The Astros’ postseason really started seven days ago during a season-defining road trip. To secure a spot in October and maintain faint hope of an American League West title, every game felt like a must-win.
Houston won five of them, received some help from its rivals and now will enjoy five days off before Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Saturday at Minute Maid Park.
Examining the details of those high-stakes victories affords a glimpse into how manager Dusty Baker and his coaching staff will operate in October. Here are five things we learned:
It’s going to be difficult for Yainer Diaz to play
Diaz took five plate appearances during the most crucial six games of Houston’s season. Four of them came in his only start, which also happened to be the Astros’ only loss on the road trip.
Diaz deserves no blame for that 6-2 setback against the Mariners — Houston’s pitchers twice failed to back up third base on errant throws and the team authored an overall affront to fundamental baseball. Diaz struck out twice as the designated hitter, but did score one of the team’s two runs.
Diaz’s next plate appearance didn’t arrive until Sunday, after Seattle’s 1-0 win against the Rangers went final and Houston had all but cemented its American League West crown. Diaz replaced veteran starter Martín Maldonado behind the plate in the eighth inning of Houston’s 8-1 win.
That Maldonado started Sunday’s game at all — a 12:10 p.m. PT first pitch after a night game on Saturday — further demonstrated how the team views Maldonado’s presence in massive games. He caught all six on this season-defining road trip, accentuating what fans have failed to accept all season: the Astros think Maldonado is a difference-maker.
Barring an injury or some sort of seismic change in thinking, Maldonado will catch almost all of the Astros’ postseason games. He caught every one of Framber Valdez’s 31 regular-season starts and each of Justin Verlander’s 11 appearances after his acquisition in August.
Those two will start Houston’s first two ALDS games, in some order. Performances during the road trip suggest José Urquidy and Cristian Javier are the leading candidates to start Games 3 or 4. Maldonado caught 28 of Javier’s 31 regular-season starts. Urquidy missed most of the season with a shoulder issue, but listening to him on Friday describe how he stabilized his outing is indicative of the trust that Maldonado has engendered.
“I was trying to locate pitches, but I talked with Maldy and he told me I needed to throw my stuff through the zone. Just believe it. And I did it,” Urquidy said after his start in Friday’s 2-1 win.
This is not to suggest pitchers don’t trust Diaz, but the team believes Maldonado’s experience and presence outweighs anything the rookie could bring behind the plate.
Diaz still has immense value. He finished with the team’s fourth-highest OPS and hit 23 home runs as a rookie. Manager Dusty Baker could need him as a pinch-hitter or to start at designated hitter if Michael Brantley’s shoulder soreness starts to flare up, but last week seemed to suggest Diaz won’t have an everyday role in the postseason.
Teams are going to challenge José Abreu
On Tuesday night, Mariners manager Scott Servais offered a blueprint for how to navigate the middle of Houston’s order. Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman began the first inning with singles against starter George Kirby.
After Yordan Alvarez grounded out, Servais intentionally walked Kyle Tucker to bring Abreu to bat. At the time, Abreu had a .667 OPS. He bounced into a fielder’s choice that forced Altuve out at home plate.
Abreu batted fourth, fifth or sixth in 139 of his 141 regular-season starts. He finished the worst year of his career with an 87 OPS+, .296 on-base percentage and .393 slugging percentage.
Seattle’s season was on the line in this game, so Servais managed like it. It’s not unreasonable to expect managers to act similarly in October. Facing Abreu feels far less daunting than either Alvarez or Tucker ahead of him.
Abreu has offered hope of a turnaround. After Tuesday’s game, he finished the road trip 6-for-16 with two clutch doubles and a home run. Twenty-eight of his 90 RBI this season came in September. The Astros must hope more are to come.
The third and fourth starters
Verlander and Valdez will almost certainly start the first two games of the ALDS. Nothing after Houston’s co-aces is easy to decipher.
The two starting candidates they will choose from appear clear. Urquidy and Cristian Javier both delivered clutch and commendable performances during the team’s road trip, turning them into the top choices for Houston’s thin postseason rotation.
Urquidy stepped in for an emergency start on eight hours’ notice and fired six scoreless innings in the team’s 2-1 win against the DBacks to open the series. Javier finished it Sunday with six scoreless innings of his own. Arizona ended the season as a below-average offense and, on Sunday, sat half of their starting lineup against Javier in preparation for the postseason.
