Carlos Correa

Series Preview: Royals at Houston Astros, April 11-14

The Kansas City Royals hit the road for the first time in 2016 and head to Houston, the site of maybe their most stirring comeback of the 2015 postseason. You may recall that the Royals were down by four runs heading into the eighth inning of ALDS game four. You may also recall they won that game 9-7 and then ended up winning the World Series. That game four win was the only time the Royals won in Houston last season, as they were swept there in a series in late June and into early July. The Royals went 2-4 against the Astros in the regular season.

The Astros offense is one that can be incredibly potent. It is also one that is prone to some slumping. The reason for that is that they strike out a lot. They also hit a lot of home runs. They also can run the bases. But they don’t walk and they’re not great hitters aside from the long ball, so you can probably see why their offense leads to some sporadic results. I see them as a team with three guys who profile as stars in some way or another – Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer.

There’s no argument with Correa. The guy is a 5-tool shortstop who won’t even turn 22 until the season is almost over. He can do it all, and will be a star in baseball for a long, long time. Altuve is kind of the veteran of this team, which is crazy because he’s only in his mid-20s, but he’s been around for awhile now and he does a lot of things well. He’s one of the few Astros who doesn’t strike out much, so he adds a different element to their lineup. And then there’s Springer, who worked last year to cut down on his strikeouts. I don’t think he’ll be a superstar or anything, but the guy can really play.

The rest of the team is a lot of pieces that work together. Tyler White is on fire right now, as is Colby Rasmus. At some point, those guys will cool down and someone else will likely step up. They have some surprising power from Luis Valbuena at third base, a very Astros player in Carlos Gomez and a catcher in Jason Castro who used to be a lot better than he is now. Add in Marwin Gonzalez, former Royal Erik Kratz, Matt Duffy, Jake Marisnick and Preston Tucker and the Astros have some pretty quality depth. When Evan Gattis returns at some point, they’ll even be able to add another power bat. They can definitely put some runs up.

It wasn’t the offense that was the reason for the Astros turnaround, though. It’s that they found some pitching. It begins with Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner. He was a find. Collin McHugh gave up six runs in 1/3 of an inning in his first start, but was incredibly useful and has been for the Astros. Lance McCullers was great as a rookie (but he’s hurt right now). They also traded for Mike Fiers, who I think is an incredibly underrated starter in the game. They signed Doug Fister this winter, which may or may not end up as a good deal. Scott Feldman is a useful arm. This is a team with a solid and deep starting rotation. And even though Keuchel has walked 10 batters in two starts, I’m still glad the Royals will miss him.

The Astros bullpen was really solid last season until it fell apart toward the end of the year. You could make a pretty compelling argument that a better bullpen for the Astros would have knocked the Royals out of the playoffs. They sent quite a package of young players and prospects to the Phillies to acquire Ken Giles, but he had a bad spring and has had a rough start to the year, which led them to keeping Luke Gregerson in the closer’s role. I personally think he’s a good reliever, but not the best reliever in their bullpen. Of course, that might be a better way to build a ‘pen. Tony Sipp, Pat Neshek, Will Harris and Josh Fields make up the rest of a pretty solid unit. I think they’ll have their issues, but they also have quite a bit of talent in that bullpen.

Monday – Chris Young vs. Collin McHugh
McHugh, as I mentioned above, had about as bad a season debut as you can when he gave up all those runs. He’s a good pitcher, though, and has been just a ridiculous addition for the Astros over the last couple seasons after really being a nobody in the big leagues over the two years prior to it. McHugh is good for innings and command. And he pitched decently against the Royals in the ALDS last year, though not as well as some seem to remember. He’s only faced the Royals once in the regular season and was brilliant, going seven shutout innings and striking out nine while walking nobody, but that was before the Royals offense became relentless or something.

