American League Division Series Preview: Houston vs. Kansas City

The defending AL champs take on the upstart wild card winners in this best-of-five showdown. Who will come out on top?

One run. Just one lousy run.

That's how close the Kansas City Royals came to forcing extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series last year against the San Francisco Giants. They were just 90 feet away from continuing their magical run with two outs in the ninth inning, but Madison Bumgarner played hero and the Royals fell short.

It was a magical ride, one that no one was sure Kansas City could repeat this year. But repeat it they did, and then some. Whereas last season they finished second in the American League Central and made it into the postseason as a wild card, this year the Royals started strong and ran away with the division title, their first since 1985. They also finished with the best record in the American League at 95-67, earning the right to play the Houston Astros, this year's wild card entrant, who went 86-76 and beat the Yankees in New York in the AL Wild Card Game, 3-0.

Speaking of the Astros, they're trying to be this year's Royals, the second wild card that makes a deep run through the playoffs. They are young, talented, and perhaps to dumb not to know that teams like Houston (and K.C. last year) aren't supposed to reach the World Series.

Houston has never won a title. In their one and only World Series appearance, they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005, and have managed a remarkable turnaround from three straight 100-loss seasons in 2011, 2012 and 2013. They are perhaps a year ahead of schedule, and will face a Royals team that people seem to be forgetting is really, really good.

Pitching Matchup

Yordano Ventura 13 8 28 163.1 8.6 3.2 4.08 3.57 2.7
Johnny Cueto 4 7 13 81.1 6.2 1.88 4.76 4.06 1.1
Edinson Volquez 13 9 33 198.1 6.9 3.18 3.58 3.83 2.6
Danny Duffy 7 8 24 128.1 6.31 3.58 4.35 4.65 0.9
Collin McHugh 19 7 32 203.2 7.56 2.34 3.89 3.58 3.9
Scott Kazmir 2 6 13 73.1 6.63 2.95 4.17 5.19 0.1
Dallas Keuchel 20 8 33 232 8.38 1.98 2.48 2.91 6.1
Lance McCullers 6 7 22 125.2 9.24 3.08 3.22 3.26 2.8
Mike Fiers 2 1 9 57.1 8.32 2.83 2.67 4.32 0.6

In Game 1, the Royals will send last year's playoff stud Yordano Ventura to the hill against 19-game winner Collin McHugh. Ventura has the postseason experience, going 1-0 in four starts with a 3.20 ERA last year, with 14 strikeouts and nine walks in 25 1/3 innings. And he was even better in his two World Series starts, giving up just two earned runs in 12 1/3 innings. He's also pitched much better in the second half with a 3.56 ERA, compared to 4.73 in the first half. Like Ventura, McHugh has also been better in the second half, with a 3.11 ERA since the All-Star Break, way down from the 4.50 he put up through mid-July.

The much-heralded trade for Johnny Cueto at mid-season hasn't exactly gone according to plan. In 13 starts he went just 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA for the Royals, striking out just 6.2 batters per nine. Before that, the Game 2 starter had performed quite well with the Reds, 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA in 19 starts before the trade, tallying 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings. His lack of production with K.C. is concerning. He'll face another Trade Deadline starter in Scott Kazmir, who also struggled after joining his new team, just 2-6 with a 4.17 ERA since coming to Houston. He was 5-5 with a 2.38 ERA in 18 starts with Oakland.

Houston would have a decided edge in Game 3 when Cy Young Candidate and AL Wild Card Game winner Dallas Keuchel matches up against the solid, if unspectacular, Edinson Volquez. And if the series goes to a Game 4, Danny Duffy will get the nod for the Royals, while the Astros have not announced who would start that game. But it would be either rookie Lance McCullers, or the man with a no-hitter on his resume this year, trade deadline acquisition Mike Fiers.

Comparing the rotations, Houston appears to have the edge.

Hitting Matchup

Astros 729 (5) 230 (2) .250 (T-10) .315 (8) .437 (2) .752 (2) .325 (2)
Royals 724 (6) 139 (14) .269 (T-2) .322 (7) .412 (8) .734 (7) .318 (7)

The differences between these two offenses could not be more obvious, even though both styles have put both teams right next to each other in terms of runs scored this year.

