Mariners-Astros ALDS position by position

The Mariners did more than just break their decades-long postseason drought, because as sweet as it was to say they “got there,” it would have been more than a little bittersweet to have done so and not play a single home game (as would have happened if they’d lost to the Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series). But thanks to one of the most stunning comebacks in playoff history in Game 2 in Toronto on Saturday, Seattle moved on. They have to start in Houston, sure. But there will be at least one home playoff game at T-Mobile Park. It promises to be an incredible environment.

Of course, they still have to face the Astros, who got to rest and watch, and who are the No. 1 seed for good reason. No team outside of the Dodgers (111-51) won more games than Houston (106-56) this year. No team outside of the Dodgers has won more games over the last five years than the Astros. The faces may have changed, on the field and in the front office, but the outcome never seems to change: Success. Lots of it.

So who has the edge between these two division rivals? Let’s find out position by position:

We’ll be the first to admit that catcher value doesn’t come entirely — or perhaps even primarily — from offense. Martín Maldonado, who has already appeared in 43 postseason games for the Astros, and Christian Vázquez, who backstopped the 2018 Red Sox to a ring, are highly regarded for their defensive value, their ability to manage pitchers and control the running game. It matters, a lot.

But they also combined to hit all of .187/.246/.319 (.565 OPS) as catchers for Houston this year, which is quite the hole to dig out of. If there’s a postseason Maldonado at-bat you think of, it’s the time in last year’s World Series when absolutely everyone on the planet knew he wouldn’t be swinging. Seattle’s Cal Raleigh may not have the same reputation, but he did pop 27 homers this year with a .774 OPS, plus four big hits in the Mariners’ Wild Card Series sweep.

There’s a risk in writing off Yuli Gurriel too quickly, because he did post an excellent 131 OPS+ just one year ago, although his recent postseason history has been spotty (.237/.301/.311 in 196 plate appearances since 2019). On the other hand, he’s 38 years old and has been suffering through his weakest full season in the bigs, with a mere 84 OPS+ and a second half that was worse than his disappointing first half.

Ty France, meanwhile, has had what’s incorrectly seen as a breakout season, posting a 126 OPS+. Why do we say that? Because, to little attention, he had a 128 OPS+ in 2021, and a 133 OPS+ in 2020. It might just be that France is a very good hitter.

Is it possible that Jose Altuve just had the quietest great season in baseball? He might not be the 50-steal speedster he once was, and no one hits .340 anymore, but Altuve’s .300/.387/.533 season with 28 homers and 18 steals comes out to a 160 OPS+, which not only ties his 2017 MVP season for the best offensive year of his career, but was a top-five mark in the Majors. At 32, a decade after his first All-Star appearance, we’re not that far from considering what Altuve’s Cooperstown case might look like someday. (He’s got a .907 postseason OPS, too.)

Adam Frazier has his value — he makes plenty of contact — but his 80 OPS+ can’t come close to comparing. Overall, Seattle second basemen ranked 28th in Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs. This one is not close.

It might seem like Jeremy Peña (101 OPS+) and JP Crawford (100 OPS+) had similar offensive years, and that’s what the back of the baseball card will show you. But the ways in which they got there were extremely different, because Crawford had more or less the same year in 2021 — this is just who he is, a league-average bat — while the rookie Peña got off to a great start, got injured, struggled all summer, and then picked it up again in September/October, hitting six homers with a .790 OPS.

Still, even if you argue the bats aren’t that different, the defensive metrics give Peña a huge edge over Crawford. Good enough for us.

It is incumbent upon us to point out that Eugenio Suárez, who played himself out of Cincinnati as a salary anchor attached to Jesse Winker after a .198/.286/.428 performance last year, had a very good season with Seattle, hitting 31 homers to go with a 129 OPS+ and solid defense.

It’s that performance that makes this a lot closer than you’d have thought a year ago, given the year Suárez had. We’re still giving the edge to Alex Bregman here, since he’s a better fielder, has a better track record and simply gets on base more often (a 34-point edge in OBP this year). But the fact that this is even a question — and it is — speaks to what kind of rebound season Suárez provided.

