AL Wild Card Series Preview: Houston Astros vs. Minnesota Twinson September 28, 2020 at 4:00 pm

AL Wild Card Series Preview: Houston Astros vs. Minnesota Twins

For the first time since the 2006 postseason, the Minnesota Twins will face a first-round opponent that isn’t the New York Yankees. Their previous four playoff appearances have resulted in futility in the Bronx, getting swept in three Division Series and one Wild Card game. It must be a relief to see another opponent across the diamond.

The Astros enter the 2020 postseason on their back foot. After dominating the American League West for the last three years, winning a World Series championship in 2017, and losing in the World Series last year, the Astros limped their way into the playoffs in this abbreviated season. Despite being the sixth seed, they had the worst regular season record among the AL playoff field:

This three-game series is a matchup between two opponents with plenty to prove. Both teams’ offenses have taken a step back from what they accomplished last year. The Bomba Squad has seen its home run output drop a bit this season. After smashing the major league single-season home run record in 2019, the Twins launched the sixth most home runs in the majors in 2020. While the power was still mostly intact, their overall offensive production fell to just above league average. Diminished seasons from a few key players is the likely culprit. Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, and Mitch Garver each saw their wRC+ drop by at least 38 points, with Garver’s dropping by an incredible 114 points.

Houston has had an even worse time replicating its success at the plate in 2020. The club led the majors with a 125 wRC+ last year; that mark dropped to a hair below league average this season. The Astros, too, have seen a number of their key offensive stars really struggle during this abbreviated season:

The four players listed above’s production has fallen precipitously. Both Altuve and Correa have swung the bat as if they were light-hitting middle infielders and Gurriel might finally be feeling the effects of age-related decline after a career-year in 2019. At least Bregman has been better than league average at the plate in 2020, though his wRC+ has fallen 46 points from the impressive 168 mark he posted a year ago.

As a team, the Astros really struggled to score runs as the season wore on. They scored just 3.8 runs per game in September and eked out 10-17 record during the final month of the season. They were much more productive earlier in the season, recording 5.3 runs per game in July and August. Despite the struggles of many of their superstars, though, they can still be dangerous.

Alongside their issues at the plate, the Astros have dealt with plenty of problems on the mound, too. Their pitching staff has been decimated by injuries. Justin Verlander was lost for the year after just a single start, and there’s reason to wonder if he’s pitched his last innings for Houston. Ten other pitchers joined Verlander on the Injured List at various points this season, with a cumulative 476 days lost to injury, by far the most days lost by any pitching staff in the majors.

They’ll turn to the venerable Zack Greinke to start the short series. His evolution this season has been fascinating to watch. He’s continued to tinker with his pitch arsenal and mix, presenting batters with a vast array of pitches at different speeds taking different shapes, keeping them off balance for the entire at-bat. The results have been good, mostly. He’s posting the fourth lowest FIP of his long career, driven by his lowest walk rate, but his ERA is more than a full run higher than his FIP.

The Twins will counter with Kenta Maeda in Game 1. With respect to Josh Donaldson, Maeda has been the most impactful offseason acquisition Minnesota made this year. Without having to worry about the various shenanigans the Dodgers pulled with his innings to suppress his contract incentives from kicking in, he has thrived in Minnesota after the team allowed him to just pitch. He didn’t allow more than three runs in any of his starts and he increased his strikeout rate by more than five points. If Shane Bieber hadn’t run away with the Cy Young award this year, Maeda would have a good case for winning it himself.

After Greinke and Maeda, the Astros’ starters are a little less clear than the Twins’. Minnesota has already announced that Jose Berrios will start Game 2, with Michael Pineda taking the ball for a hypothetical Game 3. Houston will likely counter with Framber Valdez in Game 2 — he last pitched on September 22. For Game 3, the likely candidate would be Lance McCullers Jr., who pitched on Saturday.

After all those injuries to their pitching staff, Valdez was thrust into a key role in the rotation. He responded by posting the best season of his career. A slight adjustment to his mechanics has given him more consistent release points, which have lead to vastly improved command. He’s cut his walk rate by more than half and both his ERA and FIP have dropped as a result. McCullers finally looked like himself during his last few starts of the year. Earlier in the season, it was clear he was still shaking off the cobwebs after his 2018 Tommy John surgery, but he allowed just four runs across his last three starts while striking out 24 in 17.2 innings.

As for the Twins’ starters, Berrios pitched through bouts of inconsistency this year on his way to posting a park- and league-adjusted FIP right in line with his career norms. His elevated walk rate was countered by a strikeout rate that crept back above 25%. Pineda lost most of this season after serving the remainder of a PED suspension for using a diuretic last year. He returned to action in September, making five successful starts for the Twins down the stretch.

On paper, the Twins hold every advantage in this series. They have a slight edge at the plate, play excellent defense, and have a much stronger pitching staff. But the Astros are still plenty talented, even if some of that talent hasn’t shown up as much this year. This series presents a chance for the Twins to cast their playoff troubles aside — maybe they’ll win their first playoff game since 2004. For the Astros, this series presents a clean slate to show the American League they’re still a team to be feared.

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