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Series Preview #18: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Houston Astros

After winning three of four in Colorado and knocking the Rockies out of second place in the NL West, our Diamondbacks travel deep into the heart of Texas to take on the Houston Astros. In a way, the Astros sort of resemble the D-Backs' weird, kinda cool cousin to the East. You know, the cousin who you go on a family vacation to visit once a year, realize "Hey, we actually have a lot in common, we should hang out more" before you leave and promptly forget about them for another year?

The family resemblance between the Diamondbacks and Astros is uncanny. Both teams are from major Sunbelt cities with red uniforms and a stadium with a retractable roof. Both teams had some success in the first half of 2000s, and both qualified for a trip to the World Series during that time (D-Backs managed to win theirs though). Sadly for both teams, the second half of the decade has been dedicated to both teams attempting to recapture the magic, and finally concluding in 2010 that it just wasn't going to happen. Both teams underwent massive fire sales last year, and both went into 2011 with the understanding that it was probably going to be a rebuilding year.

While that hasn't exactly happened so far for the 2011 Diamondbacks, the 2011 Astros are pretty much right where they were expected to be: last in the NL Central. GM Ed Wade was finally forced to admit that his team didn't have another crazy second half rally in them, and traded franchise cornerstones Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt for prospects to replenish their beleaguered farm system. As such, the Astros in 2011 take the field without many household names, instead going for youngsters and they occasional past-his-prime veteran to teach the kids how to win. Sounding familiar yet? The Astros aren't very good this year, but they have some intriguing young talent that should make them a threat in future seasons. Plus, they just took two of three from the Dodgers, so that's always fun.

What the Stats Say (Courtesy of Fangraphs):

Arizona (26-24) Houston (19-31) Edge

Hitting (wRC+): 93 94 Houston

Pitching (FIP): 4.15 4.24 Arizona

Fielding* (UZR): 14.4 -18.5 Arizona

To be honest, I'm a little surprised at how small the statistical margin between these two teams is. Obviously, the D-Backs have one of the best defenses in baseball, while the Astros have the worst (by UZR, at least), but it's still too early in the season to draw any solid conclusions about defensive numbers. So we're left with hitting and pitching metrics, which generally say that Houston and Arizona are closer than their respective records indicate. The Diamondbacks have scored 18 more runs than the Astros on the season (206 to 188) and have a few extra points of OPS in their favor, but park effects almost entirely offset these advantages. There is a much bigger gap between two teams' ERA than their FIP, and their xFIP is almost identical (3.92 for the D-Backs to 3.90 for the Astros). What does this mean? It means that the Astros are getting a bit unlucky with home runs so far.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

Ryan Roberts, 3B
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Justin Upton, RF
Stephen Drew, SS
Chris Young, CF
Miguel Montero, C
Juan Miranda
, 1B
Gerardo Parra, LF

Houston Astros

Michael Bourn, CF
Angel Sanchez, SS
Hunter Pence, RF
Carlos Lee, LF
Brett Wallace, 1B
Chris Johnson, 3B
Bill Hall, 2B
Humberto Quintero, C

This lineup is a bizarre mix of intriguing young players, former intriguing young players who never really went anywhere, and Carlos Lee, who I'm not convinced was ever young at all. Hunter Pence is probably the closest thing the Astros have to a star, as he has a career OPS+ of 116, and he's entering his prime at age 28. He doesn't walk very much, but otherwise he's as solid as you could ask for. Michael Bourn is blazingly fast, but he's in his fourth full season, and he's yet to produce an OPS over .700 (he's at .702 in 2011). He has almost no power, but he gets on base enough to be annoying (.343 OBP in 2011). I seem to recall people expecting much more out of him when he first got to the majors though. Angel Sanchez is a former Royals prospect from about 2006 who is finally getting a full-time shot here in 2011. He hasn't exactly set the world on fire though, with a .656 OPS so far.

