How good are the Houston Astros? They were just swept at home by the Cleveland Indians over the weekend, yet they still own the best record in baseball. At 29-15, the Astros have opened up a 5 1⁄2 game lead in the AL West. That lead was as high as eight games last week, before the Detroit Tigers did them no favors by losing two of three to the Texas Rangers.
If this series gets ugly, you can surmise that the Astros are taking out their frustrations on Detroit.
Or you might consider that the Astros are just a really, really good baseball team. They have a 14-9 record at home this season with a +19 run differential. They are second in the American League with five runs scored per game, and rank second in the majors with a 114 wRC+. Their pitching staff leads baseball with a 3.41 ERA, and they have the third-highest strikeout rate in the game. Their bullpen is fanning nearly 12 batters per nine innings.
As you can see, the Tigers have their hands full. Victor Martinez will rejoin the team on Monday, and they will need all hands on deck if they are to win or split the series. Grabbing a couple wins to start their road trip would be huge; they begin a stretch of 11 road games in 10 days on Monday.
Game 1: RHP Michael Fulmer (5-1, 2.72 ERA) vs. RHP Brad Peacock (2-0, 1.10 ERA)
When the Astros were at their lowest, Brad Peacock was a member of their rotation. He was rather mediocre as a starter, allowing a 4.39 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 46 starts. He has not been much better as a reliever, with a 4.29 ERA and 4.23 FIP (though in a much smaller sample).
Something has been different this year, though. Peacock has doubled his swinging strike rate, and is fanning 12 batters per nine innings. He also has a 15.2 percent walk rate, but the massive strikeout rate has helped him limit opponents to a .127 batting average and 1.10 ERA. The difference seems to be a slider that he started throwing much more often last season; it is generating a 24.7 percent whiff rate this year despite averaging just 80.7 miles per hour.
Game 2: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-2, 6.25 ERA) vs. RHP Lance McCullers Jr. (4-1, 2.65 ERA)
When he first arrives in the major leagues, the knock on Lance McCullers Jr. was his third pitch, or lack thereof. His mid-90s fastball and power curveball were major league ready, but a fringy changeup was supposed to determine whether he would be a starter or bullpen arm long term.
So much for that. McCullers threw his changeup just 10 percent of the time in 2015 and 2016, but posted an excellent 3.22 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 206 2⁄3 combined innings. Shoulder and elbow injuries limited him to just 81 frames last season, and these issues could explain why he is throwing the curve “just” 44 percent of the time this year. In its place is that changeup, which is generating a respectable 16.7 percent whiff rate. If he gets more comfortable with that pitch, look out.
Game 3: LHP Daniel Norris (2-3, 4.81 ERA) vs. RHP Charlie Morton (5-3, 4.26 ERA)
Remember when Rich Hill made four dominant starts at the end of 2015 and was suddenly one of the best pitchers in baseball? Consider Charlie Morton the poor man’s version of that. The 33-year-old righthander struck out 19 batters in 17 1⁄3 innings last year while throwing harder than ever, and teams took notice. The Astros bet two years and $14 million on that breakout, and he has repaid them with 59 strikeouts in 50 2⁄3 innings this year. His 4.32 ERA isn’t ideal, but could go down quickly if his home run rate regresses to career norms.
Game 4: RHP Justin Verlander (4-3, 4.39 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (1-2, 5.14 ERA)
Mike Fiers has always lived and died at the top of the strike zone. He is mostly dying this year. The 31-year-old righthander has already given up 17 home runs this year, and has been a full win below replacement level. He is throwing more off-speed pitches than ever before, but it has not helped him limit the damage; opponents are hitting .263/.328/.605 off him this season. However, he is coming off his best start of the season. He limited the Cleveland Indians to two runs (one earned) on six hits in six innings last Saturday.
Who’s hot: Carlos Correa
It’s a testament to the Astros’ depth that a subpar April from superstar shortstop Carlos Correa did not hamper the team’s overall success. They won 10 of their first 15 games, and finished the month with a 16-9 record and +23 run differential. However, Correa managed an 81 wRC+ in 97 plate appearances, with a 23.7 percent strikeout rate.
May has been completely different for the 22-year-old. He has doubled his walk rate in 62 plate appearances this month, while slashing his strikeout rate to just 14.7 percent. More importantly for Houston, Correa is hitting .371 with a .661 slugging average, good enough for a massive 206 wRC+. He is up to six home runs this season now, with five coming in 24 games played since April 23.
Who’s not: Yuli Gurriel
Speaking of depth, the Astros have been able to give first baseman Yuli Gurriel consistent at-bats despite an ugly .497 OPS in the month of May. His strikeout and walk rates haven’t changed much — both area very low, surprisingly — but he has hit just .183 with a .237 on-base percentage in 65 plate appearances this month. His propensity to chase pitches outside the strike zone has led more pitches to work out there, both away and above the zone.
This could just be a brief slump, though. Gurriel hit .329/.354/.481 with eight extra base hits in April.
How the Tigers win the series
A good start to this road trip would be huge for the Tigers. It’s their longest stretch of games away from Comerica Park this season, and they have struggled to string together wins no matter what ballpark they are playing in. We repeatedly pointed at this month as a potential problem area for the Tigers in 2017, and they are just 11 games away from finishing this gauntlet with their heads above water. Position within the division will also matter, and the Tigers are still just two games out of first place in the AL Central.
In order to get there, their starting pitching needs to be better. Monday starter Michael Fulmer has been a repeat of his 2016 self and Justin Verlander is finding his footing, but Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris have struggled to get on track. The Tigers are catching a break with Dallas Keuchel on the disabled list — he likely would have started on Monday — and could reasonably win three of four based on starting pitching matchups alone. Things don’t work like that, though, and even a split would be a great feat for a struggling Tigers team.