The 2015 American League Divisional Series is set to kickoff Thursday with the Toronto Blue Jays hosting the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals hosting the Houston Astros. With Toronto and Houston making their first appearances in the ALDS since 1993 and 2005 respectively, the theme of new faces in the postseason is certainly prevalent in the American League. With the drama set to unfold, who will advance to the American League Championship Series and play for the right to go to the World Series? Find out who has the edge in these two critical postseason tilts.
Matchup: Texas Rangers vs Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays not only have the best offense in baseball this season, they have one of the best offenses the sport of baseball has seen over the past ten years. The Jays led all of baseball this year in runs scored (891), OBP (.340), SLG (.457), and OPS (.797), and finished second in batting average (.269). Attacking the middle of this Toronto lineup has been a chore for opposing pitchers the entire season. The first slugger is Josh Donaldson, who by all intents and purposes is going to be named the MVP of the American League. Donaldson hit .297 on the year with a staggering 41 homers and 123 RBIs. Next is Jose Bautista who belted 40 homers and drove in 114 runs from predominantly the three hole in the Blue Jays lineup. Next it’s Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 39 home runs and drove in 111 runs to round out one of the most dominant 2,3,4 combinations baseball has ever seen. Oh, and if you somehow get through those three guys without seeing a ball sail 100 feet over the left field fence, then its Troy Tulowitzki who has been recovering from a back injury suffered at Yankee Stadium and will be in the lineup for game one of the postseason.
Texas, on the other hand, has a very formidable offense as well, plating 751 runs in 2015, the third most in baseball. In fact, the Rangers would probably have the edge in offense against any other team in the postseason except Toronto. Prince Fielder headlines the Texas offense with his .305 average, 23 home runs, 98 RBIs, and mammoth upper cut swing. While Fielder is no Josh Donaldson, he does have the ability and potential to change a game with one swing. Texas has also gotten solid contributions from ageless wonder Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo, who has been tremendous down the stretch of the season. The mid-season acquisition of Mike Napoli and the recent return of Josh Hamilton has made Texas a very powerful, dangerous offense.
Despite Texas finishing third in the league in runs scored, Toronto has been the best lineup in baseball all year for a reason. No team remaining in the postseason will win the offensive edge against Toronto.
Edge: Toronto Blue Jays
All Toronto heard in the first half of the season was how they did not have enough pitching to make a run in the American League East. After acquiring ace and potential Cy Young David Price, Toronto has its sights set on making a run at a much bigger prize. Price has solidified a rotation that was struggling without a bona fide ace and star right hander Marcus Stroman, who returned from injury in mid-September. Both Stroman have Price have been dominant since rejoining and joining the Jays rotation. In four September starts, Stroman was a dominant 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA. Price has been equally masterful since coming north of the border, with an eye-popping 9-1 record, 2.30 ERA, and 87 strikeouts in just 74.1 innings pitched. Anchored by Stroman and Price, Toronto’s rotation is a force to be wrecking with.
The best attribute of the Rangers’ rotation is its experience. 17 game winner Colby Lewis is 36 years of age in the midst of his 10th season as a pro and has had many postseason starts. They also were able to solidify their rotation at the trading deadline by signing World Series champion Cole Hamels. Hamels has not nearly been as unhittable as Price has been, however, he is still 7-1 with a respectable 3.66 ERA since joining the Rangers. Yovani Gallardo, who will get the ball in game one for Texas, has had a nice season as well, posting a 3.42 ERA to go along with 13 victories. However, the depth of Texas’ rotation is a question mark and could be their downfall against a ferocious Toronto attack.
The pitching comparison is much closer than the hitting comparison. Hamels and Gallardo are two very formidable pitchers and will give Toronto a tough time. However, David Price’s dominance puts this Toronto rotation over the top.
Edge: Toronto Blue Jays
Ever since the signings of Tulo and Price, this Toronto team has been on a mission to destroy everything in its path. Whether it has been the lights out pitching of David Price, or a long ball from Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion, Smoak, Martin, Etc., this Toronto team has always found a way to win. Even if Hamels and Gallardo pitch well, it is nearly impossible to completely shut down this Toronto offense. For Texas to have a chance to win, they must score runs. Lots and lots of runs. Roberto Osuna has been a bit suspect at the end of games and many feel he can be had in the eighth or ninth of a pressure game. If Texas can somehow steal one in Toronto, which has been the best environment in baseball over the last two months of the season, they have a shot to push it the distance. I just do not see that happening. Too much Price. Too much Donaldson. Too much Toronto.
