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Astros Series Preview: American League Divisional Series

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Who is the dominant force in the American League now?

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Just two seasons ago, the Houston Astros lost 111 games, their third consecutive 100-loss season. The team had been gutted under new owner Jim Crane and new General Manager Jeff Luhnow. No longer was this the team of the "Killer Bees" - Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Lance Berkman. It was no longer the team of Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge. It was a roster full of nobodies and never-weres, of cheap players no one else wanted.

But Luhnow had a plan, and by 2015 it seemed that plan was working. The Astros got off to a terrific start and by the time they hosted the Royals in late June, they were in first place. A sweep of the Royals gave tied them with Kansas City for the best record in the league.

After that point, the Astros went 39-42, and had to scratch and claw the last week of the season to hold onto the last Wild Card spot. They were hurt by the loss of outfielder George Springer, who was hit by Edinson Volquez in the series finale in Houston, but they also went through the slumps a young team will go through. They encountered a particularly rough patch in September, dropping 16 of 27 games, with a 4.88 team ERA over that month.

Still, this is a talented Houston team that made quick work of the Yankees on Tuesday and have the kind of young team that can make a run in October. The first thing that stands out about the Astros is their power. They have eleven hitters who reached double digits in home runs, tied with the 2004 Tigers for most ever. They were second in the league with 230 home runs, although 55.6% of them came in the cozy confines of Minute Maid Park. The Astros as a team hit .253/.321/.462 at home, but just .247/.310/.413 on the road. The team struggled on the road, with the worst road record in the league at 33-48.

The Astros are pretty much the anti-Royals in that not only do they hit for power but they also strike out a ton. While the Royals struck out the fewest times in all of baseball, Houston led the American League with 1,392 whiffs, or 2.5 strikeouts more per game than Kansas City. The Astros have three hitters - Jason Castro, Colby Rasmus, and Chris Carter - who strike out over 30% of the time. They have seven hitters in the "100 strikeout" club, tied for the most for any team ever.

Astros hitters strike out so much because they work the count. They were fifth in the league in walks, even though no one on the roster drew more than 60 walks this season. The team is not a bunch of plodders either, leading the league in steals. They swiped 121 bases at a 71.5% success rate, led by league leader Jose Altuve, who stole 38 bags.

Carlos Gomez, acquired mid-season from the Brewers, is working his way back from an intercostal injury that caused him to miss most of September. Jake Marisnick could replace him in the lineup if he's not 100%. Carlos Correa is the odds-on favorite for Rookie of the Year, despite just turning 21 years old. The Astros offense continued to hit during their September swoon, averaging 5.3 runs per game over the last 30 games.

The Astros were second to the Royals in the American League in Defensive Runs Saved this year at +30. Much of that comes from pitcher Dallas Keuchel who is amazingly gifted as a fielder and should be a lock for a Gold Glove. The Astros are average to above average everywhere else on the field except first base, where Chris Carter is a liability. Catcher Jason Castro has thrown out 36.4 of would-be base-stealers, an improvement over his career numbers. His backup, switch-hitting Hank Congers, has allowed 42-of-43 base-stealers, the worst rate in baseball.

Collin McHugh has been a terrific story for the Astros after they claimed him off waivers from the Rockies. McHugh won 18 games this year, although his strikeout rate decreased and his FIP went up in 2015. McHugh suffered a dip in velocity, but still averages 90.3 mph on his fastball. He also shows a plus curveball that turned his career around and caused him to finish twelfth in the league in swinging strikes.

Scott Kazmir excelled against the Royals this year allowing just five runs over 21.1 innings in three starts. Kazmir struggled down the stretch with a 5.89 ERA over his last nine starts. Kazmir throws in the low 90s, but got the fourth-most value out of his fastball this year.

Dallas Keuchel has emerged from being an overlooked prospect to one of the best pitchers in baseball. From the University of Arkansas, Keuchel was Houston's first 20-game winner since Roy Oswalt in 2005. Keuchel barely throws 90 mph, yet was thirteenth in swinging strikes and got the third-most value out of his fastball out of any starting pitcher. He excels through pinpoint command, avoiding putting the ball in the middle of the plate. Keuchel has excelled at home with a 1.46 ERA, but has struggled on the road. Accordingly, he threw eight shutout innings against the Royals in Houston, but allowed five runs in six innings in his start in Kansas City.

Manager A.J. Hinch has not yet announced his Game Four starter. Mike Fiers has a 3.32 ERA but a 4.39 FIP for the Astros since being acquired in July from the Brewers. Rookie right-hander Lance McCullers posted a 3.32 ERA with over a strikeout per inning in 22 starts.

The Astros bullpen was fourth in the league in ERA (3.27) and tied for the lead in FIP (3.38). They had the second-highest strikeout rate in the league, whiffing 24.8% of opposing hitters, over one per inning. They had issues in September, posting a 5.63 ERA that month. Closer Luke Gregerson was very solid this year with a 2.86 FIP and a 5.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, converting 31-of-36 save opportunities. Right-hander Will Harris struck out nearly a hitter per inning, but his 1.90 ERA is assisted by an absurdly low .192 opponent's BABIP. Right-hander Josh Fields has emerged as a late inning threat, with 11.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. Lefty specialist Tony Sipp actually has a reverse split this year, with lefties getting on base a lot more, but righties hitting for power against him.

The Astros, despite their struggles, are a formidable team that can absolutely go on a run. Their pitching is young and talented, and their hitters can make any pitcher pay for his mistake. The two teams represent sharp contrasts in styles - grip and rip versus slap and dash. Buster Olney and others may have thought the Astros were the dominant force in the league back in June, but no one hands out awards in June. What matters is who is the dominant force in October.