October 8, 2015
ALDS Preview: Astros vs. Royals
Last year, while the Royals and Tigers were battling for the AL Central crown, Russell Carleton noted a bit of doublethink that many of us successfully maintain: The veteran Tigers had the advantage because they’d been there, because they had age and wisdom and leadership and experience; or the Royals did, because they were young, loose, didn’t know enough to be scared. The piece got to a truth that is particularly applicable to this series, in which one team hits homers while the other hits singles; in which one avoids whiffs while the other wears them like teardrop tattoos; in which one club is run by unmanned computers while the other is run by a farmer sending his orders in by telegram; in which one platoons and the other hot-glues its players into the lineup; in which one is young and loose and doesn’t know enough to be scared, while the other has been there, has age and wisdom and leadership and experience.
That’s right: While we weren’t looking, the Royals got old. Their hitters were fifth oldest in baseball, their pitchers second oldest, and they come into this series with more postseason experience on their roster than any team they’ll face between here and the Cardinals. Just like, while we kinda weren’t looking, the Astros got good. It’s a matchup that 18 months ago would have seemed incredibly unlikely, which should remind us not to be too cocky about anything we think we know of these next five games.
(Rosters, lineups and rotations to be updated as announcements are made.)
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
These ain’t your older Irish twin’s Royals. The 2015 version scored a half a run per game more than last year’s contenders, and the top six spots of this lineup—which, as we’ll talk about in a second, might not be the precise order you end up seeing—each have considerably better True Averages than their 2014 counterparts. (And the bottom three, which are bad, are almost identical to last year’s bottom three.) The group hit 50 percent more home runs this year, tacked on 30 points of isolated power, and beefed up as the season went on—the Royals’ .169 isolated power in September would, in a full season, have wedged between the Coors Field Rockies and the short-porch Yankees for fifth in baseball. It’s a team with no collective platoon split and, perhaps more importantly for this time of year, no power/finesse split. The league loses about 100 points of OPS going from “finesse” to “power,” as defined by Baseball-Reference. (Power pitchers are in the top third of the league in strikeouts + walks.) The Royals , who strike out and walk less than any other team in baseball, don’t; they’re the fourth-best team in baseball against “power” pitchers, and the second-best remaining in the postseason. Guess which type of pitcher tends to be overrepresented on postseason lineup cards? (To their disappointment, perhaps, less overrepresented on Houston’s roster.)
One small wrinkle, alluded to above: That nearly perfectly optimized lineup you see up there, with six nearly equal hitters at the top and Sal Perez serving as the last exit before Sucktown? It might be overthrown by coup d’escobar. In September, after the healthy return of Gordon, the Royals switched from an Escobar-topped lineup to one led by Zobrist or Gordon. The Zobrist version scored 5.4 runs per game but lost five of nine; the Gordon version scored 4.7 runs per game but lost seven of 11; so, in six of the final eight games, Escobar returned to the front of the line and the Royals went undefeated. They scored 4.7 runs per game. If he kicks off the bottom of the first in Game One, may these facts stoke your fires, friends.
If a number of Royals reinvented themselves this year, the Astros are more or less exactly what you think they are: Big Dudes Taking Big Hacks, plus Altuve. Four relatively veteran Astros—Altuve, Rasmus, Gattis and Valbuena—set career highs in dongers this year, along with Correa, of course; every Astro in that lineup has double-digit dongers, and all but Altuve and the half-seasoned Correa whiffed 100+ times. That turns out to be one of many really good strategies! The Astros had the AL’s third-best True Average, edging the contact-oriented Royals (.267 to .264) while narrowly outscoring them, too (4.50 runs per game to 4.47).
While the too-many-dongers crowd will find fault with such an inelegant approach, the Astros aren’t the prototypically one-dimensional offense. It’s an athletic team, a young team, one that (by baserunning runs above average) holds a narrow baserunning edge on the Royals. All those fly balls (and, yes, strikeouts) keep them from twin-killings, as their 102 were the second fewest in the AL (and 31 fewer than Kansas City). And if there’s a situational deficiency, it hasn’t shown up: Houston hit .295/.337/.529 with a runner on third and less than two outs. For all the smart people thinking about the best way to build an offense, these two clubs prove that the simplest remains the same for everybody: Get good hitters.
