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Previewing the ALCS: Meeting the Astros rotation

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It’s.....terrifying

Houston Astros v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Red Sox have one more day to wait before they finally kick off their ALCS matchup against the Astros. It is, of course, a rematch of last year’s ALDS in which Houston knocked Boston out of the postseason, and it’s a matchup pitting Alex Cora against his former boss. Oh, and the Astros won the World Series last year. Although in 2017 they were known for their high-powered offense, it seems that their pitching is actually the focal point of their roster now. Which, given the lineup we previewed on Thursday, is pretty terrifying. This rotation is deep and talented, though. Let’s get into it.

Game One: Justin Verlander

Boston will not be able to ease themselves into this series, as they kick things off by going up against a future Hall of Famer with a long track record of postseason success who is pitching as well as he has in his career. Easy, right? Verlander is, to put it succinctly, incredible. He has somehow totally reinvented himself in his late-30s and he’s coming off the best regular season of his career. The 35-year-old led Houston’s rotation all year, and is likely the favorite for the Cy Young, making 34 starts and tossing 214 innings with a 2.52 ERA. This was certainly not a fluky sub-3.00 ERA, either, as he struck out over 12 batters per nine innings with less than two walks en route to a 2.81 FIP and a 2.33 DRA. The one area in which the Red Sox can possibly do some damage is with the long ball. Verlander did allow 28 homers this year and he is an extreme flyball hitter, though obviously squaring his stuff up is easier said than done.

If you’re looking for some kind of deep edge the Red Sox can find against Verlander, well, good luck. There’s not much of a platoon advantage here, and in fact he was a little better against lefties holding them to an OPS below .600. The one thing I would say we can look for is the Red Sox to possibly take some pitches to both get him out of a game quickly and have him fall behind in counts. He was not great at coming back in individual at bats this year, though with someone with Verlander’s control isn’t going fall behind many counts regardless of how patient a lineup is. Plus, this also flies in the face of the strategy that catapulted Boston’s offense this year.

In terms of stuff, Verlander is largely a three-pitch pitcher. He’s going to lean heavily on his fastball, and it is definitely his most impressive pitch. It sits around 95-96 mph, and perhaps the most impressive part of watching Verlander is how well he’s able to maintain, and even increase, that velocity as he gets deeper into games. In addition to the heat he’ll throw a slider and a curveball as well. The Red Sox saw Verlander once in the regular season, scoring two runs off of him in six innings of work back in June.

Divisional Round - Cleveland Indians v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Game Two: Gerrit Cole

There weren’t many breakouts more impressive than that of Cole in 2018 looking around the league. The former number one overall pick has obviously always had the talent, but he struggled to harness his potential on a consistent basis during his time with the Pirates. Houston traded for him this past offseason, and it has turned out to be an absolute steal. The righty is another Cy Young candidate and has provided one of the best one-two punches along with Verlander atop any rotation in the game. In his age-27 season, he started 32 games with 200 13 innings with a 2.88 ERA. Like Verlander, this was certainly not a fluke. He actually struck out more batters than the Astros’ ace this year on a rate basis, finishing with 12.4 K’s per nine innings. He did have a little more trouble with control, walking just under three per nine, but he made up for that with a better ability to keep the ball in the park. All told, though, he finished with a 2.73 FIP and a 2.55 DRA.

One of the most impressive parts of Cole’s breakout season is that he totally avoided any sort of blow-up starts, so the Red Sox are going to have to chip away in this Game Two and hope David Price can keep up. In 2018, Cole never pitched fewer than five innings in any start, and he never allowed more than four runs. The Red Sox did see Cole twice during the regular season, and in a combined 13 innings they scored five runs (3.46 ERA) with 15 strikeouts and three walks. They did hit three home runs against him, which again could be the difference-maker in this series. Like Verlander, Cole is going to lean very heavily on his fastball, and it’s actually more intimidating than the ace’s. Cole’s four-seamer averages 97 mph, and he also pairs it with a slider and a curveball.

