Wild Card Preview: Minnesota Twins vs. Houston Astros

Who moves on in this best-of-three matchup?

(3) Minnesota Twins vs. (6) Houston Astros


In advance of the Wild Card round starting today, we’re going to break down each series for you. In this article, we cover the third-seeded Twins’ series against the sixth-seed Astros, broken down by Josiah DeBoer and Alexander Chase, respectively.


Series Schedule


Game One: Tuesday, September 29th at 2 p.m. ET on ABC – Kenta Maeda vs. Zack Greinke

Game Two: Wednesday, September 30th at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN 2 – Jose Berrios vs TBA

Game Three (If necessary): Thursday, October 1st, TBD on ESPN – Michael Pineda vs TBD


Minnesota Twins (36-24)


In 2019, this Twins team set the record for most home runs in a season. In the offseason, they only seemed to improve. Yes, they lost CJ Cron and Jonathon Schoop, but most evaluators considered them to be relatively close to replacement level anyways. Add in the fact that the Twins brought in Josh Donaldson, would have a full season of Luis Arraez, Byron Buxton finally seeming to be totally healthy, and many thought that this team would have one of the top lineups in all of baseball.

And yet, this Twins team has been carried its pitching instead of its bats. Many of the batters have struggled at some point in the season, due to injuries, regression, or just plain bad luck. Chiefly among them is Mitch Garver. He had hit 31 home runs in less than half a season’s worth of ABs, and a lot of his underlying statistics seemed to imply that he was the real deal. Unfortunately, Garver hasn’t performed up to par this year. He’s hitting just .167 and has only two home runs on the season. Ryan Jeffers, meanwhile, was called up a few weeks ago and performed quite well. He has a pretty good plate approach and is probably better defensively than Garver. Neither Jeffers nor Garver has had even as many as 75 ABs, far too little to know if Garver’s disappointment has been real, or if Jeffers is as good as he may seem. Watching to see who starts at catcher against Houston will be fascinating.

Heading into the playoffs, short-season samples have also come for Nelson Cruz. He has OPS right around 1.000 for the second year in a row, could get some down-ballot MVP votes, and has probably been the Twins’ most important offensive player. When Cruz comes up to the plate, teams start to get nervous. And yet, Cruz has really struggled in the past few weeks. Over that time, Cruz is hitting just .143 and has an OPS of only .451. This Twins team has struggled to put up runs consistently this season, as Garver, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Polanco have had down seasons. With Donaldson out for the Wild Card series, the Twins offense might not be scoring runs if Cruz isn’t hitting bombs.

Thankfully, the offseason moves the club has made with its pitching staff have kept some of those offensive struggles from mattering too much so far.

Kenta Maeda has more than delivered on his expectations since the Twins cured him of his Dodgeritis, putting up a 32.3% strikeout rate while walking just 4% of batters. His 0.750 WHIP leads all starting pitchers, and 2.70 ERA is ninth. Were it not for Shane Bieber’s MVP-level season in Cleveland, Maeda would certainly be in the Cy Young conversation. The other pitching in Minnesota hasn’t been as consistent, but the quality is definitely there. José Berríos had a walk issue earlier in the year but turned things around in September to put up a 3.00 ERA and 1.11 WHIP down the stretch. Michael Pineda returned from his suspension to put up 26 2/3 inning of 3.38 ERA ball, and he’s yet to give up more than 3 earned runs in a start. Even the pitchers they won’t have to rely on in this series have been promising. Rich Hill seemingly stopped striking batters out, but still has a 3.03 ERA at age 40, and Randy Dobnak did his best Dallas Keuchel impression in his first year in the majors.

As good as the starters have been, the real backbone of the team’s pitching success has been the bullpen. Tyler Duffey led the way with a 1.88 ERA and 11.6 K/9 as a fireman middle reliever. Tyler Clippard followed in behind with a 2.77 ERA and a minuscule 0.885 WHIP, and Trevor May struck out 14.7 batters per nine en route to a 3.86 ERA. Closer Taylor Rogers had a down year, notching a 4.05 ERA after giving up11.7 hits per nine, but a .400 BABIP may have inflated that — his FIP was still just 2.84, and he should be more than counted on the be useful late in games.

All that said, it’s important to address the elephant in the room. The Twins have been historically bad in the playoffs in recent years. They’re currently in the third-longest series losing streak in playoff history, as well as the longest game losing streak. While many identify this curse of sorts primarily with the Yankees, it’ll be interesting to see if the Twins play with any extra nervousness. There’s a feeling that even if the Twins lose the series, simply winning a game would mark forward progress for this franchise.

