Next up for the Royals is the defending world champion Houston Astros, so I guess you could say that it can always get worse. The Astros probably aren’t too surprised to find themselves in a battle for first place, but I doubt they expected it to be with the Mariners. Their rotation has been outstanding with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole looking like Cy Young candidates, Charlie Morton not far behind and Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel acting as the best 4/5 starters we’ve seen in awhile. Offensively, the lineup just keeps coming at you with balance from top to bottom. If there’s a slight weakness on this team, it’d be the bullpen. And calling the bullpen a weakness is an overstatement. Ken Giles has struggled some as closer, but they’ve gotten outstanding work from pretty much everyone else outside of maybe Will Harris, and he’s posted a 2.30 ERA and 3.11 FIP over his three seasons in Houston, so even his down year comes with potential upside if he can figure it out.
|Record||45-25, 1st Place, AL West|
|Team SP DRA||2.70|
|Team RP DRA||2.52|
|Team WARP Leader||Gerrit Cole & Justin Verlander, 3.5|
|2017 vs. Royals||3-4 (yes, somehow)|
Royals vs. Astros
Astros Projected Lineup
Projected Pitching Matchups
Morton has had an interesting career. He’s had some decent seasons in the past, but has had some trouble staying healthy. He’s mimicked the great Roy Halladay with his motion before, among many of the things he’s tried to become a great pitcher. The answer, though, was pretty much just throwing as hard as he could. And it’s worked. He had a nice season for the Astros last year and really up until his last two starts was having a truly amazing season this year. He walked six in his last start in 3.2 innings and gave up six runs in the start before that, so his season has been downgraded to merely excellent, but the 34-year old is really doing some things. Like I said, he throws hard. He averages 97 with his four-seam fastball that he throws about 32 percent of the team. He also throws a sinker at about 96 MPH about a quarter of the time. And then there’s the piece de resistance, his curve. He throws it a lot and it’s responsible for 58 of his 96 strikeouts. The good news is the Royals don’t completely crap the bed against curves, but Morton’s is a different animal. It could get ugly the way this offense is going. Morton hasn’t faced the Royals much in his career and not at all since joining the Astros, so the career numbers lose what little meaning they had, but he is 0-2 with a 6.17 ERA in two starts, if you just had to know.
When Junis is on, he can compete against any offense and any opposing starting pitcher. When he’s not, fans in the seats can be on the lookout for souvenirs. He relies so heavily on his slider that if it’s not working, it might be a long night (or short, depending on how you view it). He’s allowed 15 home runs this year in 80 innings, which is a lot, but he’s only allowed multiple home runs in three starts, which account for 73 percent of the home runs he’s allowed. What I like is that he’s increased his strikeouts significantly, striking out 51 in his last 47.2 innings and 28 in his last 23.2. The Astros have done okay against sliders, but if Junis has his working, it doesn’t matter who you are; you’ll struggle. Junis did face the Astros last year, but didn’t fare well, allowing seven runs on eight hits in 3.2 innings. This was before he returned to the big leagues later in the year, but still was a rough start.
I picked Keuchel to win the Cy Young this season, so of course he’s the worst of the five Astros starters. A lot of what went wrong for him in 2016 when he struggled after his Cy Young 2015 is what’s gone wrong this year. He’s allowed too many hits and more home runs than you’d expect for a guy with his sinker. His ground ball rate has dropped from 66.8 percent last year to 54.4 percent this year and he’s gone 0-3 with a 7.33 ERA in his last five starts, spanning just 27 innings. In that time, he’s allowed a whopping 41 hits. One potential reason is his sinker just isn’t sinking as much. Last year, he averaged 5.5 inches of vertical movement on it, but this year, that’s down a full inch. That’s pretty significant. He’s using it less, replacing it with a cutter, which opponents are struggling a bit with, but have hit for some extra base pop. Keuchel has faced the Royals six times in the regular season and is 3-1 with a 3.32 ERA. The Royals have been able to touch him up for some hits, with 44 in 40.2 innings, and they’ve magically hit six home runs against him in that time, which is actually the most of any non-division opponent. Of all players, Alcides Escobar is a career .333 hitter against Keuchel with a double and a home run in 24 at bats. It also would be nice if Cheslor Cuthbert was healthy for this because he’s 5 for 9 with two homers and two doubles against Keuchel.
Duffy has hit his stride and after a third good start out of his last four, it’s beginning to look like the corner might be close to being turned. He’s still walking too many hitters, but he continues to use his fastball more and has a 2.10 ERA now over his last four starts with just 18 hits allowed in 25.2 innings. That was maybe the most concerning thing about his struggles because even when Duffy wasn’t pitch efficient and was too wild, he limited hard contact enough to still be effective. Earlier this year, he couldn’t do anything right. He had a ridiculous 18.4 percent whiff rate in his last start against Oakland, which is by far his best of the season. As is usually the case when Duffy is good, his changeup was the star of the show. He threw it 34 times, got 18 swings and nine whiffs on it. He has a big test in Houston, but he pitched well against them last year, going seven innings and allowing just two runs.
McCullers has been a bit uneven this year, but the numbers all look generally pretty good. His strikeouts are down a bit, and his walks are up a bit, but he’s allowing the fewest hits per inning of his career. Like Duffy, he’s coming off a solid start against the A’s where he went seven innings and gave up just two runs. If you recall, McCullers lived on his curve during a couple of his playoff outings last season and he’s carried that into the season a bit, throwing it 43 percent of the time, more than any other pitch, though that usage is down from last year when he threw it nearly half the time. Opponents are hitting just .205 with a .353 slugging percentage against it and have struck out 54 times (out of 81 strikeouts). His sinker has been okay enough, but it’s been hit relatively hard with a .207 ISO. Likely because of that curve, McCullers has dominated lefties, holding them to a .171/.263/.329 line while righties have hit a much more respectable .274/.339/.411. And as is true with so many pitchers, opponents hit him much better the third time, checking in with a .292/.370/.500 line.
Keller was up to 85 pitches in his third career start, so I’d imagine the training wheels are about off for this one. He wasn’t as sharp, walking four batters, but he did get 12 swinging strikes in his 85 pitches, which is certainly enough to get the job done. He faces a really tough test with the Astros offense, which leads to a situation where if he performs really well, the hype for him will be off the charts, but if he struggles, many will write it off as a pitcher struggling against a team so many struggle against. As has been the case with his previous starts, I’m curious about how he holds velocity. In his last start, he averaged 96.1 MPH with his four-seamer and topped out at 98.5, so the result so far has been pretty good. If he can maintain that, he has a shot to succeed.
I mean, I guess the Royals could win a game here. They beat the Yankees, after all. I’m not going to predict it, though.