Our sister site down south, Crawfish Boxes, reached out this week to exchange Q&As focused on our upcoming division series. My submission there ran on Wednesday. Today, sharp CB writer Dan Martin answers my questions about his Houston Astros. Here we go!
Who is the one player the Astros can’t do without?
Carlos Correa may be the one player the Astros need above all else. Not only is he tremendous with the bat, but he is the field general on the other side of the ball. His play in the field makes an enormous impact on the game. His arm alone in relays is a deterrent for third-base coaches.
During the height of the sign-stealing scandal, Correa voluntarily stepped into the middle of it and became the undisputed leader of the team, as well as the face of the franchise. Unfortunately, ownership lowballed him in extension talks last March for reasons we cannot fathom. There’s a good chance this is his last year in an Astros uniform, as he’s a free agent this winter. So it seems they’ll have to do without him, starting in 2022.
The one advantage the White Sox seem to possess is pitching. But Houston’s arms have acquitted themselves rather well this year vs. Chicago. Can you give us a primer on Game 1 (and possibly 5?) starter Lance McCullers Jr. and any corner he may have turned?
McCullers just keeps expanding his repertoire. He’s always been known for his wipeout knuckle curve, but last year he began to feature his changeup a bit more in crucial counts/situations. Now in 2021, his new toy is a slider that has become his go-to pitch, especially against right-handed hitters. Considering how many quality right-handed bats are in the Sox lineup, I wouldn’t be surprised if he threw his slider more than any other pitch on Thursday.
And though his control can be inconsistent, McCullers’ ability to generate ground balls at an elite rate has helped to compensate, as well as his above-average K%. He can be prone to throwing a lot of pitches in one or two innings each start, and that’s often prevented him from lasting more than six innings.
How about Game 2 starter Framber Valdez?
Valdez has one of the stranger profiles in the big leagues. No other starter comes close to generating as many ground balls as he does, but despite owning a plus-plus curveball, he doesn’t rack up as many strikeouts as you’d expect. He also gets hit hard and has had a problem with issuing too many free passes, but because he’s a ground ball machine, the Astros’ terrific defense elevates his game and allows him to eat innings.
What is the weak spot of the pitching staff?
The issue with the starting rotation and the bullpen going into the postseason is dependability. Valdez’s control issues are worrisome, and despite his decent surface numbers, rookie Luis García has not pitched well in recent weeks, which could be due to fatigue. Kendall Graveman has not been terribly reliable since coming over from Seattle. The bullpen as a whole is a rather shaky unit, and now the starting staff beyond McCullers has questions — Zack Greinke will be used as a reliever due to a late-season injury.
Home field advantage didn’t end up being too much in play, although the White Sox did make a little run for it right at the end. Houston has a quirky park. How much of an advantage does your home park provide?
The biggest home-field advantage for the Astros is the short porch in left field. Players such as Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel do not possess big power, so they greatly benefit from the Crawford Boxes and hit many of their home runs there. I can’t imagine Bregman would ever have a 40-home run season anywhere else. The same can be said for Gurriel’s 30-home run season the same year, in 2019.
Who was your biggest surprise and disappointment for the season?
The biggest surprise was Luis García. He had been a highly-rated pitching prospect, but the way the Astros have fast-tracked his development has been immensely important for the club. Jumping from A-ball to the big leagues is almost unheard of, and he’s now one of the favorites to win AL Rookie of the Year. Without his contribution in the rotation, the Astros might not have been able to take back the AL West crown.
Jake Odorizzi would best qualify as the biggest disappointment. Granted, his performance this year might not have entirely been his fault, as he signed late in the spring and then suffered an injury that knocked him out for a chunk of time. It’s possible he rights the ship next year after a full, normal offseason, but he did not pitch well this year. Like Greinke, he’s expected to be utilized out of the bullpen in the playoffs, and neither has hardly any experience doing so. Odorizzi’s 4.21 ERA appears decent, but he’s struggled when turning over lineups for the third time and has generally been unable to go beyond four or five innings. The peripherals are unkind to him.
Which Astros player is primed to have a great postseason?
Kyle Tucker was one of the best hitters in the game during the second half of the season. He’s coming off a remarkable September that could seamlessly translate in October. He’s a big guy, at 6´4´´, who is very athletic and can simply mash the ball. Not too long ago he looked lost against big-league pitching, but since last year he’s been one of the Astros’ top bats. He’s also solid defensively in right field. The expectation is he’ll be a perennial All-Star going forward.
Which team do you think advances to the ALCS?
This should be a tight race, but the separator could be the Astros’ postseason experience. It’s not that they’ve simply played a lot of October baseball, it’s that they typically play their best during this month. Perhaps if Carlos Rodón were 100% I’d take the White Sox in five, but ultimately I think the Astros get it done in five via their offense and timely pitching, and advance to their fifth consecutive ALCS.