Both the Twins and the Astros roster a player many associate with the opposite team. For the Twins, that’s super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez. He’s played all over the baseball diamond in his career, although this season he’s primarily played the corner infield spots as well as the corner outfield. While he hasn’t been nearly so good as he was with Houston, he is an important part of this Twins team. If anyone on Minnesota gets banged up, Gonzalez will probably enter the game, and there’s a good chance that we’ll see him come into a game or two as a defensive substitution or pinch hitter as well.

Meanwhile, the Astros roster Ryan Pressly. Pressly spent a few years with the Twins and was serviceable, but never an impactful reliever. Eventually, the Twins traded Pressley to the Astros, who changed up his approach. Pressley swiftly became one of the best relievers in all of baseball. That’s all well and good, but the most interesting part about Pressly is how deeply he affected the Twins organization. Up until that trade, the Twins had been one of the most old-school teams in baseball, and it wasn’t working well, especially on the pitching end. After that trade, Terry Ryan was fired, the Twins made swift changes to their staff, and they’re now typically viewed as ahead of the analytical curve. Without first trading away Ryan Pressley, there’s a good chance that the Twins aren’t in the playoffs right now.


Houston Astros (29-31)


It was an offseason to forget for the Astros, and following a season where every other team did their best to make sure they couldn’t, the Houston Astros slipped into the playoffs as the sixth seed despite having the worst record of any AL playoff team. Only the 1981 Royals, who had a 50–53 record in a strike-shortened season, had a worse record while still making the playoffs. The no doubt got some help from an incredibly weak AL West, which managed to collectively go 40–60 against their NL rivals. But they were arguably one of the least lucky teams in the MLB, going 2–7 in extra-inning games and 10–14 in one-run games.

For all the noise and focus on the Astros’ lineup, they actually finished 24th in HBP this season. The could have used a few more free passes, though. After leading the league in wRC+ last year, Houston was about as average as possible this year, finishing 17th. Some of that was injury luck; injuries struck pretty much everyone in the lineup at some point, and when they didn’t keep players out, they played through them. They enter the postseason almost entirely healthy, though, so hopes that they can outperform the past 60 games. George Springer (.265/.359/.540) finished the year strong, hitting nine home runs in September and finishing with a career-low strikeout rate. He’ll be a free agent this offseason. Kyle Tucker (.268/.325/.512) was arguably their second-best hitter this year, trailing only Springer in batter WAR; since a breakout game at Coors Field on August 19 where he hit two triples and a home run, he’s led the team with a 172 wRC+. Alex Bregman (.242/.350/.451) and Michael Brantley (.300/.364/.476) also played well when healthy, though Bregman’s post-injury numbers dragged down his averages. There’s hope his two home runs in the final series against the Rangers are a step back to him being his old self. But outside those four, the Astros’ stars had a rough time. José Altuve (.219/.286/.344) was a disaster at the plate, though like Bregman, he rebounded slightly at the end of the year. Manager Dusty Baker stubbornly kept him second in the order through his struggles, which in turn hurt Bregman and Brantley’s counting stats. Down years from Carlos Correa (.264/.326/.383) and Yuli Gurriel (.232/.274/.384) were slightly offset by strong performances from Martin Maldonado (.215/.350/.378). The lack of other depth has been an issue — aside from Tucker, the rest of the team’s young hitters struggled — but both Aledmys Díaz (.241/.254/.483) and Josh Reddick (.245/.316/.378) are options to finish out the team’s lineup. The team doesn’t platoon and doesn’t tend to change its lineup depending on the handedness of the pitcher, so expect pretty much the same lineup for every game.

The team’s starting pitching was always going to be a gamble heading into the season. Veterans Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke were expected to continue to carry the torch following the departure of Gerrit Cole to the Yankees. They had more than a few options to be a strong third starter — Lance McCullers, Jose Urquidy, and even Josh James all had their moments. Instead, the team lost Verlander to elbow issues and eventually Tommy John surgery, Urquidy didn’t join the rotation until mid-September, and James walked almost a batter an inning. That meant the team had to rely on Framber Valdez, Christian Javier, and Brandon Bielak to fill out the rotation. Depth is still an issue for the team, but in a three-game series, they probably have just enough. Grienke (4.03 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.0 K/9) wasn’t unstoppable but is more than capable of going toe-to-toe against other #1 options. McCullers (3.93/1.16/9.2) was rock-solid aside from a one-inning blow up early in the year against Arizona. And Valdez (3.57/1.12/9.7 as a starter) might have had the strongest year of the bunch, though he did seem to struggle down the stretch against playoff-caliber offenses. Baker had a penchant for keeping his starters in their game a little past their expiration date this year: they were fourth in IP by starters this year. We’ll see if he changes course in the playoffs.

