2017 World Series: Who will the Astros turn to after Keuchel, Verlander vs. Dodgers?
How should the Astros play it when one of their two aces isn't on the mound against the Dodgers?
Against the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, which starts Tuesday in Los Angeles, the Astros will start Dallas Keuchel in Game 1 and Justin Verlander in Game 2. That, in turn, would allow Houston's tandem aces to start Games 5 and 6 (if necessary) on full rest. As for the other three potential games in this series, it's uncertain.
One intriguing possibility is for A.J. Hinch to approach Games 3 and 7 of the World Series as he did Game 7 of the ALCS -- i.e., use Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers as "piggyback" starters. That's in essence using two starters in one game, planned ahead of time, for a handful of innings each rather than trying to get six or seven frames out of one of them. Against the Yankees in the ALCS finale, Morton and McCullers, leaning heavily on the curveballs, combined for a three-hit shutout. Along the way, they struck out 11 and walked two. Combined gem, that.
In the lower level of the minors, the Astros use the piggyback approach with their starting pitchers, so there's an organizational aversion to the approach. As well, Morton and McCullers are not frontline starters, and as such it makes sense to try to spare them from going through the order a third and fourth time in must-win games such as these forthcoming World Series tilts. That's especially the case with the Dodgers, who are perhaps baseball's best when it comes to hitting curveballs. As such, yes, it's even more prudent to let a lineup like that get too many looks at the likes of Morton and McCullers. So in essence Hinch would let Morton and McCullers face no more than 18 batters each in their piggyback starts. If things go reasonably well, then that's enough to get them through the entire game or at least hand it over to Ken Giles.
This, though, leaves a Game 4 void. In that one, Hinch could give the start to Collin McHugh or Brad Peacock and then angle to go long with his bullpen (assuming the bullpen doesn't get too taxed in Games 1 through 3). This approach would acquire Hinch to trust his relievers more than he did in the ALCS. During the regular season, Will Harris and Chris Devenski were two of Houston's better relievers, but they combined for just two innings pitched in the ALCS. As Joe Musgrove, who looked so strong after being moved to the bullpen in mid-July, threw only 2/3 of an inning against the Yankees. To an outsider, this looks like small-sample struggles driving the manager's usage decisions. That's not a sound approach in the playoffs. The Astros' staff flows much better if Hinch is trusting those three right-handers to work meaningful innings.
If Hinch starts leaning more on those three core relievers -- who, to repeat, were excellent in those rules during the regular season -- then McHugh or Peacock can start Game 4, or maybe even form a piggyback of their own. The latter is probably too risky in terms of exhausting the Houston depth, but it's a consideration. The danger is in letting Morton and McHugh get too exposed by letting them start different games. "Tandem" them again, start McHugh or Peacock in Game 4, and revert back to regular-season bullpen patterns when possible. That approach plus double doses of Keuchel and Verlander may make things pretty tough on the L.A. bats.
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