I’m not going to do a full-length series preview, because variance swamps everything in a best-of-seven series, and because cold hard analysis left the building with the 2014 Royals long ago. But here are, I think, the key things to watch out for in this series.
- The Managers. The obvious matchup, and the matchup that everyone is talking about, to the point where I wonder if people are overrating the impact that the managers will have. Or at least they’re overrating the advantage that the Orioles have with Buck Showalter over Ned Yost.
I think I’ve established my bonafides when it comes to Yost criticism already, so I hope you’ll understand that I’m not trying to be an apologist when I say: the managers may not matter. They might, and if they do I’m more willing to bet that Showalter outfoxes Yost than the opposite. But it’s also possible that Yost, at this point in his career, and at this point in the season, might be able to cover up his tactical weaknesses enough to keep him from costing the Royals a game.
First off, it’s important to note that not every strategic decision that Yost makes is flawed. Sabermetric orthodoxy asserts that the intentional walk is rarely a useful tactic, and Yost called for just 14 intentional walks all season, the fewest of any manager in baseball. Despite Yost’s reputation for bunts, and despite that awful game against the Tigers where Nori Aoki was bunting runners to third base for Josh Willingham to drive them in, the Royals sacrificed just 33 times all year, barely above the AL average of 30 and fewer than the Orioles’ total of 35.
And while two of the four bunts that Yost called for in the Wild Card game didn’t lead to a run, and another one didn’t lead to a run that wouldn’t have scored anyway, the ninth-inning bunt, chased by a stolen base and then a deep fly out, turned a leadoff bloop single from Josh Willingham into the tying run.
It’s possible that Yost will get bunt-happy again, and if so it might cost the Royals. But that isn’t one of my primary fears with his managerial decisions in this series. My first fear is that he will once again deploy his bullpen in a sub-optimal fashion, or at least he will do so relative to Showalter. The Orioles’ version of Wade Davis is Andrew Miller, who wasn’t quite as dominant all season (at least in terms of ERA; his peripherals are similar), but has the advantage of being left-handed. Twice in a three-game ALDS, Showalter brought Miller into the game in the sixth inning, and let him record five outs each time. I’d be surprised if Davis were asked to get five outs in a game in this series, and I’d be stunned if he were asked to pitch in the sixth.
But here, the Royals’ bullpen depth – particularly if, as it appears, Kelvin Herrera is healthy – makes it difficult for Yost to screw this up too bad. No, he won’t use Davis in the sixth inning, and it’s possible a situation will arise in the sixth inning where the game is on the line and you’d like your best reliever in there. But if not Davis, Yost might go to Herrera in the sixth, something he didn’t do all regular season, but has finally opened himself up to in the last few weeks. And if not Herrera, he now has Brandon Finnegan as a legitimate shutdown option. Danny Duffy combines power stuff with the ability to go multiple innings. Jason Frasor and Tim Collins aren’t guys you want in there with the game on the line, but as they showed in the ALDS, they can give you a shutout inning when you don’t have any margin for error. There isn’t a reliever on the roster that presents a truly bad matchup against hitters from either side of the plate – it’s not like Yost could wind up with Francisley Bueno pitching against a right-handed hitter. And with a full rotation required for this series, the possibility of another Ventura Surprise are slim to none, at least until Games 6 and 7.
My primary concern with Yost’s handling of the bullpen is simply when he’ll deploy it: if he sticks with a laboring Shields or Ventura, or even a non-laboring Guthrie or Vargas in the sixth inning, with a fresh bullpen at his disposal, he could be making a crucial mistake. The next time Nori Aoki tries to catch a ball with his eyes half-closed and his face smashing into a wall, it might not work out.
My other concern – and, at least early in the series, my bigger concern – is that Yost will continue to deploy the running game aggressively, which means deploying the running game recklessly when your opponent is the Orioles. Tonight’s starter, Chris Tillman, has allowed two stolen bases in the last two seasons – while nailing 11 runners foolish enough to try to steal. (Here’s a good article looking at why Tillman is so tough to run on.) And while Tillman’s personal catcher, Nick Hundley, isn’t a particularly strong-armed catcher – Tillman clearly doesn’t need one – the likely starting catcher in the other games is rookie Caleb Joseph, who threw out 40% of attempted basestealers, a rate which led the American League.
I’m not saying that the Royals should never run. I’m just saying that stealing bases involves risk, and there’s comes a point where the risk is so high that attempting to steal a base is more likely to hurt the team than help them. This doesn’t mean that Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore can’t be huge late-inning weapons – Tillman is unlikely to be pitching in the ninth, and their relievers can be run on. But it means that Yost has to remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Billy Butler has a stolen base already this postseason; let’s not get greedy now.
I’m very happy to see that, after some initial hinting that the Royals might add a pitcher to their roster, or that Jason Vargas might start Game 2 because he’s been better on the road this year (even though he was significantly worse on the road for his entire career before 2014), that Yost made the common sense decisions in the end. The 25-man roster is the same as it was in the ALDS. I’m not saying another pitcher might have come in handy in an emergency, but if – as you and I and the Royals clearly believe – Gore is now indispensible, there simply isn’t any hitter on the roster you can afford to part with. Without Willingham available to come off the bench against the A’s left-handed closer in the ninth, they might not have tied the game. And like the A’s with Sean Doolittle, the Orioles employ a left-handed closer in Zach Britton. Willingham is a must. Good on Yost and the Royals for recognizing that.
