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Series Preview #4 : D-backs vs Astros

Starting pitching will make the difference in this series.

Brent Strom, Astro Pitching Coach
Brent Strom, Astro Pitching Coach
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

When in a losing streak, the Diamondbacks outscored the Astros.

In 2019, the Astros and the Diamondbacks had their longest losing streak in the same week, June 16-22.

  • The Astros lost 7 consecutive games to the Jays, Reds, and Yankees. They scored an average of 2.7 runs-per-game.
  • The Diamondbacks lost 6 consecutive games to the Nats, Rockies, and Giants. They scored an average of 3.8 runs-per-game which was much better than the Astros during that same week. When struggling, the Diamondbacks performed better than the Astros.

Are Astro and Diamondback offenses well matched?

At the risk of stating the obvious, in 2019 each team scored more runs in their wins than in their losses. Last season the teams’ scoring averages were nearly equal:

  • 2019 wins: Astros averaged 7.0 runs-per-game while Diamondbacks averaged 6.8 runs-per-game.
  • 2019 losses: Astros and Diamondbacks each averaged 3.0 runs-per-game

This season tells a much different story; Astros scored about double what the Diamondbacks scored.

2020 wins. Astros averaged 8.0 runs-per-game while Diamondbacks averaged 4.3 runs-per-game.

2020 losses. Astros averaged 3.5 runs-per-game while Diamondbacks averaged 2.0 runs-per-game.

Will starting pitching help the Diamondbacks win the series?

Before Justin Verlander was injured, the Astros’ rotation was ranked in the top 10 in baseball by Anthony Castrovince largely because of two future Hall-of-Famers Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. Although they are aging (37 & 36 years old), their pitching remains awesome. Without much debate, they are better pitchers than Madison Bumgarner and Robbie Ray.

The remainder of the Astro rotation (Jose Urquity, Lance McCullers Jr., and Josh James) are worse pitchers than Zac Gallen, Luke Weaver, and Merrill Kelly. Whether the starting pitching makes a difference will depend on individual game match-ups.

The following chart compares the rotation pitchers in ERA+, FIP, SO/BB and WAR. Stats are from 2019 except for Lance McCullers Jr, whose stats are from 2018. This chart clearly shows the importance of each game’s match-up in the rotation.

Starting Pitchers Astros and D-backs

Astros Age ERA+ FIP SO/BB WAR D-backs Age ERA+ FIP SO/BB WAR
Astros Age ERA+ FIP SO/BB WAR D-backs Age ERA+ FIP SO/BB WAR
Verlander (IL) 37 179 3.27 7.14 7.4 Bumgarner 30 107 3.9 4.72 2.5
Greinke 36 154 3.22 6.23 5.3 Ray 28 103 4.29 2.8 1.4
Other Starters
Urquidy 25 116 3.68 5.71 0.6 Gallen 25 155 3.65 2.94 1.3
McCullers 26 108 3.5 2.84 1.7 Weaver 26 152 3.07 4.93 1.6
James 27 99 3.98 2.86 0 Kelly 31 101 4.51 2.77 1
Data from Baseball Reference

For this series, possible match-ups follow (official Houston starters not announced as of Sunday):

Christian Javier vs Madison Bumgarner. Will the V decide the W?

“Bumgarner finished his [second] start today with an 87.9 mph average four-seamer velocity. Tied for the lowest in a game of his career, with...his other start this season.” — Sarah Langs.

Despite the career-low in velocity, his first start held the Padres scoreless for 5 innings. “Shoot, he was one pitch away from giving us six scoreless. That one 0-2 pitch to Hosmer hurt.” — Matt Herges.

In his second start, against the Rangers, he allowed the Rangers to score 2 earned runs in 5.1 innings. “Everything is moving the right way and spinning good. We’ll take that and go, but hopefully things start picking up.” — Madison Bumgarner

Whether Bumgarner pitches well or poorly against the Astros, fans will talk about the velocity of his fastball. Thereby we arrive at the question, “Will the Velocity decide the Win?”

Lance McCullers Jr vs Robbie Ray. Will Astro K’s decide the battle?

In three seasons, (2016, 2017, and 2019), Robbie Ray’s strikeouts-per-9-innings was ranked 1st or 2nd in the NL. In his first game this season he struck out 7 batters in 3.2 innings. His strikeout rate was outstanding!

