I am a man without a horse in the race. For the second straight year, my team ― the Tampa Bay Rays ― fell out of postseason contention about a week-and-a-half before the end of the season. Because of it, I’m approaching this postseason as I had the last, follow the teams that most closely resemble the Rays way of play ― quality pitching, solid defense, and timely hitting. There are two teams that parallel my beloved team in some way, shape, or form: the Houston Astros and the Kansas City Royals, and it just so happens that they are set to start the American League Division Series against one another on Thursday.
The Kansas City Royals followed their 2014 playoff run with another great season in 2015, this time owning the best record in the American League. They will host the Wildcard winning Houston Astros in the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.
The Royals were the scrappy Wildcard team that went all the way to the World Series last year, only to fall in Game 7 by a run. The Astros are now that plucky team with hopes to go deep into October.
Houston started the year hot, leading the AL West for 139 days this season before scuffling a bit in September. The Astros battled back, however, subsequently capturing their first playoff berth since 2005 in the final week of the season. They are coming off a big 3-0 win against the New York Yankees in the AL Wildcard game on Tuesday.
After coming from behind against the Oakland Athletics in the 2014 AL Wildcard game, Kansas City blew through the first two rounds of the playoffs without the luxury of home field advantage. This season, the Royals will start every series they are in at Kauffman Stadium, where they posted a 51-30 record.
The Astros were second in the AL with 230 home runs during the regular season. Both Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez went deep against New York.
Yankees Outfielder Carlos Beltran succinctly described the ‘Stros on Tuesday:
Young team. They play hard, they have speed, they have three good outfielders playing out there.
Yet the Royals have a formidable offense of their own, led by former Ray Ben Zobrist, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain.
Both teams tend to wreak havoc on the base paths by way of stolen bases ― 121 by Houston, and 104 by Kansas City ― but their hitters couldn’t be more different. The Astros led the league in strikeouts, while the Royals had the fewest. Houston finished second in homers, while the Royals hit only 139; good for second to last. And while the Astros drew the fifth most walks, the Royals drew the fewest. The ‘Stros tend to thrive on pitchers mistakes, whereas the Royals are relentless at the plate ― BABIPing opposing pitchers to death as exemplified by their .301 batting average on balls in play*.
The question begs, how will the pitching stand up? Although the Royals starting rotation was pretty dominant in 2014, they have combined for a 4.36 ERA/4.35 FIP in the second half of the 2015 campaign. Compare that to Dallas Keuchel and company, who collected a 3.33 ERA/3.84 FIP since the All-Star Break.
Kansas City has lined up Yordano Ventura to start the opening game of the set, with Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez following. The Astros will counter with Collin McHugh, Scott Kazmir, and Keuchel for Game 3 in Houston, where he was 15-0 this season.
Houston took the season series against Kansas City, winning four of six and sweeping the Royals at home.
*The 11th best BABIP in baseball, and the best of all the AL teams in the playoffs.
Collin McHugh (19-7, 3.89 ERA): McHugh allowed two runs on four hits and a walk while fanning one over six innings on Thursday, earning the win in the first game of the ALDS against the Royals. The righty allowed two solo shots during the game ― both to Kendrys Morales ― but, combined with Tony Sipp, Will Harris, Oliver Perez and Luke Gregerson to hold the Royals’ offense scoreless otherwise. Lorenzo Cain (1-3), Alex Gordon (1-3), Omar Infante (1-3), Salvador Perez (1-3), Ben Zobrist (2-5, 2B, 3B, 2 RBI, BB).
Yordano Ventura (13-8, 4.08 ERA): Ventura will be pitching on short rest after tossing just 42 pitches in his rain-shortened outing in Game 1. He should be able to handle a full workload Monday. Jason Castro (4-8, 2B, RBI), Carlos Correa (1-2, 2B), Evan Gattis (1-3, 3B), Marwin Gonzalez (2-5, 2B), George Springer (1-1, 2B, 2 RBI, BB)
Scott Kazmir (7-11, 3.10 ERA): Kazmir will get the start in Game 2 of the ALDS on Friday. Don’t let the 3.10 ERA deceive you, the former Ray struggled mightily down the stretch for the Astros, posting a 6.52 ERA and 18/11 K/BB in 29 September innings of work.
Johnny Cueto (11-13, 3.44 ERA): Cueto allowed three runs on eight hits and two walks on Tuesday, September 30th against the ChiSox. He struck out two. Cueto, however, has improved, collecting three consecutive quality starts to end the season, but he still boasts a gaudy a 4.95 ERA, having allowed 10 home runs in 11 starts. His 45/11 K/BB is solid, and the righty has been good enough in the past that a rough stretch shouldn’t be alarming. Chris Carter (1-2, 2B), Carlos Gomez (4-12, 2B, 2 HR, 2 RBI), Jed Lowrie (1-3), Colby Rasmus (9-27, 3 2B, HR, 5 RBI, 3 BB)
Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA): Working on just three days’ rest, the obvious Cy Young award candidate shut out the Yankees over six innings in Tuesday’s AL Wild Card game, allowing three hits and a walk while fanning seven. He will be afforded the normal five days of rest this time around before taking the hill Sunday. Lorenzo Cain (5-12, 2 2B, HR, 2 RBI, BB), Alcides Escobar (4-14), Jonny Gomes (3-6, RBI), Eric Hosmer (4-6), Kendrys Morales (6-16, 2B, RBI, BB), Alex Rios (10-26, 4 2B, 4 RBI, BB)
Edinson Volquez (13-9, 3.55 ERA): Volquez scattered nine hits while allowing one run over six innings in a no-decision against the White Sox on October 3rd. He struck out five and walked one. It was an odd outing for Volquez, as he allowed nine singles in the game. Even so, Volquez had one of the best seasons of his career, as exemplified his 3.55 ERA/1.31 WHIP/152 K which ranks third best across his 10-year career. Jose Altuve (3-7, RBI), Chris Carter (1-3, HR, RBI), Jason Castro (1-3, RBI, BB), Carlos Gomez (9-31, 3 HR, 3 RBI), Colby Rasmus (5-14, 3 2B, HR, 6 RBI), George Springer (1-2), Luis Valbuena (3-10, 2B, HR, 2 RBI, 2 BB)
Lance McCullers (6-7, 3.22 ERA): The rookie RHP will get the call for Game 4 of the ALDS. McCullers scattered four hits over seven innings against the Royals on June 29, allowing just one run while fanning six. Key matchups: Jarrod Dyson (1-2, 2B, BB), Alex Gordon (1-3), Salvador Perez (1-3, HR, RBI), Alex Rios (1-3)
― Gerard Farek (Outside Pitch) wrote an excellent piece titled Starting pitching the key to the Houston Astros against the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS. It goes much more in-depth into the issues that both Ned Yost and A.J. Hinch face with their respective starting rotations.
― August Fagerstrom (FanGraphs) writes that the Astros are the new Royals. I’d add that both teams are variations of the 2008 Rays.