Analyzing what both starters accomplished against them requires that proper perspective. Javier walked three and surrendered four runs in 4 ⅔ innings on Tuesday against a far more intimidating Seattle lineup, but had defensive miscues behind him derail his outing.
September regression by rookies J.P. France and Hunter Brown helped vault Urquidy and Javier into consideration. When France had a family emergency that required him to miss his scheduled start on Friday, the team opted for a limited Urquidy over a fully-rested and stretched-out Brown for the spot start.
France rejoined the team on Saturday, when Sunday’s starter still had not been decided. Houston again turned to a more experienced arm and chose Javier over France.
Neither Javier nor Urquidy is foolproof. Urquidy boasts a 5.29 ERA, is still not stretched out beyond 70 or so pitches and struggled to miss bats during his start against the DBacks. Javier’s inefficiency and inconsistent fastball are ongoing problems and only finished six innings twice in his past 11 starts.
Both men, however, boast what France and Brown do not: experience starting on the sport’s biggest stage.
Controlling the running game is a problem
Seattle and Arizona attempted nine stolen bases across the six games against Houston. Eight were successful.
The one that wasn’t may have preserved the division. With no outs in a one-run game, Maldonado caught Jake McCarthy stealing second in the ninth inning of Saturday’s 1-0 win.
“Finally,” Maldonado said with a wide smile. “I threw somebody out.”
Maldonado had not thrown out a base-stealer since July 31. The Astros allowed 127 stolen bases on 158 regular-season attempts — an 80 percent success rate that is right in line with the major-league average. Five playoff teams were below average: the Phillies, Twins, Rangers, Orioles and Diamondbacks.
Both Astros catchers boast above-average arm strength and have nearly identical pop times. Maldonado averages 82 mph on his throws with an average pop time of 1.93 seconds. Diaz, in a far smaller sample size, sits at 85 mph with a 1.90-second pop time. Major-league average pop time is 1.99 seconds.
Maldonado threw out just 14 of the 100 baserunners who attempted to steal against him during the regular season. Diaz caught 15 of the 35 who ran against him, but just five of 26 following the All-Star break.
Maldonado’s numbers draw most of the outside ire due to his reputation — he is, after all, nicknamed “Machete” for his ability to cut down baserunners — but this is a problem precipitated by Houston’s pitching staff. Maldonado catches Valdez, Javier and Urquidy, all of whom are not adept at holding runners.
Struggles to adjust to the pitch clock and limited disengagements have been apparent all season and could be exposed in October. Houston’s pitchers are too slow with their times to home plate and, most of the time, provide neither of the team’s catchers a chance of throwing anyone out.
Baseball Savant measures the average distance of a runner from second base when a pitch crosses the plate. League average is 56 feet. When Maldonado catches, runners are 53.9 feet from second base. They are 54.1 feet from the bag when Diaz is behind the plate. Translation: runners are stealing off Houston’s pitchers.
Conventional wisdom suggests simply adding a slide step to some Astros’ pitchers’ deliveries, but there is valid worry that pitch execution will suffer as a result of the mechanical change. Neither the Twins nor the Blue Jays are massive stolen base threats, but if Houston moves onto an ALCS against Tampa Bay or Baltimore, this could loom large.
Mauricio Dubón is viewed as the team’s best defensive center fielder
Dubón started three of the team’s final six games in center field. In a fourth, he entered in the ninth inning with Houston clinging to a one-run lead on Saturday, the clearest sign yet that Baker views him as Houston’s best defensive center fielder.
Dubón finished the year worth four outs above average in center field. Teammate Jake Meyers is worth nine, but it’s clear Baker prefers Dubón’s arm and overall defensive profile.
Two of Dubón’s three starts in center field on the trip came behind Verlander, prolonging the trend that began in the second half of last season. If it continues in the playoffs, it will leave Baker in a conundrum both before and during games.
Houston’s best offensive outfield includes either Brantley or Alvarez in left field, Chas McCormick in center and Kyle Tucker in right. Pushing McCormick to left field in order for Dubón to play center would mean one of Alvarez or Brantley couldn’t crack the lineup.
If the opposing starter is left-handed, it’s not necessarily a problem, Baker could unleash Brantley on a right-handed leverage reliever late in a game.
Suppose, though, Baker doesn’t start Dubón but does want to insert him late in a close game as a defensive replacement, just as he did on Saturday. It would force him to either remove Alvarez or Brantley and, if the game extends beyond the ninth, risk playing extra innings without them.
Baker must decide if the added defense is worth it.
(Top photo of Maldonado: David Butler II / USA TODAY)