FIVE REASONS THE ASTROS CAN GO ALL THE WAY
1. Dallas Keuchel.
In Keuchel, the Houston Astros have a pitcher who can go all Madison Bumgarner on us, right down to starting the NL wild-card game in enemy territory. Keuchel is durable -- he led the AL in innings -- and while he’s not a flamethrower, he did strike out 216 batters in 232 innings while also ranking second among MLB starters in ground ball rate. That’s a great formula for October success.
Everyone raves about Toronto’s power. Well, the Astros finished two home runs behind the Blue Jays for the MLB lead. That power plays at home and away, as Houston ranked third in the majors in road homers. Five players hit at least 22 home runs, and that doesn’t include George Springer, who hit 16 in 102 games while missing time with a broken hand, or trade acquisition Carlos Gomez, who struggled in his 41 games with the Astros but could break out in the postseason.
The Astros led the AL with 121 steals, with Springer, Gomez, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Jake Marisnick all good options to run. That speed also plays out on the basepath, as the Astros took the extra base (such as first to third on a single) 43 percent of the time, above the AL average of 38 percent.
4. The rest of the rotation is underrated.
Collin McHugh quietly won 19 games and pitched his best baseball in the second half with a 3.11 ERA. Rookie Lance McCullers is the secret weapon here, a guy with plus stuff and lots of confidence, exactly the kind of power arm you like in October. Scott Kazmir tired down the stretch, so trade acquisition Mike Fiers may fill out the rotation, but note that Fiers posted a 3.32 ERA with the Astros.
The Astros ranked fourth in the majors and second among playoff teams in Defensive Runs Saved. If Gomez is healthy -- he’s been battling a strained left intercostal muscle -- the Astros can roll an outfield of Gomez, Springer and Colby Rasmus, essentially three center fielders.
FIVE REASONS THE ASTROS CAN'T GO ALL THE WAY
Recent history hasn’t been kind to playoff teams that struck out a lot in the regular season -- see Oakland -- and the Astros were 29th in the majors in strikeout rate.
2. Road woes.
The Astros were just 33-48 on the road, the seventh-worst winning percentage in the majors, and they went 12-22 on the road after the All-Star break. It’s the second-worst winning percentage ever for a playoff team, although the team with the worst -- the 1987 Twins -- managed to win the World Series. Did we mention the wild-card game is on the road?
3. Rotation questions.
Having Keuchel available only once in the Division Series if they advance past the wild-card game is obviously a big detriment, especially since you probably would prefer to use left-handed starters against a Kansas City offense that features Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon. This is where Kazmir’s fatigue really hurts: He had a 6.52 ERA in going winless in six September starts, allowing 41 hits in 29 innings.
4. Bullpen confidence.
The bullpen hasn’t been as dominant in the second half. After posting a 2.67 ERA in the first half, the pen faded to 4.07 ERA in the second half, including a 5.63 ERA the final month. How much confidence will manager A.J. Hinch have in a crew that went 3-10 in September and October?
This isn’t necessarily a strike, but you do wonder about the Astros’ ability to make some of those postseason adjustments. Living and dying by the home run worked in the regular season, but how will youngsters like Springer and Correa or strikeout-prone guys like Rasmus and Chris Carter fare against the better pitching they’ll see in October?