The Astros added two such good hitters as the season progressed. Carlos Correa is the most powerful hitter in either lineup, and has been adjustment proof thus far: His lowest OPS by month was .827, and his home run totals per month—5, 5, 6, 6—show that he’s not a player the league is close to figuring out. Hell, if anything the opposite: He’s hitting .347/.432/.600 the third time he sees a starter in a game [SSS siren]. The other new Carlos, from House Gomez, has struggled since joining Houston in late July. He’s hitting .242/.288/.383 while wearing the star, and has dealt with a rib strain that cost him two weeks in September and made him grimace in Tuesday’s game. Maybe it also made him homer in Tuesday’s game? Who really knows how correlation works. As is, there’s a doth-protest-too-much vibe around his claims of health.
One of the extraordinary things about Ned Yost’s post-clinch hangover lineup was that it had been literally years since Yost has let us see a bunch of those guys play. It was like seeing POWs coming home from Vietnam. Yost treats his starting lineup like a daily mantra, repeating the same nine words over and over in occasionally different orders. Injury absences by Alexes Gordon and Rios, and the addition of Ben Zobrist, freed him from the routine somewhat, but other than the starting nine + Omar Infante, all the other Royals combined started just 181 games this year, around half of those simply to cover for Gordon and Rios’ injuries. Which is just to say that there are unlikely to be any platoons, any adjustments to the situation, even any pinch-hitting—last year, bench bats Josh Willingham, Jayson Nix and Christian Colon got a total of five plate appearances in the LDS, LCS and WS combined.
The exception to Yost’s ink comes late in games, when he gets to use his speed-and-defense weapons. Those are fun. Last year, for instance, I got to headline an ALCS recap “The Greatest Defensive Outfield In History.”
Gore is probably the best basestealer in the world; he’s 11 for 11 in the majors, went 39-for-41 in Double-A this year, and as a professional has now stolen at a 92 percent success rate. (Billy Hamilton was successful 82 percent of the time in the minors.) That still doesn’t quite capture what he does, but this should: As a big-leaguer, excepting blowouts, and situations where a runner is ahead of him at second base, and balls that were put in play, he has now stood on first base for (by my count) 25 pitches and taken second 10 times. That’s not 10 steals in 25 times on first; that’s 10 steals in 25 pitches while he was at first. (Technically, one was defensive indifference.) The only real fear I have in this series is that Gore won’t make the postseason roster, which is plausible, because the Royals have Jarrod Dyson, who is one of the best basestealers in the world (86 percent success rate career; 26-for-29 with just 225 PA this year), and can hit a little, and is so good on defense that he pushes last year’s Fielding Bible winner to a corner. How many times can a team really pinch-run in a game? Last year’s Royals had Bad Billy Butler and Bad Mike Moustakas, but there won’t be much appetite to take either Morales or Moustakas out of the lineup this time. Gore got only five real appearances this September—four other times were in blowouts—compared to 10 in-earnest appearances last September.
An oblique strain sidelined Omar Infante and made the right decision even easier for the Royals to make. Colon has zero power but does everything else better than Infante, including playing more than one position. (Though this is less significant on the Royals, who have in their possession one genuine Ben Zobrist, original model, in like-new condition, and able to handle depth obligations for everybody.) Paulo Orlando has one triple in his last 222 plate appearances, which, come on bro. Drew Butera is more likely to pitch in a blowout than to catch in this series. Bottom line: If the Royals are trailing after five innings, this is about the worst bench you could imagine. If they’re leading after five innings, it’s great—like giving the whole bullpen a can of spinach.
The Astros’ bench, meanwhile, comprises a bunch of players who would be decent starters on second-division teams. (Not coincidentally, a few of them recently were, when the Astros were really bad.) As a group, they have about 1,000 more plate appearances this year than the Royals’ subs do. If I told you right now that three starters on each team were going to be raptured, you’d a) probably be surprised by which three and b) mentally adjust the odds to Houston’s favor, based on bench support alone.
