World Series Preview: Five Keys to Victory for the Royals and the Mets

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One more day, and then it’s here: the series that literally none of us predicted. So, before the Royals attempt to atone for last year’s Fall Classic failure by taking on Sadaharu Oh Daniel Murphy and the Mets, we’ve asked Ben Lindbergh and Jonah Keri to make a five-point case for each side. To the penta-prognostications!

Why the Royals Will Win

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Ben Lindbergh: Forget that the Royals are batting .350 with runners in scoring position this postseason. Forget Esky Magic (which cancels out Murphy Magic) and the improbable ways in which Ned Yost’s perplexing pitching decisions rarely come back to bite him. Forget that for the second consecutive postseason, the Royals’ pennant run was one big comeback story encompassing several smaller comeback stories. Forget that the Royals seem like advance-scouting savants; for all we know, the Mets might be too. Forget that the Royals — last October’s upstarts — are the older, more experienced squad in this series. Forget that even an inactive Jonny Gomes supposedly casts confidence spells with an area of effect that boosts his whole party.

Taken collectively, maybe all of that tells us something about the Royals that stats can’t capture. But we can make a strong case for Kansas City without resorting to “clutchness,” “comebackitude,” or superior scouting skills — all of which we’d have to take on faith. For the following five totally real, non-#narrative reasons, the Royals have a slight edge on New York as they make their second attempt at a World Series win under Yost.

1. The Royals Hit Heat

As Jeff Sullivan and I independently demonstrated last week, teams that make contact tend to decline less in October than teams that swing and miss. And just like last year, the whiff-averse Royals have a higher OPS against playoff competition than they did for the first six months of the season. Their secret might be their ability to do damage against good heat.

As my colleague Jonah Keri will later point out, Mets pitchers turn baseballs into blurs. Of 779 Mets pitches this postseason that Major League Baseball Advanced Media has classified as four-seamers, two-seamers, or sinkers, 511 (65.6 percent) have left the hand with a velocity of at least 95 mph. Eight Mets pitchers have hit that mark this postseason, and Noah Syndergaard has touched triple digits 22 times (if we generously round up from 99.5). Against most teams, Cubs included, elite velocity is an enormous asset.

The Royals don’t care. Not only are they unfazed by fastballs, but the faster the heaters, the more their skills stand out.

Against all pitches, the Royals’ regular-season Weighted On-Base Average — an all-in-one measure of offensive production on the OBP scale — was five points higher than the MLB average. Against all fastballs, their wOBA was 29 points better than the league’s. And against fastballs 94 and above, the gap grew to 51 points. Even when the radar readings rose to 96 or higher, the Royals were still significantly better than they were against all pitches, even though the league was significantly worse. Only the Blue Jays were better against all fastballs, and no team was better against fastballs 94 and up. The Mets, meanwhile, managed only a .272 wOBA on fastballs that speed, and unfortunately for them, the Royals’ staff throws almost as hard as the Mets’ staff.

Group Overall wOBA wOBA vs. Fastballs vs. FB ≥94 vs. FB ≥95 vs. FB ≥96
Royals .323 .380 .368 .352 .342
League .318 .351 .317 .308 .299

The same trend shows up if we judge the Royals by whiff rate (misses per swing). Against fastballs 95 and above, the Royals’ whiff rate was only 13 percent higher than their whiff rate against all fastballs. But the league’s whiff rate against those elite heaters was 36.5 percent higher than the baseline fastball rate — an increase almost three times as large as K.C.’s.

Group Overall Whiff% Whiff% vs. Fastballs vs. FB ≥94 vs. FB ≥95 vs. FB ≥96
Royals 19.7 12.3 14.3 14.1 13.9
League 23.0 16.7 20.7 21.5 22.8

A team’s rate of fastballs seen is a decent indicator of how well it hits fastballs: The more a team punishes a pitch type, the less often pitchers throw it. The Royals saw the fourth-lowest percentage of fastballs during the regular season, even though they weren’t well-stocked with the sluggers that tend to see breaking balls. That’s a sign of respect for their batters’ ability to fight fire. It’s also a problem for the Mets, who rely more heavily on the heat than any other 2015 playoff team. Only the Braves’ rotation threw a higher percentage of four-seamers, two-seamers, and sinkers than the Mets’ this season. “Successful pitchers pitch to their strengths,” Terry Collins says. But New York’s pitching strength plays right into the hands of Kansas City’s flame-retardant lineup.

