Phew. I’m worn out.
There was some extra drama in both Division Series this year, but the two best teams in the American League managed to meet in the Championship Series anyway. The Blue Jays and the Royals have been on a bit of a collision course for this series since around the trade deadline. And now we’re here. And it’s awesome.
And how about that ALDS!? Holy smokes. I had thrown in the towel on Monday afternoon. It was 6-2 and I thought the series was over. All I wanted was to see Wade Davis throw a bit before the team packed it in for the winter. Then Alex Rios singled. Then Escobar singled. That’s when I stood up. Then Ben Zobrist singled. Then Lorenzo Cain singled. Then Eric Hosmer singled. That’s when I began pacing around my living room. Then Carlos Correa misplayed a Kendrys Morales chopper and tied the game. Then Drew Butera and his hair had a gorgeous 10-pitch plate appearance and walked. Then Alex Gordon grounded out, scoring a run. It was 7-6. I was going to get to see Wade Davis after all, but not in the scenario I expected.
Then in the 9th, Hosmer – who had 1 measly hit through the first 3 games – unleashed his built up frustration on a 2-run bomb. I think that’s the moment that put me on the floor because somehow I discovered I was watching Davis record the final three outs laying flat on my back in front of the TV.
Then Wednesday. O, Wednesday. Johnny Cueto was dynamite. He threw 1 pitch from the stretch all night – the 2-run home run to Luis Valbuena – but even that was a pretty nice pitch. And that situation wouldn’t have even happened if not for a poor throw by Mike Moustakas that could’ve very easily been called an error. Even still, the Royals finally played a full game of high contact/low strikeout baseball and won 7-2. The first strikeout didn’t occur until the 4th inning by Ben Zobrist. The “bad boys” hit the ball hard all night long and it was only a matter of time before those hits found green. Alex Rios, team scapegoat, hit the go-ahead double scoring Perez and Gordon. And a Morales somehow golfed a ball into the left-centerfield fountains for a 3-run homer in the 8th.
My ears were ringing well into Thursday afternoon. My throat is still a little sore from yelling. For the second consecutive year, I managed to bruise my right forearm due to a poorly executed high five. I’ve never ever heard Kauffman louder. Not even at the Wild Card Game. Somebody call the Guinness record dudes, pronto.
That’s how we got here. It was exhausting. But I’m thirsty for more. Bring on the Blue Jays.
The Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals don’t like each other much. We know this. Game 1 starter Edison Volquez hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch the last time these teams met. Ryan Madson later hit Troy Tulowitski. The Jays retaliated and Aaron Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar. It got ugly.
The Royals, somehow, came out of the scrum as the “bad boys” of baseball. Which is hilarious considering Toronto pitchers have hit more batters and Royals batters have been hit more often. And it wasn’t the Royals and Astros benches that cleared in the ALDS – it was Toronto and Texas. Maybe the nation will discover each teams true colors after the ALCS.
Going into the playoffs, the Jays were the one team I really didn’t want to have to face. But alas, there’s no going back from here. It’s on. Let’s take a look at the ALCS.
The Blue Jays led all of baseball with 891 runs in the regular season. That’s 127 more than the second highest team. Ridiculous. They hit 232 home runs. Buncha freaks. Their 2-3-4 hitters averaged 40 HRs this season. Read that again. Josh Donaldson hit 41. Jose Bautista hit 40. Edwin Encarnacion hit 39. All the power comes from the right side too – the only lefties in their postseason lineup are Ben Revere and Ryan Goins, who are the only guys who don’t hit for power, although Justin Smoak and Dionner Navarro bat switch and will get their cuts off the bench.
We know the Royals style of play – make contact and rely on the guy behind you to get you in. I was not happy with the Royals approach in the first three and a half games of the ALDS. They were swinging too hard and trying to out-homer the Astros. They were striking out at a rate of 8 K per game in the first 4 games of the series. That’s unacceptable. We will not win games if we aren’t making productive outs.
But when the Royals backs were against the wall, down 4 runs in Game 4, they were forced to abandon their power swings and go one base at a time. And it WORKED. Game 5 looked like a different team. We battled at the plate and made solid contact throughout the game. This team lives and dies by BABIP, but the sample size is large enough over an entire game that if we can play our game we’ll be okay.
But the Blue Jays offense is absurd. Even in a larger ballpark like Kauffman, they hold the clear edge.
Edge: Blue Jays
The Royals have the best defense in baseball. We know this. Their outfield, catcher, shortstop and first baseman give them an edge up on every team in baseball.
However, the Blue Jays are really really good too. The numbers say Kevin Pillar is as good a centerfielder as Lorenzo Cain and Russell Martin is as good a catcher as Salvador Perez. Josh Donaldson is a Gold Glove third baseman and Troy Tulowitzki is terrific at shortstop as well. And even though the numbers don’t suggest it, I know the kind of arm Jose Bautista possesses in right field.
You don’t make the playoffs without a decent defense, and Toronto – specifically Kevin Pillar – might make things a little tougher than, say, Carlos Gomez did. But the Royals are better or at least comparable at every position.
We’ve got a changeup matchup!
