By Andrew Perna
After a lengthy layoff between postseason games, baseball returns on Tuesday night as the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals open the World Series at Kauffman Stadium.
Throughout the playoffs both the Giants and Royals have looked like clubs of destiny, but the time has come to determine who will be remembered as the Major League's best team. Kansas City has won all eight of their postseason games, while San Francisco has been impressive as well in winning eight of their 10 contests.
I’m sure you’ve heard the popular narrative -- Kansas City and San Francisco were both Wild Card entrants and neither won 90 games. The Royals hadn’t even been to the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985, but they look like seasoned veterans. The Giants, meanwhile, have appeared in the Fall Classic every other year dating back to 2010. Oh by the way, they won it all in 2010 and 2012.
The regular season seems like forever ago and we’ve learned that the team that performs best over 162 games isn’t always best prepared for the playoffs, but clubs rarely change drastically in terms of production. The Giants and Royals both employed middling offenses this year with San Francisco having edges in OPS (.699 to .690), home runs (132 to 95) and runs per game (4.1 to 4.0). As you might expect, Kansas City best San Francisco on the bases with nearly 100 more steals (153 to 56).
How have things changed in October?
The Royals have been the better offensive team in the playoffs with advantages in OPS (.721 to .638), home runs (8 to 5) and runs per game (5.25 to 4.1). It has been more a drastic change in production from Kansas City than any significant change from San Francisco. It's worth noting that the Giants have had to face better pitching in the LDS and LCS rounds. Still, it is impressive the Ned Yost’s club has been able to score 31.25% more runs in the playoffs than they did in the regular season.
Kansas City has swiped 13 bags in their eight playoff games, which is just two fewer than the other nine playoff entrants have totaled combined. Speed will be key in the World Series as Buster Posey and the San Francisco pitching staff will look to keep the Royals in check. Making smart decisions with the baseball and executing key defensive plays will be a top priority for Bruce Bochy and Co., especially after they had a front row seat as the St. Louis Cardinals fumbled multiple times in the NLCS.
It’s unlikely that Posey and his battery mate will keep the Royals entirely contained on the bases, but they have the discipline to keep Yost and his staff from stealing a championship solely with their feet.
The best starting pitcher in the series is Madison Bumgarner, which is a huge advantage for the Giants. James Shields, who carries the nickname “Big Game James” has a reputation that he hasn’t lived up to this month, will oppose Bumgarner in Game 1 and then perhaps again in Game 5 depending on how the first three games shake out.
Bumgarner, the MVP of the NLCS, has a 1.42 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 28 strikeouts against just five walks in 31.2 playoff innings. If he’s able to dominate in his starts as he has so far, San Francisco will be in great position to win their third title in five years.
Shields, meanwhile, is coming off some mediocre pitching and a passed kidney stone. In 16 innings this postseason, the right-hander has a 5.63 ERA, 1.63 WHIP and 15 strikeouts against five walks. He’s given up more home runs and hits than Bumgarner, who has thrown nearly twice the innings.
The entirely of this World Series will pivot on Bumgarner and Shields. The Royals traded Wil Myers to the Tampa Bay Rays for Wade Davis and Shields, who was supposed to help push them over the edge. Both have helped do so -- Shields was very good and very reliable during the regular season and Davis has been a shutdown reliever -- but “over the edge” now becomes the Promised Land.
Shields doesn’t have to match Bumgarner frame-for-frame, especially with Kansas City’s bullpen lined up in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, but he’ll have to give Yost six quality innings and hope the offense is able to get to Bumgarner, who is averaging nearly eight innings per start in October.
If the Giants aren’t able to win with Bumgarner on the mound, it won’t be surprising if the Royals are able to win a short series. On the other hand, if Bumgarner dominates, San Francisco will be in great position to end Kansas City’s magical run. He’s essentially a 6-foot-5 seesaw.
