Royals-Mets World Series Primer & Prediction

They did it. The Kansas City Royals, for the second time in as many years, are American League Champs. They’re headed to the World Series. Again. Expectations were high – this team and this fanbase expected to be here. In fact, anything less than a World Series return was likely to be considered a disappointment after how last year ended. And they actually did it.

I’ve watched this approximately 9 million times over the past three days. I can’t get enough Yordano. His accent. His laugh. The way he rolls his head around like a Muppet. The way his mouth opens wide like a Muppet. The way he looks almost exactly like a Muppet. There’s a very strong possibility I’ll be dressing up as Probably Drunk AL Champ Yordano Ventura for Halloween this weekend. And of course, someone has already remixed it.

Yordano has every right to be that amped about the circumstances. Conquering the Toronto Blue Jays has been the Royals’ top priority since around early August. It was so evident that the Jays were the Royals biggest American League threat that the Royals advance scouting department dedicated two scouts solely on figuring out the Blue Jays tendencies and weaknesses. And boy, were they successful. (If you really want to get excited about the minutiae within the Royals ALCS victory, I highly recommend giving this SI piece by Tom Verducci a read if you haven’t already. Seriously. Click over. I’ll wait.)

So many great moments from Game 6 to talk about. Back in Game 2, David Price shut the Royals down for the first 6 innings, but then in the 7th the Royals shredded him for 5 runs. On Friday night, Ben Zobrist picked up right where he left off hitting a solo home run in the first inning. Mike Moustakas added another solo home run in the 2nd thanks to this kid.

Click to watch the video.

With the exception of one pitch to Jose Bautista, Yordano was locked in on Friday night. On that one pitch, Salvador Perez set up low and away – the spot where Royals pitchers had been pitching the Toronto slugger the entire series – but this pitch tailed up and out over the plate. Bautista feasts on mistakes, and he hit the ball a mile. The Royals would get the run back in the 7th when Alex Rios – of course it was Rios – singled in Moustakas from second base. But before he made it to second base, Moose was on first base, and this happened…

Chris Colabello clearly believes he has the ball. Moose is like, “uh, ball’s over here, bro.”

After his RBI single, Rios did something even more incredible: he stole a base off David Price. Alex Rios was the first and only person all season long to successfully steal on Price. What! Again, for more on the awesomeness on this moment, go back up and read that article I linked before if you didn’t the first time. It is without question the best baseball article I’ve read in months.

Anyway. The score was 3-1 going into the 8th, and Wade Davis, the Greatest Relief Pitcher in Baseball and suspected android, was warm in the bullpen. Ned Yost decided to go with Ryan Madson instead against the top of the order – Ben Revere, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. I…wasn’t happy. I’ll let my Twitter feed tell the story from here…

Then Madson gave up a monster 2-run HR to Bautista.

And if that wasn’t enough, Madson walked Encarnacion too. Only then did Yost decide to go to The Greatest Relief Pitcher in Baseball, Wade Davis.

And then the rain came, and I went through at least three of the five stages of grief.

But by the time I sat back down in my wet Kauffman Stadium seat, I had somehow managed to not only accept what had happened, but was able to healthily move on reminding myself that the Royals were still going to win this game.

Wouldn’t you know the Royals did rally. Because they always do. Because this team never quits. Their rally consisted of an 8-pitch walk by Lorenzo Cain and a single by Eric Hosmer. That’s it. That’s all it took to take back the lead after the rain delay.

Actually, that’s not all it took. It took a the speed of Lorenzo Cain, the study and send of Mike Jirschele, the instinctual toss back into second base by Jose Bautista and the hard turn and retreat back to first by Eric Hosmer. You want another look into the details of that moment? Check out this article by Joe Posnanski. People are already calling it Cain’s Mad Dash, an homage to Enos Slaughter‘s run of the same name in the 1946 World Series.

Except Cain’s is even more impressive for two reasons: 1. He wasn’t running with the pitch and 2. The hit was a single, not a double. Here’s this from Inside Edge…

And then Wade Davis, over an hour since he’d gotten the 23rd and 24th outs of the game, went back out for he 9th inning and dramatically – with two on and no outs! – got outs 25, 26 and 27 to seal the AL Championship for the Royals. What a freak. Wade Davis has yet to prove to me he is actually human.

Okay, I’ve already given the ALCS too many words here. Moving on.

Time to look forward. To the World Series. To the New York Mets

Offense

A lot has been written about the Mets power starting pitching vs the Royals high contact offensive approac, but, as is usually the case in overworked narratives, I don’t think primary storyline is what will ultimately decide this World Series. I have a feeling this series will come down to whether to not the Royals starters can silence the hot bats of Daniel Murphy and Curtis Granderson.

One thing to note when you look at the Mets stats: they are not even close to the same team as they were to start the season. During the first half of the season, the team hit .233/.298/.363. That improved to .257/.328/.443 over the second half. Why the change? A complete lineup overhaul. They got David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud (it’s pronounced “dar-no,” impress your friends) back from injuries in August. They added Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline. They called up Michael Conforto from Triple A. It’s not the same team.

If we focus on just the second half of the season, the Mets sit right around the middle of MLB in terms of batting average, but very near the top in on base percentage and slugging. The offense is led by Curtis Granderson (who has quietly had a fantastic postseason hitting .303 and stealing 4 bags), Lucas Duda (who was quiet for a while but is still a scary HR threat) and Yoenis Cespedes (who is, in the opinion of this blogger, one of the top 5 all around ballplayers in baseball right now). But the postseason hero has been Daniel Murphy, who inexplicably went from hitting 14 HRs during the regular season to being a postseason juggernaut. He has hit home runs in 6 consecutive postseason games and 7 in the 2015 postseason overall. Carlos Beltran and Reggie Jackson eat your heart out. The guy is on a tear, and if he cannot be cooled off, then we can go ahead and chalk this series up as a win for the Mets.

This team isn’t the Blue Jays or the Astros, but they’re closer to those guys than they are the Royals in terms of offensive philosophy. As Eno Sarris points out over at Fangraphs, the Mets either walk, strikeout or homer at a rate significantly higher than KC – although everyone does those three things at a significantly higher rate than KC. The Mets are patient. The Royals are still a high contact team. They feast on fastballs, which is why they were thrown the least amount of them by the end of the season. They’re free swingers, but not for much power. They take the ball all over the field, and force the defenders to make plays.

Both teams have threats up and down the lineup. The Mets are more of a slugging team, but have the ability to do the small ball things that the Blue Jays and Astros couldn’t. They’re just a better all around team. I don’t really see anything that says one team is the better overall offensive team here. Different philosophies, but both are strong.

And the fun part – almost no one has faced each other, so who knows how this will go? Although it seems the Mets are rolling the dice and starting Kelly Johnson as DH in Game 1 since he’s 4-14 lifetime vs Volquez…all 4 of which came prior to 2010. Seems relevant in 2015. 

