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  • The Astros are Not the Juggernaut You Remember


    Adam Friedman

    Needless to say, the Astros know how to win in the playoffs. While still a threat, this is not the same team you remember. 

    Image courtesy of Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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    Since the Astros exited what was, at the time, the most extreme tank and rebuild ever, they've been the class of the American League. They started winning in 2015, but in 2017, they took the leap to being an elite team and haven't looked back. They won the World Series in 2017* and 2022 and have made the ALCS every year - including in 2019 and 2021, when they advanced to the World Series and lost. 

    Losing in the Wild Card round is hard to envision, but this team may be different. Are they different enough for the Twins to win their first playoff series since 2004 and end this absurd run of postseason success?

    What's the Same?
    Core of Elite Hitters
    While they are in their second season without Carlos Correa, the Astros have retained their other core elite position players. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, and Yordan Alvarez comprise the elite core. Altuve and Alvarez have missed significant time but have been their usual outstanding selves when healthy. This group has historically performed in the postseason, and each player has been a critical cog in the dynasty.

    Alvarez is one of the best hitters in baseball. He destroys righties and lefties and doesn't really have a zone where he struggles. He's posted an absurd .422 wOBA this season, underperforming an even crazier .437 xwOBA. He hits the ball hard, controls the strike zone, and strikes out at a reasonable rate. The top of this lineup is daunting, and where one big hit can change a game in the postseason, it's reasonable to see them coming through and extending the Twins' postseason losing streak. 

    What's Different?
    Lineup Length
    One of the significant differences between this team and past Astros teams is reduced lineup length. They've had six players (who've played at least 90 games) perform below average offensively with a wRC+ of less than 100. Those six players are Martin Maldonado, José Abreu, Jeremy Peña, Corey Julks, Jake Meyers, and Mauricio Dubón

    They can play Yainer Diaz at catcher over Maldonado, but Dusty Baker hasn't done that much this season, and the pitchers prefer Maldonado. They are stuck with Abreu and Peña in the lineup. Julks and Meyers can be replaced by Michael Brantley and Chas McCormick respectively, but Brantley has missed most of the season due to injury and has not been his usual self since returning and is 36 years old. After having a stretch as one of the elite centerfielders in baseball, McCormick missed time with an injury and seems to have somewhat fallen out of favor with Baker - drawing criticism from some fans and media. 

    The Astros lineup isn't as strong as in years past from top to bottom, but they can still put a formidable lineup out there. Despite the lack of length, the Astros rank 5th in baseball in wRC+ this season, a few spots ahead of the Twins, who sit in 9th. Whether they play McCormick and Diaz or stick with Meyers and Maldonado will dictate how much pressure they can apply to Twins' pitchers from the top to the bottom of their lineup.

    Mediocre Pitching
    The most shocking development in Houston is a pitching staff that has taken a big step back. Their staff ranks 9th in ERA but 16th in fWAR, and 18th in FIP. Their starters have been mediocre, and their bullpen has, too. 

    They brought Justin Verlander back to shore up their playoff rotation, but he's far from Cy Young form. Hector Neris and Bryan Abreu have been stellar in the bullpen, but former Twin Ryan Pressley hasn't been elite in closing games. Abreu has been stellar, but he gave up a 10th-inning home run to Ryan Jeffers in Houston in May. 

    Where the Astros pitching should scare Twins fans is game one. Their best pitcher is Framber Valdez, who's left-handed. The Twins' struggles against lefties are well-documented. Valdez starting will likely prevent some of the Twins' best players - Matt Wallner, Edouard Julien, and Alex Kirilloff - from starting in game one, which is disappointing.

    While Valdez is a terrible matchup for the Twins, the Astros staff isn't star-studded and dominant like in years past. The Astros ranked first in 2022 in FIP, so the drop to the middle of the pack is surprising. They removed Justin Verlander in the offseason (and then regained him at the trade deadline), but this steep dropoff was still unexpected. The Astros' pitching isn't atrocious, but the Twins should be confident in their ability to hit them.

    While the Astros have apparent weaknesses, their top-end talent is still far better than most teams in the league. That core group of superstars is also why they sit atop the AL West, holding a 1.5-game lead. If they hold on, Twins fans won't need to have nightmares of a Yordan Alvarez missile soaring onto the plaza at Target Field until the ALDS. Surely, worrying about a second-round matchup with Houston would be a fabulous problem to have for Twins fans, and a matchup against the Astros wouldn't be as intimidating as it once was. 

