ALCS Preview: Royals vs. Orioles

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Raise your hand if you foresaw a Baltimore-Kansas City ALCS matchup back in April. Anyone? Anybody at all? No? That’s what I thought. It’s a matchup that’s 30 years in the making and it features ball clubs that find a way to win in vastly different ways. The Royals stole more bases than any other team in the league while the Orioles plodded along the base paths, finishing dead last in baseball, 12 behind the next slowest team. Instead the O’s mashed their way to victory, racking up a Major League best 211 homers in the process, more than double the number of dingers hit by Kansas City. Both teams feature solid starting staffs and deep bullpens that have been dynamite this year when protecting a lead. This series has all the makings of a barn burner. So who’s going to win? Let’s take a run-through at some of the more salient points:

  • The Orioles may be more equipped than any team outside of St. Louis to deal with the Royals running game. As an organization, Baltimore wants all of their pitchers to deliver the ball to the plate in a maximum of 1.3 seconds in order to give their catchers a chance to throw the runner out. (That’s from the start of the windup to the pop of the catcher’s glove). Studies by the highly respected Baseball Prospectus among others have shown that anything longer than 1.3 seconds and the base stealers chances of taking the base go up exponentially. Jeff Zimmerman took a wonderful look at how Game 1 starter Chris Tillman controls the running game and that approach is consistent throughout the rotation. Every Baltimore pitcher does a good job of mixing up looks over to first. One pitch might be delivered with a second or two after coming set, while the next will be held for 5 or 6 seconds before a quick throw over to the bag to check the runner. It’s something the O’s take pride in as an organization and it shows.
  • Catcher Caleb Joseph only saw one game’s worth of action in the first round against Detroit and you can expect to see much more of the defensive specialist behind the plate against the runnin’ Royals. Joseph caught 40% of potential base stealers this season which places him alongside luminaries like Yadier Molina and Russell Martin when it comes to shutting down the running game. His platoon-mate Nick Hundley wasn’t anywhere near as successful, stopping just 14% of the 41 runners who attempted to steal. Since neither Baltimore catcher offers much in the way of offense (.681 OPS for Joseph compared to a .625 OPS for Hundley), I’m betting Joseph sees the a vast majority of playing time.
  • Ned Yost vs. Buck Showalter is not the landslide the media is making it out to be. Yes, Showalter is the better manager out of the two. He’s less rigid with his bullpen decisions and he’s far less likely to commit a brain fart with men on base and his opponent’s most powerful hitter at the plate. But the way people are talking about Yost makes you think he’s only starting 8 players instead of 9 because he doesn’t know any better and quite frankly, that kind of discussion is ridiculous. Yost was rightfully criticized for his questionable decisions in the Wild Card game and yet he receives no credit whatsoever for they way his team has played since. Kansas City has stolen 12 bases in 4 postseason games and Yost gets zero credit for that aggressive approach, nor does he get credit for how loose his young ball club is playing. For Christ’s sake, he’s managed to turn Terrance Gore, who has a total of 26 mostly terrible plate appearances above Single-A ball, into one of the biggest weapons in the playoffs.
  • Eric Hosmer has been the MVP of the 2014 playoffs thus far, and only Matt Carpenter in St. Louis is even close. Hosmer’s hitting a blistering .500 with 2 homers, a double, a triple, 5 walks, and 5 RBI in 4 games. Since returning from a broken hand on August 31st the Royals 1st baseman has seen nearly 15% of his at-bats end in an extra-base hit, nearly double his career average. As he was coming up through the minors Hosmer was always projected as a big power hitter and now at age-24, in his 4th big league season, we may be finally be seeing that prediction come to fruition. If Baltimore wants to win this series they’re going to need to find a way to slow him down.
  • It’s October and Nelson Cruz is in the playoffs which must mean one thing and one thing only: he’s terrifying opposing pitching. Cruz hit .500 in Baltimore’s three-game romp over Detroit, pounding 2 homers including the series clincher off David Price in the finale. Cruz has now played in 37 postseason games and he has 16 homers and 32 RBI to his credit. That superstar power may not be all natural but it comes to play in October.
  • The defenses of both ball clubs are about as evenly matched as you can get. Kansas City’s outfield got a lot of press against Los Angeles for their flashy catches, but that’s just a nice representation of what they’ve done all year. Alex Gordon is easily the best defensive left fielder in the game, combining an excellent arm with the uncanny ability to always pick the right route to the baseball. Nori Aoki is no slouch in right field and Lorenzo Cain is ridiculous in center and he has to be because Kauffman Stadium is home to the largest swath of fair territory in baseball. And while Baltimore’s defense doesn’t have as much hype currently surrounding it, all they do is make outs. Baltimore has spent the last two seasons among the top five in baseball in defensive efficiency (the rate balls in play are converted into outs), and they have a couple of Gold Glovers in Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy, who should be taking home his 3rd straight award for his performance this year.
  • Both managers are willing to employ defensive shifts although the Orioles use them far more frequently. Baltimore has ranked among the 5 most shiftiest teams in baseball since Buck Showalter took over so expect him to move his defense around some against Kansas City. Mike Moustakas is one of the best candidates to employ the shift against, although he’s shown a tendency to go the other way over the past month. During the regular season Moustakas had just 18 opposite field hits in 457 at-bats, but half of those hits came over his last 110 at-bats. Moose also knocked a couple of hits the to left field against the Angels, which could make the decision to shift him difficult for the Orioles. Showalter may also consider shifting against Alex Gordon, although his pull tendencies are less pronounced.
  • Hosmer is the one lefty the Orioles should under no circumstances shift against. He managed to pull just 42% of the groundballs he hit this year. Teams shouldn’t even consider shifting unless a player pulls at least 70% of their grounders. Hosmer’s no where near that.
  • Kansas City probably won’t shift too often in this series because Baltimore doesn’t have anyone with extreme pull tendencies. Alejandro de Aza will see some sort of overshift at some point in the series and if the Royals really want to play aggressively they may shift right-hander Nelson Cruz as well. Cruz has pulled between 75 and 80% of his groundballs to the left side of the infield, which makes him an ideal candidate for a shift.

The pick: I’ve been riding the Royals bandwagon the whole postseason and I see no reason to stop now. Kansas City has the edge in the starting rotation and if they can keep Baltimore in the ballpark they should have no problem advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1985. I like Kansas City to run past Baltimore in 6.

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