Game 1 – Thu, 10/8 at KC
Game 2 – Fri, 10/9 at KC
Game 3 – Sun, 10/11 at Houston
Game 4 – Mon, 10/12 at Houston (if necessary)
Game 5 – Wed, 10/14 at KC (if necessary)
Kansas City Royals: 95-67 (best record in the American League). 52-34 (first) before the All-Star break, 43-33 (third) since.
- Run differential: +83 (third), won-lost five games better than Pythagenpat projection. Before the All-Star break: +63 (second), won-lost two games better than Pythagenpat. Since the All-Star break: +20 (seventh), won-lost three games better than Pythagenpat.
- Splits: 51-30 at home (third), 44-37 on the road (second), 64-40 vs. righties (first), 31-27 vs. lefties (fifth), 48-24 vs. teams with losing record (first), 47-33 vs. teams at .500 or better (third).
- Scoring: 4.47 runs scored per game (sixth in the league), 3.96 runs allowed per game (second fewest in the league). Before the All-Star break: 4.42 runs scored per game (fourth), 3.69 runs allowed per game (third). Since the All-Star break: 4.53 runs scored per game (seventh), 4.26 runs allowed per game (sixth).
- Offense: Batters’ slash line: .269 (third)/.322 (seventh)/.412 (eighth), 99 wRC+ (eighth) . Before the All-Star break: .274 (second)/.324 (third)/.408 (sixth), 99 wRC+ (fourth). Since the All-Star break: .262 (eighth)/.320 (tenth)/.416 (ninth), 100 wRC+ (ninth).
- Pitching: 3.74 ERA (third), 4,04 FIP (sixth), 4.25 xFIP (twelfth), 4.21 DRA (sixth). Before the All-Star break: 3.52 ERA (second), 3.89 FIP (seventh), 4.31 xFIP (fourteenth). Since the All-Star break: 3.98 ERA (fifth), 4.21 FIP (ninth), 4.18 xFIP (twelfth).
- Defense: .701 DER (second), 56 DRS (first), 50.9 UZR (first).
Houston Astros: 86-76 (fifth best record in the American League). 49-42 (second) before the All-Star break, 37-34 (sixth) since.
- Run differential: +111 (first), won-lost seven games worse than Pythagenpat projection. Before the All-Star break: +50 (third), won-lost two games worse than Pythagenpat. Since the All-Star break: +61 (second), won-lost five games worse than Pythagenpat.
- Splits: 53-28 at home (tied for first), 33-48 on the road (second to last), 56-45 vs. righties (third), 30-31 vs. lefties (tenth), 44-33 vs. teams with losing record (seventh), 42-33 vs. teams at .500 or better (fourth).
- Scoring: 4.50 runs scored per game (fifth in the league), 3.81 runs allowed per game (fewest in the league). Before the All-Star break: 4.34 runs scored per game (sixth), 3.79 runs allowed per game (third). Since the All-Star break: 4.70 runs scored per game (sixth), 3.85 runs allowed per game (third).
- Offense: Batters’ slash line: .250 (eleventh)/.315 (eighth)/.437 (second), 105 wRC+ (second) . Before the All-Star break: .240 (fourteenth)/.306 (twelfth)/.417 (fifth), 97 wRC+ (sixth). Since the All-Star break: .263 (seventh)/.326 (seventh)/.461 (second), 115 wRC+ (third).
- Pitching: 3.57 ERA (first), 3.66 FIP (second), 3.71 xFIP (third), 3.90 DRA (second). Before the All-Star break: 3.58 ERA (fourth), 3.66 FIP (third), 3.74 xFIP (fourth). Since the All-Star break: 3.56 ERA (third), 3.67 FIP (first), 3.68 xFIP (second).
- Defense: .701 DER (second), 30 DRS (second), -2.6 UZR (eleventh).
The narrative going into this series is going to be the Astros’ home run and strikeout offense vs. the Royals’ contact-oriented offense. (To a lesser degree, it’s going to be the stats-loving Astros against the traditionalist Royals, but, as Bryce Harper would say of that supposed conflict, it’s pretty tired.) There’s some truth to that. The Astros hit 230 homers, only two fewer than the league-leading Jays, and the Royals had just 139, three more than the last place White Sox. The Astros struck out in 23% of their plate appearances, the most in the league, while the Royals whiffed in just 16% of theirs, easily the least. The Royals made contact on 82% of their swings, second in the league, while the Astros were in last at 76%. But as the numbers above illustrate, the Astros clearly had the better offense of the two clubs, improving as the season advanced while the Royals declined.
There were some similarities between the teams. Houston and Kansas City were 1-2 in stolen bases, though the Royals were more successful on their stolen base attempts, 75%-72%. The Astros walked more often (fifth in the league in walk rate, the Royals were last). And both teams were very good defensively; the low UZR for the Astros listed above is likely because UZR doesn’t reflect shifts, and the Astros are perennially one of the most efficient shifting teams in the majors.