Edge: Push

Defense

Guess what?! The Royals still have the best defense in baseball.

Like the Blue Jays, overall this Mets lineup is pretty average defensively, but they are blessed with a phenomenal centerfielder. Juan Lagares is a Gold Glover, but he hasn’t started every game this postseason due to his lack of offense. With Kauffman Stadium’s large outfield, I’d be shocked if he didn’t get the start over Michael Cuddyer, who has played some lefty irks this postseason, and who may have some pop in his bat but is not on the same level as Lagares defensively.

Unlike the Blue Jays, their shortstop is a weakness. When the Mets lost Ruben Tejada to a fractured leg on Chase Utley‘s takeout slide in the NLDS, Wilmer Flores stepped in as his replacement. Flores can hold his own offensively compared to Tejada, but the drop defensively – especially against a high contact team like KC – is significant. He just doesn’t have range. Neither do David Wright or Daniel Murphy, for that matter. I’ll be looking for a lot “seeing-eye” grounders to get through the middle and left side of the infield.

Edge: Royals

Starting Pitching

Game 1: Matt Harvey vs Edinson Volquez

Remember back in September when everyone was freaking out about Matt Harvey’s innings count? The dude was basically supposed to only throw 180 innings this season coming off his Tommy John surgery. Going into Game 1, he’s thrown 202 inning between the regular season and postseason combined. So if his arm flys off, it’s not some Halloween stunt. 

Not that he has shown any sign of slowing down: Harvey went 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA during the regular season. His postseason ERA is 2.84, so he’s kept pace. He’s given up 4 earned runs on 11 hits in 12.2 innings this postseason against the Dodgers and Cubbies. Not exactly unhittable, honestly. He throws 54.4% fastballs around 96-97 mph, and mixes in a slider, curve, change and sinker as well.

It should be noted that Volquez’s fastball is up about 4 mph this postseason. That may not sound like much, but when the difference is from 92 to 96 mph, well, it is. It also means that while the media is touting the Mets “power starting pitching,” the Royals can actually match their speed in each game. Amazingly, Volquez’s postseason gameplan has not been to rely on his changeup at all, but to double down on his fastball.

People like to throw around the fact that Edinson Volquez’s career postseason ERA is 6.56. Just shush them. It’s all in the past. This postseason he has been much better, and even better than his line suggests, honestly. If Ned had just pulled him after 5 innings in his last start he’d be sitting on 2.16 ERA. Instead, Yost left him in too long and his ERA this postseason is 4.32. I guess poor managing shouldn’t let him off the hook, but the fact remains that Ed has been much better than his postseason stats suggest.

Of the three Mets righties, Harvey throws the most straight four-seam fastballs, and it’s his most valuable pitch. But the Royals hit fastballs. And righties. So unless Harvey can really brandish his secondary pitches, he could be in for a long night.

One wrinkle here though – and this goes for all four Mets starters – the Royals biggest advantage is in the bullpen. KC will have to decide whether to be aggressive on fastballs, or work the count a bit and get Harvey’s pitch count up to get to the pen. I think Harvey, with his high innings count, is the most likely to be yanked early in these first three games.

I have a good feeling about this first one. Volquez has been solid, and Ned never makes the same mistake twice. If both these starters go 5 innings, the Royals bullpen will hold down the fort.

Game 2: Jacob deGrom vs Johnny Cueto

Was it literally just last week when I wrote “How much more confident are we seeing Johnny Cueto’s name in the rotation now after his performance on Wednesday?” Yuck. What a stinker he threw in Toronto last week. Kris Medlen came in and pitched lights out in relief, but the damage was done. Cueto seemed to give an excuse for each of the 8 runs he allowed over just 2 innings – the mound is higher, there’s a man stealing signs in centerfield, the umpire was squeezing him, etc., etc. Can it, Johnny. If you’re not lights out early, you won’t last in the World Series. Again, Ned doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Cueto will have an extremely short leash this Wednesday. Danny Duffy ought to plan on getting warm in a hurry.

And he better be solid because you can bet that Jacob deGrom will be. It’s hard to look at this staff and say that one guy is the “ace” because honestly they have three, but this guy is it. With an ERA even better than Harvey’s at 2.54, deGrom is the real deal. His hair is disgusting, but his game is not.

Again, fastball/sinker guy – 45.7% FB, 15.5% sinker – with a slider, change and curve mixed in. His changeup is his second best pitch in terms of value, but he throws all his pitches well. It’s weird, these guys (deGrom, Harvey, Syndergaard) all start to blend together after you stare at their numbers for a while. It’s bonkers. Their skills are so eerily similar. It’s like they were drafted the same year (they were) and groomed in the same system.

This entire game depends on Cueto, but even if he’s locked in, there’s no guaranteeing he can out pitch deGrom, who is now 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA. If there’s one guy who can dismantle the Royals like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named again, it’s deGrom. And his hair is equally gross…have I mentioned that yet?

Game 3: Yordano Ventura vs Noah Syndergaard

Let’s throw fire. Lots of it.

This game is almost certainly going to set some sort of record for most 97+ mph pitches in one game. Syndergaard throws his fastball around 98 mph. He touches 100 mph regularly. He also has a very good low-80s curveball about 20% of the time to keep hitters off balance.

Dude sounds exactly like Yordano Ventura. Except he looks like Thor.

Ventura relies less on his fastball now than he did last year – his curveball is not only his best pitch, but one of the most valuable pitches in all of baseball. Syndergaard is a rookie, and his fastball is his greatest strength, so it’ll be interesting to see if his numbers shift in his second year like Yordano’s have. But who cares about 2016?! This is 2015, and Yordano has proven he can handle the biggest stage for two years straight now.

My best guess – the Mets pitchers will work hard to establish their secondary pitches and keep the Royals from zoning in on their heat. Syndergaard is the most likely to struggle with this transition. I have a feeling the Royals not only slap around his fastball, but also take a couple hanging breakers to #DongTown at Citi Field.

Game 4: Chris Young vs Steven Matz

Buncha weirdo stuff here after those first three matchups.

Steven Matz, another rookie, is the lone lefty in the Mets rotation. He’s your prototypical three-pitch guy – fastball 68%, curveball 19%, changeup 11%. He changes speeds very well dropping from 94 mph on his fastball to 77 on his curve. Since he’s a late call up, there’s not much on him in terms of numbers, but in the postseason he’s done a fine job albeit in short starts. In fact, it’s very likely we see multiple innings of Bartolo Colon in this game as well. One can only hope the stars align and we get to watch Chris Young get a plate appearance against Colon. That would be fun.

Oddly, I have no qualms about Chris Young anymore. I don’t feel like our season hinges on his performance, and he always seems to impress me. He just goes out and does his job as a very tall right handed pitcher.

