Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve

Series Preview: Royals vs. Houston Astros, June 24-26

The Royals return home after a grueling two-day road trip to welcome the Houston Astros. You may recall the last time the Royals and Astros played at Kauffman Stadium, the game ended with a celebration on the mound and a trip booked to the ALCS. I’m guessing the celebration will be much more subdued for either side if they win some games this weekend. Still, coupled with the series against the Mets, it’s a nice walk down memory lane for the Royals this week. You may also recall that the Royals took three of four from the Astros in Houston very early in the year in a series that may have sent the Astros down an ugly path for awhile. They’ve played much better since, though, and are threatening to get back into the playoff race after a 7-17 April.

Astros Offense

This team doesn’t hit for average, but they certainly have some power to make up for it. They also run. A lot. They steal a ton of bases and they get caught quite often. I guess they’re content with that given that they can hit the three-run home runy. They also walk. A lot. And they strike out. A lot. This is kind of a three true outcomes team that also happens to have a ton of speed. It’s very weird, but it works most of the time.

If you’d have told me an Astros player would be hitting well over .330 with a better than .400 OBP and a .500+ SLG before the season, I’d tell you Carlos Correa took a step forward from his fantastic rookie year. But that’s not the case. Instead, Jose Altuve has gone from being a really good player to being an absolute star this season. He’s nearing his career high for home runs (set last year) and walks (set in 2012) and is basically just doing everything about as well as possible. He’s even cut down his strikeouts and now has less of those than walks. It’s been impressive to watch. It isn’t that Correa hasn’t been good. He has. He just hasn’t been as good as Altuve. Along with those two, George Springer has had a solid year and Luis Valbuena has emerged from his early-season slump to put up some really good numbers.

After that, it’s kind of hit or miss with the Astros. Colby Rasmus came out of the gates on fire, but he’s been slumping basically ever since. He has power and will work a walk, so he’s dangerous, but he just hasn’t been the same guy he was early in the year. Jason Castro has been okay enough. He works a lot of walks, so his OBP supports a bad average, and he has enough power to keep opponents honest. The Astros actually sent Evan Gattis down earlier this year to catch more so he could work as Castro’s backup, and he’s hit decently with his usual low average, low OBP and power display.

The rest is fairly pedestrian. Tyler White started the year like crazy, but eventually slumped bad enough that he was sent to the minors. Marwin Gonzalez is now playing first base regularly. Nothing against Gonzalez, but that’s not a great sign. Carlos Gomez is back from his injury, but he hasn’t had made much of an impact to this point and looks a step slower. Jake Marisnick is great defensively but has his limitations offensively. Tony Kemp and Danny Worth round things out for the Astros on the bench. Kemp is a different kind of player than most of the rest of the team, but until he hits, I’m not sure how big of a difference he’s actually making. It just kind of shows that this team is very top heavy, but can be dangerous.

Astros Pitching

This is a team that got some good performances from their starting rotation last year, but that hasn’t been the case quite as much this season. Dallas Keuchel won the Cy Young last year, but has followed that up with a 3-9 record and an ERA over 5.00. The peripherals show he’s been better, but results are results. Collin McHugh has been rough this year with a ton of hits allowed, though he’s also a guy who should be pitching better. Mike Fiers has kind of done what I think most expected he’d do in that ballpark. So he’s been okay enough, but nothing special. And Lance McCullers is back from his early season injury. He’s had his struggles with walks that’s led to his up and down start to his season. Really, the Astros would be in a world of hurt if not for Doug Fister, who has been fantastic. Interestingly enough, he’s way out-performed his peripherals. Of course, that’s nothing new for him. He’s been their best starter.

The Astros bullpen was a strength for much of last season until they crumbled late. The Royals are all too familiar with when it wasn’t. This year, they’ve had their issues again. Luke Gregerson opened the year as the Astros closer again, but after blowing two straight save opportunities, they turned to Will Harris, who is having a truly fantastic season. They brought in Ken Giles to maybe be the closer, but he struggled all spring and is still struggling to some extent, though his control issues seem to have gotten better. Still, he’s been way too hittable. Tony Sipp has struggled this season to replicate the season he had last year. Pat Neshek continues to be reliable, so they have that going for them. The saving grace for the bullpen has really been Chris Devenski who has flashed a big fastball and been effective in whatever role they’ve asked him to perform. Scott Feldman and Michael Feliz provide solid depth. So all in all, it’s a decent bullpen that looks like it might be rounding into form, but they can be beat.