Three things to watch for against McHugh:

  1. McHugh lives with three pitches. His four-seam fastball is thrown about 1/3 of the time, and it comes in at around 91 or 92 MPH with decent movement. He also throws a cutter at about 87-88 that he kind of uses as his changeup. It works because the movement is different enough to make up for the small gap in velocity. His bread and butter pitch, though, is a really fantastic curve ball that gets a ton of strikeouts. He does get a lot of swings and misses on it, but he also has excellent command with it. It’s a tough pitch.
  2. McHugh’s difficult to hit curve makes early count swinging fairly important against him. His fastball and cutter are solid pitches, but they’re not really anything special. So it makes sense that opponents hit .309 with a .481 slugging percentage on the first pitch last season. He’ll use the curve to get back into counts too, so having the advantage doesn’t do a ton, but it does help. Still, early in the count is the way to go against him.
  3. Last year, he allowed an OPS of nearly 100 points higher to right-handed batters than to lefties, but that doesn’t really match his career numbers, so we don’t really know yet what the anomaly is since there’s not much data to base things on. No Royals have much experience against him, even including the playoffs, but Kendrys Morales does have two home runs against him while Alex Gordon is 3 for 7 with a double. That’s at least a sign that they see the ball well out of his hand.

I don’t love Chris Young going in a park like Minute Maid, but in a four-game series, the odds are good that he would. He is a fly ball pitcher, so that small park may not be the best fit for him, but the Astros do swing and miss a lot and if he has the good rotation on his high fastball, he might just be okay. And if not, well, it’s the first game of the series, so they’ll have time to get back into it. Young was fantastic against Houston in game one of the ALDS last season in Kansas City, so that’s something. In the regular season, he’s 4-1 with a 4.67 ERA against Houston over six starts. He has a 6.35 ERA in three starts in Houston. He’s given up homers to Gonzalez and Springer, but hasn’t really faced many of the current Astros bats.

Tuesday – Kris Medlen vs. Mike Fiers
I always liked Fiers when he was with the Brewers, and was kind of hoping the Royals would strike a deal for him last year. He’s sort of similar to Young in that he works up in the zone, but he does it with more velocity than Young, so he can make a mistake or two more than the Royals tall righty. Very few grounders and lots of fly balls seems like a recipe for disaster in Houston, but he does a nice job of mixing some strikeouts to make it work. He’s faced the Royals in the regular season just once, giving up six runs on eight hits in five innings last year when he was with the Brewers. He gave up a run in one inning last year in the ALDS as well.

Three things to watch for against Fiers:

  1. He throws a lot of fastballs, and they’re not that fast, averaging about 90-91 MPH. He likes to live up in the zone, so if he’s off, it could be a batting practice sort of day for the Royals. He has a really good changeup and an even better curve that he uses to supplement the fastball. He also occasionally takes something off the fastball and throws a cutter, and that’s pretty effective when he has it going.
  2. Fiers is a guy who is fantastic when going through the order the first couple times, but he’s the poster child for the time through the order penalty. If he sees a lineup a third time, they usually can do some damage. In 2015, he allowed an OPS below .700 the first two times through, and that jumped to .916 the third time through, including nine of the 23 homers he allowed as a starter.
  3. Last year, Fiers (like McHugh) was actually tougher on lefties in spite of them holding the platoon advantage. Last year was a little more pronounced, but he’s always had reverse splits. No Royals hitter has more than five plate appearances against him, so this all means basically nothing, but Morales has two hits against him while Lorenzo Cain has a triple. Among Royals who have faced Fiers, only Salvador Perez is hitless.

Medlen is making his first start of the year after a pretty uneven spring that saw him open the year as the Royals fifth starter. Since coming back last season, he’s had a bit of an issue with the home run ball, which is worrisome against this Astros lineup in this park, but he also has a really good changeup when he’s on, which can be devastating against a lineup with a lot of swing and miss. Medlen’s faced the Astros three times in his career, making one start. He’s gone 8.2 innings and given up three runs on 10 hits. I think I’d take that as a line in his first start, but I’m not holding my breath for those innings. No Astros hitters have seen much of Medlen, but Kratz has two hits in six at bats.

Wednesday – Yordano Ventura vs. Scott Feldman
The Astros signed Feldman to give them a stabilizing force as they got closer to contention. I think they reached contention a little quicker than expected, and then he suffered through some injuries last season. He’s been pretty effective for Houston, and as a guy who gets his share of ground balls, he seems to be a good fit for a small park. Feldman is 5-3 with a 3.14 ERA in 18 games (11 starts) against the Royals. In 86 innings, he has 36 strikeouts against Kansas City, which is pretty Royals of them.