The bullpen behind these starters lost its most memorable member early in the year when Roberto Osuna was told that he needed Tommy John just 4 1/3 innings into the year. Ryan Pressly (3.43/1.33/12.4) took over as the team’s closer after that but struggled with command. The strikeouts were still there, but Pressly blew four save chances on the year and ended up with three losses. These stats are silly, of course, but they’re the outcomes of his 9 hits per nine. Young arms stepped up behind him to get him those chances, though; Andre Scrubb (1.90/1.48/9.1), Blake Taylor (2.18/1.21/7.4), and Enoli Parades (3.05/1.40/8.7) all managed to keep the baserunners they tended to allow from scoring, even if all three had FIP numbers that suggested things should have gone far worse. This isn’t a strong bullpen, but given the number of starters who won’t be needed, it’s possible that Javier or Urquidy find homes here, especially in Game 3 (if it comes to that).

Outside of Marwin Gonzalez and Ryan Pressley, the Astros have no meaningful recent history with the Twins. They haven’t faced each other this year, and none of the pitchers who started during their seven-game series last year will pitch during this series. The Astros haven’t seen much of the Twins’ more recent additions, either; their players have a total of 58 PAs against Maeda, and the Twins have a total of 65 against Greinke. Berrios has a somewhat longer history against the Astros, having made about two starts a year against them several years in a row, but even that only adds up to 84 PAs.




Maeda is severely underrated as a Twins ace. Behind a gem of a game from him, the Twins win game one. Jose Berrios underperforms in game two, leading to an Astros win. In the penultimate game three, the Twins pull Michael Pineda after only three innings, trying to rely on their superior bullpen depth. The relievers pull out a win and the Twins win their first playoff series since 2002. Twins in 3.

— Josiah DeBoer


The Astros have struggled against righties this year, and are slated to face three of them. And at Target Field, their righty-heavy lineup won’t have the benefit of the Crawford Boxes. I expect strong showings from Springer and Tucker, but otherwise, this looks a poor matchup for the team. The series could hinge on who the Astros start in Game 2 — the Twins are 10th in wRC+ against righties, but 24th against lefties, so handing the ball off to Valdez could be their best shot of advancing. I predict Maeda wins game 1, Valdez wins the second, and the Twins’ bullpen outlasts the Astros’ in the third game. Twins in 3.

— Alexander Chase


Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Alexander Chase

When he's not writing about baseball (and sometimes when he is), Alexander Chase teaches test prep and elementary through high school math. He loves Shohei Ohtani, Camden Yards, and the extra-innings ghost runner rule. Don't you?

One response to “Wild Card Preview: Minnesota Twins vs. Houston Astros”

  1. theKraken says:

    I have never been an Astros fan and I am still not one but I am rooting for them to win the WS just for all the hate that they receive.

    Tucker is not a great hitter at this point in his career by any stretch. He simply benefits from lineup placement and opportunity. Take away some of those triples and things look a bit less rosy. If there were ever a luck indicator it would be triples hit. Of all the players to put your faith in he should be one of your last choices. They have quite a few better hitters than Tucker. Sure some are coming off of a putrid year, but an entire career of success is worth a lot more than a third of a season of RBI and Runs, which is the best you can say about Tucker. I am probably selling him short but every time I have seen him he looks bad or gets lucky.

    MIN is one of those teams that is a lot better offensively on paper than in a meaningful series. They are one of those binge teams that hit 10 HR in a weekend and they don’t have many guys outside of Cruz that can provide a good AB when needed. They are also a train-wreck defensively outside of Buxton, which hurts. Playoffs are very much luck but they also expose those wRC+ darlings that are lacking in ability to do something when needed. Walks are cute, but they don’t generally advance runners and they also lead to Ks which hurt a lot over a short time frame. I do like MIN and it is a shame that I am rooting against them but I want to watch the Twitter type of fans eat all of the HOU hate… even more so, the hate would be so overwhelming if they lose at any point and I just don’t want to see that. If they can win a series or two that should go a long ways towards shutting folks up.

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