Tuesday, October 21, 2014

World Series Preview.

If this postseason hasn’t convinced you of the folly of trying to predict the outcome of a short series, nothing will. The Royals and Giants, both wild-card entrants who won fewer than 90 games during the season, are a combined 16-2. The Nationals and Angels, who had the best record in their respective leagues, went a combined 1-6. There are national sportswriters – their identities are kept secret to protect the guilty – who have picked the wrong team in all six playoff series so far. Meanwhile, counting the Wild Card game I’m 3-0, thanks to a prediction strategy that boils down to three words: Royals Uber Alles.

So just remember: anything can happen. The Royals could finish off the perfect postseason with a sweep of the Giants, finish the playoffs 12-0 and cement their claim as the greatest postseason team of all time. They could finish off the perfect reprise of the 2007 Rockies and get swept by the Giants. Anything is possible. Everything is in play.

That caveat aside, intellectually, I think you have to favor the Royals, for one simple reason: the American League is better than the National League. (This is where the Rocktober comparison falls apart. Thankfully. The AL went 163-137 against the NL this year, a .543 winning percentage that works out to an 88-74 record. That’s the 11th straight season the AL had a winning record against the NL, and the tenth straight season in which the AL had a winning percentage of at least .520.

So basically, the average AL team would be an 88-74 team in the NL. The Giants finished 88-74. You do the math. (The Royals, mind you, went 15-5 against the NL this season.)

Of course, an intellectual approach is what led so many people to pick the Angels and Orioles. So who the hell knows. But here are what I think are the keys to the series for Kansas City:

1) They have to score runs. This might seem obvious, but after winning Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS with a total of four runs and one extra-base hit, it might be tempting to think that the Royals can win four World Series games by the score of 2-1 or 1-0 or maybe by mixing it up with a 3-2 score. And hey, anything is possible. But let’s keep in mind that in the process of going 8-0 in the playoffs, the Royals have scored 42 runs. (Granted, they’ve played almost nine games given all the extra innings they’ve played.) While they won two games by scoring just two runs, they’ve also won three games by scoring eight or more runs – after they had scored eight or more runs just twice since the end of June.

I don’t really care how they score their runs. They’ve shown this month that they’re capable of scoring runs with the long ball, with speed, and with contact and situational hitting. But by hook or by crook, they need to score four or five runs most nights if they want to win. Even including the playoffs, they are just 20-30 when they score two or three runs, but 24-12 when they score four or five. Offense goes down slightly in October, but just slightly. The Royals have the bullpen and the defense to keep games from getting out of hand, but if they don’t score runs, they may be on the losing end of the 2-1 and 3-2 games instead.

2) They have to beat Madison Bumgarner. At least once. The Royals have been fortunate in that their opponents in both the ALDS and ALCS lacked a true ace; the Angels were missing Garrett Richards, and the Orioles’ rotation was notable for its depth more than its star quality. But Bumgarner is the best starting pitcher they’ve faced since Jon Lester, and they’ll probably face him twice. Yes, they beat Lester, and yes, this postseason has been notable for how little impact ace starters have had, from Clayton Kershaw to Adam Wainwright to the Nationals’ entire rotation. (Not to mention James Shields.) But Bumgarner has been the exception to that rule. He threw a complete-game shutout in the Giants’ Wild Card victory over the Pirates, a game as lacking in drama as the Royals’ game was defined by it. In three starts against the Nationals and Cardinals he threw 23 innings with a 1.99 ERA.

The Royals don’t have to beat him twice, but they have to beat him once. If they do, then they just have to win three of five games against Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, and Ryan Vogelsong, which seems doable. (This assumes the Giants don’t start Bumgarner on three days’ rest in Games 4 and 7, which seems unlikely, and don’t start Yusmeiro Petit instead of Vogelsong, which is a little less unlikely.) Bumgarner will square off against Shields tonight and probably again in Game 5, and the good news – at least after the fact – is that Shields had been battling kidney stones for the past two weeks, which he has finally passed. No one is blaming his poor performance in his last couple of starts on his kidney stones directly, but you have to hope there’s a correlation, and you have to help that a healthy Shields will be up to the task tonight.

If he’s not, then Game 2 becomes a virtual must-win for the Royals, because if they lose the first two games at home, history says it’s almost impossible for them to come back. I mean, no team had ever won a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games at home until the 1985 Roy…okay, never mind. But still: the last thing the Royals want to do is put themselves in a 2-0 hole. Beat Bumgarner tonight, and they won’t have to worry about that, and they’ll put the Giants on the defensive.

3) The bullpen has to remain close to perfect. It’s easy to assume that a bullpen as good as the Royals is automatic, but it takes just one bad inning to ruin a perfect streak. Given how tight the games are that the Royals have played, and how narrow their margins of victory, it’s not simply one bad inning but one bad pitch. I keep waiting for the HR/FB ratio for Wade Davis and/or Kelvin Herrera to move off of 0.00, and so far it hasn’t happened. Sometimes the season ends before regression arrives, and the Royals are almost there, but the World Series is the time of year when things happen that haven’t happened all season.

It’s not just Davis and Herrera: since the very first batter faced by a Royals reliever in the postseason – Brandon Moss against Yordano Ventura – homered, the bullpen hasn’t allowed a homer in 34.2 innings. It seems unlikely that will continue for much longer. But it doesn’t have to continue much longer. Just seven more games, if that.