The Astros hit a lot of home runs (second-most in the AL) and strike out a whole lot (1392 times, most in the American League). The Royals, meanwhile, hit for a high average and rely on small ball to get runs home. Interestingly, both teams use their speed to their advantage, Houston led the American League in stolen bases this year wit 121, while Kansas City was second with 104. So expect a lot of action on the basepaths.

In the postseason, teams with power generally have an advantage, where one swing of the bat can win a game single-handedly. However, the Royals showed last year their type of offense can play as well. 

Lorenzo Cain isn't mentioned as one of the best players in baseball, but he should be. His 6.6 fWAR was far and away the highest on the Royals this year, with a .307/.361/.477 slash line, 16 homers, 101 runs scored, 72 RBIs and 28 stolen bases. He's also the second-best defensive center fielder in the game (behind the simply incredible Kevin Kiermaier, of course). Kendrys Morales has had a terrific first season with the Royals, putting up a .290/.362/.485 slash line, with a team-leading 22 homers, 106 RBIs and wRC+ of 131. Mike Moustakas (22 HRs, 124 wRC+), Eric Hosmer (18 HRs, 125 wRC+), and Alex Gordon (122 wRC+ in 104 games) make up the back-bone of a lineup that has the ability to put up a lot of runs.

Five different players hit at least 20 homers for the Astros this year, including Evan Gattis (27), Colby Rasmus (25), Luis Valbuena (25), Chris Carter (24) and probable AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa (22 in just 99 games). Correa is a special player, compared by many to Alex Rodriguez. You know, the A-Rod before he got all steroid-y. Their best overall player, Jose Altuve had yet another 200-hit season and batted .313, with a .353 on-base average and .459 slugging percentage, with 38 stolen bases and a surprisingly high 15 homers. 

It's a feast or famine offense that will largely determine how far Houston is able to go this October.

The Bullpens

Just like last year, the Royals have a dominant bullpen that can shorten games significantly. And just like last year, they may need to use it a lot thanks to a starting staff that is not overly reliable at the moment. 

Kansas City finished the season as the only AL team with a bullpen ERA under three (2.72). However, Houston's relievers weren't far behind, with the fourth-lowest ERA in the American League (3.27). But those season-long numbers don't tell the whole story. Since the All-Star Break, the Astros' bullpen struggled, with a 4.07 ERA that was only ninth-best. The Royals, meanwhile, had a 3.33 ERA from their relievers since the All Star Break, second-best in the league.

All is not perfect in the K.C. bullpen, however. The team is without a huge piece of the puzzle now with closer Greg Holland lost for the season with an elbow injury. Although he had been a bit less effective this year (3.83 ERA, compared to 1.44 in 2014 and 1.21 in '13), he was still piling up saves until his injury. Now, the team turns to another unhittable reliever, Wade Davis, to take over the ninth inning. Yeah, Davis' 0.94 ERA in 67 1/3 innings should be good enough to get the job done. They also have Kelvin Herrera (2.71 ERA in 69 2/3 IP) to set things up for Davis, and have gotten a terrific contribution from former Phillie Ryan Madson, who has returned from nearly three years out of baseball to put up a 2.13 ERA in 63 1/3 innings this year. Franklin Morales is the team's main left-handed option, with a 3.18 ERA in 62 1/3 innings this year.

Houston's bullpen was the worst in baseball last year, but closer Luke Gregerson (3.10 ERA, 31 saves) has been very good locking games down this year. Josh Fields, Tony Sipp, Will Harris and Chad Qualls have also done a much better job in a revamped Astros 'pen, although there have been those second-half struggles.


So here's an interesting little nugget that could mean a lot or be a throwaway.

Our numbers see this as a pretty evenly-matched series, with the lower-seeded Houston Astros the favorite at 59.17% odds to move on to the American League Championship Series. The Royals are 40.83%.

However, I think bullpens have become a big part of postseason baseball, and the Royals still boast one of the best. I also like Kansas City's playoff experience to get them past the youthful Astros in this ALDS series.

My prediction is Kansas City in five games.