The Astros mean business this year, as evidenced by their 54-43 record and their acquisition of A's left-handed pitcher Scott Kazmir yesterday. After years of dwelling in the cellar, the Astros rebuild appears to be close to complete, with the team in contention for the first time in several years. Currently they trail the Angels by one game in the Western Division, but would be in line to host the Wild Card game. For the third time this week, the Royals are facing a team they could very well see again in October.
Pretty clear the Astros are stacking their rotation to prepare for one team: the Royals. Two dominant lefties who pitch well against KC.— Greg Dailey (@5NEWSGreg) July 23, 2015
The Astros swept the Royals in Houston at the end of June, but immediately afterwards dropped nine of their next eleven. They come into this series on a four-game winning streak, having swept the Red Sox at home. The Astros are just 21-26 away form the very cozy confines of Minute Maid Park and are just 46-42 against American League teams this year.
The loss of outfielder George Springer, who will miss several weeks due to a pitch that hit his wrist in the Royals series, has hurt the Astros, although outfielder Preston Tucker has performed well filling in. The team is also without oft-injured infielder Jed Lowrie, out with a thumb injury. The Astros can still boast the fourth-most runs in the league, and their 135 home runs lead all of baseball. They are a low-contact team, with a team batting average of just .242 and the most strikeouts in baseball. However they are not a plodding team, as they also lead the American League in stolen bases.
The Astros hit just 42% of their home runs on the road, with their overall numbers considerably worse away from Houston - .243/.303/.401. The Astros have the second-most Defensive Runs Saved in the American League, behind the Royals, but have a poor UZR of -8.1. One reason is pitcher Dallas Keuchel has been so amazing defensively as a pitcher, with +10 DRS alone. The Astros are generally around average elsewhere on the field with first baseman Chris Carter serving as a defensive liability.
Keuchel is the ace of this rotation and one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. The Arkansas grad is fifth in all of baseball in fWAR among pitchers, and leading the American League in ERA. Keuchel doesn't strike out a ton of hitters and his fastball barely breaks 90 mph, but he induces poor contact, fields his position well, and doesn't allow many steals.
Newly acquired pitcher Scott Kazmir will open the series, having already faced the Royals twice this year with Kansas City winning both contests. Kazmir is enjoying his best season since 2007, although he has benefited from a low BABIP and high LOB rate. Kazmir has a pedestrian 3.92 ERA away from Oakland this year, and has not pitched into the seventh inning in his last four road starts. Scott Feldman is a sinkerball specialist who induces groundballs nearly half the time. He will make just his second start since undergoing surgery on his knee.
Closer Luke Gregerson has a mediocre ERA at 3.03, but has walked just six hitters all year and has converted 20-of-22 save opportunities. Setup man Will Harris has a miniscule ERA of 1.23, but a 3.61 FIP and a high walk rate. Overall, Astros relievers have the second-best ERA in the league, behind only the Royals.
Back when these two teams matched up before, Buster Olney tweeted that the Astros were the "dominant force in the league" and it was "not really debatable." It seemed like a silly thing to say after a series in which the Royals came in banged up, playing on the road, but in any case, the Astros have fallen off their pedestal since then. The Royals have a chance to re-assert that they are the dominant force in the league, and Dallas Keuchel is one of the only top pitchers who the Royals have not defeated this year. The Royals have had a playoff atmosphere around them all week, this weekend should be no different.