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Game 1, Friday: Edinson Volquez vs. Dallas Keuchel

In 2014 and 2015, Keuchel went 32-17 with a 2.69 ERA in 62 starts. I mentioned his record this year with an ERA at 5.32. So the question becomes, what’s different? The answer is that it isn’t actually as much as you’d be led to believe by the numbers, but it’s enough to have changed the challenge he brings to hitters. He’s simply more hittable this season than he has been the last two. His walks are up as well, but I think that’s an issue that’s been fixed since an especially tough start to the year in the command department. You remember how good he was at home and how he was beatable on the road last season? The split is still there, but he has a 5.91 ERA in nine starts away from Houston. That’s rough. He’s 2-1 with a 3.62 ERA in four career regular season starts against the Royals. He did shut them down in game three in Houston last year, but the last memory Royals fans probably have of him is watching him while Kendrys Morales skipped down the first base line in the ninth inning of game five of the ALDS.

Three things to watch for against Keuchel:

  1. One thing to monitor with him is that his velocity is down a touch. He throws that sinker about half the time. Last year, he averaged a touch more than 90 MPH, but this year, he’s right at about 89 MPH. I know that velocity isn’t that important for Keuchel, but at some point, the drop could be the problem. He’s also throwing his really good slider a little bit more and his changeup a little bit less this season. That might be because the changeup has been bashed this year to the tune of a .532 SLG. His cutter was another pitch that was great for him last year, and he’s lost about a mile per hour of velocity on that as well, and it’s gotten crushed this season. There’s definitely reason for the Astros to be concerned that their ace isn’t right.
  2. Something that was beneficial for him last season was being able to get a lot of first pitch outs. He was around the zone a lot, so he got a fair amount of swings, and then he got outs a lot of the time. This year is a different story. When the at bat ends on the first pitch, he’s allowed a .440 average with a .900 SLG. That’s in 50 at bats. Another thing that stands out is that he’s allowed a .685 OPS with nobody on base, but an .880 OPS with men on and a .997 OPS with runners in scoring position. So many things he excelled at last year have been his downfall this season.
  3. He’s still very tough on lefties, holding them to a .250/.295/.352 line, but right-handed bats have hit .283/.341/.459 against him. Even if Brett Eibner is the guy to go down for Alex Gordon, I’m guessing he’ll start in this one. The only lefty in the lineup will likely be Eric Hosmer, which is okay because Hosmer has hit .400 against him in 10 at bats. Morales and Lorenzo Cain have both hit him well, including their playoff numbers, with each sporting an OPS above 1.000. Of note, Salvador Perez is just 1 for 14 against Keuchel.

Volquez seemed to be getting back on track. He threw seven shutout innings against Cleveland and then had a good start against Detroit, save for two first inning runs, until he ran into a wall late and ended up giving up five runs in 6.1 innings. It was kind of a blowout and it was super hot, so maybe that combination led him to being tired and being more worried about throwing strikes. I don’t know. Either way, he’s still struggling and needs to get back on track for the Royals to have a real shot in the division. He’s given up four or more runs in three of his four starts this month. The Astros may be just the elixir he needs. He’s made nine career starts against them and is 6-0 with a 2.70 ERA. I’ll pretend like he’s only had one start against them since 2012 and that was last year when he gave up five runs in five innings in a no decision. Rasmus, Gonzalez, Valbuena and Gomez have all homered against him, so this will be no easy start for him given that part of the history.

The Forecast

First Pitch Temperature: 89° F
Wind: S at 5-10 mph
Cloud Cover: Partly Cloudy
Precipitation: 20% chance of showers/thunderstorms

Game 2, Saturday: Chris Young vs. Mike Fiers

This is a really interesting matchup to me as it’s two pitchers who tend to live up in the zone and probably shouldn’t have success, but often do. Fiers is a guy I was hoping the Royals would target at the deadline last year if they couldn’t land a bigger fish, and it’s because he’s always done a nice job of limiting walks enough and getting a fair amount of strikes. That plays anywhere. This year, though, he’s been much easier to hit. As a result, he hasn’t struck out as many guys, which has led to him having kind of an up and down season. He’s been much better of late with a 2.63 ERA in June and less hits than innings pitched, but the hope is that the Royals can bring back some memories of earlier in the year for him. He went six innings against the Royals in April and gave up three runs while taking the loss. In his regular season career against the Royals, he’s 0-2 with a 7.36 ERA in two starts. He also gave up a run in an inning during the ALDS.

Three things to watch for against Fiers:

  1. He’s a five pitch guy with a fastball that sits right around 90 MPH being the pitch he throws the most, about 44 percent of the time. He throws a changeup, curve, cutter and slider to round out his repertoire. The cutter has been hit fairly hard this season, but the fastball has really been the problem. He’s allowed a .402 average and a .735 slugging percentage against it with nine of the 15 homers he’s allowed coming off that fastball. He uses it more to righties than lefties and way more often early in the count, so that might be something Royals hitters should sit on.
  2. Fiers has an even more drastic home/road split than Keuchel with a 3.23 ERA at home and a 6.19 ERA on the road. Maybe he really should be a Royal. Unlike Keuchel, the first pitch is not the one you want from him as he’s allowed a .630 OPS on it. It isn’t really a big deal to get deep into the count on him, so taking the first pitch doesn’t hurt so bad. He’s allowed a .741 OPS when he’s ahead in the count. That usually is a much lower number for a pitcher.
  3. Because he throws the fastball so much more to righties (in my estimation), he has a reverse platoon split, allowing an .830 OPS to righties compared with .747 to lefties. Cain has a triple and a homer in six at bats against him. Alex Gordon is 2 for 4 against him while Alcides Escobar, Hosmer and Morales also have two hits against him in their brief interactions.

