To get at the heart of how the 2015 Royals won a world championship – I will repeat those seven words at every opportunity I get for as long as I can – I think the simplest, clearest explanation is to look at this line score:
Team 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10+
Opp 6 10 15 4 7 13 5 6 0 0
KC 8 8 4 4 10 5 11 22 12 6
That is the combined number of runs the Royals and their opponents scored, inning by inning, in their 16 playoff games. There’s a lot to unpack there.
- After scoring an equal number of runs (16-16) in the first two innings, the Royals were massively outscored in the third inning. I chalk that one up mostly to a fluke.
- After scoring slightly more runs than their opponents (14-11) in the fourth and fifth innings, the Royals were significantly outscored in the sixth inning, 13-5. This one, I chalk up to Ned Yost’s one residual managerial weakness: his insistence that his starter try to get through the sixth inning in a playoff game, despite a bullpen that was even deeper than last year’s was. Sometimes it worked (ALCS Game 1, ALDS Game 2). Sometimes it turned out poorly but not disastrously (WS Game 1 and Game 5). Sometimes it was disastrous only the Royals came back anyway (ALCS Game 2). And sometimes it was just disastrous (ALCS Game 5).
But in the aggregate, the Royals gave up 13 runs in 16 sixth innings. It obviously hasn’t hurt them all that much to this point, but just imagine how much better they’ll be in future postseasons if Yost doesn’t insist on turning every sixth inning a game of Russian Roulette. (I’ll get to this in a moment, but the Royals’ opponents also scored 12 runs in the sixth inning of the 2014 postseason, more than in any other inning.)
- For the first six innings overall, the Royals were outscored, 60-50. If games ended after six innings, they would have been 5-9 with two ties. And then – holy hell did they go nuts.
You’ve probably heard that the Royals outscored their opponents from the seventh inning on by the margin of 51-11. You may have also heard that the Royals’ set an all-time postseason record with 51 runs from the seventh inning on. But you may not realize to just what a degree they set that record. Look at this chart:
Most runs scored, seventh inning on, postseason
2015 Royals: 51
2002 Angels: 36
2009 Yankees: 35
1995 Braves: 33
2007 Red Sox: 33
That’s a lead to put Secretariat to shame. The Royals averaged 3.19 runs per game just from the seventh inning on. That’s crazy.
But I actually think a more impressive stat is that, from the ninth inning on, they outscored their opponents 18-0. That’s crazy stupid. Those 18 runs were concentrated into just six games, and in only three games did those runs actually make any kind of difference. Two of those games were losses anyway (ALDS Game 3 and ALCS Game 3), and they scored in ALCS Game 4 to turn a 12-2 lead into a 14-2 lead. But in the other three games, the ninth inning runs they scored were important, and generally crucial.
They scored two runs in the ninth inning of ALDS Game 4 on Eric Hosmer’s only homer of the playoffs, which they didn’t technically need – they led 7-6 with Wade Davis on the mound – but certainly helped ice the game. And then came the World Series, where their ninth inning run tied Game 1, and their 14th inning run ended it; and Game 5, when they scored two in the ninth to tie and five in the 12th to start the parade early.
And those two games went as long as they did because the Royals were simply not going to allow any runs after the eighth inning. Consider that because of the two extra-inning games, the Royals’ pitching staff actually threw 20 innings from the ninth on. Zero runs allowed in 20 innings is nearly as impressive as the 18 runs they scored.
They also scored 22 runs in the eighth inning. In just 16 games. That’s crazy stupid love.
Just for fun, let’s throw in the same chart, but for 2014:
Team 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10+
Opp 8 5 6 6 7 12 6 4 0 2
KC 10 11 11 8 3 9 2 3 3 9
The sixth-inning issues are even more glaring here, but otherwise the shape is a little different. The Royals outscored their opponents 40-25 after four innings, but were outscored 29-17 from the fifth through the eighth innings, although most of those runs came in games that weren’t close. And from the ninth inning on…last year’s team was nearly as dominant as this year’s team was, outscoring their opponents 12-2.
The Royals’ philosophy last year was to get an early lead, and then protect it – or failing that, to get the game tied after six innings and then win it with late runs anyway. Their philosophy this year was to fall behind early, keep it close, and then take the lead late – and then never cough up the lead because your bullpen never gives up runs. Either philosophy works just fine if you have the bullpen to pull it off. The Royals had the bullpen to pull it off. Twice.
Over the last two postseasons, in a span of 31 games, covering 41 innings, the Royals outscored their opponents 30-2 after the eighth inning. They gave up two runs: Alberto Callaspo’s RBI single in the top of the 12th of the Wild Card game that nearly derailed all of this, and a two-out RBI single by Delmon Young off Greg Holland in the 10th inning of Game 1 of last year’s ALCS, after the Royals had scored three runs in the top of the inning. That’s it. Two runs in 41 innings. That is the root cause of everything the Royals have done the last two postseasons:
- They are 6-0 in extra-inning games (four last year, two this year).
- They are 8-1 in one-run games, with the one exception being, yes, Game 7 of the World Series last year.
- They have come back to win after being down by two runs or more eight times in the last two years – seven of those this season, a major league record (no team had ever done it more than five times). Last year, remarkably, they only did it once, in the Wild Card game, but then until they ran into Madison Bumgarner they never had to come back. Meanwhile, they lost only one game in which they had a lead of two runs or more: Game 4 of the World Series last year, when Jason Vargas was given an early 4-1 lead and batted with the bases loaded with two outs in the third, a moment which corresponded to the high mark of the World Series (as measured by the Royals’ odds of winning). But even that game wasn’t lost late – the Giants tied it in the fifth and took the lead in the sixth.
Not only have the Royals not lost a playoff game that they were leading after six innings – only one time in 31 playoff games did they even blow a lead after six innings: Jose Bautista’s game-tying two-run homer off Ryan Madson in Game 6 of the ALCS this year. In addition, in eight of their 31 playoff games, the Royals were tied at some point in the seventh inning or later, and just once did their opponent score to break the tie first: the 12th inning of the Wild Card game last year.
So how did the Royals win? They hit like George Brett from the seventh inning on, which doesn’t seem replicable. They also just refused to give up runs late in the game, which also doesn’t seem replicable…except that they just replicated what the 2014 team did.
When ranking the greatest bullpens of all time, you can certainly make a case for other teams, like the 1988-1990 Oakland A’s, to hang with the 2013-2015 Kansas City Royals. But their postseason success, I think, clearly elevates them above the competition. The 1988 A’s lost Game 1 of the World Series on Kirk Gibson’s home run; the 1990 A’s led both Game 2 and Game 4 of the World Series after seven innings, but lost both games (granted, starter Dave Stewart blew the lead in Game 4, and was still allowed to throw a complete game. It was a different time.) By contrast, the Royals have not lost a game they were leading or tied at any point after six innings over the span of 31 playoff games.
The best regular season bullpen of all time, that elevated its performance to even higher levels in the postseason. That’s one legacy of these Royals: they are the Mariano Rivera of bullpens.