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Orioles vs. Astros: Series Preview

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The Orioles return home for a three game series against the AL West leading Houston Astros

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Story So Far:

The Orioles have got to be glad to be coming home to the more hitter friendly confines of Camden Yards. They dropped two of three to the Marlins, surely in part because they failed to hit a home run during their series in Miami. It's their first series all year they've failed to record a home run. This is a team built on hitting the long ball, and even though there were some long fly balls that would've been hit out in most parks, it wasn't enough for Marlins Park. Fortunately Tampa Bay lost as well on Sunday and the Yankees lost again, meaning the Orioles remain only three games back and in fourth place in the division. I've written before about how lucky this team may or may not be. They remain +4 in run differential on the year, and that may lead some to think they're due for some better luck in winning games. But according to other analysis, they've been slightly lucky in terms of offensive cluster luck meaning they are due for some regression. Maybe none of it means anything though and this team just needs to wake up and start pulling it together. It was probably unrealistic to think this team would run away with the division in May, but we thought they'd be doing better than this, right?

The Astros on the other hand have been exceeding expectations in every possible. They've fought off last year's division winners, the Angels, and a favorite pick to win it this year, the Mariners, to hold onto a strong division lead this late in the season. They lead the AL in home runs, but also lead it in strikeouts. They've been slightly lucky with wins, currently outperforming their pythagorean record by three wins. But while they may not be the most complete offensive team, their pitching has done more than enough to make up for it. They have the third best team ERA in the AL to go along with the second best FIP. The question all season has been if this team is for real, and while a lot of pundits initially said 'no' more and more have started to come around as the year keeps going and their division lead only holds.

Pitching Matchups:

Monday: Wei-Yin Chen vs. Dallas Keuchel

Oh boy. Are you nervous yet? You should be nervous. Keuchel is currently undefeated on the season (6-0) with an ERA of 1.67 and has only given up one home run on the year. The good news is despite those impressive numbers, he does give up walks. He's given up 20 this season, which is only two behind all pitchers in the AL not named Aaron Sanchez (who's given up 10 more than the next guy...Hi, Chris Tillman!). He doesn't even seem to make up for that by getting a lot of strikeouts - his SO/W is 2.30. The Orioles are not good at drawing walks, but if they can find a way they may be able to create some trouble for Keuchel. The O's did get 17 BBs, IBBs, and HBPs in that series vs. Miami and 10 in the series before that vs. Seattle. That's 27 in the last six games (4.5/gm). They only had 96 of those in the 34 games before that (2.8/gm). That's improvement and they'll need it. The thing about Keuchel though is he's a groundball pitcher - his GB/FB ratio of 1.76 is more than double the MLB average. To combat this, I think Buck should give serious consideration to benching Chris Davis. Keuchel is a lefty, so Davis loses his platoon advantage and we all know how much Davis likes to hit ground balls into the shift. Pearce is pretty bad about pulling ground balls too, but at least he's done well against southpaws in his career. I think its pretty simple - Pearce should play first.

Chen lost his last start against Seattle, the one game in that series the O's would lose, but he still pitched OK - going seven innings and striking out four. In fact, his last three starts have been good for seven innings and his ERA sits at a very respectable 2.90. I read an article on FiveThirtyEight this week that talked about how maybe, despite years of analysts telling us otherwise, pitchers can control somewhat what happens after a hitter makes contact with a ball and that because of this, a pitcher may be able to regularly outperform his FIP. As an Orioles fan, this information was like Christmas coming early. The stat used behind this analysis was how much exit velocity a pitcher can take off a batted ball. Of all MLB pitchers, guess who led the list? Yep, Wei-Yin Chen. This is good news for the rest of the season, but with all the focus now on batted ball velocity, probably bad news when the Orioles try to re-sign him. For now though, let's hope that article was right. (Sadly, Dallas Keuchel was fifth on that same list).

Tuesday: Chris Tillman vs. Scott Feldman

A few questions we should be asking ourselves about Chris Tillman as the season goes on:

- Is this just a bad season?

- Is Tillman due for some positive regression? After all, almost all his stats so far are worse than his career numbers.

- Is this the real Chris Tillman?

