Thursday, October 8
4:30 pm PT on FS1
Houston Astros (86-76) @ Kansas City Royals (95-67)
In the preseason, I compiled standings projections from eight sources: Clay Davenport, Sports Illustrated, Fangraphs, PECOTA, Bleacher Report, Rant Sports, The Sporting News, and Eastside Sports. Despite the Kansas City Royals making it all the way to the seventh game of the 2014 World Series, not one of these sources predicted they would win the AL Central. Their projected wins ranged from 73 wins to 84 wins, with an average predicted record of 79-83. Similarly, the Houston Astros were not expected to be a contender for the playoffs. They were projected to finish with between 70 and 79 wins, with an average projected record of 75-87.
The Houston Astros had the second-best run differential in the American League, with a +111 mark. Only the juggernaut Toronto Blue Jays outscored their opponents by more than the Astros did. The Royals were third in the AL in this metric, at +83.
Based on their runs scored and runs allowed, the Royals were a 90-72 team and the Astros were a 93-69 squad. They both won more games than expected based on runs scored and runs allowed. The Astros allowed the fewest runs of any team in the AL and the Royals allowed the second-fewest.
How They Got Here
The Houston Astros took over first place on April 19th, much to the surprise of most people in baseball. This was a team that lost over 100 games three years in a row from 2011 to 2013. Last year, they were 70-92. They had a good, young core and highly-rated prospects in the minor leagues, but it was expected that their future was still in the future. They were expected to improve this year, then really compete for the division title in 2016 or 2017.
Instead, they came out strong and moved atop the AL West in April and kept it going into May, June, and July. They led the division by 6 ½ games at one point in May and still led by five games in early July. They hit some trouble in the middle of the season and fell to second place but regained their footing late in July and went back on top of the division. In mid-September they fell back to second place once again and were locked into a battle for the wild card spot with the Angels and Twins. They won six of their last eight games to outlast their competitors and make the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Houston ace Dallas Keuchel was superb in the wild card game against the Yankees. Keuchel held the Yankees to three hits and one walk while striking out seven. Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez had solo homers and Jose Altuve had an RBI-single to lead the Astros to victory.
Before last year’s surprising late-season and post-season run, the Kansas City Royals had not made the playoffs since 1985. That was also the last time they won the World Series. In the 28 years between 1985 and 2014, the Royals had a winning record just seven times. Last year, the Royals won 89 games to claim a wild card spot, then cruised through the postseason until they ran into Madison Bumgarner in the World Series.
This year, they got off to a good start, going 15-7 in April. The held first place for much of May but the surprising Minnesota Twins gave them a run for the top of the division in late May and early June. The Royals took back first place on June 8th and never looked back, eventually winning the division by 12 games.
Hitting, Pitching, Fielding Rankings
Rankings are based on Fangraphs statistical data. For offense, I used the metric wRC+, which means “weighted Runs Created Plus.” This looks at how a team’s offense compares to league average and takes ballpark effects into account. I used Fangraphs pitcher WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for starting pitchers and relief pitchers. The defensive rankings are based on Fangraphs’ metric for defense.
Based on Fangraphs WAR, the Astros had a better group of starting pitchers than the Royals, although the difference wasn’t as large as it might look based on their rankings above. The Astros starters had 12.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) compared to 10.8 for the Royals. That’s not a huge difference. One similarity between the two starting staffs was a low strikeout rate. The Astros were 25th in baseball in strikeouts per nine innings and the Royals were 26th. The Royals top-ranked defense made that low strikeout rate less of an issue for the team, while the Astros 19th-ranked defense would have been less harmful with a starting staff that could strike out more hitters.
The Royals have a distinct advantage in the bullpen even without their closer, Greg Holland. Wade Davis will be the team’s closer and he’s been the best relief pitcher in baseball for two years running. He has an ERA under 1.00 in 139 1/3 innings over the 2014 and 2015 season. He also has a good squad of setup guys in front of him. Like last year, if the Royals take a lead into the late innings, their bullpen will hold it.
This series will start with two games in Kansas City, where the Royals were 51-30 this year. The Astros were 33-48 on the road, so there’s a big advantage for the Royals playing at home. They also have their top two pitchers lined up to start games one and two, while the Astros used their ace in the wild card game.
I expect the Royals to take both games in Kansas City, then likely lose game three to the Astros with Keuchel on the mound in Houston. The Royals will close it out in game four, though, and move on to their second straight American League Championship Series.
My Prediction: Royals over Astros, 3 games to 1