How many Astros will Robbie Ray strike out? It could be decisive.

Zack Greinke vs Zac Gallen. Can either Z make hitters look like they didn’t get enough Z’s? Despite Greinke’s meticulous preparation and wiles, my pick is Zac Gallen for two reasons.

  • Zac Gallen just celebrated his 25th birthday, which makes him 11 years younger than Greinke.
  • Zac Gallen’s first game of the season was clearly better. He allowed 1 earned run in 4 innings (ERA+ of 195) compared favorable to Greinke’s 3 earned runs in 3.1 inning (ERA+ of 62).

Let’s look at closers.

Because Ryan Pressly is now on the IL with elbow soreness, Roberto Osuna will close for the Astros.

  • Ryan Pressly (IL) “...had been dealing with a blister on his right hand...” — Brian McTaggart, 20 July. In 2019, Ryan Pressly had 3 saves in 8 opportunities, with an outstanding 11.9 strikeouts-per-9-innings.
  • “He [Roberto Osuna] came [to summer camp late] late. …We’re trying to prevent him from getting hurt. He knows himself. He knows how he feels. We were hoping he might be ready sooner than later. But we’re at the mercy of when he’s ready.” — Dusty Baker, 19 July. In 2019, Astros closer Roberto Osuna made 38 saves (second most in baseball) in 44 opportunities, which was an 86% save rate. His 10.1 strikeouts-per-9-innings was great.

For the Diamondbacks, Archie Bradley is the closer. Two of his stats are very similar to Roberto Osuna. In 2019, Archie Bradley made 18 saves in 21 opportunities, which was an 86% save rate. In 2019, his 10.9 strikeouts-per-9-innings was great.

  • One reason for optimism is in his first two games this season, his strike-outs-per-9-innings was a very impressive 16.9!
  • Another reason for optimism is that his 2019 home-runs-per-9-innings of 0.6 was better than Osuna and Pressly (1.1 and 1.0)

“You have to find your own motivations. The motivation is to win; the motivation is to play the game. It’s easier when there’s energy and electricity in the stands. I’m urging the guys to recall what the energy and the feeling was like when they were in the playoffs and World Series.” — Dusty Baker, Manager of Astros

Astro’s pitching coach, Brent Strom is remarkable.

At 70 years old, he is the oldest pitching coach in the Majors. In 2018, he won Baseball America’s Coach of the Year. How did he do it?

“He’s always reading a book, always researching a new theory. They’re not always right — there’s some dead ends he chases — but he’s a very curious person, and he cares more than anybody I know. He’s just constantly trying to make himself better.” — Jeff Luhnow.

Brian Cohn wrote about the Brent Strom’s ‘Magic Method.’ A few points follow.

  • Control and Command. “For me, to succeed at the highest level is to have control and command, and the ability to change speeds. Understand sequencing, hiding pitches etc.” — Brent Strom (FanGraph interview)
  • Spin Rate. When acquiring pitchers, the Astros highly value high spin rates. Strom has ideas on how grips increase spin rates. The Astros designed a computer program to help pitchers improve spin rates.
  • Tunneling. “If different pitches look the same coming out of your hand, they don’t have to be as crisp. Hitters don’t hit the radar gun and they don’t hit the break on the ball. They hit what they see or don’t see. If you can disguise your pitches, you’re halfway home.” — Brent Strom (FanGraph interview)
  • Pitch selection. Never throw sinkerballs.
  • Effective Velocity. “As such, one of my main go to references is Effective Velocity (EV) designed by Perry Husband. The teams that realize there is more than just a pitchers “stuff or velocity” in having a successful pitching staff EV helps give a blueprint or plan to win the pitcher hitter confrontation. The research and time he has put into this endeavor can’t be quantified. We as pitching coaches are the recipients of his ground breaking work. For that I personally am grateful. Thanks Perry…” — Brent Strom (
  • Mechanics. “One correlation that Strom discussed was the back knee angle and how it correlates with vertical drop, swinging strikes and FIP. By having a bigger knee bend, a pitcher recruits more glute and hamstring and less quad, resulting in increased vertical movement of their breaking ball and swinging strike rate (K%). The optimal back leg angle appears to be less than 105 degrees.” — Brian Cohn