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    Evident, as the twins won the season series against them. I don’t think it is ridiculous anymore to say that the Astros are on or slightly above the twins level. They lost Springer, Correa, Prime Gurriel, and Brantley and Bergman haven’t been the same. They have tried to replace those players, and they have a few good players such as pena fill those gaps, but they just can’t replace the stardom of years past.

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    22 minutes ago, TaterTot said:

    Evident, as the twins won the season series against them. 

    The Twins did not face any of the Stros top 3 starters, and the games were all early in the season when Houston was still sleepwalking.  The season series is not particularly meaningful.

    I'm guessing a similar article was written in 2020 before the playoffs.  Houston is a serious franchise.   They do what they need to do in the regular season, and ramp it up in the playoffs.  

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    I honestly think the AL is so wide open that even if the Twins get knocked out early it would still be an exciting race. On the NL side it looks like the Braves should have it locked down but any team could get hot like the Phillies last year and make it interesting. In reality I'm coming in with absolutely zero expectations and just hope the Twins can end their losing streak so we can finally stop hearing about it. 

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    I'm with Bigfork. The Astros are the team I least want to face in the first round of the playoffs of the likely 4. I think the Rangers, Mariners, and Blue Jays are all better matchups for us in that order.  Still, wouldn't mind facing Houston in the second round. I'll take anybody in the second round. Just happy to be there. 

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    56 minutes ago, Karbo said:

    I don't think they will be the one we face in the 1st round. I think they win the west. That leaves the possibility of Texas, Seattle or Toronto for a round 1 match up. I guess I would prefer Texas. They have struggled lately, and been bad on the road. Who would y'all prefer?

    I also think Texas would be the best matchup overall. A matchup against Houston would be bad news for the Twins, in my opinion. Maeda pitched well against Seattle this year if people remember. Maybe Ryan or Ober matchup better against one of the other teams. Fun to be talking about this 🙂

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    The Astros are the last team I want to face in the playoffs on the AL side of things. This team may not be as good as the teams in the past but they are a very good team and have been there before, and WON. 

    I think anybody who writes the Astros off does so at their own peril. They will be fired up and know what it takes to win, which makes them much more dangerous then a team that hasn't been there and is just hoping their best is enough to win.

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    The article mentions the Astros having mediocre pitching, but I don’t know why it doesn’t mention the injuries. They lost one solid starter to TJ this year and another starter has struggled all year with shoulder issues. Plus it’s unfortunate another guy, McCullers, can never stay healthy. But with Verlander and Valdez to anchor them, they could fill in the other rotation spots or have a bullpen or back to back type of game and still go far. It’s s similar situation to the Twins with Lopez and Gray, and then hoping the other guys step up.

    Houston has the class factor and the high expectations too. They will not be an easy out. 

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    1 hour ago, pierre75275 said:

    The Astros are the last team I want to face in the playoffs on the AL side of things. This team may not be as good as the teams in the past but they are a very good team and have been there before, and WON. 

    I think anybody who writes the Astros off does so at their own peril. They will be fired up and know what it takes to win, which makes them much more dangerous then a team that hasn't been there and is just hoping their best is enough to win.

    I agree.  Knowing how to win having done it before DOES make them dangerous even if they don't have the same talent level they had a few years ago.

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    I don't have a preference of which team the Twins will play.  How much experience playoff experience did the 1987 Twins have (previous playoff appearance I believe in 1970).  All 4 of the teams are beatable and are capable of beating the Twins.  I suspect it will come down to who has the best pitching during the series.  The Twins seem to do well against established pitchers, but flail helplessly against unknown or new pitchers.  

     

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    6 hours ago, Woof Bronzer said:

    The Twins did not face any of the Stros top 3 starters, and the games were all early in the season when Houston was still sleepwalking.  The season series is not particularly meaningful.

    I'm guessing a similar article was written in 2020 before the playoffs.  Houston is a serious franchise.   They do what they need to do in the regular season, and ramp it up in the playoffs.  

    I certainly give credence to their experience and success. I don’t love the idea of playing them in the Wild Card round. Their lineup just isn’t that deep, and they don’t have any Cy Young contenders 

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    8 hours ago, JD-TWINS said:

    Don’t like their starting pitching…..meaning they can be good!

    Valdez - Javier - (3rd guy?) - Brown in the 4th spot……….they can all be dominant when they are on - not just decent - dominant.

    No Verlander????

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    Gotta beat good teams if you want to advance in the post season.  That being said give me the Rangers and that weak pen so they can at least get the curse monkey off their backs. 

    Valdez/ Verlander is a real formidable 1-2, Lopez/ Gray are by far the best we have trotted out but neither is a clear favorite.

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