I should also add: expect to see Danny Duffy in this series if any of our starters gets into trouble. With the Roayls throwing 4 right handed starters, you can bet the Mets will counter with a lefty-heavy lineup. Which means if any of our starters gets into trouble, countering with a lefty of our own makes a lot of sense.

I like our chances in Games 1, 3 and 4, but Game 2 certainly feels like a loss on paper. But pretty much across the board, the Mets starters appear slightly better. It’s like they’ve got a RHP machine that just keeps churning out power arms. But who knows. You can’t predict baseball, man, but the Mets clearly have the better rotation, and it doesn’t really matter if your’e better elsewhere, pitching wins championships.

Edge: Mets

Bullpen

Here’s something new: Kelvin Herrera is suddenly throwing a slider.

During the regular season, Herrera threw breaking balls around 5% of the time. In the postseason, that number has risen to 25%. I mean, who does that?! Who just starts throwing a new pitch in the most stressful and intense games of the year? During the regular season, he relied almost entirely on blowing guys away with his 100 mph fastballs. And when that didn’t work, when they’d fouled off enough pitches, he’d get them lunging goofily at his changeup. But now he’s throwing a breaking ball a quarter of the time.

Wade Davis is just so good. Like, Mariano Rivera good. He gets the ball and there is no doubt in my mind the game is over. Ryan Madson has now blown two games this postseason – Game 4 vs Houston and Game 6 vs Toronto – but the Royals have won them both. Danny Duffy has been great out of the bullpen when he hasn’t been expected to pitch to righty power bats.

At this point, all of the Mets’ trusted bullpen arms are attached to one man: Jeurys Familia. The perfect formula for the Mets is to get their strong starters to go deep into the game – preferably 7 or 8 innings – and then bring in Familia for the final 3-6 outs. His season ERA was 1.84. As far as closers go, he’s very very good. The other two arms we’ll certainly see this series are those of Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed acquired this year from Oakland and Houston, respectively. They’ve struggled this postseason, Clippard especially.

Edge: Royals

Baserunning

The Royals steal more bases because they’re the faster overall team. Whether or not one team steals more bases than the other might not be what matters here. The reality is that both of these teams are smart, and they make you pay on the base paths with their intelligent baserunning. If an outfielder doesn’t hustle, they’ll go first to third (or home). If there’s a double play possibility, they’ll hit and run. If there’s a chance to advance a base, both of these teams are going to take advantage. The Mets have 8 stolen bases this postseason (half by Granderson). But it’s their mind – not their speed – that’s gotten them here.

But cmon. This is getting tiresome. The Royals are the better baserunners. They’re equally smart as the Mets, but they also have the threat of Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson off the bench at any moment. If the Royals need a bag, they can – and will – take it. With the quality of New York’s starting pitching, it’s likely these games will be lower scoring and we’ll see what speed do in the World Series.

Note: It’s possible that Cheslor Cuthbert or Raul Mondesi end up on the team instead of Terrance Gore. I’d be disappointed if that happened, but you can’t argue the need for infield versatility over an outfielder who can’t hit in an NL ballpark.

Edge: Royals

Prediction

Ugh. This is a good Mets team. They play smart and they don’t beat themselves. Their starting pitching is better than our starters pretty much top to bottom, but the Royals are probably a little better in every other aspect of the game. I think the Royals ability to make contact against deGrom/Harvey/Syndergaard will be enough to score a few runs each game. The question is whether or not our starters can keep the Mets’ bats at bay.

It’s funny, when you make these predictions, really what you’re doing is picking the team you think is going to win, and the number of games shows your confidence level. In the ALDS, I took the Royals in 5. In the ALCS, I took the Royals in 7. I would say I was more confident in both of those series than I am in the World Series.

The Royals better win Game 1, because I don’t feel confident at all about Game 2. I’m most confident about Games 3 and 4, Which means we’d have to win 2 of 3 down the stretch to take the crown.

I think we can do it.

Royals in 7.

-apc.

Image: MLB on Twitter: @MLB, accessed here.

Royals-Blue Jays ALCS Primer & Prediction

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.

Offense

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

Defense

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.

Edge: Royals

Starting Pitching

Game 1: Marco Estrada vs Edinson Volquez

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.

Game 2: David Price vs Yordano Ventura

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.

Edge: Royals

Bullpen

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.

Edge: Royals

Baserunning

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.

But neither of them are as fast as Jarrod Dyson or Terrance Gore, and they don’t have the luxury of deploying them at will like the Royals do off the bench late in the game.

Edge: Royals

Prediction

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.

-apc.

Royals-Astros ALDS Primer & Prediction

The Royals are in the ALDS and they didn’t even have to survive a dramatic and emotional Wild Card game. I feel like we cheated somehow, but, no, we actually just won 95 games.

I actually wrote this on Tuesday night as the Wild Card game was wrapping up, but, as it turns out, when you’re not connected to WiFi, WordPress doesn’t auto-save your content like usual, and when you click “Publish,” it moves to a page that says “Safari isn’t connected to the internet,” and you lose everything. Woof. An hour of my life I’ll never get back.

So let’s try it again. I’ve written it once before, so it should be better the second time around, right? That’s how that works. Fur sure.

Dallas “I think I’m better on short rest” Keuchel shut down the New York Yankees 3-0 on Tuesday night on just 3 days rest. The Yankees looked pitiful – so pitiful, in fact, that I was confident enough to start writing this post around the bottom of the 7th inning. The Yankees would’ve been the easier matchup for Kansas City, but no dice. Here we are, and it’s the Astros.

So how do the Royals matchup against Houston? Let’s take a gander.

Offense

The Astros and Royals couldn’t be more different in philosophy, yet they scored nearly the same number of runs on the season. Astros scored 729 and the Royals scored 724 – good for 6th and 7th in the MLB.

Houston relies heavily on the long ball. They finished 2nd in all of baseball with 230 HRs behind only Toronto (232). Nearly every guy in their lineup can go yard – Evan Gattis, Carlos Correa, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus and Chris Carter all hit 20+ HRs. They take their hacks, and they connect a lot, but they miss way more often. The Astros stuck out more than any team in the American League, and more than any team in baseball when you eliminate pitcher statistics. 

Their contact rate is 75.9% – the worst in the American League. Expect Royals pitchers to rack up the K’s in this series.

The Royals, on the other hand, are obsessed with making contact. Best in baseball at 81.9%. (It’s amazing what a difference 6% is over the course of 162 games.) They finished not last (!) in the AL in home runs this year. It’s a miracle. They hit 3 more than the Chicago White Sox, who are the absolute worst.

It’s interesting that two opposite philosophies yielded the same overall results. The edge really boils down to the ballpark. In Houston, home runs are much easier to come by with the Crawford boxes in left field. Kauffman Stadium is a pitcher’s park with a huge outfield and homers aren’t nearly as common. With home field advantage, the Royals get the slight edge. Barely.

