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Series to Watch: Dodgers vs. Astros

Doug Thorburn

Doug started writing for RotoWire in April of 2015. His work can be found elsewhere at Baseball Prospectus and RotoGrinders, and as the co-host of the Baseballholics Anonymous podcast. Thorburn's expertise lies on the mound, where he tackles the world of pitching with an emphasis on mechanical evaluation. He spent five years at the National Pitching Association working under pitching coach Tom House, where Thorburn ran the hi-speed motion analysis program in addition to serving as an instructor. Thorburn and House wrote the 2009 book, “Arm Action, Arm Path, and the Perfect Pitch: Building a Million Dollar Arm,” using data from hi-speed motion analysis to tackle conventional wisdom in baseball. His DraftKings ID is “Raising Aces”.

Our focus turns out west as a pair of first-place ball clubs square off in an interleague matchup that has the potential to be a preview of the World Series.


Game 1: Friday at 7:10pm CDT: Brett Anderson vs. Mike Fiers
These two teams could start things off with a bang, given that the weakest pitching matchup takes place in Game 1 of the series. Anderson has already thrown more innings (134.2) than any other season since his rookie campaign, so perhaps the Dodgers should consider anything past this point to be gravy. It also helps to explain their deadline deals to bring aboard Alex Wood and Mat Latos in order to sure up the rotation for the playoffs. Anderson has been productive this season, a quiet innings-eater with a pedestrian K-rate but who's been a tick above average at run prevention with a 3.48 ERA.

Fiers, himself a deadline pickup, makes his fourth start for the Astros since coming over in the deal that brought Carlos Gomez aboard from the Brewers. Fiers has been terribly inconsistent over the past few seasons, and the Astros will just hope that the right-hander can replicate the sub-4.00 ERA and K-per-inning that he had in Milwaukee before the trade. He is a boom-or-bust player who has the upside to post two strikeouts per inning on his good days yet two runs per inning on his bad ones.

Game 2: Saturday at 6:10pm CDT: Zack Greinke vs. Scott Kazmir
The scoreless streak that kept Greinke atop the headlines might be dead, but his quest for one of the lowest ERAs of the modern era is fully intact. His 1.58 ERA leads the majors by 0.40 points, and an odd five-run encounter with the Phillies back on Aug. 6, Greinke has allowed two runs or fewer in every non-Colorado game he's pitched since late April. His 150 strikeouts are solid at first glance yet become more impressive when one realizes that his incredible efficiency has kept the batters-per-inning at a minimum, and the impressive 23.8-percent K rate on the season is more reflective of his skills in the strikeout department.

Though any match-up involving Greinke looks like a mismatch these days, Game 2 of this series should feature the best pairing of arms thanks to Kazmir's ability to utilize his left arm to mute the heavy bats of the Dodgers. Adrian Gonzalez takes a hit against lefties, Joc Pederson's bat becomes nearly worthless and even switch-hitter Yasmani Grandal has a tougher time with southpaws. Kazmir is yet another trade acquisition by the Astros, this one coming via Oakland, and he has been nearly Greinke's equal for the past several weeks regardless of platoon splits.

Game 3: Sunday at 1:10pm CDT: Clayton Kershaw vs. Lance McCullers, Jr.
Kershaw is back as the top pitcher in the game after hitting a couple of speed bumps to start the season, though he still has his work cut out for him if he is to defend his hardware to win a third consecutive Cy Young Award (and fourth in five years). His greatest competition might be in his own rotation, but one gets the sense that Kersh and Greink have been competing against each other all season. Kershaw has struggled in the playoffs over the past couple seasons, leaving one to wonder if he will falter in the playoff-like atmosphere of Houston, after years of watching the Astros field a last-place club. The Astros have struck out more times than any other club in the American League and Kershaw has been mowing down hitters to the tune of 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings this season, a combination that sets the stage for a game of double-digit Ks for Kershaw.