Marco Estrada has one of the best changeups in baseball. In fact, there were only 4 pitchers in all of baseball with a more valuable change according to Fangraphs: Zack Greinke, Francisco Rodriguez, Cole Hamels and Danny Salazaar. His fastball sits around 90 mph, occasionally hitting 93. He has pretty consistent splits between righties and lefties and he is just about as good on the road as he is at home. In his only career start at Kauffman back in July, he gave up 2 runs on 9 hits, losing against a filthy Danny Duffy.
Edison Volquez is a three pitch guy – fastball 50% of the time, curveball and changeup both 25% of the time. His fastball is not his best pitch, but his curve and change are both really really good. Volquez comes in just a few spots behind Estrada in terms of changeup value this year. As long as Volquez can avoid grooving fastballs, he’s not a bad matchup against the Blue Jays. I’d look for him to work hitters in with the fastball to keep them from getting their arms extended, but quickly go to the curve and the changeup after the fastball has been established.
This game is a tossup. Very comparable guys who have both been consistent for their teams all season long. I think whichever pitcher is able to more effectively throw their offspeed stuff ought to win.
So far, Yordano Ventura hasn’t been quite as impressive as I expected him to be this postseason. He gave up 3 runs in 2 innings before being pulled during the Game 1 rain delay, and game up 3 runs again in Game 4 on short rest. He looked much better on Monday than he did in Game 1 – there was a bit of extra fire in the elimination game, I thought.
We know what he does. He throws fire, but his curveball is actually his best pitch. Hitters set up looking to catch up to the gas and he puts them away with the breaking ball.
David Price sure has had a strange postseason so far. He pitched Game 1 of the ALDS against the Rangers and threw 5 innings of 5 hit 5 run ball. He took the loss. And instead of turning back to Price on short rest in Game 4 like the Royals did with Yordano, when the Jays were down 2-1 they opted to send R.A. Dickey to the mound instead. He came in for 3 innings of relief and gave up 3 runs on 6 hits. Doesn’t make any sense. Jays manager, John Gibbons went with rookie Marcus Stroman in Game 5 meaning their staff ace threw 8 innings of 8 run ball. Weird. Either Gibbons has no faith in their deadline acquisition, or they just liked the matchups better in Games 4 and 5. I just don’t get it.
Both teams know what they’re facing between these two guys. Both teams have to be happy to send out these guys if they find themselves down 0-1 at this point. Again, it’s a toss up game. Odds say the series is 1-1 headed to Toronto.
Game 3: Johnny Cueto vs Marcus Stroman
How much more confident are we seeing Johnny Cueto’s name in the rotation now after his performance on Wednesday? He came out throwing harder than he has in weeks. Again, he was dynamite, and if that’s the Cueto we get the rest of the way, look out. Cueto pitching in Game 3 means he’ll be in line to throw Game 7 if this series goes the distance.
But who is Marcus Stroman? He’s got 5 pitches – fastball, cutter, curve, slider, changeup. He gets ground balls on about two-thirds of balls put in play. He coaxes guys into pulling the ball on the ground – over 50% of hitters pull the ball against Stroman – so expect the Blue Jays to shift quite a bit when he pitches. It’s rare that he gives up home runs.
Assuming Cueto can be anywhere close to what he was in Game 5, this game should be low scoring which obviously favors the Royals. I like KC to go up 2-1 after three games. From there, who knows what will happen? Could the Royals throw Volquez and Ventura on short rest? If we have a series lead, I’d like to see Kris Medlen, a groundball guy himself throw his first game in Toronto. I don’t like Chris Young, a flyball pitcher, starting at Rogers Centre.
After watching of Cueto on Wednesday, I have to give the pitching edge to KC.
The Royals still have the best bullpen, and I have even more confidence in it after watching Wade Davis get 6 outs in Game 4. Sure, Ryan Madson struggled in Game 4, but that’s been so rare this season that it actually feels good to have that out of the way and behind us.
The Blue Jays bullpen is pretty good. Rookie Roberto Ozuna is going to be a name in baseball for a while. He’s notched 20 saves as the back of the rotation guy. The Jays lost lefty Brett Cecil during the ALDS to a calf strain, so they’re shorter than they were initially. Here’s a fun note: former Royal and Australia native Liam Hendriks has been one of their top guys out there with a 2.92 ERA. If he wasn’t good enough for the Royals bullpen, yet he’s good enough for Toronto, I think we’re done here.
For a group of bruisers, the Blue Jays actually have a legit running game. Revere and Pillar are their speed guys. Revere steals 30-40 times each year and Pillar stole 25 in 2015. Look for them to swipe a bag in a close game if those two are aboard.
I like the pitching matchups on paper. If the Royals can win 1 of 2 at home to start the series, we’ll be in good shape, I think. I’ve got a ton of confidence in Johnny and Yordano, and if they throw 4 of our 7 games, I think we take this series. David Price is shaky right now. Estrada and Stroman are beatable. If our starters can get us through 5 innings of quality baseball, this offense is strong enough to match what the Blue Jays can put up. Again, the Royals model is sustainable and can be reproduced game after game.
This series is going to be a battle – I’d be shocked if the benches don’t clear at least once – and the Royals do not want to get behind in this series because Toronto has the power to squash them the way Houston couldn’t quite do.
Royals in 7.