Edge: Royals, slightly.

Defense

Another year at the top for KC.

The Royals finished another year with the most defensive runs saved (DRS) in baseball: 56.9. They’ve got gold glovers are nearly every position. Even their adventurous right fielder, Alex Rios, is an advantage over the rest of the AL teams in the playoffs with -0.2 runs saved above average. That’s how bad AL right fielders are, and thats why the MLB made a major mistake giving away Gold Gloves to LF-CF-RF instead of just 3 outfielders. 

Anyway. The Astros shift on the infield more than any other team in baseball, yet still finished the season below the middle of the pack in DRS at -7.6. Their outfield defense, however, is solid, and that’s what matters most at The K. Carlos Gomez, George Springer and Colby Rasmus can cover some ground. They play a strange shallow outfield alignment that just begs to be burned, hopefully that doesn’t take the Royals out of their offensive game plan. Overall they’re better than the numbers suggest. They’re average, but they’ve “got it where it counts,” so they say.

But they’re not the Royals defense. C’mon. This defense is historically good. Moving on.

Edge: Royals.

Starting Pitching

Game 1: Collin McHugh vs Yordano Ventura

Collin McHugh’s best pitch is the slider which he throws 38% of the time. His put away pitch is the curveball, but I’ll be surprised if he has many opportunities to throw it. He throws first pitch fastballs almost half the time, and I expect the Royals high contact offense to jump on them early and often. The more KC puts the ball in play, the more KC has the advantage.

Yordano Ventura seems to have redeveloped into the “ace” that he is. Ever since he got “sent down” to Omaha but then brought right “back” after Jason Vargas needed Tommy John surgery. And ever since Johnny Cueto has shown up, it seems Yordano has learned a little bit about deception and his K rate is suddenly through the roof. In his last 11 starts, Ace has struck out 81 batters. In his previous 17 starts, he had only whiffed 75. He’s notched 11 K’s in three different starts recently – a feat he had never done in his career to this point.

So let’s do the math – McHugh throws first pitch fastballs to a high contact team, and Ventura is striking out the masses against a high strikeout team. This matchup favors KC significantly.

Game 2: Scott Kazmir vs Johnny Cueto

Scott Kazmir was the first domino to fall at the trade deadline coming to Houston from the Athletics. The Royals faced him on July 24 – the day after he was traded – at Kauffman Stadium and Kazmir absolutely shut KC down: 7 innings. 3 hits. 0 runs.

But in August and September, it’s been a very different story for Kazmir. In his last 11 starts, he’s 1-6 with a 5.22 ERA. He went from being a solid compliment to Dallas Keuchel to barely being considered as a postseason starter.

This should sound familiar to Royals fans because it’s almost exactly the same narrative we’ve experienced with Johnny Cueto, Kazmir’s Game 2 opponent. Cueto looked awesome in his first few starts, but had a string of 5 straight starts where he looked absolutely dreadful. Finally, after significant confusion as to what was happening, it was revealed that Cueto wasn’t comfortable with how Salvador Perez was setting up. That’s since been resolved, and Cueto has spun 4 straight quality starts with a 3.24 ERA. His last start vs Minnesota was a 5 inning, 1 run tune up.

It would seem that Cueto has the edge here, and I hope he does, because Game 3 isn’t as promising.

Game 3: Edinson Volquez vs Dallas Keuchel

Let’s not over think this one – Dallas Keuchel is the best pitcher in the American League. He will be the 2015 AL Cy Young winner. He also has the best beard.

Or maybe we should over think this, just for fun. 

In his career, Edison Volquez is 6-0 with a 2.70 ERA. He’s 3-0 at Minute Maid Park. Current Royals are a career .300/.380/.393 off Keuchel. In 2015, Lorenzo Cain is 5-7 with 2 doubles and a home run. And it’s the Postseason…anything can happen.

But let’s be honest, it would be stupid to pick against Keuchel here.

Game 4: Kris Medlen/Chris Young vs Lance McCullers

Lance McCullers is a rookie for the Astros. He’s got a reverse split so he’s stronger against lefties. He is terrific at home (1.86 ERA) and absolutely awful on the road (5.03 ERA). As much as one would like to think the Astros have confidence in Kazmir, the reality might be that they have more confidence in McCullers in Game 4 than they do in Kazmir anywhere.

But wouldn’t you know, Kris Medlen is terrific on the road, but awful at home. Of Medlen’s 26 earned runs this year for the Royals, 24 of them have been at Kauffman Stadium. I don’t really know how that works, but it’s the truth.

This game is a total toss up, to be honest. Heck, Chris Young could even start, and he’s been even better than Yordano over his past two spot starts leading up to the playoffs. My best guess: Medlen gets the start with a VERY short leash. Gets the hook if anything happens and Young takes over from there.

Assuming Yordano Ventura is waiting to throw Game 5, That gives KC the overall advantage, I think. If we had to face Keuchel twice, I might consider it a push, but the nod goes to KC here too.

Edge: Royals, based only on matchups.

Bullpen

See: defense.

Again, both teams are really good at this phase of the game, but the Royals, again, are simply the best in baseball. Wade Davis. Kelvin Herrera. Ryan Madson. Even with the loss of Greg Holland to a torn UCL, this bullpen is the best there is. In fact, with the addition of Danny Duffy, it’s very possible this bullpen is better without Greg Holland. Now you have a shut down lefty in the pen instead of a guy who has done nothing but terrify Royals fans for months.

But the Astros bullpen is no slouch. The Astros watched what the Royals were able to do in the postseason last year, and immediately went out and signed Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek out the gate during the offseason to shore up their bullpen. Will Harris and Tony Sipp have emerged as strong pieces as well. Their bullpen is really good, but it’s not as good as KC.

Edge: Royals.

Baserunning

That’s what speed do.

The Astros are quick on the bases. They led the American League in stolen bases in 2015 with 121. Jose Altuve leads the way with 38 bags. Jake Marisnick stole 24. George Springer added 16 and Carlos Correa, 14. This team likes to run, which I find interesting because they’re a home run hitting team. But I suppose that also means they know how to hit sac flies.

However, Games 1 and 5 will be an issue for their running game, as Yordano Ventura is so quick to the plate, its essentially mathematically impossible for opposing team to steal on him. It takes a breaking pitch, a double clutch and a poor throw by Salvador Perez to make the play close. So if they’re going to steal, they’ll need to run on somebody else.

The Royals had 104 steals this year – a dip from previous years in the running game likely do to a slight increase in power. They simply haven’t needed to use their legs as much this year. But they have speed whenever they want it off the bench. Jarrod Dyson has gotten “ZOOM” etched into his hair again this year. He ready. But he’s not even the fastest guy on his own team. Terrance Gore is the fastest man in baseball (if he doesn’t get left off the postseason roster in favor of Jonny Gomes, that is). Oh, and Paulo Orlando used to be a sprinter for Brazil soooooo…

The Royals haven’t needed the running game in 2015, but it’s still there at their disposal when they need it. And they will, because the playoffs are drastically different.

Edge: Royals.

Prediction

It’s a trend, fur sure, but it’s also a reality – the Astros are a very good team, but the Royals are slightly better in every facet of the game. They’re faster. Their bullpen is deeper and stronger. their ballpark matches up better for the offense. Their rotation is probably weaker, but the matchups still give the Royals an edge.

On paper, I’d expect the Royals to win comfortably in Game 1 – confidence high. Game 2 is somewhat of a mystery, but barring Kazmir turning into Houdini, things seem to point to the Royals there too – confidence moderate. Gotta expect a loss to Keuchel in Game 3 – confidence low – but a bounce back win in Game 4 after five different Royals pitchers combine for a n0-hit bid deep into the ballgame – confidence high.

Make no mistake – this Astros team is talented. The 2015 Astros hope to be the 2014 Royals. They play with heart and have a lot of fun doing it. And in baseball, anyone can win on any night. It’s a game of inches, and all it doesn’t take much to make all these hot takes meaningless. Even the best teams only win about 60% of the time in this league. I don’t want to get too confident here, so let’s assume the worst about Game 2 and say…

Royals in 5.

-apc.

Photo courtesy of Hex FX Ariels. Follow on Twitter at @FXHex.

2015 MLB Predictions Revisited

These sort of prognostications sure are fun, but they’re generally a mindless way to write about baseball in a format everyone seems to care about. Myself included. When the various media “experts” come out with their predictions, I’m genuinely interested in their takes. I get excited when people pick my team. I get immediately annoyed and write them off as morons when they choose to pick against my heart’s desire. I hope none of you write me off as a moron.

But let’s take a stab at it anyway, shall we?

Before I get to my postseason predictions, let’s take a look at my 2015 preseason predictions and see how awful I did. We’ll start with the American League because it was far far worse.

AL East

My Prediction: Boston Red Sox

Actual:
Toronto Blue Jays & New York Yankees (Wild Card)

I overthought this one. My gut told me Toronto around February, but I fought it figuring they’d find a way to underachieve like they have in years past. I underestimated Josh Donaldson, and who would’ve known they’d be so aggressive at the trade deadline adding David Price, Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Revere. Totally changed everything.

I even admitted in my preseason post that I know better than to “buy into teams that spend tons of money to restock their team,” yet I somehow picked Boston. Another example of this method failing to pay off. I’ll never do it again.

AL Central

My Prediction: Kansas City Royals & Cleveland Indians (Wild Card)
Actual: Kansas City Royals

The Indians were just dreadful out the gate and it took a long time for things to begin to come together for them. They made it close, but had dug themselves too deep of a hole.

Meanwhile, the Royals did exactly what I expected them to do – plus about 10 more wins. I was confident in this bunch and they didn’t disappoint. Here’s what I had to say back in April:

People keep saying the Royals got worse in the offseason but I just don’t see it. Morales and Rios are both upgrades. Shields is gone, but Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura both have the potential to match his production. Plus they have three of the most sustainable strengths to their advantage: bullpen, defense and speed.

I mean, how did people not see this coming? It was obvious. Throw in the brilliant additions of free agents Chris Young and Ryan Madson, and this team was hard to beat…is hard to beat.

AL West

My Prediction: Seattle Mariners & Oakland Athletics (Wild Card)
Actual: Texas Rangers & Houston Astros (Wild Card)

The worst. The Mariners were the sexy pick for a lot of people preseason and I guess I got sucked into the hype myself. And the Athletics jacked with my psyche again – Billy Beane basically cleared house and added as many prospects or trade deadline commodities as he could in order to tank for the future. (He also signed Billy Butler, which seems very unrelated.) That’s what the plan looked like in April, but I assumed there was something more. That’s what it was.

What on earth happened in this division!? The five teams finished in nearly reverse order than what I (and most everybody else) predicted. Texas? Houston? What?

NL East

My Prediction: Washington Nationals & Miami Marlins (Wild Card)
Actual: New York Mets

I was so close to picking the Mets as a wild card team, but never would’ve guessed they’d own this division the way they did. I thought the Nationals were going to win 100 games! I suppose Washington ended up being such a toxic clubhouse that it allowed New York to walk over the rest of the weakest division in baseball. The Mets went 45-28 against the rest of the NL East. Miami ended up being a clunker before and after Giancarlo Stanton got injured, but still won 71 games. Philly and Atlanta were as bad as advertised.

NL Central

My Prediction: St. Louis Cardinals & Pittsburgh Pirates (Wild Card)
Actual: St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates (Wild Card) & Chicago Cubs (Wild Card)

The three strongest teams in the National League are out of the same division. The Cardinals, by some miracle, managed to overcome injuries to seemingly their entire team – Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Jon Jay, Carols Martinez, Jaime Garcia started the season on the DL – and not only win the division, but win 100 games. Actuslly, that “miracle” is called their “farm system” which continues to be the most coveted in all of baseball. I don’t know how they do it. Like rabbits.

I thought the Cubs would finish close, but would have to wait until next year. Nope. The team has been really good, and Jake Arrieta has emerged as one of the top 3 pitchers in the game alongside Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. The Pirates are one of the most complete teams in baseball, and were nipping at the Cardinals heels the entire second half.

NL West

My Prediction: Los Angeles Dodgers
Actual: Los Angeles Dodgers

Yep. You’re going to win a lot of games when you throw the two best pitchers in baseball 40% of the time. It’s just not fair.

So overall, I got 4 of the 10 teams correct: Royals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates. Pretty poor showing this year. The AL East continues to give me fits.

Okay, on to the playoffs. Let’s start predicting things and giving reasons for it.

Wild Card

Astros over Yankees

The Yankees are fading. The Astros have been playing good baseball over the past few weeks. Yankee Stadium isn’t a remotely scary place to play. Houston relies on the home run ball, and Yankee Stadium is the perfect ballpark for that type of team to excel. With a righty going in Masahiro Tanaka, I expect lefties Luis Valbuena and Colby Rasmus to both deposit homers in the right field short porch.

Cubs over Pirates

Jake Arrieta is a beast. The Pirates will not beat him. The only way Pittsburgh win this game is if they’re tied 0-0 and the Bucs manage to win against the Chicago bullpen in extras. Gerritt Cole is a fine pitcher, but he’s not in the same league as Arrieta.

That said, if Pittsburgh can make it past that menacing Wild Card game, look out. This team is loaded and might be the most formidable NL opponent. But…Jake.

ALDS

Royals over Astros in 5

I’d be a lot more afraid of Houston if the Royals were playing this series on the road (the same goes for if KC faces the Yankees). The Royals are simply the better team in all facets of the game. With Keuchel pitching on Tuesday, the next he would be available is Game 3 on Sunday (which, at home, he is essentially unbeatable). I think this series goes the full 5 games, but the Royals take it in the end.

Rangers over Blue Jays in 4

David Price is good, but so is Cole Hamels. At first glance, it would seem that whoever wins that Game 1 matchup is going to win this series. However, consider this: in two games against Rangers starter Yovani Gallardo this season, the Blue Jays have notched 6 hits and scored exactly 0 runs. Obviously the playoffs are a different animal, but maybe? One of those games was at home, the other at Rogers Centre. If the Jays can’t figure out how to hit Gallardo, they’re in trouble. The Rangers can match the Blue Jays power too, which is how you have to beat them up north. Toronto led the MLB in scoring, but Texas finished 3rd. Plus I just really like Delino DeShields Jr., and I really don’t want the Royals to face the Jays.

NLDS

Cardinals over Cubs in 5

These two division rivals have never faced each other in the postseason. I almost wish it didn’t have to happen because the mystique is probably more fascinating than the reality will be. The Cubs have Arrieta and Jon Lester going in 3 of the 5 games in this series, so picking the Cardinals means they’ll have to take down Lester at least once. But Dan Haren, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel? Really? I’ll take Jaime Garcia or Lance Lynn against any of those guys.

It’s weird to say this because the team won 100 games, but this Cardinals team feels like the 2006 or 2011 teams that both won the World Series. Those two teams were Wild Card teams, yes, but the injuries the team has sustained makes them seem like they’re underdogs in a way. Plus, getting Wainwright back and in the bullpen brings back so many memories of 2006.

Mets over Dodgers in 5

The Mets rotation is, somehow, better than the Dodgers. LA has the better 1-2 punch with Kershaw and Greinke, but Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey are near the top as well. But from there on, the Mets are much better with Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon over Brett Anderson and Alex Wood. Wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Clayton Kershaw get beat in the playoffs again this year. Usually it comes at the hands of the Cardinals. This year it’ll be Yoenis Cespedes and the Mets.

ALCS

Rangers over Royals in 6

At this point, who even knows if the matchup is going to happen. At least in the LDS I’m talking about 3, maybe 4, teams that will actually be playing. Whether it’s the Blue Jays or the Rangers here, I don’t like the Royals chances. Both teams have the ability to score too many runs, and whether it’s Hamels or Price, I’m afraid the Royals quest to “Take the Crown” ends in the Championship series.

NLCS

Mets over Cardinals in 6

Because I’m picking Mets/Cardinals it’s almost guaranteed to be Dodgers/Cubs. If it happens, I think the Mets rotation is just better than the Cardinals. If the Cubs face the Mets here, I’ll take the Cubs since they went 7-0 against New York this season.

World Series

Mets over Rangers in 6

Because I just don’t believe the Rangers can get that elusive 27th out.

Psh, who knows? It’s as good a prediction as anyone else is gonna have. Most of us could predict a couple of 6 year olds in a rock-paper-scissors matchup better than we could predict the Postseason. But hey, it’s fun. And if the Mets win it all, I’ll be the one saying I told you so.

And at a certain point, you just start picking the things you don’t want to happen because then you’re happier if you’re wrong. C’mon, KC.

-apc.

The Royals finish 95-67: The Postseason is (finally) here, and the American League goes through Kansas City.

Last Friday I was on a Southwest Airlines flight to Midway with my wife who knows full well that no matter how many times I fly, I will never get tired of looking out the window and down on creation. Knowing this, she takes the middle seat and gives me the window. Every time. Clearly I married up, or, in the very least, married someone significantly less selfish than I am.

Lots of Royals fans are on the flight. Loaded. Both the flight and the fans. I’m sure many of you experienced something similar on Friday night whether you were in a plane or not. It was an exciting weekend celebrating our first division championship in 30 years. <party emoji sequence>

Kansas City was playing a make up game at Wrigley Field versus the Cubs that Monday followed by three games at US Cellular against the White Sox. A woman sits down next to us on the aisle. She’s with a group of Royals fans around us. They all have an abundance of Southwest free drink loyalty coupons.

As we land, we learn the Royals have been blanked by Carlos Carrasco and the Indians, 6-0, while the Blue Jays have beaten the Rays in Toronto, 5-3, behind another home run barrage by the sluggernauts north of the border. The news circulates through the fuselage. The woman in the aisle seat swears loudly and bemoans the fact that we were just giving away home field advantage. She looks toward my wife and I for some backup, “I mean, the Blue Jays are gaining on us and Ned [Yost] just doesn’t care, right?! What do you think?”

Sidebar: Do you guys remember that scene in Groundhog Day when Mrs. Lancaster, the owner of the bed and breakfast, is making awkward small talk with Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Conners (played by Bill Murray), when she comments, “There’s talk of a blizzard.” In response, Phil kicks into meteorologist mode and waxes eloquently about how “all this moisture coming up out of the south…at high altitude it will chrystalize and give us what we call ‘snow.'” (This is going somewhere, trust me.) Phil drones on about the highs and lows for the day and finally pauses to ask, “Did you want to talk about the weather, or were you just making chit chat?”

“Just…chit chat,” she replies as awkward as ever.

This is the question I want to ask this woman when she asks me what I think. Does she actually want to engage in baseball banter, or is she purely looking for validation as a disgruntled and perhaps tipsy Royals fan? If the former, I’m inclined to discuss how, when up a dozen games, destined to clinch and waiting for the rest of the league to shake out, it’s normal to rest starters, work out the kinks and coast to October healthy and fresh. Because once you’re in, it’s a brand new game – the previous 162 games done matter, and besides, it’s partly just a big crapshoot. If it truly is the latter, then I’m inclined to nod, throw up my hands a bit incredulously and agree with her for the sake of argument, time, and potential frustration’s sakes, that Ned is clueless, the team is toast, and will probably not only lose home field advantage, but will likely somehow end up playing in the Wild Card game despite winning their division. It’s that bad, ma’am.

Since I’m unsure of her level of chat interest, I chooses middle-of-the-road option where I disagree but over-simplify the reasoning with throwaway comments like, “they’ll be fine,” and “we just gotta get to October.” It seems to work. She responds, “Really?! I’m nervous. I hope you’re right.”

I’ve been accused of being too optimistic – ignoring obvious gaffes in the game plan and choosing to blindly hope things turn around when everything suggests things are slowly imploding. Ignore Cueto. Ignore Gordon. Ignore Holland’s inconsistency. Ignore the red hot Blue Jays. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. It’ll be fine.

But c’mon. Games hadn’t mattered since late-August. The division had been wrapped up for so long, I was posting “who do we want in the postseason?” stuff in early September. The team had moved on. The goals were simple: get healthy and get ready. 

And they did that, for the most part. Lorenzo Cain‘s legs are sore and Salvador Perez‘s thumb and finger have taken a beating, but otherwise we are in good shape. And those were both due to freak happenstances – a foul off Lorenzo’s back knee and a couple errant throws catching Sal’s digits behind the plate.

I don’t think I was being flippant and blindly hoping. This team is, without a doubt in my mind, the best team in the American League. They have been since they started the season 7-0. Did they look bored and phone in some games in September? Absolutely. Like the night I landed in Chicago to learn that the Royals’ AAA lineup (plus Ben Zobrist) had been nearly no-hit by Carrasco. 

If anything, I believed that when the Royals were forced to play meaningful baseball games again they would rise to the occasion. Games became meaningful when they went to Minneapolis without home field advantage, and, as expected, we rose. And so did the Rays, thankfully.

Anyway. We’re here now. We did it. 

And wouldn’t you know it, but over the last week of the season, the team looked just like it did during the first week of the season. Running on all cylinders. Winning their last 5 games and  6 of their last 8. In those 8 games, their starters have given up 8 earned runs. Over 47.1 innings. That’s a 1.52 ERA. 

Is that right? That can’t be right. I’ve double checked it, but I still don’t believe it.

Yordano “Ace” Ventura is back and will start Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday. Johnny Cueto is back – or “fixed” might be a better word – and will start Game 2. Eddy is steady and will start Game 3. Chris Young has been brilliant and Kris Medlen has been too (but only on the road, oddly enough), so the two of them ought to have Game 4 covered. Throw in Danny Duffy, who looks better than ever in the bullpen, and this team is primed for the postseason. 

The bullpen doesn’t have questions anymore either. Wade Davis is the closer now that Greg Holland has had season ending Tommy John surgery. What I watched Kelvin HerreraRyan MadsonLuke Hochevar do at Wrigley Field in the 8th-9th-10th showed me all I need to know there. We have a bullpen that shortens games and a ballpark that lowers scores. And a defense that doesn’t bend or break.

So here we go, a second consecutive trip to the postseason. Last year as the underdog, but this year as one of the favorites. But know this about the postseason: anything can happen. 

The thing is though – and we learned this last year – defense, pitching and the ability to manufacture runs wins championships. Offense is a roller coaster that can ebb and flow by game. The Royals are 7th in all of baseball in runs scored, but TOR, NYY, TEX, and HOU all score more. But the Royals allow fewer runs than everybody but Houston. In the playoffs, scoring runs isn’t always sustainable, but preventing runs is. Hitting can go cold. Defense, speed and pitching really doesn’t.

I’ll look more closely at matchups and predict the postseason – like I so unsuccessfully did in 2014 – in the coming days. For now, I’ll say this: I’m pumped that we’re back playing meaningful baseball. I’m glad the team has a few days to rest Lorenzo’s legs and Sal’s hand, and I’m glad we won’t have to face Dallas Kuechel more than once in the ALDS (if we even see the Astros). And I’m glad the American League goes through Kansas City.

Here’s to another mostly unproductive, sleep deprived and emotionally overwhelming October. 

See you at the K on Thursday. 

-apc.

Photo: AP Photo accessed at NBCSports.com here.

The Royals are 88-63: Get your champagne ready…

The magic number is two. It could happen tonight.

Wouldn’t it be perfect if Johnny Cueto went out tonight and pitched lights out, clinching the Royals’ first ever AL Central division championship? Of course, we also need Minnesota to lose to Cleveland, but I was looking at the Indians’ lines against Twins’ starter Kyle Gibson, and check out these beauties…

Screenshot 2015-09-24 13.01.35

This is from ESPN’s stats page. Mike Aviles 4-6. Yan Gomes 5-9 with 2 HR. Michael Brantley (who, unfortunately, is injured) 4-11. Jason Kipnis is 2-6. Santana only has 1 hit but it was a 2-run HR. As a team they bat .344/.438/.557. No member of the Tribe who has faced Kyle Gibson is hitless against him. So, what I’m saying here is that I like our chances of clinching tonight.

The Johnny-Salvy Pairing

Throw in the fact that the Royals seem to have finally discovered the source of Cueto’s struggles and one could foresee the Royals popping corks in their home dugout about 8 hours from now.

This Johnny Cueto/Salvador Perez dynamic is really interesting to me. Andy McCullough wrote a fascinating piece following Cueto’s last start against Cleveland on how Salvy’s setup behind the plate wasn’t comfortable for his new ace. You can read that article here.

It makes sense. The 3-time All-Star catcher and soul of the team has his way of doing things. The new guy staff ace rental has his way. No one wants to butt heads. They both want to give the other the benefit of the doubt. But it wasn’t working. Finally, Cueto spoke up. We’ll see how things shake out over the next few starts.

Some folks – primarily on Twitter, so let’s not take it all too seriously – have suggested that Cueto pitch to the smaller, lower to the ground Drew Butera down the stretch. That, in the opinion of this fan blogger, would be pretty idiotic. Why would we ever want to get Cueto used to a catcher whose only purpose on the postseason roster will to be a backup catcher in case of injury? We don’t want Butera even touching a bat in a postseason game. No no no. You spend the next two weeks getting Cueto and Salvy on the same page so our best team takes the field in October. Come on, people.

Holland out. Wade in. Finally.

Ned Yost announced yesterday prior to the Royals 4-3 walks win over the Mariners that Greg Holland is out as the Royals closer and Wade Davis is in. Kelvin Herrera slides back an inning and takes over Wade’s 8th inning duties. Ryan Madson slides into the 7th to take over for Herrera. The 6th inning will be a mix/match situation, but I’m hoping Danny Duffy wants the job.

You have to wonder what took the Royals so long to make this move. It’s been very clear for more than a year that the best man in the Royals bullpen was Wade Davis. In fact, Davis has been so historically good that he may have the greatest two-year stretch by any reliever in the history of baseball. Why isn’t your best man pitching your most important inning? It could even be argued that Greg Holland wasn’t even the second best closer on the team. Herrera has been dominant as well. Yet there he was. He’s supposedly been dealing with elbow issues sin the All-Star break. His velocity is down. His control is miserable. He occasionally shows glimpses of his former self, but when a guy can’t command a fastball, he has no business being a closer.

With Holland being a free agent at year’s end, we’ve certainly seen the last of Greg Holland as a closer.

UPDATE: About two hours after this post the Royals announced that Holland has a significant UCL tear and will be shut down for the season. Supposedly he’s had the year since LAST AUGUST and has been pitching through pain. Crazy.

This Royals team isn’t messing around.

The last thing I’ll say here is that the Royals aren’t messing around this year. In the past, the Royals would’ve stuck with guys like Alcides Escobar leading off or Greg Holland closing or Danny Duffy getting more work in the rotation for the future. Not this year. This is 2015 and this – despite what the 2012 slogan maintained – is our time.

The Royals best 6 OBP guys are hitting 1 through 6 in the lineup. The Royals best bullpen arm is closing. Their second best is pitching the 8th. The Royals see that Kris Medlen is pitching much better than Danny Duffy and make the move early to prepare for the postseason. Even if that means Jeremy Guthrie has to get shelled a start or two, that’s okay, because Duffy needs to get used to the bullpen. The Royals aren’t afraid to bench their overpaid second baseman, Omar Infante (who is now going to be out a couple weeks with an oblique injury), or threaten to bench their underperforming and now bearded right fielder, Alex Rios, who has shockingly been our best hitter over the past month.

This team finally gets it. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say “finally” – I think Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have always gotten it, but they’re not playing for next year anymore. They’re finally playing for right now, and they’re making all the right moves to prepare us for the ALDS and hopefully beyond.

-apc.

Johnny Cueto’s BABIP

Let’s talk about Johnny Cueto.

The Royals gave up three left-handed pitching prospects for a couple months worth of Johnny Beisbol. In his first few starts, Cueto didn’t disappoint. In his first start at Kauffman Stadium, he threw a complete game shutout – a feat that hadn’t been done by a Royals starter all year. Since then, it’s been mostly downhill.
Going into Sunday, in his last 4 starts his ERA is a burgeoning 9.45. The Red Sox, Orioles, Tigers and White Sox have each shelled Cueto. It’s an anomaly in his career, and it’s easy to brush off and preach “sample size,” but at a certain point it still gets a bit unnerving.

Here’s something pretty interesting I’m taking a look at: 

For those unfamiliar with BABIP, it stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play and measures the average of non-homerun balls put in play that end up as hits. So if a guy goes 3-5 with a homer, strikeout, and a ground out, his BABIP is .667: the homer and strikeout don’t come into play, so of balls put in play, he went 2 for 3. Makes sense, yeah?

This metric depends on three variables: talent, defense and luck

Batters have more control over their talent on BABIP than pitchers do. Hitters can attempt to “hit it where they ain’t” – they can place their hits somewhat. Pitchers have a limited ability to really control where the ball goes off the bat. They can pitch down in the zone to induce ground balls, and they can throw on the outer half to coax the hitter to take it the opposite way, but they ultimately can’t determine the hitter’s bat speed to know what direction that ball will go. It’s much more determinant on the other two metrics: defense and luck.

So when measuring pitchers, BABIP can give a great understanding of how a pitcher is being aided or hurt by good/bad defense or good/bad luck. Better hitters have higher BABIP. Better pitchers have lower BABIP. League average is around .300 for both. Cueto’s career BABIP against is .274.

Uncharacteristically, Cueto’s last four games have all had a BABIP over .375. Here’s the list of games in the last three years of Cueto’s career where he posted a .375 BABIP or above.

  • 7/31/15 – KC @ TOR: .412
  • 8/20/14 – CIN @ STL: .412
  • 7/20/14 – CIN @ NYY: .417
  • 6/11/14 – CIN vs LAD: .375
  • 6/21/13 – CIN @ ARI: .500
  • 9/15/12 – CIN @ MIA: .444
  • 9/9/12 – CIN vs HOU: .615

It’s happened 5 times since Cueto joined Royals. To find the previous 5 times you’ve got to scroll his game log all the way back to September 2012 (I chose to omit 6/26/13 since he left with an injury after only 1.0 innings). So, in the number of times he’s posted a .375+ BABIP in the past three years…

  • September 2012 – July 2015: 5 times
  • August 2015 – September 2015: 5 times

To recap: five times over 34 months. And five times over 2 months.

In 221 career starts it’s only happened 40 times, but 1/8 of those have occurred in the past month. What is going on here? What would cause such an insane change in numbers in such a short amount of time?

At first glance, it makes no sense at all. One would assume when an All-Star caliber pitcher joins the team with the best defense in baseball, his BABIP would improve, not get worse. Right? Then what’s going on here?

The easiest solution here is to chalk it up to crummy luck. It’s also the laziest solution, so I’m wary to say that’s the problem. Cueto would have to be insanely unlucky to offset the benefit of the Royals defense. Besides, doesn’t it seem a bit too coincidental that the moment he changes teams, leagues and ballparks this spike occurs?

Perhaps the Royals defense hasn’t been as strong as usual. Alex Gordon has been out, and Ben Zobrist has been stepping in for he and Omar Infante lately. Zobrist is good, but he’s not as solid defensively as Omar and Alex. Throw in Jonny Gomes and Paulo Orlando, and the defense isn’t quite what it usually is. In Cueto’s last start, Christian Colon played 2B and Kendrys Morales played 1B. Three runs scored on grounders through the infield.

But as a whole, Cueto hasn’t given up groundball hits. It’s mostly been the result of medium to hard hit liners to the outfield. Nothing much the outfield can do about those. Besides, Jonny Gomes hasn’t even played while Cueto has been pitching. To me, it has very little, if anything, to do with the defense.

Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs came up with a three-part solution last week: Cueto’s faced tougher competition over the past few starts in the AL, he no longer gets to face pitchers since leaving the NL, and he’s simply made a few mistake pitches in the zone.

But Fangraphs doesn’t mention BABIP, and I think it creates a better framework in this instance. Fangraphs splits up his batting average against (BAA) over his entire career and found that this spike is right in line with others he’s had in the past. But this BABIP spike is unprecedented. He has never ever had a BABIP spike like this. It can’t just be chalked up to another peak on a chart. This is different.

Which brings me to the real question: Is it a major problem? Or is it just a freaky anomaly? With our defense, we have to assume this is just bad luck, right? It feels lazy, but it’s the only thing I can figure that would cause such a spike.

But what about talent? The one thing I’ll add in that regard is this: Johnny’s slider has been an issue lately. It’s never been his best pitch – he throws a fastball or cutter about 71% of the time and a slider only 8% – but since he came to KC, his slider has been consistently negative in value. The reason: he’s throwing it just a tick too fast, leaving it out over the plate. It’s the pitch that has consistently burned him. 

All this to say, I think there are tweaks that Cueto can make to become more effective, but overall, this streak of poor starts is strangely unlucky. Seems like a cop out, but his BABIP is so skewed it has to be the truth, honestly. Heck, maybe this is a good thing. Law of Averages would suggest that he’s due to have some good luck around the corner. 

Clean up that slider Johnny, and keep relying on your defense and you’ll be fine.

And fans – keep calm and Cueto on. 

-apc.

Photo cred: mlive.com accessed here. (Highly recommend clicking over if only to laugh at the headline.)