And Ventura will start Game 2, which is important because that means he also starts Game 6 – the one Royals starter scheduled to pitch twice in Baltimore. Given that Camden Yards is a good home run park (although not a good offensive park overall – Kauffman Stadium actually increases overall run scoring more than Camden Yards), and given that Ventura’s home run rate is significantly better than that of Guthrie, Vargas, or even Shields, this is the right move to make.
Yost has shown with his personnel decisions for this series that he’s capable of making the right decisions. As long as he can avoid making any crucial wrong decisions in this series, the manager mismatch that everyone is expecting may not come to fruition.
- Power. Because the Orioles can do a better job of shutting down the running game than the A’s or Angels did, and because four of the potential seven games come at Camden Yards, the Royals are going to be hard-pressed to win simply with speed. And because the Orioles are one of the better defensive teams in baseball, the Royals will be hard-pressed to win simply by putting the ball in play, the way they’ve won so many games this year. (An underrated key to victory in the Wild Card game was the number of groundball singles that got by Jed Lowrie, the A’s shortstop, who is a below-average defender.)
So if the Royals are going to win this series, they need to hit the long ball. This seems a much more doable task than it did a week ago. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas both hit two homers in three games against the Angels. Butler (.318/.371/.561) and Alex Gordon (.294/.345/.578) have both historically hit very well at Camden Yards. My pick on 810 WHB for the Royals’ MVP in this series was Hosmer, and if his sudden breakout is for real he’s certainly as good a pick as any. But if you asked me today who it will be, and I might say Gordon. Gordon, not Hosmer, has hit a ball onto Eutaw Street. Gordon is a flyball hitter, and flyballs do well in this park. Anyway, Gordon is a streaky hitter, and while he finished the season on a cold streak (.187/.330/.253 from September 5th until the end of the season), his hot streaks carried the team at times this season.
The Royals may have finished dead last in the majors with 95 homers this season, but between Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, Butler, and Salvador Perez, they have five hitters with the kind of tweener power that might play up very well at Camden Yards. They’re going to need a few of them to break out the whoopin’ stick this series, because you know the Orioles will, Camden Yards or not. (The Orioles hit more home runs just on the road – 104 – than the Royals did anywhere.)
- Bullpens. The Royals have arguably the best late-inning bullpen in baseball, so they should have the advantage in any matchup. But their advantage in this series is decided slim. Miller had a 2.02 ERA, but in 62 innings this year allowed just 33 hits, 15 unintentional walks, and three homers, while striking out 103 batters. Wade Davis led all AL pitchers (min: 40 IP) with a 1.19 FIP, but Miller’s 1.51 FIP was second.
Darren O’Day allowed just 42 hits and 15 unintentional walks in 69 innings, while whiffing 73 batters; the sidearmer was his usual terrifying self against right-handed batters, who hit .164/.250/.247 against him. Zach Britton, in his first season as a reliever, allowed 46 hits and 23 walks in 76 innings; his fastball is widely considered to be one of the heaviest in baseball. Even in the minor leagues his fastball was legendary for its sinking action, which was particularly unusual for a left-hander.
The Royals probably have an advantage when you get to the fourth and fifth relievers in each team’s pen, depending on whether you think Finnegan is really as good as he’s been so far. But this isn’t a mismatch. The thinking against the Angels was that if the Royals could just keep the games close after six innings, they’d have the advantage, and that’s exactly how it played out. If a game is tied after six innings in this series, any advantage the Royals will have is decidedly small.
If the Royals want to win this series, they’d best get out to an early lead in some of these games. Fortunately, the Orioles’ rotation, while deep, isn’t star-studded – there are no Madison Bumgarners or Adam Wainwrights here. The Royals’ best philosophy is to go for power in the first six innings against a rotation that is hittable – all four projected Orioles starters in this series gave up at least 20 homers this year – and save the speed and other cute stuff for the late innings, when a stingy bullpen makes playing for one run a more defensible option.
- Finally, a prediction. Look, it’s hard to get away from the fact that analytically, most of the factors tilt slightly towards the Orioles. They had the better record this year, obviously, but more than that, their strengths tend to neutralize the Royals’ strengths. Showalter and the Orioles place a high priority on shutting down their opponents’ running game, putting a damper on the Royals’ greatest strength. Their above-average defense neutralizes some of the advantage the Royals have from striking out less than every other team. They have home field advantage, and their park fits their team as well as the Royals’ home park fits theirs.
The Royals do have some points in their favor, namely that they’re going into this series at full strength, whereas the Orioles won 96 games in part because of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and even Chris Davis, all of whom are out for this series. That hurts them particularly on defense, which will be important if Steve Pearce or Ryan Flaherty misplays a groundball at some point. But an analytical approach to breaking down this series would favor the Orioles, and it’s no surprise that most analysts are picking them to win.
But as for me, well, I threw out analysis a while ago when predicting what this team was going to do. I picked the Royals to beat the Angels, who I thought they matched up well with, but I also picked the Royals to beat the A’s and Jon Lester, who I thought they didn’t. The Orioles may have a huge edge in power, but the Royals have a huge edge in #DevilMagic. The Orioles have Showalter; we have Sung Woo. I expect a series as close as the ALDS was not, but in the end I’m riding this unicorn as far as she will take me. Royals in seven.