The Houston Astros are the antithesis of the Kansas City Royals in many aspects. And, on the heels of the Royals' World Series success, it seems only appropriate to delve into the differences of the two teams. Over the course of the year; two incredibly strong teams who both had great seasons but did it in completely different ways. Two teams with entirely different blueprints to success. Yet, it was the Royals who made it past the Astros, and, in turn, won the World Series Championship.
The Astros have made no secret over their inclination to acquire and utilise power hitters in their lineup. They, and the sabermetric brains which work relentlessly behind the scenes, believe that power is the way forward. This preference is clear to see. This past offseason Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, and Luis Valbuena were all acquired. Far from outstanding players, perhaps. Players who mash, for sure.
All year long, despite their apparent struggles, the likes of Gattis, Chris Carter, and Valbuena were all kept in the lineup. They all had many things in common; low batting averages, high strikeout rates, questionable defense. However, there is one link which was much stronger, and almost definitely led to their inclusion in the lineup almost every day: their ability to hit for power.
Even by sabermetric measures, these guys weren't great. Gattis posted a WAR of 0.0, a wRC+ that was one percent below league average, and couldn't play the outfield, nor first base. Carter posted a WAR of 0.3, and a wRC+ that was just one percent above league average, all while playing awful defense from first base. Valbuena was much better, posting a WAR of 1.3, while creating five percent more runs than league average, but was still far from great.
Three players who combined for a total of 1557 plate appearances on a playoff team, yet combined for only 1.6 wins. They struck out a bunch, but walked seldomly. Surprisingly so, especially for a playoff team, the same can be said (only to a lesser extent), for Preston Tucker, Jed Lowrie, and Colby Rasmus. The Astros gave a huge amount of playing time to guys who couldn't field their position, struck out a lot, and posted poor offensive ratings.
As a team, the Astros posted the fifth worst defensive rating in the game. They struck out at the second highest rate in all of baseball (the highest in the American League). They hit for the ninth lowest average, and got on base at a rate that was below average on the season. They did everything the Royals do so well (which I'll get to in a bit), so badly. Yet, they exceeded all expectations, posted a fantastic year and made the playoffs.
The secret is simple. It follows the very blueprint they used to build the team: hitting for power. They hit the second most home runs in the game (only two behind the Toronto Blue Jays), they had the second highest slugging percentage and had the second highest ISO (once more, only one point behind the Blue Jays). A team that was one of the, if not the, best at hitting for power. Yet, they weren't anywhere near as good in the other areas discussed.
On the other hand, you have the Kansas City Royals, the very antithesis of the Astros. They, the best team in the American League on the year, beat the Astros in the ALDS, and went on to win the World Series. But, they won in a completely different way. Their ISO was the second lowest in the American League, and they hit the second fewest home runs. Certainly not a team built to hit for power.
They hit for contact, put the ball in play, and refuse to strikeout. They posted the highest contact % in all of baseball (the Astros were second last), had the fourth lowest swinging strike % and the lowest K %. The complete opposite of the Astros. Defense is another foundation of their success. They've built an outfield of elite defensive players with players like Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson. So much so, they saved the most runs with their gloves in the American League (second in baseball).
The Royals, like the Astros, are an incredibly intelligent team. They've built a team of contact hitting, elite defensive players, and a rotation that is, while far from impressive, perfectly tailored to pitch at Kauffman stadium with an elite defense behind them. It's a recipe that is different from the Astros. The complete opposite, in fact. And that, for me, anyway, is fascinating.
The sabermetric world, period, is fascinating. But, it's interesting to see different teams having different answers. Answers which are both correct, but vastly different. The Astros believe that slugging above all else will help them win a huge amount of ballgames, completely disproportionate to their expectations and payroll. The Royals believe that contact and defense will do the same for them.
One thing to note, though, is the one point of agreeal between the two teams: the bullpen. Both have built a strong bullpen, and understand the importance of an effective bullpen. When it comes to finding cost effective ways to win, the two disagree on almost everything, except the bullpen. Having great relievers fueled both teams, at a low cost: saving the rotation and saving lots of games.
On the whole, however; two entirely different teams who took the league by storm this season. Two teams who were simply not seen as contenders for the playoffs (or, in the case of the Royals, the World Series). The Astros and Royals were both big winners this year, yet were complete opposites. Two teams who will be extremely exciting to watch in the offseason building upon the success of this year in totally different ways. They like contact and defense, we like power.