Gonzalez is the Zobrist-lite—he started at least nine games at five positions this year, and for the second year in a row outhit the league’s average. (He also hit a career-high homers, and reached double digits; so too did Hank Conger; Jake Marisnick’s nine were a career high, if pitifully captured in just a single digit. This team hit a lot of homers.) The downside to Gonzalez is that, in his career, he has no platoon split, making him an imperfect partner for Valbuena or Rasmus; the upside is that, this year, he does, so what the hell, let’s roll with it. A bunch of the Astros bench players had healthy platoon splits:
· Gonzalez: .701/.843
· Lowrie: .641/.908
· Conger: .892/.618
· Tucker: .807/.466
Which should lead you to expect some pinch-hitting, platooning, or alternating, particularly at first, third, catcher, and (assuming Gomez is healthy enough to stay in the lineup) the third outfield spot. Lowrie, in particular, is in line to start over Valbuena against lefties, of whom the Royals have—er, on second thought, Lowrie, in particular, is a pinch-hitting option off the bench against lefties. Or he can start at third against righties, sending Valbuena to first, but that arrangement likely won’t be considered until Chris Carter shows some chill on his recent hotness—.333/.400/.822 in a half-month’s worth of starts in September. Conger and Castro, incidentally, share all four starting pitchers about equally, and each hits right-handers exclusively, making this an unpredictable job-share that Castro claims the majority of.
(Again, one more reminder that these are speculative, and will be updated as roster and rotation decisions are announced.)
Both teams added an ace-level pitcher at the deadline, and neither will start said ace in Game One. Kazmir’s ERA, FIP and DRA all went up by around two runs after joining Houston, and while pitcher velocity will fluctuate a bit in benign ways, it’s perhaps significant that he’s throwing all his pitches about a mile per hour slower than he did with Oakland. After two scoreless outings to start his Houston career, he put up a 5.60 ERA in his final 10 starts, with hitters batting .303/.370/.532 against him; he lost roughly a third of his groundball rate. There’s no obvious culprit in his location, but rather he just isn’t getting the swings on pitches outside zone that he used to. If he does start Game Two, he and McHugh will each have to start twice for the Astros to win this in five, the Wild Card penalty hitting Houston particularly hard. At least that would get Kazmir two starts in a ballpark more favorable to his style—he and the rotation’s other midseason import, Mike Fiers, break the Astros’ type by getting mostly flyballs.
Kansas City will go with Ventura over Cueto in Game One—though, reading the account of how that decision came up, it seems more that Cueto chose to go with Ventura over Cueto. Given the choice to rearrange the rotation so that he would be on normal rest for Game One, Cueto turned the offer down. Ventura is more willing to go on short rest than Cueto, and this lines the Royals’ rotation up so that, if they choose to, Ventura and Cueto can each pitch twice. If they choose not to, the decision between Chris Young and Kris Medlen could hinge on whether Yost dare send Young—the better pitcher this year—into a bandbox. Tallboy has the lowest groundball rate in baseball this year, which is an obvious liability in Minute Maid—which, since 2010, has produced 150 extra points of slugging on flyballs than Kauffman. Wait, I can do even better: Since 2010, there have been 750 more flyballs hit at Kauffman—and 140 more home runs hit at Minute Maid. Young’s history is limited to just three career starts, but he has allowed a .619 slugging percentage in Houston in his career. So, yeah, the decision might come down to that. Or it might just come down to which spelling of “Chris” Ned prefers.
Relief Pitchers (ERA, Innings, DRA)
There was plenty of concern when A.J. Hinch pulled Keuchel after six innings on Tuesday, as the Astros bullpen had struggled in September. But it’s a good group, with the best bullpen DRA in baseball. To that they might be able to add a difference-maker in McCullers, who touched 99 as a starter this year. He could be in the rotation, but he’s also 50 innings past his career high, and brings more reliever upside than Fiers (who has added nothing in short bursts over the course of his career). For what the Astros have in bullpen depth, they lack in bullpen tactics: Sipp has almost literally no platoon differential, with a .682/.680 career OPS against. He’s wasted in a LOOGY role. Oliver Perez fits the pattern of a specialist better, except he’s no better against lefties than Sipp is, sooooo… might as well just use Sipp. But if Hinch shows the same quick hook that he did in the Wild Card game—and, from a stathead org, you’d expect he might—there will be plenty of chances for both, particularly against Hosmer and Morales, who have the two most prominent disadvantages against same-siders.