After Bumgarner-Shields, we’ll see Jake Peavy/Yordano Ventura, Tim Hudson/Jeremy Guthrie and Ryan Vogelsong/Jason Vargas. Those three matchups are impossible to predict. The Giants might have a staff with more experience, but in terms of stuff and recent results the Royals are more than capable of winning on the shoulders of a 23-year-old with a raw shoulder (Ventura) or a 31-year-old with a 4.20 career ERA (Vargas).
The Royals clearly have the more reliable bullpen with the Kelvin Herrera-Davis-Greg Holland combination, but Bochy is a better game manager than Yost and the Royals can’t rely on Herrera-Davis-Holland to continue to dominate in historic ways. There will be at least one game in which Yost will have to decide whether to leave his starter in for the seven or even eighth inning or hand the ball over to the bullpen as he feels most comfortable.
That decision will loom as large as how Bumgarner-Shields shakes out in the first and fifth games. The Giants have a heart of the order -- Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence -- that famously feasts on fastballs.
Kansas City hasn’t lost a game since Sept. 27, but San Francisco has never lost a playoff series with Bochy and Posey. How will the Royals react if they lose a game? Will they panic if that loss comes in Game 1? Can the battle-tested Giants take a few punches from the Royals at an energized Kauffman Stadium and still stay on their feet?
Ultimately, the Giants have Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, the two best players in the series. Having the best player isn’t the be-all and end-all in playoff baseball (look at how the Royals bested Mike Trout’s Angels and the Orioles topped Miguel Cabrera’s Tigers), but when the two best are comprised of one team’s battery that’s a difference-marker
Prediction: Giants in 6
San Francisco Giants, Kansas City Royals
By Andrew Perna
If the weather allows, the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals will kick off the 2014 American League Championship Series on Friday night at Camden Yards. Neither team made the playoffs last season and both teams have endured lengthy championship droughts -- Kansas City last winning it all in 1985 and Baltimore in 1983.
Contrary to what we will see in the National League Championship Series, which pits the San Francisco Giants against the St. Louis Cardinals, the ALCS represents new blood in October.
The Royals and Orioles faced off seven times during the regular season with K.C. winning four of the head-to-head battles. Unfortunately for prognosticators, all of those games occurred before the middle of May.
Baltimore (96-66) was seven games better than Kansas City (89-73) over the course of 162 games, but as we’ve come to realize that doesn’t mean much this time of year. Both clubs are coming off a sweep in the divisional round with the Royals dominating the top-seeded Los Angeles Angels, who win 98 games but scored just six total runs over three playoff games.
Looking at each team statistically, the Orioles, as you might expect appear to come out on top. They rated higher in terms of OPS (.734 to .690) and home runs (211 to 95), but the Royals made better contact (.263 to .256 in batting average) and got on-base at a slightly higher rate (.314 to .311). Baltimore hopes to do damage once they get on base, by way of the stolen base. Buck Showalter is undoubtedly prepared for Kansas City’s speed attack, while Ned Yost will have to instruct his pitchers to avoid the favorite zones of Baltimore’s power hitters.
Power is where these two teams differ most. The Orioles led all of baseball in home runs. The Royals ranked dead last. Through the first round -- Kansas City played one extra game -- they each clubbed four long balls. Historically, relying on home runs hasn’t led to postseason success (see the recent playoff runs of the New York Yankees), but it’s also all about getting hot at the right time.
The Orioles had the better pitching staff in the regular season, topping the Royals in ERA (3.43 to 3.51) and opponent batting average (.244 to .250), but Kansas City was slightly better in strikeouts per nine innings (7.25 to 7.23) and got more length from their starters (95 quality starts to just 78).
It’s an obvious advantage when a starting pitcher goes deep into a game, especially in the postseason when bullpens get taxed easily, but Showalter isn’t afraid of playing matchups early and often. Both teams have very strong bullpen staffs, but Showalter has famously shown better decision-making during his tenure than Yost has to this point.
The 2014 postseason hasn’t gone according to script through the first week, so there is no reason to believe that it suddenly will fall in line, but the expectation is that the Royals will try to win with small ball and the Orioles with blasts into the seats. That is how each team got into the playoffs, even if Kansas City stole a page from Baltimore’s book in their sweep of Los Angeles.
