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Getting to know the Astros: The Starters

A look at the pitchers who will make up Houston’s playoff rotation

Houston Astros v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

All year we’ve been previewing each series with a large post designed to get you primed on the upcoming opponent. Well, the upcoming series against the Astros is just a tad more important than any other series played this year, so we’re going to be a bit more in-depth here. Monday, we’ll get to know the position players. Tuesday, we’ll get to know the starting pitchers. Wednesday, we’ll get to know the bullpen. And Thursday, before the series finally gets underway, we’ll take a look at how both sides matchup position-by-position. Note that the roster has not been announced at the time of this writing, so this is simply a best guess of who will be present.

Justin Verlander, RHP

Verlander is, of course, someone we all know as a Tiger and not an Astro. That all changed when he was picked up on the last day of the waiver deadline in one of the biggest August trades ever made. The move truly transformed this Astros rotation and gave them a terrifying one-two punch as well as a veteran with plenty of postseason experience. Verlander is not just some token veteran, though. He is a legitimately great pitcher who has not quite lost a step in his age-31 season. To make matters even worse, he’s somehow found yet another new level since coming to Houston. He’s made five starts with his new team spanning 34 innings and has pitched to a 1.06 ERA with 43 strikeouts to just five walks.

There are some saving graces for the Red Sox as they look ahead to this matchup. For one thing, they’ll have Chris Sale on extra rest, so hopefully they won’t need to score too many runs to pick up a victory. Furthermore, while Verlander has been lights out since joining the Astros, we are still talking about just a five-game sample. Those outings all came against divisional opponents, too, with two apiece against Seattle and Los Angeles and one against Texas. For one thing, both the Angels and Rangers were in the bottom half of the league by wRC+. Additionally, they are divisional opponents, which means the team’s coaching and scouting staffs have more info on them than they theoretically would on the Red Sox. That probably doesn’t make a huge difference, but it’s worth noting. Before getting to Houston Verlander pitched to a 3.82 ERA in 28 starts with a 4.04 FIP, though he did post an impressive 3.10 DRA.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

If the Red Sox are going to get to Verlander, they’ll have to be patient and they’ll have to take advantage of the small ballpark in Houston. Verlander is a flyball pitcher, which is fine given how dominant his stuff can be but also has the potential to lead to serious damage in one-start samples. Lefties in particular have been able to hit for power off Verlander with a .187 Isolated Power. He has also seen a dramatic cutback in walks since coming to Houston, so there is at least some potential he gets walk-happy again in October.

The Red Sox faced Verlander twice this year. In the first outing they managed just one unearned run over seven innings. In the second, they scored three runs in five innings. He leans heavily on a fastball, throwing it over half the time. There’s good reason for this as he averages about 95 mph with the pitch and can get it up higher than that even deep in outings. He also throws both a slider and a curveball, though the former has been much more effective this year.

Dallas Keuchel, LHP

Keuchel is going to be a total change of pace for Houston, though he is just as effective and has just as much of an ability to shut down this Red Sox lineup or any other. The southpaw burst onto the scene in 2015 when he took home the Cy Young award, but he’s really been one of the best pitchers in baseball since 2014, albeit with a rough 2016 mixed in there. He came right back this year and looked like the best version of himself, though. Over 23 starts and 145 23 innings he pitched to a 2.90 ERA. Keuchel isn’t going to blow anyone away with his stuff — he struck out fewer than eight batters per nine innings on the season — and his control is more good than great. What he does do, though, is induce weak contact with much of it coming on the ground. According to Baseball Prospectus, he induced grounders on 68 percent of balls in play and according to Fangraphs he induced weak contact more often than hard contact.

If the Red Sox are going to succeed against Keuchel, the formula will be pretty simple: They have to get lucky and they have to be aggressive. That doesn’t necessarily mean at the plate, since Keuchel threw the ball in the zone fewer than any other pitcher in baseball this year, but rather on the bases. With Keuchel’s ability to induce ground balls, Boston should be keeping its runners moving as often as possible to avoid ground balls and keep the defense on its toes. Home runs and big hits in general will be tough to come by against Keuchel, so they’ll need to make their own success.

The Red Sox didn’t face the southpaw this year, but they did last year and they scored eight runs in six innings against him. Of course, he was much less effective over the entire 2016 season compared to this year, so don’t take too much solace in those numbers. As a groundball pitcher, it’s no surprise that Keuchel leans heavily on a sinker, a pitch that sits in the high-80s. To go with that he offers a sick changeup as well as a slider and a cutter.

Brad Peacock & Charlie Morton

For the final two names here, the descriptions won’t be so in-depth because, well, we just saw them a few days ago. If you are interested in my descriptions you can read them here. I would quickly note that both pitchers looked very impressive in their outings against the Red Sox, and Morton in particular had impressive stuff. It should also be noted that both pitchers will likely be on significantly shorter leashes than Verlander or Keuchel, with Lance McCullers potentially available as a long reliever.