The Astros’ deep ‘pen has made roles somewhat fluid this year, but the formula on Tuesday—Sipp, Harris, Gregerson—gives a pretty good idea of how Hinch has been leaning lately:
The Royals had the best bullpen ERA in the American League, more than a half-run better than the Astros, and that’s with pre-surgery Greg Holland dragging them down. Wade Davis has now pitched 154 innings out of the bullpen for the Royals, and has a 0.94 ERA. The Royals primarily used him (and Holland) in one-inning outings during last year’s postseason, and famously rigid Yost has a dominant 7-8-9 to do the same thing this year. But he’s been a reliever for two years and those two years would have been the two best ERA+’s of Mariano Rivera’s career, so you can see the potential here for a true postseason show.
Danny Duffy joins the bullpen for October, just as he did last year. Remember last year? Remember Duffy sitting unused for almost the whole of the postseason while we all wondered whether somebody was lying about his supposed good health? This year, expect to see him a bit more. The Royals had him in the bullpen down the stretch and he worked regularly, effectively, and in moderately high leverage, holding batters to a .138/.194/.138 line in eight scoreless innings. He’s got multi-inning capability; he’s also got nearly 200 OPS points of platoon differential in his career, and could combine with Franklin Morales to give Rasmus and Valbuena fits.
The Royals ranked sixth in defensive efficiency, the Astros fourth. Now, defensive efficiency—and even park-adjusted defensive efficiency—has never shown the Royals to be lap-the-field elite, which might just mean that we’re not adjusting for park enough. They have finished first, second and first in the AL in DRS over the past three seasons. On the other hand, they’re just fifth in the AL at converting grounders into outs, 12th when it comes to line drives, and eighth in flyballs. The Astros, who finished second in DRS, were first, eighth and 11th. They’re the second-best shifters in baseball, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Both teams have good defenses; the dispute will be whether the gap is quite as large as public opinion will say it is, and whether the Royals’ defense is a weapon or an infinity stone.
Jason Castro and Hank Conger are both above-average framers. If Castro plays every game, it’ll likely be that he’s the only one of the two who can stop the Royals’ baserunners. Remember, we said earlier that they had shared Houston’s pitching staff about equally? Well, Castro has caught 36 percent of baserunners—allowing 42 but catching 24. Conger has also allowed 42—but caught just one.
The Royals have, in Cueto and Ventura, two of the toughest pitchers in the game to steal off. Cueto has allowed only 25 stolen bases in his career—at a 40 percent success rate, even—while picking off 21. Ventura, with a quick delivery and high-90s heat, has allowed only eight attempts in his career, of which just three were successful. “I’d be lying to you if I tell you I can’t steal off of him,” Jarrod Dyson once told Ben Lindbergh, but Jarrod Dyson isn’t on the Astros roster.
he also, on balance, did a fine job in last year’s postseason: He quickened his hook with his starters, and leveraged his limited bench talent to create an impenetrable late-innings barrier. He also gave his base coach, Rusty Kuntz, the go-ahead to run nutzo in the Wild Card game, a deceptively bold show of confidence and a crucial instance of turning a small edge into a victory. He’s actually what a lot of us would want in a manager: He doesn’t overact, he doesn’t insert himself every chance he can, he doesn’t give away outs or pitches or intentional passes. He also limits his lineup changes and his bullpen tweaks, perhaps to a fault but certainly to his team’s liking. He is, in fact, by far the least meddlesome manager in baseball, according to Lindbergh’s way of calculating it. He’s got his players and he mostly lets them go right after the other team. It’s endearing, and it’s not dumb.
A.J. Hinch has been fairly typical far as stathead-approved managers go: He doesn’t pitch out much, intentionally walk many, order sac bunts often, or let his pitchers go three times through the order as often as other managers do; but he does pitch out, he does intentionally walk, he does order sac bunts, and he does let his pitchers go three times through the order a lot. Which is to say, he leans a little closer to The Book than the book, but isn’t reinventing the sport. He has gotten very good bullpen performance out of a bullpen that doesn’t doesn’t really have elite parts. And he has, by his own hand or the front office’s, developed a depth chart that has much-used, starter-quality players in reserve at every position. His impact on this series is most likely going to be in how much he trusts his young players, and how much that trust seems to have carried over to the rest of the team. If the Astros win the World Series, it’ll be because a bunch of kids without much experience came up big, and Hinch seems to be a big reason why that’s possible here.
PECOTA calls it a close one: Game One a coin flip, Game Two a 58 percent edge to the Royals, Game Three 62 percent to the Astros, and so on. Without PECOTA as my crutch, I have to fall back on the ways of my simple-folk ancestors: The Royals will win an extremely close one, because of Esky Magic.