2. Don’t Run on the Royals

On the basepaths, not much separates the Royals and Mets: The teams ranked ninth and 10th, respectively, in Baseball Prospectus’s Baserunning Runs during the regular season. Both clubs have scored crucial runs in clinching playoff games by using their heads as well as their legs: The Mets’ Daniel Murphy, representing the tying run, took the Dodgers’ shifted infield by surprise to steal third in Game 5 of the NLDS, while the Royals’ Lorenzo Cain took advantage of Jose Bautista’s throwing tendencies to score the ALCS-winning run in a way we hadn’t seen all season.

The Mets have been much more aggressive on the bases in October, tying Toronto for the most postseason steals (nine) after swiping the second-fewest (51) during the regular season. But the Royals are much more adept at suppressing the running game, which was a weakness for the Mets for most of the year.

Baseball Prospectus also tracks Baserunning Runs allowed by each team. The lower the run total, the better the team was at preventing its opponents from taking the extra base. Only the Twins did a better job of slowing opposing runners than the Royals.

Team BRR Against
Twins -18.1
Royals -16.2
Red Sox -10.5
Orioles -7.7
Rays -6.3
Nationals +9.4
Marlins +9.4
Yankees +9.7
Rockies +13.3
Padres +20.3

The Mets, who made the NL’s fewest pickoff attempts, ranked 24th, with 7.2 Baserunning Runs allowed. Granted, they would have rated better with a full season of Yoenis Cespedes. But one could say the same about the Royals and Ben Zobrist (another deadline acquisition) or Alex Gordon (who missed most of July and all of August). And most of the Mets’ demerits came on balls in the infield: They allowed the most Ground Advancement Runs in the majors (9.2), while the Royals prevented the most (minus-10.3). That jibes with the overall defensive struggles of New York’s infield: Mets non-outfielders cost the team 39 Defensive Runs, the second-worst sum in the majors, while Royals non-outfielders saved the team 24 Defensive Runs. The Mets’ porous infield is another reason for Royals fans to be thankful that their team puts the ball into play.

On the other side, Kansas City’s crackdown on the running game is a true team effort. The outfield’s weakest fly-catcher, Alex Rios, has its strongest arm: According to Statcast data provided by MLBAM, Rios’s max-effort throws this season have averaged 94.5 mph, well above the right-field average of 90.8. Left fielder Alex Gordon, who’s riding a four-season Gold Glove streak (and hasn’t committed an error this season), doesn’t rack up as many assists as he once did, but that’s only because baserunners have learned not to test his accurate arm. The table below shows the percentage of runners he’s held in various situations where it was possible for a runner to advance, compared to the league average for left fielders. Those extra bases saved add up.

Year Gordon Hold % All LF Hold %
2010 70.0 63.7
2011 63.8 63.8
2012 68.3 63.3
2013 66.8 64.1
2014 74.6 63.4
2015 71.6 64.0

Catcher Salvador Perez, who owns an above-average career caught-stealing rate, boasts a pop time (1.89 seconds) and average throwing speed on attempted steals of second (80.8 mph) that exceed the MLB baselines (1.97 seconds and 79.6 mph). In the unlikely event Perez takes an inning off, he’ll be replaced by Drew Butera, whose pop time and arm strength are even more impressive (1.87 seconds and 87.6 mph), befitting a two-way player who can hit the mid-90s off the mound. And starters Yordano Ventura and Johnny Cueto are among the best in baseball at convincing runners not to get greedy.

