The Houston Astros are the best team in baseball. The Kansas City Royals are decidedly not. The Astros have a deep lineup that is really versatile. They have a heck of a bullpen. The only weakness might be the back of their rotation, but if you’re only worried about your four and five starters, you’re probably a fantastic team, and we’ve established already that’s exactly what the Astros are. They’re a tough draw, and it doesn’t help the Royals that they’re on fire as they head into Kansas City. This will be quite a test.
|1st place, AL West
|Team SP DRA
|Team RP DRA
|Team WARP Leader
|Dallas Keuchel, 3.4
|2017 Record vs. Royals
Astros vs. Royals
Astros Projected Lineup
Typically I only list the lineups, but I feel it’s worth noting that Evan Gattis is hitting .276/.343/.433/.267/0.5 and Jake Marisnick is hitting .253/.341/.520/.292/0.4 and both play plenty.
Remember how Chris Young couldn’t stop giving up home runs last season, at least when he was in the rotation to start the year? Fiers is having that issue this year, allowing 18 homers in his 52.2 innings. It’s been much better lately with just two homers allowed in his last three starts, but still, that’s a lot of home runs, and a team like the Royals that has actually hit a few this year could take advantage.
Fiers used to rely on his fastball, which would have made for a great matchup with both this Royals team and previous Royals teams who could crush the fastball. He still throws it nearly one-third of the time, so that’s what Royals hitters should be sitting on, but he’s added a two-seamer to go along with increased cutter usage, and that’s where the Royals could get stymied. Fiers has been strong against lefties, allowing a .240/.303/.413 line, but against righties, he’s allowed a .333/.400/.800 line with 12 homers. His cutter, changeup and slider have been mauled by righties, which seems like good news for the Royals right-handed bats, but it’s probably not as good as you’d think. For example, Bonifacio has struggled with sliders and changeups, so he might still struggle here. Lorenzo Cain is kind of in the same boat. Whit Merrifield has done good work on changeups, but he’s struggled against sliders and cutters. Historically, Moose, Cain, Hosmer and Esobar have hit Fiers well. So while it’s hit or miss, watch the righties to see if they can keep Fiers struggling.
Kennedy needs a good start in the worst way. It seemed like his fastball showed more life in his last start, and others have seen that as well, so maybe that’s a good sign, but he’s been awful since returning from the disabled list, and this is a hell of a test for him against such a good team. He’s been outstanding against the Astros in his career, going 4-0 with a 1.01 ERA in four career starts, so that’s something.
Weather: 86°, Wind NE 4-8 MPH, Sunny/Clear, 0% Precipitation
Paulino is a consensus top-100 prospect who got a taste of the big leagues last season and is now getting a bit of a longer look in the big leagues with Joe Musgrove on the DL. He’s a big boy at 6’7” and has tantalizing stuff that could give the Royals fits. Though it probably helps that he has a fairly traditional pitch mix and throws from the right side. He has a plus fastball that sits around 93-94 MPH, but he can reach back for 96-97. His curve is nasty, but both Eric Hosmer and Jorge Bonifacio have had success against the curve this year. Hosmer has hit .300 with a .500 SLG on them and Bonifacio has hit two of his home runs on curves and has a .611 SLG against them. In spite of Paulino’s nearly six walks per nine in the minors, he has good command, so the Royals swing-happy approach shouldn’t hurt him. The biggest thing to watch against Paulino is how long he can last. The stuff is great, but can he maintain it for more than four or five innings?
Junis has shown a fair amount in his limited big league time, including a solid performance in his first career start against the Twins a couple weeks ago. He’ll need to be better, though, to succeed against this lineup. Junis throws a lot of fastballs and the Astros hit fastballs incredibly well. They’re also patient, so the nibbling we’ve seen from Junis has to subside if he wants to get it done.
Weather: 78°, Wind ENE 3-6 MPH, Sunny/Clear, 0% Precipitation
The numbers are eye-popping for Keuchel with nine wins in nine decisions. His ERA is stellar, and the indicators look like it’s for real. That’s one fantastic bounceback season for him. He’s even already spent some time on the disabled list. Everything is just really impressive for him. He was great against the Royals earlier this season, going seven innings and giving up one run, but the bullpen blew it for him as the Royals had their first big inning of the year after Keuchel exited.
It’s still sinkers away for Keuchel, and this year it’s been especially ridiculous, eliciting a 67.4 percent ground ball rate. While he’s been truly fantastic, he has stranded eight out of every nine base runners. Now, the Royals struggle with runners on and runners in scoring position, so that may not turn around in this one, but it’s also a cause for optimism for some team that Keuchel won’t be insanely great all season long. Lefties have just five hits in 50 at bats against him, and that’s not great for the Royals given all their lefty power, but let’s not pretend that righties have hit him especially well either, with a .203/.265/.302 line. A big issue against Keuchel is that he throws a ton of first pitch strikes to get ahead in the count, but opponents are hitting just .214 with six singles in 28 at bats on the first pitch. And when he’s ahead, he allows a .138/.138/.223 line. The Royals swing at 32.5 percent of first pitches. They’re not in a great situation here.
Vargas against the Astros concerned me back in April, but he was great. That hasn’t made me any less nervous, even with his very impressive performance against the Indians over the weekend. I guess the Astros lineup worries me against everyone. The nice thing is that Vargas likely means no Josh Reddick and maybe no Brian McCann, but there’s still a Beltran and an Altuve and it’s just a tough assignment for anyone, but Vargas has been surprising all season, so we’ll see what happens.
Weather: 78°, Wind SW 2-4 MPH, Mostly Sunny/Clear, 0% Precipitation
Royals fans don’t love McCullers due to his throat slash gesture during the 2015 playoffs, but he’s an awful lot of fun to watch and the Royals won that series anyway, so I’m over it. His strikeout rate isn’t what it was last year before he was hurt, but his walk rate is way down and he’s not allowing hits. This is probably a take that leans on the side of hot, but I’d bet on McCullers being the Astros best starter from this point forward.
McCullers is interesting because he throws his fantastic curve nearly half the time. More than 75 percent of his strikeouts have come from it. And he throws it on every count. It’s kind of crazy. The one reason why my hot take from before might end up wrong is that McCullers hasn’t taken that leap to get deep into games. He’s averaging less than six innings per start and the third time through the order, he allows a .238/.333/.429 line, which isn’t great or anything but it’s the time when a team can mount a comeback on him. Batter vs. pitcher stats mean very little, but sometimes when a hitter has done SO well, it’s worth noting because they likely see the pitcher well. Salvador Perez has a .375/.444/1.500 line in nine plate appearances with three home runs. He could very easily go 0 for 4 in this one, but three homers in nine plate appearances is enough for me to at least take notice.
Hammel is coming off what could arguably be his best start of the year. The final line wasn’t that great or anything, but he didn’t walk anyone and rebounded from a terrible second inning to give the Royals 6.2 innings and strikeout seven. The Astros hitting .282/.348/.477 against righties through Saturday’s games has me maybe most worried about this particular start in the series.
Weather: 79°, Wind SW 3-6 MPH, Mostly Sunny/Clear, 0% Precipitation
We have a tendency to anoint teams in the middle of the season on great stretches as truly great teams, which often isn’t accurate. In the Astros case, they do seem to be pretty great with all facets of the game working for them. While the Royals have been playing better and have matched up well with the Astros in the past, I fear the Royals get steamrolled. I think the winning streak ends, but the Astros still take three of four.