Can the top-seeded Royals build off last year's magical playoff run, or will the upstart Astros turn the tables on the one-time postseason darlings?
In Kansas City, it’s about unfinished business, as Ned Yost’s crew struts into the postseason with an AL-high 95 wins a year after they came one run short in the World Series. For the Astros, their dream season continues after their slaying of the Yankees. Young, hungry, a team no one expected to be in the October dance: the Astros feel a lot like the 2014 Royals.
That said, these two teams are also a fascinating study of contrasts. Kansas City's hitters had the fewest strikeouts in the majors; Houston had the second most. The Astros were second in the league in homers; the Royals were second to last. And in the dugout, A.J. Hinch is one of the more analytics-driven managers in baseball, while Yost remains a man driven more by instinct than stats.
We all know about the Blue Jays’ juggernaut offense, but don’t sleep on Houston’s lineup, which showed its firepower in the AL wild-card game. The Astros lived up to their reputation as a homer-reliant offense (48% of their runs came via the long ball), as two of their three runs against the Yankees came on solo home runs. This is the most powerful offense this side of Toronto—the Astros ranked behind only the Blue Jays in home runs, slugging and OPS this season—and it’s a balanced attack: Five Astros hit at least 22 home runs, and eleven hit more than 10 (tying a major league record). That doesn’t include Carlos Gomez, who hit four after his trade to Houston and rocked a fourth-inning solo home run off Masahiro Tanaka in the wild-card game. But the Astros find other ways to make things happen. They finished the season with an AL-high 121 stolen bases; Jose Altuve led the league with 38, but George Springer, Gomez, Carlos Correa and Jake Marisnick are all threats to wreak havoc on the bases.
The Royals were the worst power-hitting team in the majors last year, then went off on a home run barrage in October. This year’s offense scored 167 runs fewer than the Blue Jays and was last in the league in walks and sixth in OPS, and yet it may be the strength of this team. It’s certainly a much more powerful lineup from a year ago, ranking seventh in the majors in runs scored. The additions of Kendrys Morales (22 home runs) during the off-season and Ben Zobrist at the trade deadline have helped, but Kansas City has also gotten a boost from Lorenzo Cain (.307/.361/.477), Eric Hosmer (.297/.363/.459) and Mike Moustakas (.284/.348./.470) all having the best offensive seasons of their careers. It’s a lineup that could be coming together at the right time, too: Alex Rios—who after 1,691 career games is finally getting a taste of the postseason—is healthy and has hit well down the stretch. This is a deep Royals offense that can do damage against any October pitching staff. EDGE: Astros.
For all their struggles down the stretch, the Astros' pitching staff still finished the season with the best team ERA (3.57) in the AL, with their starting staff (3.71) ranking second in the league in ERA. Dallas Keuchel was splendid on three days' rest in the wild-card game, but he’ll now only get one start in the series, which puts the Astros at a clear disadvantage.
Collin McHugh, who will get the Game 1 start, becomes one of the most important players in the series; the 28-year-old righthander was much better in the second half for Houston (3.11 ERA after the break, 4.50 before). Scott Kazmir’s mystifying struggles—after posting a dazzling 2.38 ERA in 18 starts in Oakland, he’s been hit hard in Houston, with a 6.52 ERA for the Astros in September—has turned Lance McCullers, the 22-year-old rookie righthander who wasn’t invited to major league camp for spring training, into a big X-factor for the Astros. Don’t forget Mike Fiers, either; he posted a 3.32 ERA with the Astros after being acquired from the Brewers and tossed a no-hitter in late August. This might be the most underrated rotation in the playoff field.
Johnny Cueto was supposed to be the Royals' October ace, but in Game 1, Kansas City is turning to Yordano Ventura, who was pitching so poorly just three months ago that he was briefly sent down to the minors. Ventura has quickly turned things around: In his last 11 outings, he went 9–2 with a 2.38 ERA, and in his only start against the Astros, he allowed one run over seven innings in a July win. Ventura was very good last October, with a 3.20 ERA in five appearances, including seven shutout innings against the Giants in Game 6 of the World Series.
Cueto is the biggest question in the rotation; he struggled—a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts—after arriving in Kansas City, though he pitched well in his last four starts of the regular season. It’s hard imagining the Royals making a deep run without Cueto making big postseason starts. Edinson Volquez had a good first season in Kansas City, reaching 200 innings and posting a 3.55 ERA, though he’s been hit hard in two playoff starts, one with the Reds and the other with the Pirates. The Royals have two good Game 4 options in Chris Young (11–6, 3.06) and Kris Medlen (6–2, 4.01 ERA); Medlen has more experience than Young out of the bullpen, which might give Young the starting assignment. EDGE: Astros.
For the Astros, the bullpen is the big question mark heading into October. After a dominant first half (2.67 ERA), the relief corps faded down the stretch, with a 4.07 ERA in the second half and a major league worst 5.72 ERA over the last 30 days. The bullpen was excellent against the Yankees in the wild-card game, with Tony Sipp, Will Harris and Luke Gregerson retiring nine of the 10 batters they faced, so perhaps they have turned things around. The unit should at least be fresh, as Houston's relievers ranked 28th in the majors in innings pitched.
The world knows how good the Kansas City bullpen was a year ago, when Ned Yost rode the Kelvin Herrera-Wade Davis-Greg Holland trio all the way to the World Series. But this year’s staff has been even better, even with Holland injured and done for the year. Davis has taken over as the closer, moving Herrera from the seventh inning to the eighth, and there’s plenty of depth beyond that: Ryan Madson is the team's secret weapon (2.13 ERA in 63 1/3 innings), and Franklin Morales and Luke Hochevar have been very good as well. The Royals’ formula again is clear: Score enough runs against the opposing starter to turn the game into a late-inning battle of bullpens, where they will have a clear advantage. Something to keep in mind, however: The Royals led the AL in relief innings during the regular season (539 1/3), so fatigue could be an issue deeper into the postseason. EDGE: Royals.
The Pick: Astros
Keuchel not pitching until Game 3 puts the Astros at a disadvantage, but the rotation beyond their ace, even with Kazmir's recent struggles, is underrated and superior to the Royals'. This is a very close matchup, but in the end, a powerful and balanced lineup gives Houston the edge in the series.