3. Fly vs. Fly

In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, coauthors Andrew Dolphin, Mitchel Lichtman, and Tom Tango unearthed a batted-ball split that’s just as persistent as, although slightly less powerful than, the lefty/righty platoon split every team takes into account. Just as the batter does worse when the batter and pitcher hit and throw from the same side, the batter also does worse when the batter and pitcher have the same batted-ball profile. In other words, in a faceoff between ground ball pitchers and ground ball batters, or fly ball pitchers and fly ball batters, the pitcher has the edge. When opposites square off, the tendencies meet in the middle and lead to line drives. But in a showdown between like types, ground ball batters pound pitches into the dirt, while fly ball batters produce popups.

The Royals have a fly ball staff: Only the Angels and Rays had higher fly ball rates this season. Mets batters, meanwhile, recorded the fifth-highest fly ball rate (and the third-highest among position players), a trait that only intensified with Cespedes in the fold. In theory, these batted-ball tendencies should sap some of the Mets’ power, forcing them to swing under balls that they usually center. The effect should be especially strong against über-fly-baller Chris Young, who’s had success in both of the big parks in this series. And regardless of who’s on the mound for Kansas City, the Royals will benefit from the game’s rangiest outfield, another way in which they match up well with the Mets’ air-happy offense.

4. The Bullpen Is Better

The Mets bullpen has pitched only 25.2 playoff innings, far fewer than the Royals’ 41. In part, that’s because the Royals have played two extra games. In part, it’s because the Mets have a better rotation. But it’s also because Collins has fewer trustworthy relievers. Jeurys Familia is a boss, but there’s a reason Bartolo Colon is the Mets’ next-most-used reliever: Whatever multi-headed late-inning monster Collins can summon (Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed?) looks more like alien Johnny Knoxville from Men in Black II than the Royals’ intimidating trio of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Ryan Madson.

During the regular season, Davis, Herrera, and Madson combined to pitch 37.1 percent of the Royals’ relief innings. In the playoffs, they’ve accounted for 50.4 percent. Madson has turned into Hunter Strickland from the 2014 playoffs, canceling out 10 strikeouts in 5.1 innings by allowing four home runs, but Davis and Herrera have been their usual nasty selves. Yost has shown he’s willing to use both for two innings or more in October — in Game 7 last season, he rode Herrera for eight outs — and after relying on Madson almost cost him in Game 6 of the ALCS, he should be extra-aggressive in deploying Davis, especially in light of the long break between series.

Both managers have been guilty of leaving postseason starters in too long — Yost maybe more so, given the shakier starters and better bullpen options at his disposal. But Yost had a quicker hook than Collins during the regular season, and historically, he’s also been better at choosing the right reliever once he decides to make a move. In excessive fairness to Yost, Ventura and Edinson Volquez — the two starters he’s stuck with in their third times through the order, to the Royals’ near-detriment — have shown off improved stuff, partially counteracting Cueto’s inconsistency. Volquez has averaged 96.2 mph with his four-seamer and 95.6 with his sinker in the postseason, up from 94.8 and 94.2 in the regular season. And Ventura has continued to trust the curveball that led to his second-half success.

5. They Have Home Field

Even in particularly important games, there’s no evidence that home-field advantage is stronger than usual in the postseason. The Royals discovered as much in Game 7 last season, when Madison Bumgarner put them away with five scoreless innings in Kansas City. Nor should we make much of the Royals’ .630 winning percentage at Kauffman Stadium this season and .543 winning percentage on the road: Home/away splits swing too wildly for us to trust what they say in a single season.1

That said, there’s also no evidence that home-field advantage is any weaker in October. Home teams win 54 percent of their postseason games, just as they do during the regular season. And thanks to the American League’s victory in a Royals–infused All-Star Game three months ago, Kansas City gets those precious percentage points if the series goes seven. If this matchup is a toss-up on talent, then home-field advantage snaps the tie.

Why the Mets Will Win

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Jonah Keri: The Mets will take the field for Game 1 on the 29th anniversary of their last World Series–clinching win. This year’s squad bears some similarities to the ’86 edition,2 including power pitching at the top of the rotation, one of the top power-hitting lineups in the National League, and another playoff beast in the closer role. In a tough battle featuring two fairly evenly matched teams, those are some of the factors that will propel the Mets to another championship.

