitting first baseman that will strike fear into the Cleveland staff. Frankly, Cleveland can attack Houston hitters without having to worry too much about obscene damage being done outside of Bregman.  If Cleveland can force the Astros to swing the bat early in the count and keep the Astros from doing damage with those swings, they have a chance to upset the defending World Series champions.

 

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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