The Astros have Yordan Alvarez, and the Mariners do not. That’s in no way intended to disrespect anyone Seattle has out here; it is the simple reality of the fact that Alvarez, who hit .306/.406/.613 (187 OPS+) with 37 home runs, is one of the most talented hitters in the sport. The Mariners won’t match Alvarez, who probably will see some DH time when the series moves to Seattle, where there is a lot more ground to cover in left.

Due to injuries — Jesse Winker and Sam Haggerty are each unavailable for the ALDS — the Mariners were forced to turn to Jarred Kelenic in the Wild Card Series, and he didn’t reach base in six plate appearances after posting a 55 OPS+ in the regular season. Dylan Moore might start when the Astros have a lefty on the mound, but this isn’t a strength for Seattle or a matchup they were ever going to win.

On one side: One of baseball’s most transcendent young players, the Home Run Derby runner-up, the presumptive AL Rookie of the Year, the already-a-superstar-in-his-first season Julio Rodríguez.

On the other side? Well, we don’t really know. Dusty Baker said as much recently, noting that Chas McCormick, Mauricio Dubón and Jake Meyers are all options for center field. We’d get into the numbers, but it also doesn’t really matter that much. None are Rodríguez, and in the same way that Seattle can’t possibly match up with Alvarez, neither can the Astros here.

It never seems like Kyle Tucker gets the respect he deserves, even though he’s now three seasons deep into being one of the best bats in baseball. Coming off his second consecutive 30-homer season, Tucker has a 135 OPS+ over the past three seasons combined, and he’s sneaky good on the bases too, successfully stealing 25 out of 29 bases this year. Mitch Haniger is a good player too, and it was just last year that he hit 39 homers. But he’s not Tucker — on either side of the ball.

Whenever Alvarez is here, he’s an enormous advantage over Carlos Santana, and we expect that will be the case in the games in Seattle (if not more, given that most of Alvarez’s postseason non-DH starts have come in NL parks, when the DH was no longer available under the rules at the time). When Alvarez is in left, Trey Mancini would likely start here, although he’s done little since joining Houston (75 OPS+). That you get any Alvarez at all here — we assume — is enough for an advantage.

This is the one area where Houston’s ability to rest while Seattle had to go to Toronto is going to come in handy, because Luis Castillo will likely start in Game 2 and would only be seen twice if the series goes a full five games. It’s not exactly a problem that Logan Gilbert will start Game 1 for the Mariners, of course; he did just post a 3.20 ERA in a highly effective first full season. But he’s not Justin Verlander, either, the living legend, the ageless wonder, the owner of a 1.75 ERA and almost certain AL Cy Young Award winner.

That would likely set up Robbie Ray for Game 3, and even though he’s the defending AL Cy Young winner, he wasn’t effective down the stretch (4.32 in six September/October starts), or in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series ( four runs allowed in three innings), or against Houston this year (.442/.509/.865 against in three starts).

If you go by wOBA, an OPS-like stat that does a better job of adjusting for the value of extra-base hits, then the Mariners had the second-best bullpen this year, allowing a mere .274 mark. Or they were tied for second, anyway … with the Astros, who also allowed a .274 mark. They were both well-rested down the stretch, facing fewer batters than any of the 28 other teams.

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of separation here, and if things go according to plan for Houston, they won’t even really need to rely on the bullpen that much, because they expect their starters can go deep into games. This one is close, and we’ll give a slight edge to Seattle by virtue of having Andrés Muñoz, perhaps the most overpowering bullpen arm in the series.

The Astros have home-field advantage, a pretty big lineup edge, and a better rotation that’s rested and set up. They don’t, for what it’s worth, have Julio Rodríguez, and they’ll be walking into what should be an absolutely wild Seattle atmosphere for what will be the first home Mariners playoff game in over two decades. Seattle is going to win one game, maybe two. But they won’t win three.

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