1. The Mets Offense Is Now a Power-Hitting Terror

In the first half of the season, the Mets were who we thought they would be: a team with often-scintillating starting pitching and a terrible offense. Before the All-Star break, the Mets scored 310 runs (just under 3.5 per game), second-to-last in the National League and just two more than the awful Phillies. Their .233 batting average ranked last in the NL. They fared somewhat better with the long ball, though ranking a middle-of-the-pack eighth in first-half home runs didn’t scare too many opponents. A 47-42 record at the break, just two games out of first, was a better result than most expected. Still, it was hard not to wonder what might be if their bats ever caught up with their electric young arms.

Everything changed in the second half. The Mets led the NL with 373 runs scored, an impressive 5.1 per game. They moved up to sixth in batting average and into a virtual tie for second in OBP. And their power game came alive, as the Mets led the senior circuit with 102 second-half home runs.

For a while, we gave too much of the credit for that turnaround to Cespedes. The slugging outfielder did deserve a lot of recognition, batting a massive .287/.337/.604 (with 17 homers, 14 doubles, and four triples in 230 at-bats) as a Met, after a last-minute deal that capped an insane week in Queens. Add the acquisitions of versatile infielders Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe, and the Mets had a far more productive deadline week than most cynics worn out by Wilpon–induced inactivity expected. But as ESPN’s Jayson Stark wrote last week, the Mets got even more of a lift from internal reinforcements: Calling up rookie outfielder Michael Conforto on July 24, activating impressive young catcher Travis d’Arnaud on July 31, and activating the longest-tenured Met (David Wright) on August 24 radically transformed both the look and productivity of the lineup.

In the Royals, the Mets will face a team whose top four starters and top three relievers are right-handed. Though New York had roughly even splits this year, facing all of those righties figures to benefit Murphy, Curtis Granderson, and Conforto greatly, given how much better all three were against right-handed pitchers this year. Murphy’s surface-of-the-sun hot streak may or may not keep going in the World Series; assuming that his streak (or Alcides Escobar’s for that matter) might continue is projecting an outcome that’s ostensibly un-projectable. But every time one of those right-handers throws a fastball, he’ll be offering the exact kind of pitch Murphy wants to see.

Add in the lefty-swinging Johnson — another Met who hits righties much better than lefties and is likely to start at DH during games in K.C. — along with a shaky Royals rotation, and the Mets will get a chance to jump ahead early in games.

2. Johnny Cueto Is a Potential Disaster

No one has said conclusively what’s wrong with Cueto. He struggled through elbow problems earlier in the season, to the point that some observers wondered if that injury might scuttle a potential deadline deal. Cueto then appeared to shake off whatever was ailing him, pitching well for the Reds into the summer and triggering a trade to K.C. He’s been erratic and at times downright horrible since then, posting a 4.76 ERA and allowing 101 hits in 81.1 innings during the regular season as a Royal, then pitching poorly in two of his three playoff starts, including an eight-run, two-inning debacle in Game 3 of the ALCS.

It’s possible Cueto has just hit a random rough patch, the flip side to the insane runs Murphy and Escobar are on. But there are signs something more is going on. There’s the in-season dip in Cueto’s velocity, even as other pitchers (especially the Mets fireballers) continue to throw smoke. There’s the lack of command and bite on his pitches, resulting in offerings like the flat 85 mph cutter to Kevin Pillar that ended Cueto’s outing in that dreadful Game 3. Then there are Cueto’s results themselves: The booming homers, ringing doubles, and frustrating walks point to something more than a few seeing-eye singles doing him in.

The Royals have enough bullpen depth to chew up a lot more than two or three innings at the end of the game. But if the Mets lay an early four- or five-spot on Cueto, any relief effort might turn out to be too late.