The moves that the Astros made to bolster their starting rotation will take some of the innings – and some of the pressure – off McCullers, as the team can be mindful of his innings count while having options when it comes to lining up the playoff rotation. McCullers has been proving the doubters wrong throughout his career, with a powerful delivery and mid-90s fastball to match, as the heater jumps on batters before they are ready to pull the trigger. The result is a lot of foul balls, setting batters up for the put-away curve when there are two strikes in the count.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B – Gonzalez is the top power threat on an otherwise balanced roster, and though his incredible power run to start the season was a bit deceiving, it was a solid indicator that the power which had gone missing for the past season was back in full effect. The pop still comes and goes, and he is currently in the midst of one of the “go” periods with just three extra-base hits in August (all homers).

Joc Pederson, OF – Pederson has hit one fewer homer than Gonzalez this season, sitting at 23 bombs with 18 doubles, but his all-or-nothing approach is personified by his .216 batting average and 140 strikeouts in 117 games. He has endured a prolonged slump, and though the Dodgers stuck with him in the leadoff spot through much of his struggles, manager Don Mattingly recently got frustrated with Pederson and dropped him to the bottom of the batting order. Hitters of his ilk commonly go through tumultuous periods and the fact that he is in the midst of his first season makes it more likely that the league has caught on to a hole in his swing and exploited the rookie accordingly. It is now his turn to adjust.

Yasmani Grandal, C – Being a switch-hitter does not make one immune to platoon splits, and sure enough Grandal is a different type of batter with a right-handed pitcher on the mound (.269/.383/.500 in 291 plate appearances this season) than he is against a lefty (.341/.408/.364 in 49 plate appearances). Obviously, Mattingly prefers to limit his exposure where his power is useful, such that most of his at-bats come with him hitting left-handed.

Yasiel Puig, OF – Puig has been one of the biggest disappointments in fantasy baseball this season. His isolated power of .184 is the same as last season but the batting average has dropped 46 points to .250. His strikeout rate is up slightly but the walk rate has taken a dive, dropping his on-base percentage from last season's .396 to .320 this year, costing him his place in the batting order and many of his fantasy managers a place in the standings.

Justin Turner, IF – Turner has been the anti-Puig, proving that last season's small-sample breakout wasn't a fluke by slashing an impressive .312/.373/.543 this season while exemplifying versatility in the infield. He just returned from the disabled list, helping to solidify a lineup that has endured too many ups and downs for one that is so well compensated. He obviously hasn't been able to replicate the .340 batting average of last year, but an extra 75 points of ISO has a way of covering for the natural regression to his batting average, and his current .543 slugging percentage would rank fourth in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

Carlos Correa SS – It's not often that a 20-year old gets to the majors and starts hitting immediately upon arrival, let alone a shortstop, but Correa has done exactly that. If he had the plate appearances to qualify, his .283/.352/.533 slash would be good enough for the AL's seventh-best OPS at .884, and though he showed that type of production in the lower minors and has the pedigree of a top overall pick, his .704 OPS at Triple-A this year combined with his age gave reason to believe that his adjustment would take a little more time. Instead, you're looking at one of the AL's best players, right now.

Jose Altuve 2B – Altuve has terrorized pitchers for a few years now and has shown the ability to get hits and steal bases off anybody, regardless of skill set. He is also one of the few players in DFS whom I look to roster even if he is facing a pitcher that I have going that day, as the steals and doubles that form the foundation of his fantasy value are of little harm to a pitcher's stat line. His steals are a bit behind last season's 56-swipe pace and many of the doubles are missing, elements that a couple of extra homers do little to replace, and odds are that his expected production going forward is closer to this season's .758 OPS than the .830 mark of last year.

Carlos Gomez, OF – Gomez has been a bit off his game since being traded to the Astros, proving the hip is not an issue by going 5-of-6 on the base paths in 18 games (after going just 7-of-13 for the Brewers), but he's lacking power, with just three extra-base hits so far with his new club. The homers tend to come in bunches and his willingness to run is a much-needed reprieve for his fantasy managers that were expecting 30-plus stolen bases this season.

Evan Gattis, 1B – Gattis is a one-dimensional masher who is typically not worth rostering unless a lefty is on the mound, but this season he has struggled even with the platoon advantage. The former catcher's slash against southpaws is just .215/.248/.389 this season, and though his nine triples of 2015 are a nice bit of trivia (I would have taken the under on nine triples for his career entering this season), the fact is that his OBP is unplayable in leagues that count that stat, no matter the handedness of that day's pitcher.