The pick: Jays in 4.
Matchup: Houston Astros vs Kansas City Royals
Kansas City finished tied with Toronto for second in the league in batting average at .269. Mike Moustakas, Kendrys Morales, Eric Hosmer, and Lorenzo Cain all had more than 500 at bats and all hit over .290 in 2015. Ben Zobrist has been an excellent addition to an already solid Royals lineup, and has hit .284 with 7 homers in 59 games with Kansas City. While they don’t hit home runs, Kansas City certainly makes up for it by just having a professional approach at the plate. Despite ranking in the bottom third in dingers, don’t sleep on the offense of Kansas City. The Royals, despite hitting less than 140 homers in 2015, finished the year seventh in runs scored with 724.
Chicks dig the long ball, and so do the Houston Astros. In fact, all these guys do is bash the ball over the fence. Houston finished second to Toronto this year for the most homers in baseball with 230. Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, Chris Carter, and Carlos Correa all hit over 20 homers in 2015. Their batting average, on the other hand, was not nearly as impressive. Houston finished 21st in baseball with a .250 average and struck out 1,392 times, good for second most in baseball behind the Cubs. Despite the poor batting average, Jose Altuve had another excellent season, with a .313 batting average and a very impressive 200 hits. The combination of Altuve’s line drive approach and the power of the rest of the ‘stros lineup makes them a very deep lineup that is tough to handle.
Houston’s power and bat flipping (which has been a major topic of conversation over the past couple days) is definitely exciting to watch. However, to win in the postseason, players need to grind out at bats for nine innings to work starting pitchers and beat the bullpen. Kansas City, while not flashy, has more players than Houston who can put together nine or ten pitch at bats and win them.
Edge: Kansas City
Kansas City thought they were solidifying their rotation and getting the ace they did not have when they signed Johnny Cueto at the trading deadline. 13 starts later, Royals fans are not so sure. Cueto has been very inconsistent since landing in Kansas City, posting a 4.76 ERA and a 4-7 record. He was also not a huge fan of pitching in game one on three days’ rest, something Cueto’s counterpart in this series Dallas Keuchel just phenomenally did Tuesday night in Yankee Stadium. Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez are both solid pitchers for Kansas City who have been through the war that is the MLB postseason. However, if Cueto cannot return to the Cy Young type pitcher that he was in Cincinnati, Kansas City’s rotation could struggle against the Astros tough lineup. An x factor in this series could be Kansas City’s bullpen, which had the second lowest ERA in baseball at 2.72. Although closer Greg Holland will miss the postseason, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis have been dominant all year in the late innings.
Houston has to be feeling supremely confident in their rotation after watching American League Cy Young front runner Dallas Keuchel blank the Yankees for the third time this season to send their team to the ALDS. Keuchel is scheduled to pitch game three of this series in Houston where he has been nearly unhittable in 2015. Houston will need to get good performances out of Scott Kazmir, who has struggled somewhat with a 4.17 ERA since joining the Astros, and Collin McHugh, who is second on the team in wins with 19. Lance McCullers has also been a solid pitcher all year for Houston, posting an excellent 3.22 ERA. The only negative to the Astros pitching is their bullpen, which had the highest ERA in the major leagues in September. Anchored by Keuchel, however, Houston’s rotation will be a tough challenge for Kansas City’s lineup.
Houston’s rotation is obviously hurt by not being able to pitch Keuchel twice in this series and Kansas City’s bullpen has been one of the best in baseball all year long. However, I am not convinced that Johnny Cueto is ready to be the dominant force that he has the ability to be. In a close call, I’ll give the edge to the team who has the ace I feel most confident in.
As I watched Houston dance around Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, it hit me that Houston is in a very similar situation the Royals were in just one year ago. The team nobody thought had a chance to make a run in the postseason. Houston is oozing with confidence after blazing past the Yankees in the wild card game and that confidence will show in this series. It will be interesting to see how Kansas City relishes the role of favorites, as they enter the AL playoffs with the number one seed. Regardless of who ends up winning the series, I see this one coming down to a fifth and deciding game. It would be easy for me to say that Kansas City has the edge in that deciding game because Houston will be without the services of Dallas Keuchel and that is probably true. However, there is something about this Houston team that makes me want to believe in them. Call it a hunch, but Houston is about to give Kansas City, the darlings of the 2014 postseason, a taste of its own medicine.
The pick: Houston in 5