The Wild Card round of the MLB Playoffs is over, and series play begins today with the Division Series beginning in the American League. The AL Playoffs have an interesting storyline, as the Blue Jays and Astros are in the playoffs for the first time in 22 and 10 years, respectively, and none of the teams have won a World Series title in my lifetime (the Blue Jays last title was in 1993, the Royals was in 1985, and the Rangers and Astros have never won the World Series). The first step for all of these teams towards that eventual goal is the ALDS, so lets look at how those matchups stack up.
Houston Astros vs Kansas City Royals
Game 1: Thursday, 7:30 pm ET in Kansas City, FS1
Game 2: Friday, 3:30 pm ET in Kansas City, FS1
Game 3: Sunday, 4:00 pm ET in Houston, MLBN
Game 4: Monday, TBD in Houston, FS1 or MLBN (if nec)
Game 5: Wednesday, TBD in Kansas City, FS1 (if nec)
The Royals enter this year’s playoffs as the defending AL Champions, having come just one game short of winning it all last year, and the nucleus of that team is still very much intact. The Astros core is a very talented players so young many thought the team was still a year or more away from postseason play, but here they are, having already advanced past the Yankees in the Wild Card round in their first postseason appearance since losing the 2005 World Series.
The main weakness of the Royals is starting pitching. Their starting ERA is 4.34, worst among the postseason field, and the three starters they have announced for the series have ERAs of 4.08 (Yordano Ventura), 4.78 (Johnny Cueto*), and 3.55 (Edinson Volquez), a less than stellar trio for postseason competition. Collin McHugh is set for the opener for Houston, having quietly compiled a 19-7 record and a 3.89 ERA, overshadowed by Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA), who won the AL Wild Card Game and is the likely AL Cy Young winner, and is slated for Game Three.
*Cueto’s listed ERA is with the Royals only, after he was traded from the Reds.
The Houston bullpen struggled in September, although they did finish Keuchel’s shutout over the Yankees, and their overall numbers aren’t bad, with a 3.27 relief ERA. However, the Royals have the best bullpen in baseball, boasting an excellent 2.72 ERA. While closer Greg Holland is out injured, Wade Davis (0.94 ERA, 17 saves) should do fine stepping in, as he did in the regular season.
The Royals rank second in the AL in average (.269), and sixth in runs (724), and while Houston did outscore the Royals, ranking fifth in the AL in runs (729), their .250 team batting average ranked them 10th in the league. The Royals also proved last year they can perform in the clutch under the lights of the postseason and get the big hit when necessary, something stats can’t measure.
Kansas City proved last year it can produce an excellent postseason atmosphere, and while the Royals reached the World Series last year, their fans are hungry for more. Astros fans are hungry too, as they are in the playoffs for the first time since 2005, meaning the atmosphere in both stadiums should be electric throughout this series.
It’s always tough to face the defending pennant winner in the first round, as they are the most recent team to reach the World Series from a respective league and they feel like they should be able to do it again. It’s even tougher when the Astros postseason experience comprises mostly of just the AL Wild Card Game on Tuesday, with a few exceptions, something that will be tough to overcome against a team that came within a run of winning it all just last year.
From a playoff experience standpoint, Ned Yost of the Royals has the advantage here. However, A.J. Hinch has done a fantastic job in his first season with the Astros, and is one of the top favorites in a great race for AL Manager of the Year. Picking one of these fine skippers over the other isn’t necessary.
The Royals should clearly be the favorite here. The pitching staffs are pretty even, but the Royals have the offensive advantage, as well as the intangible one. However, the Astros will be hard to beat in at least one game when Keuchel starts, and have been surprising people all year, so this series is by no means immune from a surprise outcome.
The Royals will win the series, three games to one.
Texas Rangers vs Toronto Blue Jays
Game 1: Thursday, 3:30 pm ET in Toronto, FS1
Game 2: Friday, 12:30 pm ET in Toronto, MLBN
Game 3, Sunday, 8:00 pm ET in Arlington, FS1
Game 4: Monday, TBD in Arlington, FS1 or MLBN (if nec)
Game 5: Wednesday, TBD in Toronto, FS1 (if nec)
The Rangers surprised everyone to come back from a 47-52 start to win the AL West and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012, after the franchise won the AL Pennant in 2010 and 2011. So while the Rangers have had a couple of years out of October, they have had some recent postseason success. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, haven’t been in the playoffs since back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93, and their fans are hungry for a deep run.
In terms of big names, the Rangers have a good rotation, led by Yovani Gallardo, Cole Hamels, and Martin Perez, but the Rangers’ starting ERA is 4.32, which is seventh among the eight teams left. Toronto has 3.96 rotation ERA, led by ace David Price, but also 24-year old Marcus Stroman, who has a 1.67 ERA in four starts since returning from injury.
Advantage: Blue Jays
Like their rotation, the Rangers bullpen has struggled, at least by the standards of a playoff team, to a 4.12 ERA, while the Blue Jays have a nice 3.50 ERA in relief. The relief corps for both sides is made up mostly of names that casual fans won’t recognize, but there is more pure talent on the Toronto side, although youth could potentially be an issue.
Advantage: Blue Jays (barely)
The Rangers offensively are a very good unit, ranking third in the AL in runs (751) and fifth in average (.257), led by slugger Prince Fielder (.305 avg, 23 HR, 98 RBI). However, the Blue Jays have an offense which is clearly the best in baseball, scoring 891 runs, which was 130 more than anyone else in the AL, and ranking second in average (.269), led by three hitters with 111 or more RBI (Josh Donaldson with 123, Jose Bautista with14, Edwin Encarnacion with 111).
Advantage: Blue Jays
Both sides had excellent atmospheres during the playoff chase games in September, but Toronto has waited 22 years for this, and have three of the five games at home.
Advantage: Blue Jays
A few of the Rangers have some postseason experience, as some are still around from the World Series runs of 2010-11, while others like Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder have experience from playing elsewhere. Toronto can say the same, with Donaldson and Price playing in the postseason as recently as last year, but as a franchise it’s Texas who’s been here much more recently.
Advantage: Rangers (barely)
Both Toronto’s John Gibbons and Texas’s Jeff Banister are in their first postseason, and both are candidates for AL Manager of the Year. Both have earned their place in these playoffs.
Toronto is the World Series favorite of many, with a good pitching staff and a great offense. Add 49,282 hungry fans at Rogers Centre, and you have a recipe for the Blue Jays to advance. If the Blue Jays win the first two games in Toronto, as I expect they will, they will ride the momentum to a sweep.
The Blue Jays will win the series, three games to none.