The Royals celebrated their World Series championship while hosting the Mets last week, bringing back fun memories of last October for Royals fans. This week, fans will be reminded of another exciting series from last post-season when they travel to Houston for a four-game set. The Royals return to the scene where they staged one of the more improbably comebacks in recent post-season history, storming back from a 6-2 eighth inning deficit in Game 4 of the American League Divisional Series to go on to win the series.
The Astros retain most of the young team that took a big leap forward last year to reach the post-season for the first time in a decade. One new face is first baseman Tyler White, who has taken the league by storm in his first week in the big leagues, hitting .556 with three home runs. The 25-year old is considered a placeholder until top prospect A.J. Reed is ready for Major League action, but White may give the Astros options if he can continue his hot hitting.
Carlos Correa, who made the infamous error that helped cap the Royals comeback last fall, is simply one of the best players in baseball already at age 21. Correa was third among all shortstops in baseball with 3.3 WAR, according to Fangraphs, and led all shortstops with 22 home runs despite playing in just 99 games after his promotion. He hits in the middle of a lineup that features a good blend of power and speed. The Astros were second in the American League in home runs last year with 230 and led the AL in steals with 121.
Two power hitters from last season will be missing in Chris Carter, who was let go last winter, and Evan Gattis, who will begin this year on the disabled list. George Springer is healthy and ready to capitalize his improvement last season and Colby Rasmus returns to build on a career-high in home runs last season. Three-time All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, twice leading the league in hits and stolen bases, and winning the 2014 batting title.
*-numbers across AA and AAA
Astros hitters work the count, leading the league in strikeouts last year, and finishing fifth in walks. Colby Rasmus and Jason Castro each struck out over 30% of the time last season. The Astros were second only to the Royals in the American League last year in Defensive Runs Saved at +30, although much of that is due to the amazing fielding of pitcher Dallas Keuchel. The Astros do upgrade by losing Chris Carter at first base, and a full season of Carlos Correa at shortstop, despite his infamous error, should be a plus. Catcher Jason Castro has been average during his career at throwing out would-be basestealers, although he threw out just 22% of runners last season.
The Royals will miss the reigning Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel in this series, and Lance McCullers begins the year on the disabled list. Collin McHugh won 19 games last year, but was pounded in his 2016 debut, giving up six runs (five earned) and recording just one out for an ERA of 135.00. He features a plus curveball that turned his career around and caused him to finish twelfth in the league in swinging strikes last season.
Mike Fiers joined the Astros mid-season in a trade with the Brewers and pitched in Game Five of the ALDS last year. When healthy, Fiers has been a pretty effective pitcher, striking out over a hitter-per-inning in his career. Scott Feldman is a sinkerballer who missed two months with a torn meniscus last year. He allowed a line-drive percentage last year of 23.6%, 16th-highest in baseball. Doug Fister joins the Astros rotation after pitching in Washington last season. Fister also keeps the ball low, which is key since he only throws about 86 mph. He allowed the fourth-most contact on his pitches last year, so expect the Royals to put the ball in play.
The Astros biggest move this off-season was acquiring closer Ken Giles from Philadelphia, in part, to fix their bullpen issues last September and the post-season. However Giles failed to win the closer job in spring training, and instead he will set up Luke Gregerson. Gregerson had a fine year last year with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.9 and 31 saves in 36 opportunities. Tony Sipp, whose reaction to the Correa error in the ALDS will be forever etched in the minds of Royals fans, returns to retire hitters from the left-side. Josh Fields emerged as a dominant strikeout artist out of the pen last year, whiffing 11.9 hitters-per-nine innings. Will Harris and Pat Neshek with his funky delivery, were effective from the right-side last year for the Astros. As a team, Houston was fourth in the American League in bullpen ERA, and tied for first in FIP.
The Astros were so close to knocking off the Royals and possibly going on a run of their own, but ultimately collapsed and fell short. They are young and talented team that could return to the post-season this fall, hungry to finish what they started last year. Luckily, the Royals will miss some of Houston's more talented arms, and they walk into Houston with the confidence of beating the Astros last October. Whether or not this series will serve as an early preview of another October clash remains to be seen.