In his last start, Young looked like the guy we grew to love during the 2015 season. He gave up a home run, sure, but he also went six, gave up just the one run and struck out seven. It seemed like everything was working for him and he might be back on track. Of course, given the struggles he’s had, I imagine he’s still on fairly thin ice in this rotation as options should begin to emerge soon. He got rocked in Houston earlier this year, giving up six runs in 4.2 innings. Amazingly, he only allowed one homer in that ballpark. He’s 4-2 with a 5.49 ERA in seven regular season starts against the Astros in his career, but he did go four innings and allow just one run with seven strikeouts in the ALDS against them last year. Gonzalez, Rasmus and Springer all have homers against Young.

The Forecast

First Pitch Temperature: 92° F
Wind: SSW at 6-12 mph
Cloud Cover:
Precipitation: 40% chance of showers/thunderstorms

Game 3, Sunday: Ian Kennedy vs. Doug Fister

Fister was rumored to be a Royals target at various points during the offseason, but he ended up in Houston on a one-year deal and they are sure glad he did. There were questions about his velocity and all that, but he’s really come around lately for the Astros. Since the Royals rocked him for six runs in 5.2 innings (rocked may not be the best word; if you’ll recall, they sort of paper cut him to death in that one), he’s gone 7-2 with a 2.59 ERA averaging about 6.1 innings per start. He’s only gone less than six innings once in that stretch and hasn’t given up more than three runs in any of those starts. Actually, the only start all year where he gave up more than three was against the Royals, which is kind of interesting. In his career against KC, he’s 3-7 with a 4.11 ERA in 14 games (13 starts). For some reason, I remember him stymieing the Royals with the Tigers, but I guess my memory is wrong. He was good, but not great in his time in Detroit against KC.

Three things to watch for against Fister:

  1. He’s a sinker guy. He throws it more than 60 percent of the time, so if it’s working, he’s good. If it’s not, he’s in trouble. I think he’s shown the velocity concerns were overblown as he’s averaging a bit more than 87 MPH on the pitch. It is down from a couple years ago, but much closer than what was being discussed early in the year in spring training. His other main pitch is a solid curve, but he also throws a regular fastball occasionally, a split, a slider and a cutter. The split and the slider have been the pitches he makes mistakes with. He usually throws the split when he’s behind in the count to lefties and the slider when he’s ahead to righties.
  2. Fister has really done a nice job of stranding runners. He’s allowed a .267/.329/.477 line with the bases empty, but that drops significantly to .185/.259/.277 with men on and .209/.264/.313 with runners in scoring position. That 80.8 percent strand rate is likely unsustainable, but he’s maintained a rate even higher over a full season before, so this isn’t necessarily out of the norm for him. He’s a smart pitcher who is also pretty good. That’s a dangerous combination.
  3. Lefties have hit Fister way better than righties. It’s an OPS of .856 for the lefties compared to .519 for the righties. Maybe the Royals should recall Reymond Fuentes for this one or something. This is one of those games where I think you miss Mike Moustakas a little more than usual as he’d be another lefty bat who has hit Fister very well in the past. Gordon hasn’t really hit him well in 37 plate appearances. Hosmer and Morales do each have a homer against him and Hosmer has hit him really well. In a twist of fate, Escobar has also homered off Fister.

Kennedy was so good through May. He had a 3.03 ERA and had given up his share of homers, but not an inordinate amount. He was basically everything the Royals had hoped he would be. Really it was after that rain delay in Minnesota that everything seemed to change. He was good in his next start, but walked five guys. Since that, he’s given up 10 homers in his last 22.1 innings pitched. I don’t want to play doctor, but the timing on that is very interesting. He has a 7.25 ERA in June, and like Volquez, the Royals need him to step it up if they want to be playing postseason baseball again. He is 3-0 with a 0.92 ERA against the Astros, which includes going seven innings and giving up a run on two hits earlier this year to them. Altuve and Valbuena have homered against him, but he’s done a pretty good job against these hitters in limited exposure.

The Forecast

First Pitch Temperature: 88° F
Wind: N at 4-8 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny
Precipitation: 30% chance of showers/thunderstorms

The Prediction

I like what the Astros are doing and they’re playing great, but the Royals play so well at home and hit so well and it seems like they should have a shot to really get after it against these pitchers. I like the Royals to win two of three in this series.

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