3. The Mets’ Starting Rotation Is Really, Really Good

With five days off between games, the Mets had a chance to set their dynamic young rotation in any order they wanted for the World Series. In the end, they elected to go with Matt Harvey for Game 1, followed by Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, and then Steven Matz. That order sets up deGrom to start in Games 2 and 6 (if necessary), Syndergaard to go in Games 3 and 7 (if necessary), and Harvey to start in Games 1 and 5 (if necessary). Harvey should also be available to throw multiple innings of relief if we make it to a Game 7.

Led by that all-twentysomething armada of flamethrowers, the Mets threw pitches of 95 mph or faster more often this season than any other team. Harvey, deGrom, and Syndergaard in particular formed one of the most prolific trios of hard throwers in baseball history. Baseball can be a game full of subtle advantages and hidden strengths. But sometimes blunt objects can work really well too: Teams that throw gas better than anyone have been enormously successful over the past few years.

The theory that’s been constructed in the Royals’ favor — including by my colleague in the above section — is that their hitters fare well against fastballs and have excellent contact-hitting skills, which could negate the Mets’ ability to blow hard stuff by them. Except, this year opposing hitters batted .176 against Harvey’s slider and .191 against his curve; .144 against deGrom’s changeup; and .184 against Syndergaard’s curve. And while the Royals might make contact more often than everyone else, they’re also not facing anyone like Harvey, deGrom, or Syndergaard on a consistent basis.

The bottom line is that the Mets will head into the first three games of this series with a sizable edge in starting pitching talent. And for a young pitching staff blowing past previous career highs in innings pitched, the five days off the Mets just had could make Harvey, deGrom, and Syndergaard even more formidable.

4. Jeurys Familia Can Go More Than One Inning

Even without injured closer Greg Holland, the Royals carry a deep and potent bullpen, led by that trio of Herrera, Madson, and Davis, along with talented converted lefty starter Danny Duffy. The Mets’ setup core of Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed isn’t quite as reliable.

However, Familia is a sinker/slider/splitter-chucking monster, and Collins can and will deploy him aggressively. During the regular season, Familia fired 78 innings, struck out 86 batters, walked just 19, and posted a 1.85 ERA. But he also usually occupied the role of traditional closer, mostly coming in to pitch clean ninth innings. Not so in the playoffs: Familia retired the final four batters in order during Game 1 of the NLDS. He went six up, six down to close the deciding Game 5 of that series. And he logged four outs to finish off Game 1 of the NLCS. His total line this postseason? In 9.2 innings, no runs and two hits allowed.

With built-in days off for travel and rest, look for Collins to continue to use Familia aggressively, and for the Mets to be in strong shape if they can build a lead through seven innings, and not just necessarily eight.

5. Travis d’Arnaud Is Not Derek Norris

As Ben mentioned, the Royals haven’t run wild quite the same way they did in 2014. Given that this team now has a deeper, better, and more powerful lineup, that makes lots of sense; with less need to manufacture runs, they can give their big bats a chance to bring guys home with gappers and home runs. Still, the Royals have shown they can use their legs when the opportunity presents itself.

This year, though, they won’t have a pushover behind the plate to feast on. While the Mets have had issues preventing opponent baserunning, part of that is because they were without d’Arnaud for much of the year. He gunned down 33 percent of would-be base stealers this season, solidly above the league average of 28 percent. So unlike the 2014 playoffs, when K.C. ran wild against ineffectual catchers like Oakland’s Derek Norris, Royals baserunners probably won’t be able to get as aggressive in this series.

Now, when you consider that the Royals stole 32 percent fewer bases this year compared to last, d’Arnaud’s arm might not seem like it’ll matter much. But given how close these teams are in talent, those kinds of tiny edges could end up making a big difference. And the Mets have enough little advantages to give them the slight nod in the World Series.

Filed Under: 2015 MLB Playoffs, MLB, Baseball, MLB Playoffs, 2015 World Series, World Series, Kansas City Royals, Ned Yost, Alex Gordon, Johnny Cueto, Yordano Ventura, Alex Rios, Salvador Perez, Chris Young, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson, Edinson Volquez, Ben Lindbergh, Alien Johnny Knoxville, Yoenis Cespedes, Travis d'Arnaud, David Wright, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Terry Collins