Brett Wallace is having a nice season in his first full year in the majors. He has a 140 OPS+ this season, by far the best on the team, which is a nice reward for being passed from team to team like the prospect equivalent of the "old maid" card. He's probably the team's most promising position player, and the fact that he's hitting behind Carlos Lee, who's 35 and has an OPS of 664, makes me strangely sad. Also, he's from ASU, so we get to look forward to hearing about that by Sutton and Grace about 250,000 times over the weekend. Chris Johnson put together a good season last year as a rookie, but has struggled in 2011, with an OPS+ of 74.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Daniel Hudson (5-5, 3.82) vs. Brett Myers (1-4, 5.00)

Insightful Commentary: I'm not quite sure what to make of Brett Myers. After a career of being a decent third or fourth starter on teams, he produced a 3.14 ERA last year at 30, putting up 4 WAR in the process. I'm not quite sure what got into him for a year, but it doesn't seem to have transferred over to 2011, as his ERA of 5.00 is almost identical to his FIP (5.01). At least he's nice and veteran-y though.

I don't really have anything new to say about Daniel Hudson. He was really good last time I wrote one of these, and he's really good now. So instead, let's just take a moment to appreciate the fact that Hudson's only 24 and that we got him AND a talented 19-year-old arm in exchange a year and a half of a pitcher with a career 4.59 ERA. Haha Kenny Williams. Now that's schadenfreude that every D-Back fan can get behind.

Saturday: Josh Collmenter (3-1, 1.19) vs. Wandy Rodriguez (3-3, 3.41)

Insightful Commentary: Neither I nor knows whether Collmenter or Joe Saunders will start on Saturday, so this is just a guess. Collmenter had a rough start against the Rockies, there's no denying that. I'm less worried about the results (4.1 innings, 5 runs) than the symptoms, as he struggled with command and home runs in Colorado. Now the question becomes, where does Josh go from here? Does he shake it off, with the knowledge that it's just one start at Coors Field, or does it become a trend as more and more hitters begin to pick up his delivery. Saturday's start will go a long way toward determining his viability in the rotation.

His opponent is one of the best unheralded pitchers in the National League. Wandy Rodriguez has not had a season with an ERA or FIP over 4 since 2007, yet he typically gets very little attention outside of Houston. His home runs are up a bit this season, as is his BABIP, but it doesn't appear to be due to any great drop in velocity. I expect him to get even better as he returns to his career averages.

Sunday: Joe Saunders (1-5, 4.65) vs. Bud Norris (2-3, 3.77)

Insightful Commentary: Joe Saunders pitched one of his best games as a Diamondback on Wednesday, pitching 8 innings of 2-run ball to beat the Rockies. The most encouraging thing about the start, for me at least, was the fact that he only walked one Rockie all game. Here's to seeing more of that from Joe against Houston. Bud Norris was one of the Astros' top prospects, and he's beginning to make headway in the majors. He's having a very good sophomore season, as his 3.05 xFIP is incredibly impressive. He has a plus fastball, plus a nice slider. All of this goes a long way toward getting people to forget that his name is "Bud," which is just silly.

Final Verdict: Think back to our state of mind before the Dodgers series, where the D-Backs were last in the NL West and everyone was getting ready to give up on 2011. It's only been 13 games since then, but it feels like an eternity since we were fighting to stay out of the cellar. The point is that it's easy to get caught up in the wave of victories and forget that the Diamondbacks probably aren't this good, and still have plenty of problems that need addressing. This series, on the road against a bad team that's actually better than they first appear, has the feel of a trap to it, so I'll be pessimistic and say Astros two games to one.

Head over to The Crawfish Boxes to see what Astro fans think.


All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs)

Current Series

3 game series vs Astros @ Minute Maid Park

Arizona Diamondbacks
@ Houston Astros

Friday, May 27, 2011, 8:05 PM EDT
Minute Maid Park

Daniel Hudson vs Brett Myers

Partly cloudy. Winds blowing out to left field at 15-20 m.p.h. Game time temperature around 85.

Diamondbacks 6, Rockies 3: The Return of Pwnings

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