The Mariners wrap up their long road trip with their first series in Houston.
Neat. It’s the Astros again.
The Mariners took a series from the Astros to open their 2022 homestand, which was delightful, except for the part where Justin Verlander showed that he was definitely Verlinator or Robolander or pick your futuristic robotic sci-fi menace of choice. Neat and good. The Mariners also got the privilege of facing a depleted/slow-starting Astros team at home with the leather-lunged T-Mobile faithful shouting down all manner of old seafaring curses upon the Astros. They won’t have any of those benefits in this series, and will also arrive in Houston having been roughed up at the hands of the Florida Teams, but they will get to face Verlander again, because the universe is a cube tumbling quietly in the dark, indifferent to our human wishes.
After a rough start to the season in April that saw them split a two-game series with the lowly D-Backs and then drop three straight series to the Angels, Mariners, and Blue Jays, the Astros remembered, duh, we’re the Astros, and took three out of four from the Rangers. They then had to turn around and play the Blue Jays again on the road, however, in a particularly gnarly bit of scheduling that took them from Houston to Arlington to Toronto back to Houston with nary a day off, and the Astros also dropped that series to the Blue Jays, keeping them firmly beneath Seattle in the AL West standings despite the Mariners irresponsibly spring breaking all through Florida. They’ll be looking to get right against the Mariners, and bad news, some of their early-season slumbering bats appear to be waking up all Disney-princess style, except instead of cute tiny forest animals it’s Yordan Álvarez and Kyle Tucker here to beat pitchers senseless with their bats. The Mariners aren’t favored to win any of these games, which you probably guessed, but it’s a little hilarious to see how hard the numbers have shifted on the Brash-Verlander matchup after that being breathlessly advertised as a must-see pitcher’s duel not one week ago. Like, the most miniscule, obscene definition of “hilarious,” but still.
Again, the tissue-paper Astros of the previous series they are not. Yordan Álvarez is back in the lineup and making up for lost time by absolutely punishing every baseball that dares look his way; his Stacast page would make even George R. Martin say to go easy on the red. Someone else who has rebounded from an early slump with annoying elasticity is Kyle Tucker, who has safely moved all his Statcast slider bars back into the red after an alarming bout with the blues earlier this season. Good news for my flailing fantasy team, less good news for the Mariners. Someone who is also on my fantasy squad but has not rebounded as quickly is Michael Brantley, whose slugging (.397) hasn’t yet caught up with his expected number (xSLG) of .563 (!), and woe betide the Mariners if it does over this series. Similarly, Brantley’s expected numbers say he should be averaging around .330 while he’s only hitting a cool .274, which again, we’re totally fine with, no need for regression quite yet here. One Astro who is not yet recovered from his early season slump is José Altuve; you can’t even say it’s bad luck, because his expected numbers are just as stinky poo-poo as his actual ones. He’s also striking out more than 10% more than he ever has in his career. It’s unlikely he’s suddenly fallen off a cliff this hard, but it feels safe to project the turnaround won’t be immediate. It turns out older players don’t bounce back from a weird spring training schedule as quickly, who would have thought? [As I strain my back attempting to turn off a light switch] Also, rookie Jeremy Peña has been really good, and that’s annoying. Please direct all your complaints to Anders, who picked him for ROY.
From a previous series preview:
Jake Odorizzi has struggled through a wonky path through the middle of his career. A top prospect with the Rays to start, he never really put everything together in Tampa Bay. His big breakout came in Minnesota in 2019; he posted a career-high 27.1% strikeout rate that year and 4.3 fWAR. He was tagged with a qualifying offer that offseason and accepted it, returning to the Twins on a one-year deal. Unfortunately, injuries cost him most of the shortened 2020 season, making just four starts for Minnesota. He signed a two-year deal with the Astros late last spring but a handful of minor injuries again held him back from repeating the success he enjoyed in 2019. With a prototypical modern fastball with tons of carry, he’s been a bit homer prone in his career. His secondary offerings are all inconsistent at best, making him overly reliant on his heater.
The Astros have opted to run a six-man rotation during a particularly crowded portion of their schedule. That’s pushed Cristian Javier into a starting role for now, one he was familiar with for portions of last year. Even though he has a full, four-pitch repertoire befitting a starter, he throws his fastball and slider more than 85% of the time. That pitch mix is skewed a bit based on his time in the bullpen, but they’re also his best pitches and extremely effective; he leaned on them heavily even in extended outings out of the ‘pen. His breaking ball is particularly unhittable. Last year, batters swung and missed almost half the time they offered at the pitch. Even more impressive: he allowed just nine hits off the pitch, though seven of them were extra-base hits. He’s increased his slider usage up to 40% this year, though his whiff rate on the pitch has been cut in half so far.
From a previous series preview:
At 39 years old, Justin Verlander is attempting to do something nearly unprecedented in major league history: successfully return from elbow surgery at an extremely advanced age. He made one start in 2020 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery; it was just the second major injury of his career and he became the second oldest starter to ever undergo the procedure. He had thrown more than 200 innings in every season of his career except two up to that point. During the offseason, the Astros signed him to a one-year, $25 million deal with a player option for 2023. The Astros clearly expect him to pick up right where he left off. Whether or not that will come to pass is a little more murky.
Okay, so maybe it’s a little less murky than everyone expected. Through four starts this year, Verlander looks just as deadly as he was before his Tommy John surgery. His fastball is averaging just under 95 mph and his secondary offerings are still potent.
The Big Picture:
The Mariners continue to cling to second place in the AL West despite nearly shuffling off to that great lanai in the sky during their Florida trip (that’s a Golden Girls reference, for those of you under 30, and if you haven’t seen it you should because it’s the best show to fall asleep to in the world). Obviously, that could all change if they continue to play like they have been against the Astros. The Angels continue to rule the AL West, validating me personally for saying no really, this is LA’s year but making everything else feel bad. Texas and Oakland are also here. Oakland should by all rights be playing worse than they are and Texas better than they are, but that’s baseball, baby.