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Cleveland Indians vs. Houston Astros series preview

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A potential playoff preview and the Indians’ toughest opponent yet.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

No matter how exciting the Cleveland Indians are, it’s hard to get really pumped about a matchup in April. This upcoming three-game set against the Houston Astros may just be one of those series that’s worth getting excited about. Not because it has any big implications on the season, but because it’s a potential playoff preview and Jose Altuve is a blast to watch, no matter which side you’re on.

Like the Indians’ own 5-1 road trip coming into today, the Astros are entering the series on a hot streak, having won seven of their last nine games against the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays.

Pitching matchups

Tuesday, 6:10 p.m. ET: Dallas Keuchel (LHP) vs. Josh Tomlin (RHP)

Dallas Keuchel was awful in 2016, but you would not know it by watching him this season. Now that the 29-year-old sinkerballer is fully healthy, he is pitching better than ever. His fourseam velocity is back to up 89 (almost 90) miles per hour after dropping to 88 last season, and his sinker is working at an unprecedented rate.

So far this season, Keuchel has induced ground balls 70 percent of the time, better than his previous career-high of 63.5 percent in 2014 and leagues better than the 56.7 percent he induced last season. On top of that, Keuchel is walking fewer batters than he ever has at 5.8 percent.

Each of Keuchel’s four starts have been eerily similar to each other. He lasted exactly seven innings in each outing, he allowed exactly one run in three of them, and he struck out either seven or four in every start.

Countering this ground ball machine of a pitcher, the Indians will send out the complete opposite in Josh Tomlin. While he struggled in his first few starts, Tomlin turned around last week against the Minnesota Twins. The looming threat of inevitability may still be a ways away for Tomlin, but he needs a few more starts like his six-inning, three-run performance against the Twins if he wants to stave off Mike Clevinger a little longer.

Wednesday, 6:10 p.m. ET: Lance McCullers Jr. (RHP) vs. Trevor Bauer (RHP)

Lance McCullers was quietly one of the Astros’ strengths in their rough 2016 season until he went down with an elbow injury. It’s not often that you see a pitcher walk five batters per nine innings and have a FIP of 3.00, but that is exactly what McCullers did last season. It helps that he struck out almost 12 batters per nine and allowed a home run every 18 innings, on average.

This season, McCullers is still striking out batters, but he’s walking fewer as well. One rough outing against the Oakland Athletics aside, in which he allowed two home runs in 4.1 innings, McCullers has looked like the Carrasco to the Astros’ Keuchel this season. He has 31 strikeouts in 24 innings.

On the surface, Trevor Bauer has fine numbers. He’s striking out 11 batters per nine, he’s walking a few too many, sure, but 2.65 per nine isn’t terrible. But a 58.5 left-on-base percentage and a 31.9 percent ground-ball rate is not going to create a winning pitcher. In typical Trevor Bauer fashion, he has been pretty great the first time through the order, but he’s gotten progressively worse as the game goes on. Here’s a breakdown:

  • 1st time through: 6.2 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 7 SO, .213 wOBA
  • 2nd time through: 6.2 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 8 SO, .267 wOBA
  • 3rd time through: 3.2 IP, 8 H, 8 ER, 0 B, 5 SO, .636 wOBA

The Astros aren’t going to make those numbers any better.

Thursday, 6:10 p.m. ET: Mike Fiers (RHP) vs. Corey Kluber (RHP)

If anyone selects “0” in the poll below, I want a 500-word essay on why you believe the Indians won’t at least win this matchup on Thursday.

Mike Fiers had one pretty good season with the Milwaukee Brewers a few years ago, but outside of that he’s been your typical back-of-the-rotation starter. He is giving up a lot of home runs early on (six already), and he’s walking nearly three batters per nine innings.

Corey Kluber will take the mound for the Indians, and he looked absolutely locked in during his last start. He struck out a season-high nine Chicago White Sox batters and allowed no runs off of three hits in his first complete game of the season.

Good luck, Houston.

Upcoming schedule

The Indians’ homestand will end with a three-game set against the Seattle Mariners this weekend then they’ll head on the road against two AL Central opponents, the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals.

Storylines

Can Kipnis get back on track?

Jason Kipnis has looked pretty bad in his first few games (1-for-9), but give the guy a break. He’s basically in spring training right now. He does not have to get back on track against Houston, but it would be nice to see him not miss a beat from his excellent 2016 campaign.

Roberto/Yan vs. Altuve

Jose Altuve is very fast. Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes are both very good at catching fast things. The second Altuve is on first base with second empty, you better be glued to your TV.

Interesting pitchers

The Indians couldn’t ask for a more interesting lineup of pitchers. Can Josh Tomlin have another good outing? Is Corey Kluber locked in for the rest of the season? Trevor Bauer?

Battle of young shortstops

Carlos Correa is off to a considerably worse start than Francisco Lindor, but so is just about every other player in baseball. Seeing these two on the same field is something we might be telling our grandkids about it. If Lindor finishes the series with better numbers than Correa he legally gets to take the 2015 Rookie of the Year Award. I don’t make the rules, that’s what they are.

Houston Astros roster

FanGraphs