Game Three: Dallas Keuchel

Houston’s rotation takes a bit of a dip after their first two starters, though that’s more to do with how talented Verlander and Cole are than it is an indictment on their other two rotationmates. The Astros will actually send out a Cy Young winner in Game Three, with Dallas Keuchel (the 2015 Cy Young winner) taking the hill. Houston’s lone lefty in their rotation, he is a much different kind of pitcher than the first two, and didn’t actually have that great of a year. He’s not going to miss a ton of bats, striking out fewer than seven batters per nine this year and generally sitting right around eight per nine in his career. Overall, Keuchel started 34 games and pitched to a 3.74 ERA. His control is fine, though like Cole it’s not great and sat just below three free passes per nine innings for 2018. Because of this, his peripherals are good but not great, with a FIP of 3.72 and a 3.84 DRA.

Keuchel can be a very frustrating pitcher to face, because he is one that relies on weak contact and ground balls. At least to me, it is easier to watch the Red Sox be beaten when they are simply being blown away, but hitting weak ground balls all over the infield is a different story. It’s not that Keuchel won’t have earned it if that is indeed how this game goes, but it always feels like more can be done. Anyway, if the Red Sox are to get to Keuchel they’ll certainly be trying to launch some of his sinkers, which is easier said than done. Boston will almost certainly stack their lineup with righties against the southpaw, but Keuchel does not possess huge platoon splits. The good news is that Red Sox hitters should feel somewhat confident heading into this game, as they saw Keuchel just once this year in September and scored five runs in six innings. The lefty unsurprisingly leans heavily on a high-80s/low-90s sinker to go with a changeup, a slider and a cutter.

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Game Four: Charlie Morton

Morton is certainly not on the same scale as Cole in terms of breakout, but the righty came out of nowhere at the very end of the 2016 season with the Phillies before heading to Houston and just getting better and better with the Astros. By this point he’s proven he is more than a viable starter, and the hard-throwing righty is a legitimate threat in this rotation. He made 30 starts this year, although only tossed 167 innings in those starts, and pitched to a 3.13 ERA. His peripherals indicate a little bit of flukiness in that mark, but not by much. The key for Morton is pretty simple in that he needs to miss bats. He did just that in 2018, striking out a career high 10.8 batters per nine innings thanks to a three-pitch mix we’ll get to in a minute. Where he can become undone, however, is with control as he has the highest propensity for walks of any arm in this group. The righty walked 3.4 batters per nine innings this year, and he hasn’t had a rate lower than three batters per nine since 2013. He does, to his credit, keep the ball on the ground a fair amount to help limit his home run damage, though he’s been trending more and more towards fly balls with each passing year.

If you’re looking for some good news for Boston in this matchup, this is the type of pitcher against whom the Red Sox have had the most success. That’s not to say this will be easy, of course, but generally Boston has been able to hit right-handed velocity well this year. Morton is certainly a hard-thrower, but he’s not the same kind of all-around arm as Verlander and Cole. The latter two are also hard-throwing righties, but they are also more complete pitchers than Morton. Look for Red Sox hitters to sit on the four-seamer early in counts and try to punish those pitches while hoping Morton’s secondaries miss the zone.

They saw Morton twice in the regular season, with two different results. In June, they got to him very well scoring six runs over 5 13 innings including two homers. In September, however, they only managed two runs over five innings. However, that wasn’t really a dominant start as Boston only struck out twice while getting nine baserunners on either hits or walks, so they should feel relatively good about this matchup. In terms of repertoire, as alluded to above Morton is generally a three-pitch guy and according to Brooks Baseball he used all three pitches just about equally in the regular season. He offers both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, both of which sit in the mid-90s. On top of that, he’ll drop in a curveball that averages around 80 mph to keep hitters off-balance. He does have a few other offerings (changeup, cutter and splitter) that he’ll mix in time to time, but for the most part it’s those three main pitches.