One narrative surrounding this series is the inexperience and pluck of the young Royals, who hadn’t even been to the playoffs since long before most of their everyday players were born. That’s a very shallow angle. The Orioles haven’t been this far with their current core, they also lack a clear-cut ace (who is the best starter in the series – is it definitely James Shields?) and will be relying on some young players.
The Orioles are the deeper team, better one through nine, even with Chris Davis (five games left on his suspension) off the NLCS roster and Matt Wieters and Manny Machado sidelined for most of the season. They’ve weathered all three of those storms thanks to their depth and the leadership of Showalter.
Those factors will give Baltimore enough to advance to the World Series and end Kansas City’s mystical run.
Prediction: Orioles in 6
Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals
By Andrew Perna
The Kansas City Royals set the playoff field in the American League on Tuesday night with a dramatic extra-inning victory over the Oakland Athletics. The division series kick off on Thursday with the Royals traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Angels and the Baltimore Orioles hosting the Detroit Tigers.
Tigers vs. Orioles
The Orioles will host this series because they were six wins better than the Tigers over the course of the regular season. Detroit won five of the six games the two clubs played in 2014, but all six of the contests came within the first seven weeks of the season. The Tigers will have to win at least one game at Camden Yards to advance to the ALCS, but all the stats are in their favor.
Detroit had stiffer competition in the AL Central, having held off the Royals, who remain alive, while Baltimore ran away with the AL East. That's not necessarily a knock on Buck Showalter's club, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox had down years and Baltimore was the class of the division. The Tigers, meanwhile, traded for David Price at the deadline and still nearly coughed up the division title down the stretch.
The Tigers bested the Orioles in OPS (.757 to .734), runs per game (4.7 to 4.4), quality starts (90 to 78) and strikeouts per nine innings (7.70 to 7.23) this season. Baltimore's pitching staff had the better ERA (3.43 to 4.01) by a wide margin.
It's no secret that pitching has become the name of the game and in a five-game series who you throw out on the mound is vital. The Tigers will trot out Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Price and Rick Porcello over the first four games, while Showalter has only committed to starting Chris Tillman in the series opener.
Baltimore is expected to use some combination of Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez over the remainder of the ALDS.
For the first time in Major League history, a team will start the three AL Cy Young winners from the past three seasons over the first three games of a series. Scherzer, Verlander and Price are the reason why it will be hard for the Orioles, who have had a great season, to reach the next level.
Even Porcello, Detroit's "weakest" postseason starter has the numbers in his favor. The right-hander started twice against the Orioles this season, recording a 1.42 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in 12.2 innings (both victories).
Prediction: Tigers in 4
Royals vs. Angels
The Royals are easily the best story of the 2014 postseason. Not only did they end a postseason drought that lasted nearly three decades, but they also rallied multiple times against the Athletics in the Wild Card game to ensure a longer playoff appearance.
Kansas City faces an entirely different beast in the Angels, who ran away from the Athletics in the AL West thanks to a strong second-half and Oakland's stumbles. Los Angeles finished the regular season with 98 wins, most in all of baseball. At 52-29, they also had the best home mark in the sport. The two clubs faced off six times, just as the Tigers-Orioles, but this matchup was much less one-sided. Each team won three times with all the contests coming before the All-Star break.
The Angels were much better offensively in the regular season, posting a better OPS (.728 to .690), hitting more home runs (155 to a MLB-low 95) and averaging more runs per game (4.8 to 4.0). The only real offensive advantage the Royals have is once they get on base. Kansas City led baseball with 153 stolen bases and flashed that skill against Oakland on Tuesday night. Los Angeles swiped just 81 bags in 2014.
Ned Yost enjoyed a slightly better pitching staff in terms of ERA (3.51 to 3.58), but Mike Scioscia's group was better at recording strikeouts (8.15 per nine to 7.25). Both starting rotations are significant question marks entering the series and while the Royals might have the edge in the bullpen, the Angels simply have too good a lineup not to end KC's magical run.
Predictions: Angels in 4
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Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
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