On Thursday the Astros will face off against the Yankees and then the Royals in what could end up being a preview of what's to come in the postseason. Wait, the postseason? Yes. The. Astros. In. The. Postseason! It's not crazy to start thinking about it already.
Oh my god though, it's only June though and how could we be jinxing the team's playoff chances by talking about it already?! Well, it's simple. The Astros have the second highest odds in the American League to make the playoffs at 69.1% chance according to Fangraphs. That should be very comforting. The other two teams with the highest odds to make the postseason? Yup, the Yankees and Royals at 71.6% and 61.3% respectively. These are currently the teams to beat in the AL, as hard to believe as that might be. Stick with me and next you'll be hearing that the Astros are a better offensive team than most give them credit for because in 2015 the long ball is all that matters.
Speaking of home runs, by now we all now that the Astros owe a good portion of their 308 runs scored (good for 4th in all of baseball by the way) to the long ball. Without their league-leading 108 home runs it's doubtful that the Astros' team OBP of .308 would have gotten them anywhere offensively. The team's weird combination of low batting-average and OBP, combined with big power has worked out reasonably well so far during the regular season, but can the team expect the formula to work in the playoffs?
The Astros' offense has been up and down the whole season, this we know and have come to expect. They're either mashing or can't buy a run to save their lives. They thrive off fastballs and fly ball pitchers but struggle against off-speed pitches and ground-ball pitchers. In fact, the Astros are lucky to have Dallas Keuchel in their rotation because if you could pick a guy that's genetically engineered to beat this type of offense he'd probably look a lot like Keuchel, an extreme ground-ball pitcher that rarely gives up home runs (his last start notwithstanding).
Facing off against better pitchers in a 7-game series could prove difficult for the Astros, especially if the staffs of the teams they're facing feature pitchers that control their fly-ball rates effectively. The White Sox showed an effective formula for shutting down the Astros' offense when they swept them in Chicago a few weeks ago, limiting the Astros to only 4 runs in the entire 3 game series.
Chicago let their starters go deep into games, didn't give up any home runs, and let their lights out closer David Robertson finish every game. In the whole series only 2 innings were pitched by a White Sox reliever that wasn't named Robertson.
While Chris Sale, Carlos Rodon, and Jose Quintana, aren't ground ball savants in the mold of Dallas Keuchel, they are all effective at keeping the ball in the ballpark. Quintana and Sale are both top 40 starters in the league at limiting home runs, and keeping their HR/FB ratio under 10% (Quintana at 7.8% and Sale at 9%). In 50 innings of major league work Rodon has only given up 1 home run, good for a 2.6% HR/FB ratio.
The White Sox show us that looking at HR/FB ratio may be the most important stat at predicting whether we can expect the Astros to have good luck or to struggle against a particular pitcher. Circling back to the Astros' potential playoff opponents, the Yankees' pitching staff is probably only second to the Astros in the American League at inducing ground balls from opponents. Yankee pitchers sport a pedestrian HR/FB ratio of 12% however, so despite all of the ground balls that they've induced it hasn't helped them keep home runs down.
Royal's pitchers by contrast have not been particularly good at keeping the ball on the ground, but they have been adept at keeping in the ballpark. The Royals staff as a whole sport an 8.4% HR/FB ratio, good for best in the AL. So despite much better ground ball tendencies, the Yankees haven't been very effective at eliminating home runs but the Royals have. Most of this is probably due to Yankee stadium being a much more home run friendly environment than Kauffman stadium, which could potentially be a mark in the Astros' favor in a series with New York.
Looking strictly at HR/FB tendencies there are a few pitchers on the Royals' staff in particular that could be very dangerous to a home run-centric offense. Chris Young and Edinson Volquez aren't names that typically strike fear in the hearts of fans when the Royals come to town, but in Houston's case they maybe should. Young and Volquez both sport HR/FB tendencies of under 7% which is very good. Young is even doing it while sporting a 23.2% groundball ratio, which probably reeks of unsustainability to most sabermetricians, but for now Young and the Royals seem content to let it rip and let the team's quality outfield defense figure it out.
Volquez on the other hand has a 46.4% groundball percentage to back up his HR/FB ratio, so he could very well end up being a particular thorny piece in the Astros' side this season.
The scariest thing in both the Royals and the Yankees' arsenals though is actually their bullpen pieces. This is particularly worrisome for the Astros as a good portion of their scoring from other clubs has come late in games and and off opposing relievers. The Royals and the Yankees have two of the best bullpens in baseball, and if either team's starter puts in a decent effort it's difficult to see the Astros having much success stringing hits together or hitting home runs off the likes of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, Greg Holland, and Wade Davis (the aforementioned quartet surrendering a combined total of 2 home runs all season).
Still, it's baseball and anything can happen. Maybe come playoff time the Astros get hot at the right moment like they did in April. Maybe they do hit clutch home runs off the likes of Betances and Davis. The Astros have actually taken steps to reduce their reliance on home runs, adding Preston Tucker and Carlos Correa, both guys who profile as being hitters with more consistency. Pay attention to the trends of the season series games, because you could be seeing them again in October.