The problem with the three true outcomes vs. contact narrative is that it isn’t particularly relevant to the postseason, the 2014 Royals notwithstanding. During this century, I counted 55 series (divisional and championship; wild cards excluded) in which one of the teams had more homers and more strikeouts than its opponent. The homers-and-whiffs teams went 25-30, pretty close to .500, suggesting no particular advantage one way or the other. (If you ignore 2012–which, of course, you can’t, but it skews the results–the record is 25-25). The fact that the Astros are feast-or-famine while the Royals put the ball in play really doesn’t suggest an advantage one way or the other.
The Astros boast the league’s youngest hitters (average age 26.6 years; the Royals are third oldest at 29.2) and a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year in shortstop Carlos Correa, who turned only 21 in September. (Fun fact: Houston was 34-24 when they recalled Correa; they went 52-52 thereafter.) The Royals’ lineup is well-balanced, with six players with an OPS+ in excess of 120.
But a couple factors are significant. The Astros have a better pitching staff. They’re better than the Royals in both traditional and advanced metrics. If you break it up between starting and relief pitching, the Astros have a big advantage in the rotation (superior by 0.63 ERA, 0.52 FIP, 0.67 xFIP, 0.42 DRA) that largely disappears in the bullpen (they lead the Royals by 0.18 FIP, 0.35 xFIP, 0.05 DRA and trail by 0.55 ERA). In postseason series, the back of the rotation doesn’t get used, so the bullpen becomes more prominent. It’s true that the Astros bullpen sprung a leak in September (5.63 ERA in September and October, worst in the league, though with the fourth best FIP and fifth best xFIP), but of course the Royals are now without closer Greg Holland, so it’s not clear who’s entering the series more depleted. And as far as exploiting the Astros’ swing-and-miss tendencies, Royals relievers are sixth in the league in strikeout rate but the starters fourth from last.
While the Astros’ rotation is clearly stronger, timing’s in the Royals’ favor. The Royals start Thursday’s game after three days off while the Astros played Tuesday, beating the Yankees. Houston’s best starter, by far, is probable Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, and he’s available only on Sunday, as he went six innings in Houston’s wild card victory. He’s been literally unbeatable at home this year (15-0, 1.46 ERA, .474 OPS against), so Sunday’s game at Minute Maid Park looks good for the Astros. Collin McHugh will face Yordano Ventura in Kansas City on Thursday night. The Royals will start Johnny Cueto on Friday afternoon. The Astros will counter with lefty Scott Kazmir. He’s a southpaw and the Royals have been less successful against lefties than righties, but Kazmir’s looked gassed (5.60 ERA in his last ten starts, 6.93 in his last five). Edinson Volquez opposes Keuchel Sunday afternoon. Monday, if needed, the likely starters are Mike Fiers or Lance McCullers for the Astros and Chris Young or Kris Medlen for the Royals (unless McHugh or Ventura go on short rest).
Note above that the Astros had trouble with left-handed pitchers this year, but the only Royals southpaw likely to see high-leverage innings is Danny Duffy, who departed the rotation for the bullpen when Holland exited. So it appears that no Royals starter will exploit the Astros’ platoon weakness. On the other hand, the Astros were the most extreme fly ball hitting team in the league this year, and the Royals pitchers were effective against fly ball hitters, limiting them to an OPS+ of 91.
Sizing Up the Series: The Astros took the season series, four games to two, outscoring the Royals 22-13. A sample of six games is pretty meaningless, though. The injury to Holland, necessitating Duffy’s move to the bullpen, deprives the Royals of a potential platoon advantage. But having to play at least two, and possibly three, games on the road is a significant drawback for the home cooking-loving Astros, as is having their ace able to pitch only once. I think a lot of people are going to dismiss the Astros, given their youth, the way they stumbled at the end of the season (11-16 in September), their struggles on the road, and the Royals’ superior won-lost record.
Still, in writing this, I came around to liking Houston, despite being on the road and having only one Keuchel outing, particularly given the apparent return to health of outfielders George Springer and Carlos Gomez and the persistent concerns about the Royals rotation that Cueto did nothing to dispel (4.76 ERA, 4.06 FIP, 4.64 xFIP as a Royal). But as Rob Neyer would say, forget about September. The Royals had easily the better record over the full season, and it’s the full season record that’s the most important in projecting postseason performance.
However, by advanced metrics–first order winning percentage (based on run differential), second order winning percentage (based on projected run differential), and third order winning percentage (adjusted for quality of opponents), the Astros were the second-best team in the American League, trailing the Blue Jays, while the Royals were third (first order), fifth (second order), or sixth (third order). Both teams had a lackluster September, but the Royals, as the numbers at the top of this article illustrate, slipped over the entire second half of the season, especially on offense.
Both teams are vulnerable to left-handed pitching, particularly the Astros, though Keuchel is the only lefty starter likely to appear. The Astros don’t play well away from home, Tuesday’s wild card game notwithstanding, and the Royals pitching staff is above average against fly ball hitters like the Astros. On the other hand, the Astros are a better team than their 86-76 record would suggest. I’m expecting a much tighter series than it may appear to be, with the home field advantage and only one day of Keuchel tilting the series in the Royals’ favour. Kansas City in five.Next post: NLDS Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs
Previous post: ALDS Preview: Toronto Blue Jays vs. Texas Rangers