Three things to watch for against Feldman:

  1. Feldman is the type of pitcher the Royals struggled against last year, as they had a team line of .267/.320/.380 against ground ball pitchers. And Feldman works with a sinker and a cutter that get him a really solid ground ball rate. The sinker sits at about 91-92 MPH while the cutter is a touch slower at around 90. He also throws a curve that, when good, is really good. When it’s bad, though, it flattens out and he can be hit pretty hard.
  2. In spite of being a seemingly good fit for Minute Maid Park, Feldman struggled mightily at home last season, posting a 5.40 ERA in 10 starts there compared to 2.36 in eight starts on the road. He struggled with the home run ball, allowing 10 of his 13 homers in Houston, so the Royals should be keyed in on that curve to see if they can’t pick it out and take the opportunity to drive it.
  3. Feldman is yet another Astros starter with a reverse platoon split. You’d think they’d be less successful given how close the left field wall is, but in spite of right-handed batters faring better against so many of them, they still had the best ERA in the American League last season. Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon have each faced Feldman a few times and have both been fantastic against him. Everyone else with more than a couple at bats against him has been downright bad. Hopefully that changes in this one.

Ventura makes his second start of the season after looking solid enough in his first start of the year. He walked way too many batters, but that’s not something he typically struggles with in such an extreme manner. His secondary pitches were crisp in his first outing, and if he can keep that up, he can get swings and misses from this Astros bunch. His numbers weren’t great against the Astros in the postseason last year, but I think he pitched better than they show. In the regular season, he’s 2-1 with a 3.78 ERA against the Astros, but was really good in his one regular season start in Houston. He’s done a nice job of limiting Altuve, but has given up homers to Correa and Gomez and has had a hard time in limited exposure to Springer.

Thursday – Ian Kennedy vs. Doug Fister
It wasn’t that long ago that Fister was one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball, even after a top-10 Cy Young finish a couple years ago. Then he dealt with injuries, a velocity drop and ineffectiveness last year and he had to settle for a one-year deal with the Astros to try to rebuild value. His velocity in his first start stayed low, but he’s a smart pitcher who can still be effective, even with a little less in the tank. He’s faced the Royals a lot, going 3-6 with a 3.73 ERA in 13 games (12 starts).

Three things to watch for against Fister:

  1. Fister is another sinker guy, throwing it more than 60 percent of the time. In his first start, he threw it at around 85 or 86 MPH, which is actually a little below hitting speed. He also throws a slider and a splitter, both of which can be good, but have been too hittable since the start of the 2015 season. The sinker is good, but not good enough to make up for those pitches being bad.
  2. It’s hard to say anything about trends with Fister because if last season was the anomaly because he was hurt, he’s still a very good pitcher. If last season was the beginning of the end because he’s still hurt, it’s hard to say where he’s vulnerable because it might just be everywhere. In his career, he’s actually been a guy who is at his strongest very late in games, which sort of makes sense. It’s always been said that pitchers who rely on the sinker are actually better when they’re tired. The Royals should just get to Fister early so they don’t find out what he can do after he’s reached his 100th pitch.
  3. Fister hasn’t had much of a platoon split in his career. He’s been a bit better against righties, but it’s awfully close. Hosmer, Moustakas, Morales and Escobar have all homered against him. Many Royals do have a lot of experience against Fister since he was in the division with the Tigers for awhile. In addition to the homers, all four of those guys have been pretty okay against him.

Kennedy’s debut with the Royals couldn’t have gone much better. He was in control the whole time, and looked like a guy well worth the five-year deal he signed in January. As a fly ball guy, he concerns me in this park, but I guess you can say that about a lot of pitchers. The Astros, like the Twins, swing and miss quite a bit, and that’s when Kennedy is good. If he can get the swings and misses like he got against Minnesota, he should be fine in this one. He’s 2-0 with a 0.71 ERA in two starts against the Astros in his career with the last one coming in 2012. Both those starts have come in Houston, which is nice to see. Only five Astros hitters have faced him, and only Valbuena has faced him more than nine times. He’s held those five hitters to a combined .222/.282/.361 line in 39 plate appearances, so there’s at least a tiny bit of success to fall back on.

This is a tough series. Houston is a tough place to play and that’s a tough team to face. I’m going to say that the two teams split the series, but I could actually see either team win three of four. If I had to bet on one team to have a better chance to win the series, I’d say it’s Houston, but I’m sticking with my series split here.

What do you think?

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