Nobody seems to be talking about pace of play in Major League Baseball today. The juiced balls, however, are a hot-button topic. The drama of the postseason is unrivaled and that was on display on Wednesday night when the Houston Astros prevailed over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the craziest baseball game any of us have ever seen, at least given what was on the line.
The series now moves to Houston for Game 3 tied at 1-1 with the 7-6 win for the Astros. Yu Darvish will take the hill for the visitors and it will be Lance McCullers Jr. for the home team. Books are slow to post a line after last night’s excitement, but it looks like McCullers and the ‘Stros will be a short favorite at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros closed a road favorite in Game 2 thanks to a lot of Justin Verlander steam and that proved victorious, even though the Astros trailed 3-1 in the eighth and 3-2 in the ninth. They got to all-world closer Kenley Jansen to do it and then we had bedlam in extra innings with seven of the game’s 13 runs, including a bunch of dingers. It was a game filled with emotional swings and nail-biting moments. But, the Astros prevailed, and now we have a best-of-five to crown a champion.
The Dodgers have spared no expense in building this team and have been able to buy up enough organizational depth to do things like trade for Yu Darvish to be the Game 3 starter. Darvish, whose contract comes to an end after the season, only makes $10 million this season, but it was the cost in assets that some teams balked at. The Dodgers can pay for depth, so holding onto prospects is a different type of consideration for them. So, they went and got Darvish, who had a 3.44 ERA with a 3.38 FIP and a 3.19 xFIP in 49.2 regular season innings. In 11.1 playoff innings, Darvish has been outstanding with just two runs allowed on eight hits and a 14/1 K/BB ratio. As you would expect, given MLB’s offensive environment, the two runs Darvish has allowed have come on solo home runs.
For the sake of information and accuracy, I will let you know that Darvish is 5-5 with a 3.44 ERA lifetime against the Astros with a 118/30 K/BB ratio across 89 innings of work. Current Astros are batting just .197/.257/.299 against Darvish across 171 plate appearances with a 50/12 K/BB ratio. None of these sample sizes are significant enough to be predictive or all that relevant as far as I’m concerned, but your view may vary. Darvish, obviously, saw the Astros quite a bit as a member of the Texas Rangers.
While Darvish’s full-season numbers are pretty solid, it does concern me a bit that his slider is the only pitch that rates well above average per PITCHf/x linear pitch type weights. His slider was 15.3 runs above average. None of his other pitches rated more than 1.8 runs above average. He has gotten the highest chase rate of his career this season at 32.6 percent, so hitters are off-balance and are expanding the zone a bit more than usual, but the Astros had the sixth-lowest chase rate at 28.8 percent.
For the first time in the playoffs, the Dodgers bullpen didn’t look like a group of Transformers or cyborgs or whatever you want to call them. Brandon Morrow gave up a run. Kenley Jansen gave up a solo shot to Marwin Gonzalez. Josh Fields got barreled three times out of the three hitters he faced. Brandon McCarthy, who hadn’t pitched since October 1, was the losing pitcher. Confidence is a big deal when it comes to relievers. Dave Roberts needs to say the right things, but he also needs to do the right things and deploy his guys the first chance he gets. He needs to go right back to them. Morrow is relatively new to his role, but Jansen and Fields have track records of success. McCarthy probably won’t see the field again, though the home run that George Springer had was a byproduct of the juiced ball and the unseasonable temps. When a dude gets beat to right center like that, it obviously isn’t a great pitch, but there were other factors in play. It was a great swing and Springer’s a strong guy, but that was a bit of a surprise.
Roberts will be second-guessed for removing Rich Hill from the game with 60 pitches, but the third time through the order penalty is a real thing and this is the formula that the Dodgers have used with Hill throughout the playoffs. Technically, that part of it worked. Kenta Maeda and Tony Watson bridged the gap to the seventh and got it to the back end of the pen with a lead. You just have to give the Astros credit for battling back.
Lance McCullers is a bit of a surprising Game 3 starter. McCullers had an up-and-down regular season due to injuries and some unlucky variance. He worked 118.2 innings with a 4.25 ERA, a 3.10 FIP, and a 3.17 xFIP. His .330 BABIP against and 67.6 percent LOB% were the two primary culprits, as he induced ground balls on 61.3 percent of balls in play and had a respectable 12.7 percent HR/FB%.
McCullers has one start, two relief appearances, and a save in his 13 playoff innings. He was the fireman in Game 7 to push the Astros to this point. He has allowed three runs on six hits with a 13/5 K/BB ratio. McCullers has an elite arsenal with an upper 90s fastball and a hammer curve ball, but he hasn’t been able to develop a reliable third pitch, which every starter needs, and his fastball command has been a problem each of the last two years. To me, he better fits a bullpen profile in the postseason, but manager AJ Hinch and an extremely savvy front office opted to slot McCullers into this role and then he’ll be available later in the series in relief.
The problem here is that I don’t know what the upside is in this play. McCullers threw 24 consecutive curveballs to end Game 7. He can’t do that for four innings over a start and he gets burned with his fastball because of subpar command. I don’t know what the Astros are expecting on the high end here, but I think we see the bullpen door opening quite a bit for Houston in this game. Chris Devenski has gone from multi-inning weapon to single-inning specialist, so I guess Collin McHugh would be the first guy out, unless the Astros opt for Brad Peacock, who has allowed runs in three of his four appearances. Across seven games in these playoffs, Devenski has only worked 5.1 innings. This seems like misuse of an asset, though he hasn’t been as sharp as he usually is.
Even with that Game 2 win, I still think that the Astros pitching staff is in trouble. The relievers have taken turns giving up runs. Ken Giles doesn’t look right. It seems like a bit of an uphill climb for the pitching staff right now, so the offense basically has to do what it did in Game 2. Outhit the opposition. Carry the team. The Houston offense is more than capable, but the Dodgers also get to add another bat to the lineup in this game with the AL rules in play, and they are one of the few NL teams with enough competent depth to do it.
Pick: Los Angeles Dodgers
Per usual, live betting is the best way to go, as we saw in Game 2, where those trading numbers in the market were freerolling at various points in extra innings. Despite the Game 2 anomaly, the Dodgers bullpen still holds the upper hand in this series. Houston just has a great offense and squared up a few balls. My initial inclination was to play the over, but with a total of 8.5, I can’t bring myself to do it, even with what we saw late in that game with regards to home runs.
The concern I have is that I don’t see what the upside for McCullers truly is and that’s why the Dodgers are the pick. Perhaps he comes out and deals for five innings and the Astros can cobble together the last 12 outs. For me, though, I think the Astros are trailing early in this one and the Dodgers will be able to turn it over to that bullpen with a lead. Houston’s familiarity with Darvish could be a detriment, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Darvish since joining the Dodgers and my personal belief is that he’s a better fit to limit damage than McCullers. McCullers doesn’t give up home runs, but allows a lot of hard, in-play contact. Darvish may allow the occasional dinger, but the chances it spins out of control for McCullers are higher. Add in the Dodgers with the stronger bullpen and it’s a play on the Dodgers for Friday night.