The reigning American League Champions put it together just in time to get home field advantage for as long as they are alive in the American League playoffs. The Kansas City Royals were going to host the winner of the Wild Card playoff game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees anyways, but they will also host the American League Championship Series if they can get past the Astros. That’s as big of an “if” as it gets.
Houston advanced with a rather convincing 3-0 win on Tuesday night in the American League Wild Card game. It never felt like the Astros were in trouble. The pitching staff was dominant and the Astros did what they do best – steal bases and hit bombs. The Astros led the American league in stolen bases and were second in home runs during the regular season. As their blueprint for offensive success, it’s fitting that they opened up a 2-0 lead with two solo home runs and used a stolen base to set up their third run. Salvador Perez threw out 29 of the 95 attempted base stealers this season for a success rate of 30.5 percent. League average was around 32 percent, the highest success rate in quite some time. This is one of many important keys to watch throughout this series.
Here is the ALDS schedule:
Game 1 @ KC: Thursday October 8
Game 2 @ KC: Friday October 9
Game 3 @ HOU: Sunday October 11
Game 4 @ HOU: Monday October 12 *
Game 5 @ KC: Wednesday October 14 *
* - if necessary
The Astros, who are a year ahead of schedule, may be immune to the pressures of postseason baseball. They went on the road to Yankee Stadium in the first playoff game for almost the entire roster and never looked overcome by the moment. Dallas Keuchel was outstanding and the Astros played with that swagger and confidence that can make a young team dangerous. The Royals played with a lot of those same characteristics during their run last season. Of course, they didn’t have the power production during the season that the Astros had, but they found a good power stroke in last season’s playoffs.
The success of the Astros is a major win for sabermetrics. This is a team that was built on power, speed, and defense. They were going to strike out a ton, but that didn’t matter. Strikeouts are just another out in the minds of sabermetricians and they are something that you can overcome if you hit dingers and steal enough bases to be better than the break-even point, which is around 72 percent. The Astros hit 230 home runs. They were a little bit below the break-even point on steals, at 71.5 percent, but their 121 bags were the most in the American League by a large margin. This is a really exciting offensive team.
Part of the reason they are so exciting is because of how aggressive they have been in terms of promoting prospects. Carlos Correa spent just 24 games at the Triple-A level and hit the Major Leagues in June. He played 99 games and posted a .279/.345/.512 slash line. George Springer moved up the system quickly and was in Triple-A two years after he was signed. He made his debut last season and then posted a .276/.367/.459 slash while being limited to 451 plate appearances due to injury. Jose Altuve has become a fixture as one of baseball’s best contact hitters. He’s not as young as the rest of his teammates, but he was bumped straight from Double-A to the big leagues in 2011. This past season, he added the long ball to his arsenal with a .313/.353/.459 slash and a career-high 15 home runs. He also stole 38 bases for his fourth straight 30+ steal season.
There are a lot of guys on this roster that hit for power. The Astros picked up Evan Gattis from the Atlanta Braves during the team’s preseason fire sale and he hit 27 home runs. Chris Carter is a “three true outcomes” guy, with 24 HR, 57 BB and 151 K in his 391 plate appearances. Nearly 60 percent of his plate appearances ended with a trip around the bases, a walk to first, or a walk from the batter’s box to the dugout. Luis Valbuena hit 25 home runs. Colby Rasmus hit 25 home runs. Catchers Jason Castro and Hank Conger combined for 22 home runs. Even utility man Marwin Gonzalez got in on the fun with 12 home runs in 344 PA. Oh, yeah, and they acquired Carlos Gomez, one of the game’s most well-rounded players.
The downside to hitting for power is that it can slump. The Astros scored two runs or less in 48 games this season. They were 2-46 in those games. However, they also scored five or more runs 67 times. Despite having the 10th-best BB% in all of baseball, the Astros hit 144 solo home runs and 86 home runs with men on base. Solo shots are great. The multi-run homers change the complexion of a game in a hurry. Royals starters were 18th in home runs allowed, but had the second-highest xFIP as a rotation. They got pretty fortunate on the home runs per fly ball front.
Defense is often overlooked by the betting market and by oddsmakers. Kansas City’s defense is elite and that will come up again soon. But, Houston’s defense was +30 in defensive runs saved during the regular season. That was a 68-run difference over the Yankees, who were -38. That’s a big key to this series and that’s something that could have hurt the Yankees against the contact-oriented Royals offense. The Astros are much better equipped for a matchup like that.
It’s the starting pitchers that will benefit. With Dallas Keuchel unavailable until the weekend, it will be up to guys like Mike Fiers, Collin McHugh, Scott Kazmir, Lance McCullers. Obviously everybody saw what Keuchel can do. McHugh is an interesting guy. He put together a much better second half with a 3.11 ERA and a 3.72 xFIP. His first half was tough, with a 4.50 ERA and a 4.06 FIP/xFIP. The difference in the second half was command. McHugh gave up 14 HR in 114 IP in the first half and five HR in 89.2 IP in the second half. One advantage he may have is that he has reverse splits. Lefties batted .233/.292/.356 and righties batted .284/.336/.420. Shut down the lefties and you can slow down the Royals offense.
