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Sunday’s American League Championship Series Game 1 begins the next layer of MLB’s grueling postseason schedule, one where each club’s pitching depth will be tested by the best lineup they’ve faced all year without the grace of an off day for travel. Two teams, seven games, in seven days (if necessary).
Let’s touch on the narrative. This series pits an infamous-but-talented Houston Astros team, whose players are publicly engaged in cognitive dissonance as a means of self-motivation, against a Rays team sometimes incorrectly billed as an underdog because of its sparse, owner-imposed payroll, even though Tampa was the AL’s top seed. There’s the intrigue of longtime Rays employee (and new Astros GM) James Click facing his old club while he and manager Dusty Baker try to shepherd the franchise through a PR hell that’s probably going to last longer than the pandemic. Houston’s young pitchers (a well that never seems to run dry) led by breakout third-year lefty Framber Valdez and a slew of great rookies who can go multiple innings in relief, face a dynamic group of Rays hitters who run 12 or 13 deep, and punish opponents by creating tough, mid-game matchups.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Yesterday the Astros announced Valdez would start Game 1 on the usual four days rest, while ALDS Game 1 starter Lance McCullers Jr. will go in Game 2 on extended rest. Both work heavily off their sinkers and curveballs, especially Valdez, whose changeup usage dwindled throughout the regular season before totally evaporating in the playoffs. He threw no cambios in the Wild Card round, and tossed just four of them in his ALDS start against the A’s, throwing one to Ramon Laureano and Chad Pinder each time he faced them.
Blake Snell will take the ball for Tampa Bay in Game 1, and while they haven’t announced it yet, it’s fair to anticipate former Astro Charlie Morton going in Game 2 and Tyler Glasnow in Game 3, though that’s more an educated guess than a certainty. In Friday’s ALDS Game 5, Glasnow threw on two days rest, his bullpen day, meaning Sunday’s Game 1 would be his scheduled day to start if the Rays just replaced his routine bullpen with his Game 5 outing. I think the structure of the Championship Series (seven games in as many days) means we’re unlikely to see an extended outing from Glasnow early in this series (he threw 93 pitches in his first ALDS start) since there’s an old-school style importance to starting pitchers going deep into games, forcing Tampa Bay to start and get bulk innings from Glasnow rather than piggybacking him.
The seven consecutive games format will also stress test the middle of Houston’s rotation, which gave up a lot of loud contact during their homer-filled Division Series tilt against Oakland. Jose Urquidy gave up four homers in his start, while Zack Greinke gave up two. Dusty Baker will either need to let them pitch deeper into games than they have thus far, or rely on members of the bullpen (Luis Garcia, Cy Sneed, Brooks Raley, Andre Scrubb, and Josh James) who have either been absent or shaky so far in the playoffs. It may also force one of two rookies to make a start at some point, either Cristian Javier, who started during the regular season but has been nails out of the bullpen in the playoffs, or Garcia, who didn’t pitch at all in the ALDS but who I consider a strong prospect.
Because Valdez and McCullers deploy so many sinkers and curveballs, they have among the higher groundball rates in baseball. Luckily for them, they play in front of one of the better infield defenses in the game. Jose Altuve has become something of a glove-first player, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel are both former shortstops, and Carlos Correa has among the best infield arms in the sport.
This preview is being written before rosters have officially been announced, but it’d be unsurprising for both teams to roster one pitcher more than they did in the previous round (the Rays have already announced they’ll do so). Josh Fleming makes sense for Tampa Bay, while Houston has six young, 40-man arms from which to choose.
Both teams participate in some in-game matchup adjustments/platooning, especially the Rays. You may see an in-game swap at first (Ji-Man Choi with Mike Brosseau) or in the outfield (Yoshi Tsutsugo and Kevin Kiermaier with Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe). They may also make changes that lean collectively toward defense (often with Margot and Kiermaier both in the outfield) or offense (Renfroe and Yandy Diaz) depending on whether they’re ahead or behind, and even those decisions might be modulated by whether the pitcher on the mound is a groundball or fly ball guy in extremis. The Rays roster is a cohesive work of art.
The Astros do less of this. Aledmys Diaz and Josh Reddick are in a platoon that shuttles Michael Brantley back and forth between left field and DH. They’ll occasionally use Myles Straw as a pinch runner and defensive replacement (often for Brantley or Reddick, moving George Springer to right field while Straw plays center). Reddick will sometimes hit against a righty for Martin Maldonado off the bench, but none of Abraham Toro, Chas McCormick or Garrett Stubbs has played any kind of role during the postseason despite being on the roster.
As I illustrated in my Low Seed Sleepers piece, Houston’s lineup is the most contact-oriented in the playoffs, a fascinating foil for a Tampa Bay pitching staff loaded with half a dozen 100 mph fastballs.
I’ll close with a few thoughts on catching. If you’ve been watching and listening closely to broadcasts this year, you’ve probably noticed hitters either peeking back at the catcher or (more often) toward a base coach or base runner before a pitch is delivered. You’ve probably also noticed catchers looking up at hitters to see if they’re doing this. Coaches and runners will often relay signals about pitch type or location to hitters, which has been facilitated, at least in part, by the proliferation of one-kneed receiving, which makes those pitch attributes more easily discernible. Receiving on one knee enables catchers to get lower to the ground and better present strikes at the bottom of the zone or below it to umpires. But going down on one knee also sacrifices ball-blocking agility, impacts catcher throwing, and can tip hitters off to pitch type and location depending on the game situation. This is especially true if a runner is at second base, in the hitter’s line of sight and able to signal them up until the last possible moment. As such, you’ll see less on-knee catching with two strikes and with runners on the bases.
With the bases empty, Mike Zunino (likely to start Game 1 against the lefty Valdez) is on one knee for all pitches until the count has two strikes, then he often comes off the knee and into his usual crouch. He sometimes drops a knee while the ball is mid-flight to frame pitches on his glove side (not the pitcher’s), and this is especially true when he’s catching Game 1 starter Snell, whose breaking stuff works toward that location. Here is every Snell/Zunino pitch from the two working together against Toronto in the Wild Card round:
With runners on, Zunino is off his knees and in a traditional crouch the whole time, but the angle of his shins changes when he’s gearing up to block Snell’s breaking stuff.
Some catchers even appear to behave differently depending on who their battery mate is, as is the case for lefty-batting Rays backup Michael Perez, who I’d guess will start Game 2 against McCullers. In Game 3 of the ALDS against the Yankees, Perez caught Charlie Morton in much the same way Zunino caught Snell: on a knee until there were two strikes or runners on base. But Perez catches Snell differently, only ever on a knee when Snell is throwing his changeup with the bases empty, probably because Perez is a smaller guy and Snell’s fastball works at the top of the zone where it’d be difficult for Perez to frame from a knee. On several Snell curveballs, though, Perez dug into his toes so conspicuously that if he were to do so with a runner on second, well before the pitch is delivered, there would be time for the runner to relay it back to the hitter:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCaAoeGMcuo&w=560&h=315]
Maldonado’s behavior is more variable. He’s also mostly on one knee with the bases empty and less than two strikes, and in a crouch to block with two strikes and with runners on. But there were times in Framber Valdez’s Wild Card outing against Minnesota when Maldonado would go back to a knee even with runners on: once when Nelson Cruz was up with a couple runners on and two outs, and another in the ninth inning when the Twins had the tying run in the on deck circle and Valdez had started the hitter 2-0. Of the three catchers I expect we’ll see most of in this series, Maldonado is the best at maintaining crouch uniformity on fastballs and breaking balls:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sFMOVC0tQw&w=560&h=315]