Houston Astros vs. Seattle Series Preview

Sep 30, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (1) hits an RBI-single against the Seattle Mariners during the fifth inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 30, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (1) hits an RBI-single against the Seattle Mariners during the fifth inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

Houston Astros Travel to Seattle to Face the M’s

What hurts worse than getting swept by your in-state rival?  Getting gut-punched in a 12 inning rubber game at home.  After Collin McHugh had gotten rocked in game one against Boston, Fiers put together his best game of the year to even up the series.  Game three saw Scott Feldman get in trouble early, due to both a flurry of hits and three errors in the field.  Colby Rasmus was the silver lining in the series, as he hit a grand slam on Saturday, and an epic game-tying two-run shot in the bottom of the ninth.  It wasn’t enough, however, as Ken Giles again got roughed up, and gave up two runs in the twelfth.

Houston is just playing bad baseball, and things have got to be shaken up.  Two trends that have remained a constant for 2016 have been unreliable defense, and lack of situational hitting.  The Astros rank second to last in the AL in fielding percentage, and dead last in the AL with a .180 RISP.  Combine those two statistics with a 4.85 team ERA (also good enough for dead last), and you get last place, 6-13 ball club.  Along with their poor ERA, a bulk of that number can be attributed to the first inning.  Houston starters have an ERA of a ridiculous 10.89 in the first inning alone.  Getting behind in the game early only adds stress to an offense that is struggling to get things going.

Do changes need to be made?  Sit Carlos Gomez.  He’s batting .194 this season, and while he does play above average defense, so does George Springer.  The Astros need to put Preston Tucker in left, and either keep Springer in right or move him to center and put Rasmus in the other spot.  Gomez is a complete loss in the lineup, as is Jason CastroEvan Gattis finally got some good swings in this series and got an RBI single in Sunday’s game.  It wasn’t much of a hit, but it was contact that didn’t result in an out.

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Gattis needs to enter the catching equation sooner rather than later, as Castro also equals a lost spot in the lineup.  As far as pitching goes, why not give Chris Devenski a start?  He has arguably been the best pitcher this season, granted from relief appearances, but maybe A.J. Hinch should plug him in for Feldman or Fister in the next round of starts.

Maybe we will see some changes in the upcoming road trip to Seattle as Houston takes on the 9-9 Mariners.

The Mariners offense has been putrid at their home stadium Safeco Field, hitting a cumulative .170.  Seattle does have plenty of pop, which puts them one spot behind the Astros in the AL home run lead with 24 long balls.  Nelson Cruz has four home runs, and Robinson Cano has six. However, only three batters are hitting over .250 on the year.  Seattle is 1-5 at home this year, and Houston is 2-7 on the road, so both teams are in dire need of winning this series.

GAME 1: Doug Fister (1-2, 5.94) vs. Taijuan Walker (1-0, 1.50)

Fister will look to build off his previous start against the Rangers, where he was dealt a tough-luck loss in six innings of work.  Fister made one mistake pitch to Prince Fielder, and the two-run homer was enough to seal the Astros doom as the Houston offense was anemic.  Fister will take the mound in Seattle against a club he has not faced since 2013, but he does hold a 2-0 record with a 2.49 ERA against the M’s.  Fister is an entirely different pitcher since 2013, and will see many faces he has little or no history against.

Two Seattle batters that do have plenty of history versus Fister are Cruz and Cano. Both players have home runs against the Houston pitcher and have a career batting average of over .300.  Fister has given up a home run in each of his starts the year; with the Mariners not hitting for a high average so far this year, Fister could put together another strong outing if he can keep the ball in the park.

The 23-year-old Walker has started off his sophomore campaign very nicely.  In 18 innings pitched, he has a 1.50 ERA and an impressive 7.00 K/BB ratio.  Even though last season was his first full season in the majors, Walker has already faced Houston eight times, the most of any team.  In those eight starts, he has gone 4-1 with a 4.40 ERA.  He has struggled with certain Astros hitters, Altuve, Springer and Rasmus are all hitting over .300 against Walker, and Gattis has two home runs in 11 at-bats.

One key to Walker’s early season success is eliminating home runs.  He has only given up only one home run this season, last year he gave up 25 round-trippers equaling an HR/9 average of 1.3.  He is also getting a ton of ground balls with his sinker at a batted ball rate of 86%.  Look for Walker to offset his mid-90’s fastball with his slightly slower sinker and a mid 70’s curveball to keep his good season going.

Game Prediction: Mariners 4 – Astros 3

GAME 2: Dallas Keuchel (2-2, 3.71) vs. Nathan Karns (1-1, 5.28)

Keuchel again got roughed up by the Rangers in his last start.  He will look to right the ship against Seattle whom he has a lifetime ERA of 2.68 against.  Keuchel has eliminated the walks which plagued him in his first two starts of 2016, but he still struggled against Texas by leaving too many of his pitches over the plate, giving up 13 hits in six innings.  Cruz and Seth Smith are the two Seattle hitters that have given Keuchel the most headaches.

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Cruz specifically is batting .500 with two home runs in 14 at-bats versus Keuchel.  This year, hitters are simply making better contact off Keuchel’s offerings. Hard hit balls were at 30% versus 21% last season, and line drives are up to 24% from 18%.  Keuchel will need to refocus and get back to spotting his pitches with more precision to regain last year’s form.

Karns is in his first year with Seattle and has struggled thus far.  He has given up a home run in each of his three starts, and in his last two has given four free passes to batters.  Like Keuchel, Karns has seen hitters making harder contact against him so far this season.  For Karns to continue his development, he will need to throw his changeup like he did last year.  He has a good knuckle-curve as an off-speed pitch, but to have success, he needs his third pitch (changeup) to be better.  So far this year, opponents are hitting .571 in respect to his change-up.  Karns has minimal exposure to Astros hitters, but no matter which team he faces, he will need to limit the walks and home runs allowed to be effective.

Game Prediction: Astros 6 – Mariners 2

GAME 3: Collin McHugh (1-3, 7.56) vs. Hisashi Iwakuma (0-2, 3.81)

McHugh is coming off two consecutive games in which he has allowed ten hits.  Opponents are hitting .392 against him, and McHugh just doesn’t seem to have the same bite or location on his pitches, and players are utterly demolishing his fastballs. Some good news for McHugh is that he has done very well in Safeco Field going 3-0 with a 1.66 ERA.  McHugh needs to build some confidence for himself and his team with this next start.  Look for more breaking pitches to be thrown this time around to keep hitters from being keyed on his fastball.

Iwakuma has pitched better than his record shows in 2016.  He has started off the year with a slightly higher WHIP and BB/9 than years past.  Iwakuma is 35 years old and brings experience and savvy to the mound.  A ground ball pitcher by trade, Iwakuma is at his best when his sinker and split-finger are getting batters to ground into double plays and killing rallies.

He is 4-4 lifetime against Houston with a 3.77 ERA and has fared well against most Houston hitters including the hot-hitting Colby Rasmus.  However, Jose Altuve has had success versus Iwakuma and Marwin Gonzales as an absurd career .571 average against him.

Game Prediction: Mariners 5 – Astros 3

Next: Houston Astros: Is The Slow Start A Death Blow?

The Astros are simply too good of a team to be playing this bad.  Until A.J. Hinch shakes some things up, I don’t see things changing.  I will take the M’s two out of three as Houston’s struggles continue.

**Stats from Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs**