2014 ALCS Preview: Royals vs. OriolesPatrick Smith/Getty Images
“Royals-Orioles ALCS” is a phrase that feels as strange to type as it probably does to read, but it’s a reality. The two teams entered the ALDS as underdogs and emerged unscathed, sweeping opponents that seemed stronger on spreadsheets. Each victor showed off its respective strengths: speed, defense, and bullpen in Kansas City’s case; defense, bullpen, and big bats (not to mention managing) in Baltimore’s.
Whichever team advances will give the World Series a retro look: The Orioles haven’t won a pennant since 1983, and the Royals haven’t made it to a Series since 1985, giving them the AL’s second- and third-longest World Series appearance droughts, respectively. Before we get there, though, we’ll be treated to what should be an exciting matchup between teams that are alike in some respects and polar opposites in others. Based on the results of SportsNation polling, 47 states are rooting for the Royals, but will they get the outcome they want?
|Orioles Projected ALCS Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP Chris Tillman||3.34||4.01||207.1||17.2||7.6|
|2||LHP Wei-Yin Chen||3.54||3.89||185.2||17.6||4.5|
|3||RHP Bud Norris||3.65||4.22||165.1||20.2||7.6|
|4||RHP Miguel Gonzalez||3.23||4.89||159.0||16.5||7.6|
|Royals Projected ALCS Starting Rotation|
|1||RHP James Shields||3.21||3.59||227.0||19.2||4.7|
|2||RHP Yordano Ventura||3.20||3.60||183.0||20.3||8.8|
|3||LHP Jason Vargas||3.71||3.84||187.0||16.2||5.2|
|4||RHP Jeremy Guthrie||4.13||4.32||202.2||14.4||5.7|
Note: These tables feature regular-season stats only.
Orioles starters totaled 15 innings and allowed seven runs in the ALDS. Most of the damage was done during Wei-Yin Chen’s 3.2-inning outing in Game 2, but the rotation’s overall line (five innings per start with a 4.20 ERA) wasn’t way out of line with what we should expect in the ALCS. As we documented in our ALDS preview, Baltimore’s starters had baseball’s eighth-lowest regular-season strikeout rate, sixth-highest walk rate, second-lowest ground ball rate, and sixth-highest home run rate, which translated into a 4.18 FIP and a 108 FIP-, the worst of any playoff team since the barely-above-.500 2006 Cardinals. Orioles starters were able to outperform their peripherals significantly during the regular season by avoiding hits with runners on base and in scoring position, which typically isn’t a sustainable skill.
While the Orioles’ rotation is a relative weakness, they have the right manager to minimize the risk that they’ll be burned by their lack of an ace. It’s not that Buck Showalter’s early ALDS hooks were inspired: Leaving Chris Tillman in to start the sixth inning (and make his third trip through the heart of the Tigers’ order) with 105 pitches under his belt in Game 1, or allowing a roughly league-average starter like Chen to try to work out of trouble after he’d already allowed five early runs, would have been managerial malpractice in a best-of-five series. But good managing isn’t always about making brilliant moves; often, it’s about avoiding obvious errors. In a month when most managers have done something to draw scrutiny (some of it merited), Showalter has gone three games without making a questionable move. By continuing to go to the bullpen early, Showalter can maximize his roster’s strength.
As MLB.com beat writer Brittany Ghiroli noted on this week’s episode of the Jonah Keri Podcast, quickness to the plate has been a priority for the Orioles, which should come in handy against the Royals’ running game. “Guys who are slow aren’t with the Orioles anymore,” Ghiroli said. “They’ve really, organizationally, taught these guys from Class A on that if you’re not quick to the plate, you’re not going to be pitching for the Baltimore Orioles.”
Game 1 starter Tillman, who came up through Baltimore’s system after arriving in the Erik Bedard trade, is the best example. Among pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched over the past two seasons, only Nathan Eovaldi has allowed as few steals as Tillman — and Tillman topped Eovaldi’s innings total by more than 100. Baserunners have tested Tillman, but they’ve almost always regretted it, going 2-for-13 in their attempts. However, Bud Norris, whom the O’s didn’t get to groom from his baseball infancy, has been one of the most frequent stolen-base victims, allowing 31 swipes in 45 attempts from 2013 to 2014. Overall, the Orioles have allowed the 10th-fewest attempts and eighth-fewest steals this season, and they limited their opponents to -7.7 Baserunning Runs, the AL’s second-lowest total.
The Royals will have the rotation edge in any games started by James Shields and Yordano Ventura, who are slated for Games 1 and 2 and would be back on full rest for Games 5 and 6. Jason Vargas will presumably start Game 3 in Kansas City, with Jeremy Guthrie (backed by Danny Duffy) getting the Game 4 nod. That suits the staff well, since the more prolific fly-ballers would be throwing most of their innings at home; although Oriole Park hasn’t played like a bandbox this season, it’s historically been more homer-friendly than Kauffman Stadium.
|Orioles Projected ALCS Lineup|
|1||RF Nick Markakis||L||.276/.342/.386||106||710|
|2||LF Alejandro De Aza||L||.252/.314/.386||94||528|
|3||CF Adam Jones||R||.281/.311/.469||117||682|
|4||DH Nelson Cruz||R||.271/.333/.525||137||678|
|5||1B Steve Pearce||R||.293/.373/.556||161||383|
|6||SS J.J. Hardy||R||.268/.309/.372||90||569|
|7||3B Ryan Flaherty||L||.221/.288/.356||79||312|
|8||C Caleb Joseph||R||.207/.264/.354||72||275|
|9||2B Jonathan Schoop||R||.209/.244/.354||65||481|
|Royals Projected ALCS Lineup|
|1||SS Alcides Escobar||R||.285/.317/.377||94||620|
|2||RF Nori Aoki||L||.285/.349/.360||104||549|
|3||CF Lorenzo Cain||R||.301/.339/.412||111||502|
|4||1B Eric Hosmer||L||.270/.318/.398||99||547|
|5||DH Billy Butler||R||.271/.323/.379||97||603|
|6||LF Alex Gordon||L||.266/.351/.432||122||643|
|7||C Salvador Perez||R||.260/.289/.403||92||606|
|8||2B Omar Infante||R||.252/.295/.337||76||575|
|9||3B Mike Moustakas||L||.212/.271/.361||76||500|
Note: These tables feature regular-season stats only.
These are offenses on opposite ends of the run-scoring spectrum. The Orioles led the league in home runs and ranked last in stolen bases; the Royals led the league in steals and ranked last in homers. Power tends to trump speed and contact in the long run, and the Orioles’ edge revealed itself in the regular season. As I noted in the AL wild-card game preview, Royals non-pitchers produced a 94 wRC+ this season, the lowest of any playoff team since the 2007 Diamondbacks, who were outscored by their opponents.
And yet the Royals scored nine runs in the AL wild-card game and eight in their ALDS Game 3 clincher, even though (as Rany Jazayerli noted) they hadn’t topped seven in a regular-season game since August 17. While their seven steals in the wild-card game made the Royals’ speed one of the main story lines before their series with the Angels even began, power and patience were major components of Kansas City’s success. The Royals hit four home runs in the series, which qualifies as a barrage by a team that went homerless in almost 60 percent of its games this season. They also walked 12 times (twice intentionally), nearly double their regular-season rate of 2.3 per game, leaving us to wonder whether to attribute their out-of-character counting stats to extra innings, Angels pitching, and a small sample, or unsuspected skill.
For Royals fans who’ve been forecasting contention since the feverish prospect fixation of 2010-11, when the organization boasted the best farm system in recent memory, it’s gratifying that two of the top three players on the prospect lists that inflamed the fan base have been responsible for much of the postseason scoring. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas haven’t followed the smooth paths to stardom that their draft positions dictated, but their growing pains (or worse, lack of growth) are easy to forgive as long as Moustakas is slugging .714 and Hosmer is slugging 1.143, which would make an excellent OPS.
Both players have appeared to be on the verge of breakouts before, though, so we shouldn’t read too much into a successful few games. Moustakas entered the postseason on a streak of 113 homerless plate appearances; he picked a fine time to snap it, but there’s little reason to think he’s suddenly solved his problems. Hosmer’s performance is slightly more believable, since it extends further into the past than last week. Although his improvement was masked by his slow start and the stress fracture in his hand that cost him almost all of August, Hosmer hit .321/.379/.509 in 182 regular-season plate appearances after the start of July. It’s not the first time Hosmer has had a strong second half — he also did so last season, before regressing this spring — but it’s fair to say he’s more capable than his full-season stats suggest.
If having four full days off after clinching on Sunday helps either team, it should be the Royals, who have more players whose usage suggests they might benefit from a breather. Out of both necessity and tactical preference, Showalter and Dan Duquette have mixed and matched all season, whereas health, roster construction, and a reluctance to use pinch hitters have led Ned Yost to use a “set it and forget it” lineup. The Royals are one of only five teams in the wild-card era to have nine players make at least 500 plate appearances. The Orioles have only five, one of whom (Chris Davis) will be spending the ALCS in the instructional league.1 Because some of the Orioles’ starters spent parts of the season in reserve roles, and because Baltimore’s big AL East lead gave Showalter the chance to rest his veterans in September, the O’s might feel fresher than the hard-ridden regulars from the top to the bottom of Kansas City’s lineup.
Chief among the Royals who could be suffering from fatigue is Salvador Perez, who led all catchers in regular-season innings with 1,248.2, the highest total since Jason Kendall’s 1,328.1 in 2008. After accruing another 43 frames in the Royals’ first four postseason games, three of which went to extras, Perez is poised to top 1,300 in Game 1 of this series. Although the adrenaline rush gave Perez enough energy to climb the dugout railing after Hosmer’s Game 2–winning homer, all of those innings (and wild backswings) may have taken their toll. While offensive struggles don’t always have an identifiable origin, it’s tempting to tie Perez’s heavy usage to the drastic difference between his first- and second-half splits.
Perez’s plate discipline completely broke down as the season wore on, and his second-half chase rate was the highest among qualified hitters. That trend continued during his 2-for-13 start to October: Even his walk-off single in the AL wild-card game came on a pitch that was well out of the zone. Perez hasn’t gotten four consecutive days off since a thumb injury sidelined him in late May, but this week’s schedule has allowed him a respite that he’s lacked for most of the season.
Omar Infante is another Royal who hasn’t seemed himself. He’s been banged up all year, but since missing a few days at the end of August with shoulder inflammation that Yost said was “not going to subside,” the second baseman has started every game. Among qualified players, only Matt Dominguez, Billy Hamilton, and Andrelton Simmons hit worse than Infante in the second half, and Infante doesn’t offer the ancillary skills Hamilton and Simmons bring. If Yost were as adaptive as Showalter, he might instead consider starting Christian Colon (who had a productive campaign at Triple-A and impressed in a small major league sample) on the grounds that he couldn’t be worse and might possibly be better. Research suggests that an occasional rest day can help players’ performance at the plate, and that probably applies to beaten-up, run-down players like Perez and Infante more than most.
The Orioles also hit four homers in the ALDS, but that wasn’t unusual for them. Nelson Cruz contributed two, giving him 16 over the past five postseasons; no other player has more than nine playoff homers over that span. The Orioles’ 7-8-9 batters, however, can be beaten; their vulnerability helps explain the modest RBI totals of the team’s sluggers. Pressing that advantage and keeping Ryan Flaherty, Jonathan Schoop, and the Orioles’ light-hitting backstop of the day off base will be a key for Kansas City, since the Orioles’ homers hurt a lot less when they’re solo shots.
I’ve written extensively about both teams’ defenses, which by some metrics were the top two in the American League. Baltimore has excelled at preventing base hits, even in Manny Machado’s absence, in part because De Aza, who played mostly center for the White Sox, has taken innings in left from Delmon Young (who still starts against lefties). The Royals have excelled in the outfield, which you’re well aware of if you turned on their highlight-filled ALDS at virtually any point. Baltimore is at its best in the field when Caleb Joseph starts at catcher: Not only is he a better pitch-framer than Nick Hundley, but he has the superior arm. Joseph led the league with a 40 percent caught-stealing rate, which makes him by far the Orioles’ best hope of avoiding Oakland’s fate against K.C.’s speed.
In its Game 3 ALDS victory, Kansas City followed its highly effective formula for success: Shields for six, followed by Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland for an inning apiece. (That’s another benefit of having four days off: The rest can only have helped Herrera, who left Game 1 with a forearm strain but returned to pitch in Game 3 after a magic massage.) The formula doesn’t work as well with back-of-the-rotation Royals starters, who probably shouldn’t be stretched to six. While the bullpen picture is slightly fuzzier before the seventh, Brandon Finnegan and Jason Frasor are more reliable than most teams’ middle-inning options, and the Royals also have Duffy in their deck. Yost has led a charmed life this postseason, as his bullpen decisions have either worked out or ultimately not mattered. That won’t necessarily continue, but it’s been fun to watch him walk the tightrope.
Although Yost has a small-ball rep, his power-starved roster is really responsible for producing that impression. The Royals’ 52 sacrifice bunts attempts by position players did rank fifth in the majors (the Orioles tied for sixth with 51). Otherwise, though, Yost is characterized by inaction: not changing his bullpen roles, not altering his lineups, not using pinch hitters, not calling for intentional walks. In some ways, he could stand to be more of a meddler — like Showalter, who seems likely to reshuffle his roster and add more lefty relievers with Hosmer and Moustakas in mind. Showalter’s pen is every bit as good as Yost’s, and probably better, though his rotation makes him rely on it more. Kevin Gausman is currently a long reliever with top-of-the-rotation stuff, while Darren O’Day, Andrew Miller (whom Showalter, for the first time all season, used in the sixth in two games against the Tigers), and Zach Britton are almost as intimidating as the Royals’ late-inning trio.
The Royals have the edge in substitute speed and defense, thanks to Jarrod Dyson and September call-up Barry Bonds Terrance Gore, whose presence helped the team lead the league in pinch runners. However, Young gives the O’s the best bat off the bench, and adding Quintin Berry to the roster in place of an extra infielder would give Showalter his own pair of legs to play with.
Two years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the Orioles not being the default favorite of impartial fans in any postseason series. Unfortunately, they’ve run up against the Royals, who spread good cheer and charming Instagram images wherever they go. Baseball fans without a vested interest in either team don’t want to see the Royals’ joyride end, if only because the longer it lasts, the more likely they are to buy us a beer.
Sentiment aside, though, the Royals are the underdogs that the sportsbooks believe them to be. They have the edge in the rotation and on the bases, but the O’s have the better offense, a bullpen that can battle Kansas City’s to a standstill, and home-field advantage. They also have the superior skipper, and while that’s not an enormous edge, since most managerial decisions don’t raise or reduce a team’s win expectancy by more than a few percentage points, it still helps disguise Baltimore’s biggest weakness.
This isn’t a lopsided series, but the odds are better than even that the Royals’ running ends here. Orioles in six.
Filed Under: 2014 MLB Playoffs, MLB, MLB Playoffs, Playoffs, ALCS, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Buck Showalter, Ned Yost, Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Caleb Joseph, Nelson Cruz, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Darren O'Day, James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Kelvin Herrera, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Bullpens, Pitching, Stolen Bases, Baseball, MLB Stats, Ben Lindbergh