The Mariners face another critical series with a three-game set in Houston.
Did you enjoy playing a team from Texas nine times over the last three weeks? Have I got a deal for you: how about nine more games in three weeks against the other team from Texas! I know it’s difficult to squeeze 19 games against each division rival into the regular season schedule, but this is getting a little ridiculous. The good news is the Mariners hold their playoff hopes in their own hands at this point. Of the remaining 40 games in the season, 21 of them are against direct competitors in the playoff race (9 vs. Houston and Oakland, 3 vs. Boston). The other 19 games pit the Mariners against the woeful Royals (7 games) and Diamondbacks (6 games) with 6 games against the Angels to close the season. Seattle has a bunch of opportunities to make up ground against their competition and have a pretty soft schedule when they’re not playing a division rival. They just need to take care of business when it counts.
Remember back in April when it seemed like just maybe the Astros were falling back to earth after years of dominance? After the first two months of the season, they were just five games over .500 and in second place in the AL West. Two fanatics months later and they’re leading the AL West again and well on their way towards their fifth postseason appearance in a row. August hasn’t been a good month however. They’ve lost nine of their 16 games this month and were nearly swept by the Royals in a four-game series earlier this week. The biggest culprit has been an offense that’s scored just 4.1 runs per game this month, well off their MLB-best 5.3 mark for the season.
Perhaps their offensive woes can be traced back to missing two of their biggest contributors in Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker. Bregman has been sidelined since mid-June with a quad injury, though Aledmys Díaz has filled in capably at third. Tucker tested positive for COVID-19 a week ago which has forced the Astros to use a pair of rookies in the outfield. They were already committed to giving Chas McCormick more time after trading away Myles Straw at the trade deadline, but Tucker’s absence has forced them to put Jake Meyers in the lineup regularly too. Meyers wasn’t ranked on this year’s FanGraphs prospect list, but he performed well in his first taste of Triple-A this season. None of his tools really standout, but he does enough things well that the sum of his profile is likely an average starter or fourth outfielder.
Remember a few years ago when Lance McCullers’s success was built on throwing his curveball nearly half the time? After missing the entire 2019 because of Tommy John surgery, his pitch mix has changed drastically. He’s throwing his curveball just 20% of the time now and he’s introduced a slider to his repertoire to give him another breaking ball to keep batters off balance. His strikeout rate is as good as ever because all four of his pitches are running whiff rates north of 30%. That’s just around league average or slightly above for his three secondary offerings but a 30% whiff rate on his sinker is elite. He’s struggled a bit with his command this season, but all those strikeouts and an above average groundball rate have helped him mitigate all those extra base runners.
After signing with Houston in late March and getting off to a delayed start to the season, Jake Odorizzi hasn’t found the success he enjoyed in his breakout 2019 season in Minnesota. He looks a lot like the mid-rotation starter from his days with the Rays earlier in his career. His strikeout rate has fallen to its lowest point since an abbreviated cup of coffee back in 2013. And with a batted ball profile that skews heavily towards fly ball contact, a significant home run problem has resurfaced after he was able to get it under control as a Twin. The biggest issue in his pitch mix is a splitter that just isn’t running the same kinds of whiff rates he saw with it earlier in his career.
Last year, Framber Valdez solved the control issues that had plagued him during his first two seasons in the majors. He lowered his walk rate from 13.4% to 5.6% by simply locating all of his pitches in the zone far more often. A broken finger suffered during spring training delayed the start of his season to late-May. He hasn’t looked quite the same this year. His Zone% has fallen back to where it was prior to 2020 and his walk rate has jumped back up to double-digits again. He does have the highest groundball rate of any starter in the majors by a wide margin, which has definitely helped him outpace his FIP. He’s not the ace he looked like he could be last year, but he is a solid starter with a tantalizing ceiling if he can figure out his control again.
The Big Picture:
To the Mariners benefit, the rest of the AL Wild Card field had pretty rough weeks, except for the Yankees. New York has won seven straight after sweeping the Red Sox earlier this week and starting off a four-game series against the Twins with a win yesterday. They’ve now jumped ahead of the A’s in the Wild Card standings and have set their eyes on the Rays atop the AL East. Oakland barely avoided a four-game sweep against the White Sox with a win yesterday afternoon. Their schedule doesn’t let up as they return home to face the Giants for three games this weekend. After getting swept by the Yankees, the Red Sox return home to face the Rangers. For the first time this season, they’re not in possession of a playoff spot as their downward spiral continues. The Blue Jays were swept in a two-game series against the Nationals and will return home to Toronto to face the Tigers over the weekend.