Fiers and Kazmir were both July additions meant to bolster the rotation. Fiers, who threw a no-hitter earlier this season, was solid in switching from the NL to the AL. Advanced metrics don’t really look favorably on fly ball pitchers, but Fiers had some home run issues that did skew his FIP. He’s actually a bit of a wild card in this series. He gets a lot of strikeouts with a high 80s fastball and good mixing of his pitches. Kazmir has really struggled with a 4.17/5.19/4.86 pitcher slash. He’s a worry, but he’s left-handed and that’s beneficial with this matchup. McCullers can be used in a lot of different ways as a power pitcher that can get a K in a big spot or start a game.
It’s the bullpen that is the worry for the Astros. They were solid in the Wild Card game, but a five-game series is a different animal and they struggled mightily down the stretch. This is the only area in which one team has a really big advantage. That advantage belongs to the Royals.
The Royals were supposed to regress this season, but they seem to have found the next big market inefficiency by stocking up on contact hitters that don’t walk much. Ben Zobrist and Alex Gordon are the only two that show high walk rates and Gordon is the only regular Royals hitter with a below average strikeout rate. Some teams have punted defense in search of offense in today’s low run environment and the Royals have been able to exploit that. Their sequencing luck and surprising run last season was supposed to be the peak. They’re right back here again. That commands respect.
The Royals are going to need their contact-based offense to come through once again this postseason. Facing the Astros, a team that has the ability to accumulate a lot of strikeouts in the starting rotation, it would seem to be a good matchup for the Royals. Kansas City was pretty consistent throughout the season, posting a .317 wOBA and a 99 wRC+ in the first half and a .319 wOBA and a 101 wRC+ in the second half.
A big season from Kendrys Morales really helped. The switch hitter posted a .364 wOBA to lead the team and had 22 home runs with 106 RBI. Lorenzo Cain developed into a star, accumulating 6.6 fWAR with a .307/.361/.477 slash and well above average defense. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon all rated well above average offensively. Salvador Perez added the long ball to his skill set with 21 home runs, despite the league’s lowest walk rate among qualified hitters.
This is an interesting offensive club. They can steal some bases. They had six guys with at least 13 home runs. Alex Gordon was the only guy in the top seven in wOBA to have a below average strikeout rate. The flip side is that Gordon was one of two hitters (Ben Zobrist) to post a walk rate above 10 percent. Because the Royals put so many balls in play, drawing the Astros in the ALDS is actually a detriment because they amassed 30 defensive runs saved. The Yankees, as mentioned, were a far worse defensive team.
But, that’s also the strength of the Royals. They were second in defensive runs saved with 56, 15 fewer than the Diamondbacks, but 19 more than the Marlins. That means, however, that the starting rotation needs to keep the Astros in the park. Houston’s claim to fame offensively is hit dingers, steal bases. There will be a lot of pressure on catcher Salvador Perez in this series.
The Kansas City Royals didn’t get Johnny Cueto for the regular season. They got Johnny Cueto for the postseason. The slate gets wiped clean for Cueto after a poor end to the regular season. With the Royals, Cueto was just 4-7 in 13 starts with a 4.76 ERA, a 4.06 FIP, and a 4.13 xFIP. His strikeout rate fell by more than seven percent and his BABIP exploded from .234 to .343. That was an unexpected development, given that the Royals had the best defense in the American League by defensive runs saved.
Both Cueto and Ventura seem to have fallen victim to some sequencing issues. Cueto’s were a bit more self-inflicted than Ventura’s since he still stranded 70.8 percent of his runners. Ventura’s strand rate was a paltry 67.3 percent in the first half, but he improved dramatically in the second half as his strikeout rate climbed. He stranded 76.4 percent of his runners and, as a result, posted a 3.56 ERA compared to a 4.73 ERA in the first half. The Royals seem to be making the right decision by rolling with Ventura in Game 1.
Edinson Volquez will go in Game 3 and he’s one of those defense-dependent pitchers that the Royals have relied on over the last couple of seasons. Volquez is in his first season with the Royals, but he fits the mold of what they look for. Cheap, acquirable pitching that can eat innings and pitch to the defense. Volquez has a below average strikeout rate and a below average walk rate, but he posted a 3.55 ERA with a 3.82 FIP because Kansas City’s defense is great and he didn’t issue walks.
The bullpen is in a state of disarray right now. Closer Greg Holland is out with Tommy John surgery. Wade Davis is dealing with a back issue that limited him during the last week of the season. Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera, and Franklin Morales all worked at least 67 games. For Davis and Herrera, this is a very heavy two-year workload that includes last season’s deep playoff run. This is still a well above average bullpen, but there are some injury concerns. These guys have a better track record than Houston’s relievers, so Kansas City gets an edge here.
Series Pick: Houston Astros
I love this matchup for the Astros and I’m taking them in this series. The Astros can cut down on Kansas City’s chief advantage, the defense, by doing what they do best. Hit home runs. The Astros are a good enough defensive team to slow down the Royals offense. The Royals have been here before and that’s one of their biggest advantages. That and the bullpen. Unless Johnny Cueto gets it figured out, the Astros are going to pull the upset here.