That last one worries me. I don't think so, but how can you tell? Tillman has done nothing since Opening Day to make you think he's just been unlucky. Even in a rain-shortened three innings against Seattle, he still gave up one run on a hit and three walks. Colby Rasmus is 6 for 20 against him, including two doubles and two home runs (no walks though). Jason Castro is 2 for 8 (a double and a home run) with a walk.

Scott Feldman - he pitched for the Orioles not too long ago. If I remember right, the Orioles let him walk after the 2013 season. That was a probably the right move. In a season plus with the Astros he's got an ERA+ of 97. This year's he's 3-4 with a 5.17 ERA. He's given up multiple earned runs in all but one start this year, but has a decent SO/W ratio of 3.18. Interesting stat - all three of his wins this season have been on five days rest. When he pitches on Tuesday he'll only have had four. Despite the fact that he pitches right, right-handed batters have fared better against him this year. Can we pencil in Steve Pearce for another start at first? Maybe - Davis is 2 for 5 in his career against Feldman, Pearce is 1 for 2, but that hit was a home run. While I'm re-doing the lineup can David Lough get a start? He's 4 for 5 including a home run vs. Feldman.

Wednesday: Ubaldo Jimenez vs. Colin McHugh

Jimenez didn't have a great outing vs. the Marlins, but the Orioles did win the game. He's still been pretty consistent this season. All his stats point to him having a career year. The rest of team seems to like him too - he's gotten 4.43 runs per game in run support, vs. 3.65 runs per game in 2014. Two guys he should look out for on the Astros though - Jose Altuve, who's 4 for 11 including a double and a triple and Colby Rasmus, who's 10 for 27, including five doubles, a triple, and a home run.

Talk about run support - despite McHugh's 4.06 ERA so far this year, he's 5-2 because he's been getting 5.42 runs per game in support. He's also got a great SO/W ratio of 4.27 and while he's given up six home runs, four of those came in one game (a game in which the Astros, of course, won 11-4). But like McHugh, he pitches right but still has more of a problem with right-handed batters. (OPS vs. RHB: .842, vs. LHB: .620). You know what that means, right? Yep - start Steve Pearce at 1st again. Pearce is 1 for 1 with two walks. Chris Davis has never faced him.

Seriously though guys- I have nothing against Chris Davis. I think he's a good guy who's a better ballplayer than a lot of others. But I think we can say at this point this season will not be a repeat of 2013 for him. We're really just hoping he does better than last year and doesn't set the all-time record for strikeouts in a season. He's not going to be back next year - I'm just over it. Let's try not trotting him out there everyday and see what that does.

Other Notes:

- I mentioned Colby Rasmus' good numbers a couple times above. If you remember, the Orioles came close to signing him this past offseason but got Travis Snider instead (while giving up prospects to do so). If Rasmus has a good series this week, I'll cringe a little harder than usual...especially if that includes knocking home runs onto the favorite target of LHB, the flag court.

- The Orioles had a lot of trouble with Dee Gordon in Miami stealing bases. Well, here comes Jose Altuve, who has 14 stolen bases himself (three less than Gordon). The funny thing was, it really seemed like Joseph and Paredes were in sync on those throws, Gordon was just too fast. Altuve is fast too - not a good sign.

- The Astros really do live off the long ball. Even though none of their lineup has a BA over .300, they all have multiple home runs with seven guys having more than five each.

- Jimmy Paredes' "safely reaching base" streak ended on Sunday, but where would this team be without him? Even without reaching base he managed to grab an RBI with a sac fly. I'm kind of in favor of him continuing to play second base. Let him learn a little, maybe he'll get better as the season goes on and you keep his bat in the lineup.

- The Astros' starters didn't do much for you? What about their bullpen? With a combined ERA of 2.14 (2nd in MLB to Kansas City) and a BA against of .182 (leads MLB) this is probably the best bullpen the O's have had to deal with all year - and that's saying something since it doesn't have Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances.

Prediction:

The Astros are a good team and the Orioles aren't playing well. Realistically, you have to hope they can get one our of three and I think that's all they'll do. This is the start of an eight game home stand though, maybe they'll surprise and turn things around before going back on the road. But I'm not going to hold my breath.