4) The outfield defense must conquer AT&T Park. The Royals swept the Giants earlier this year at Kauffman Stadium, which was a very good thing. But it’s almost too bad that the series was in Kansas City instead of San Francisco, because while the Giants’ outfielders are familiar with the K, the Royals’ outfielders aren’t really familiar with AT&T, with its unique dimensions and outfield fences that jut in and out at odd angles.

Nori Aoki, at least, played there a few times when he was with the Brewers, which is good because he plays right field, where AT&T Park seems to have most of its idiosyncrasies. It’s a spacious ballpark, which gives the Royals’ outfielders the space to work their magic. But between the wind and the weird caroms off the walls, you have to worry about potential outs turning into doubles and doubles becoming triples.

The Giants and their opponents combined to hit 32 triples when playing away from AT&T Park, and 58 in San Francisco. Last year, they hit 20 triples away from AT&T Park, and 40 in San Francisco. AT&T Park is the rare ballpark that’s even more favorable for hitting triples than Kauffman Stadium. The Royals have the speed on offense to take advantage of a crazy bounce. If their outfield defense can prevent the Giants from doing the same, they’re going to have an edge there.

5) Ned Yost must continue to manage like October Ned Yost. After putting on a clinic in the ALCS – or at the very least not looking like he was overmatched by Buck Showalter – Yost is matched up against Bruce Bochy, who isn’t quite in Showalter’s class tactically but has two world championships to his name and has won eight consecutive playoff series (nine if you count the Wild Card game). The Giants’ bullpen isn’t quite in the same class as the Royals, but Bochy knows how to work it.

So long as Yost continues to manage with the same sense of urgency that he did in the last round, he should be fine. I see no reason why he would stop – it’s not like the stakes have gotten any lower, and he received a ton of positive reinforcement for his work in that series – both in terms of positive press and in terms of actual victories. The main danger remains that he sticks with Shields or Ventura too long. Given the preponderance of left-handed bats in the Giants’ lineup, there’s also a danger that he gets stuck on the wrong side of too many platoon situations.

But the thing about having three dominant relievers is that Herrera, Davis, and Holland are going to pitch the seventh, eighth, and ninth no matter who is batting. And given how effective they are, that’s absolutely the right thing to do. That frees Yost up to play matchup ball with Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan (and Danny Duffy, should he so choose) in the middle innings. The way this bullpen is set up, it’s hard to imagine a situation where Yost gets caught flat-footed with the wrong reliever on the mound. There just aren’t many wrong relievers on the roster to begin with. As it is, Yost only used nine pitchers in the entire ALCS – neither Duffy nor Tim Collins got into a game. Short of an extra-inning games, it’s quite possible that he won’t need to use more than nine pitchers in this series either – and if he does, well, Duffy was the Royals’ best starter this season, and Collins has no platoon split, making him an acceptable option in a pinch (which is presumably how he’d be used) against both left-handed and right-handed batters.

So I’m pretty confident that Yost won’t screw this up, both because he’s shown an ability to adapt and because he almost can’t screw this up. But confidence is one thing, and seeing it play out in reality is another. I’m already nervous that Yost is giving away a small edge by replacing Christian Colon on the roster with Jayson Nix, for no apparent reason. Andy McCullough points out that Nix is the better defender, which may be true, but it’s only marginally so, and at this moment I think Colon’s offensive edge trumps that.

It wouldn’t matter so much in an earlier round; Colon played all of one inning in the ALCS and didn’t bat at all. But with three games in NL parks, every bench player counts – and because of the need to pinch-hit for your pitchers, it is much more likely that Nix’s roster spot will find itself in a key spot at the plate than in a key spot in the field. Nix may never have to play defense at all – it’s not like Yost is going to bench anyone in his starting lineup, so the only chance for him to play defense is if Yost pinch-runs for Infante or Moustakas late. But he’s almost certain to bat when the Royals are in San Francisco, perhaps in all three games. Yost will probably be reluctant to use Erik Kratz to bat because he doesn’t want to be down to his last catcher, and I’d rather see Jason Vargas (.262/.297/.311 lifetime) bat than Terrance Gore, so Nix would be no worse than the fourth pinch-hit option, after Billy Butler, Josh Willingham, and Jarrod Dyson. And Dyson might be burned up as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement for Nori Aoki, making it quite likely that Nix will be called upon to hit.

This is a problem. Colon is a better hitter, and he fits the Royals’ style of play better – he makes very good contact, and he can bunt. Maybe Nix will come through with a hit when called upon. But consider that, if he does, it will be his first hit ever in a Royals uniform.

6) Salvador Perez has to stop being a cipher offensively. Perez ended a brutal performance in the Wild Card game – 0-for-5, two strikeouts – with the biggest hit of the season. Since then, he’s 3-for-28 with one walk and no extra-base hits. This has to stop.

I’m looking for it to stop tonight. Bumgarner is a left-hander, and while Perez hit worse against southpaws this year, for his career he’s a .307/.349/.503 hitter against LHP. I’m sitting with my brother in the left field bleachers, Section 105, Row B. The last time I sat in the left field bleachers for a Royals game, it was Father’s Day at U.S. Cellular Field, and before the game on Twitter I basically begged a Royals hitter to hit one in my direction. Perez’s homer landed one row and eight seats away. I’m doing my part tonight. It’s time he does his.

Look, do you want analysis, or do you want magic? These are the 2014 Royals, my friends. They defy analysis. But they bring plenty of magic.

Royals in six.

1 comment:

Mark LaFlamme said...

The Colon move is curious. I've always hoped that he'd see a little playing time, but apparently that's not to be. Now, does being axed from the roster mean he doesn't get to be on the bench with the rest of the team? How much would THAT suck for the fellow?