Thursday, October 8, 2015

Previewing the ALDS

So the Astros got to celebrate on an opponent's field twice in three days - firstly cementing their place in the playoffs on the last game of the season, then winning a one game loser-go-home Wild Card fixture against the Yankees.  I thought that the Astros were fairly "meh" in Game 162, and they certainly made plenty of mistakes that contributed to the opposition run total.  It is almost possible to argue that the Astros won Game 162 by a score of 5-3, because they pretty much scored two of Arizona's runs for them.  I mean, an opposition runner reaching on a catching error, then being balked home from third should really score a point in the Astros' run column rather than the D-Backs - the Astros did 90% of the heavy lifting for that run to score, after all.

As unexciting as they were during Game 162, they were totally the opposite in the Wild Card Game.  The Astros barely made a mistake all night.  In fact, the argument could be made that they feasted off one of a few mistakes that Masahiro Tanaka made - both those being the solo home runs to Rasmus and Gómez.  And the Astros have generally played much better in the last 10 games, as well, so perhaps they are getting hot at exactly the right time.  The Wild Card Game was much closer to the big wins in Game 160 and 161 in terms of how they looked... and Game 162 was more of an aberration for the Astros compared to other late September outings.

I think the Astros have also managed to progress to the best matchup possible.  They were never going to get to play the Rangers - the rules don't allow for that - so it was either the Blue Jays or the Royals.  The Blue Jays' murderers' row of righty power bats would keep me up at night, especially now that Skotty K and Keuchel have been announced as the likely starters for Games two and three of the Division Series.  The Royals seem a little more balanced, but far less scary in the power and reputation department.

Anyhow, lets dispense with the preamble, and have a look at some broad dashboard stats.

The reigning AL Pennant holder Royals proved that 2014 was no aberration by winning 95 games - the best in the AL.  The Astros, by comparison, managed a measly 86 wins (which is actually an incomprehensible number for Astros fans who have followed the team closely for the last five years). But the Royals came from the only division in the AL to contribute only one playoff team to the mix.

The AL Central - as a division - combined for 409 wins, which is reduced to 314 wins once KC's 95 wins are taken out of the mix.  The average AL Central non-Royals team, therefore, won 78.5 games.  The AL West won a total of 403 games, which averaged 79.25 wins for the non-Astros AL West teams, so perhaps the Astros had a slightly harder intra-division schedule.  The Astros managed an even intra-division opponent record (38-38), whereas the Royals feasted on the other AL Central teams (44-32).  Not much to see there.

Head to Head:
The Astros had two preseasons outings against the Royals at Minute Maid, but lets ignore those, mostly because the final preseason game was a battle of AAA lineups, as it always is.  The Astros and Royals next met up in Houston in late June-early July.  That was a three game series, which the Astros swept, winning each game by scores of 6-1, 4-0 and 6-5.  The next series was in Kansas City, and the Royals took two-of-three, losing the first game 4-0, then winning the next two by scores of 2-1 and 5-1.  All of those games were pretty close, but the Astros outscored the Royals during the season series by a score of 22-13.

The combined slash for the Royals amounts to a .269/.322/.412 line.  That places then 3rd in baseball for average, 11th in baseball in OBP, and 11th in slugging.  The Astros combined for a .250/.315/.437 line (21st, 16th and 2nd in baseball respectively).  The Royals and the Astros finished 7th and 6th respectively in total runs scored in baseball - but how they got there was quite different.

The slash-lines reflect the narratives around the two teams.  The Royals put the ball in play and hit for a high average, whereas the Astros swing for the fences, but that costs them in strikeouts.  There is a stark difference in home runs hit - the Royals hit only 139 (24th), whereas the Astros hit 230 (2nd) over the course of the season.

And speaking of strikeouts - the Astros hitters struck out 22.9% of the time - second most in baseball behind the Cubbies - whereas the Royals struck out 15.9% of the time - lowest in baseball.  The Astros walked more (8%, 10th) than the Royals (6.3%, last).  The Astros stole the third most bases in baseball (121) versus the Royals' fifth-most (104).

The Astros recorded a slightly lower ERA (3.57, 6th in baseball) than the Royals (3.74, 10th).  The differences get a little greater when FIP is the measure of choice - the Astros recorded an FIP of 3.66 (8th) against the Royals' FIP of 4.04 (15th).  Unsurprisingly, a large difference in pitching WAR is observed: the Astros had a WAR of 21.3 (fifth) against the Royals' WAR of 13.4 (fifteenth).  Both teams recorded low BABIP's - .285 and .286 - both in the top-5 in the league - which likely reflects a combination of weak contact and defense.

Interestingly, the Astros were a superior strikeout unit (7.99 K/9 - 12th versus 7.19 - 25th).  The Astros were stingier with walks, too (2.64 BB/9 - 7th versus 3.03 - 20th).  Both teams tended to not allow much in the way of home runs (0.92 HR/9 versus 0.96 HR/9 - both in the top eight in baseball).

So this may be interesting over a five game series.  The Astros walk more and strikeout more with the bats, but the Royals have a staff that doesn't record a lot of outs via the strikeout.  These stats are collected over a 162 game season, of course, so whether they make any difference over the next five games - or however long this series takes to finish - remains to be seen.

Where the Royals have a huge advantage is with the leather.  Their defense is, apparently, the best in baseball, according to UZR.  The Royals apparently saved 56.9 runs on D, with a team UZR/150 of 6.1.  The Astros were 19th on total defense (-7.6), recording a -0.6 on UZR/150.

Defensive statistics are difficult to interpret, and the Astros' shifting throws a massive spanner in the works of the Zone Ratings.  The Royals nearly certainly have a great defense, with a lot made of their outfielders last year.  The Astros also have a pretty reasonable outfield - even if Gómez can't play.  And the Astros' infield D is much better than in 2014, so that is something!!

This is a tough series to call, but I will point out - perhaps in vain hope - that the Astros may match up well with the Royals.  The Royals' bullpen is famously fearsome, so the Astros will need to get early leads, and try and hold them.  The combination of the Royals not really striking out many, and the Astros' propensity to walk and hit for power may be something, and it may not be anything.  The Royals may struggle to score of the Astros' starters if the Astros can induce weak contact.

I haven't mentioned the individual starters (or the starter - bullpen split) at all.  I will just make the brief comment that the Astros' rotation looks like McHugh, Kazmir and Keuchel, with McCullers appearing slated for Game 4.  This isn't the way that the Astros would have wanted to draw it up, but remember that Keuchel got BABIP'd to death in KC in July, and perhaps having Keuchel throw twice against a lineup that emphasises contact may have been hazardous.  Who knows.

Regardless, tomorrow is going to be interesting.  Looking forward to it, and looking forward to another three game recaps (at least).

See you at 7:30 Eastern.

Collin McHugh versus Yordano Ventura.