The Royals and Astros face off this week with the two best records in the league which illustrates how wacky and unpredictable baseball can be sometimes. The Royals perhaps shouldn't have been that big of a surprise considering they are the defending pennant winners, but the Astros lost 92 games last year and haven't had a winning season during the Obama administration. Under General Manager Jeff Luhnow, the Astros orchestrated a huge teardown of the franchise, trading away every asset they had, and rebuilding through young players and the draft. The result has been an exciting young team that looks poised to be in serious contention for a pennant for the first time since they last visited the World Series in 2005.
The Astros take a markedly different offensive approach than the Royals. While Kansas City preaches making contact, the Astros are a prototypical "Three True Outcomes" ballclub, leading the league in home runs and strikeouts, with the fifth-most walks. The result has been 4.44 runs per game, fifth-most in the league and just slightly higher than the Royals' output. The Astros have five hitters who already have double-digit home runs totals, and that quintet combined has more home runs than the entire Royals ballclub. Luis Valbuena, who had 16 home runs all of last season, has 19 already this year, tied for second-most in the league.
But perhaps the most exciting young power hitter the Astos feature is former #1 overall draft pick shortstop Carlos Correa. Correa made his Major League debut a few weeks ago and has looked amazing thus far, showing tremendous power, solid defense, adding mature leadership to the clubhouse.
The Astros do strikeout a quarter of the time, by far the highest rate in the league. They are a good baserunning team, third-best in the league in Baserunning Runs. Houston leads the league in stolen bases with 61, with a 75% success rate. The Astros have the fourth-worst defense in the league according to Fangraphs, but lead-gloved first baseman Chris Carter is the only current defender who rates poorly in Defensive Runs Saved, with the infield rating very solid otherwise.
The Royals will have to face Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, last year's Gold Glove Award winner at pitcher. The 27-year old left-hander has the second-best ERA in the league and is seventh in fWAR. He struck out 12 in a complete game shutout his last time out against the Yankees, his third shutout of the season. In addition to being a terrific defender, Keuchel holds runners on very well, allowing one of the lowest stolen-base rates among pitchers.
Rookie Lance McCullers brings a high-velocity fastball that averages 94 mph and pairs it with a plus curveball that is the hardest curve thrown in the Majors this year.. The 21-year old right-hander has struck out over 10 hitters-per-nine innings and already has tossed a complete game among his first eight Major League starts. Right-hander Vincent Velasquez has had a meteoric rise to big leagues, going for High A ball last year, to throwing five shutout innings in his Major League debut a few weeks ago. Velasquez brings heat, with a rising fastball averaging 94.5 mph and a plus changeup.
The Astros have the second-best bullpen ERA in the league at 2.60 and the third-best strikeout rate at 9.3 per-nine-innings. Closer Luke Gregerson has converted 18-of-20 save opportunities with a 5.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Right-hander Will Harris has given up just 13 hits in 35 innings of work for an opposing hitters' line of .112/.195/.224. Houston has two situational southpaws tough on lefties in Tony Sipp and Joe Thatcher. Pat Neshek and his funky delivery have also been effective this year with just four walks in 28 innings.
Former Royals catcher A.J. Hinch has skippered the Astros to a first-place record, however they are just 36-33 against American League opponents this season. They have cooled off each month since a hot 15-7 start in April, so the league may be catching up to these young hitters. Still, there is no doubt that the Astros are loaded with young talent, and they swept the Royals last May in a disappointing series that seemed to doom the Royals season. Royals starting pitchers will have to avoid too many long balls in Houston's bandbox stadium and keep the team in the game.