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:
Only one franchise in baseball has managed to stumble their way through the past decade without having a single pitching staff rank in the top half of the league: the Kansas City Royals. The franchise was only able to rise above 20th once over the course of the last decade, finishing 16th in 2007 thanks to Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, and a surprisingly good bullpen that featured a 23-year-old Zach Greinke for most of the year. But that one year is just a blip on the radar and it’s not a very impressive blip at that.
That’s why GM Dayton Moore decided to go all in on pitching this offseason, overhauling the Royals’ rotation to the point that it’s unrecognizable now. Gone are the days of starting Luke Hochevar on Opening Day. Instead, Kansas City now has a viable front man at the top of their rotation in James Shields and a pretty solid quartet backing him up. Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis, and Luis Mendoza may not be the most recognizable names in the game, but they have been ruthlessly effective so far, carrying KC to the 5th best starter’s ERA in the Majors as well as the AL Central lead.
The offseason is always full of surprises and none have been bigger in this first inning of hot stove action than the activity by the Kansas City Royals. General manager Dayton Moore has already moved quickly to acquire a pair of middling starters, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, to plug into what was a woeful rotation this past year, and he doesn’t appear to be done yet. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that the Royals my consider dealing Wil Myers, the consensus best hitting prospect in baseball, for some elite-level pitching if the opportunity presents itself.
Over the past season we witnessed a franchise tear down a 15 year streak of incompetence using nothing more than some internal improvement from home-grown players, a brilliant bullpen, and a patchwork starting rotation. The team I’m talking about of course, is none other than the Baltimore Orioles, a franchise who defied expectations and Pythagorean theories en route to 93 wins before bowing out in the ALDS to the New York Yankees.
The Royals have once again been reduced to playing out the string in 2012 after finishing the month of July with a 42-60 (.412 win %) record, while playing some of their worst baseball during the dog days of summer. Their record in the month of July was an atrocious 7-19 (.269) and at the Trade Deadline, the franchise once again became sellers rather than buyers. Over the past 2-3 weeks however, things have started to turn around again in Kansas City, with the Royals going 12-6, and in their most recent series, a 3 game set at Kauffman against the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, the boys in blue were able to pick up the sweep. In the final game of the set, Jeremy Guthrie, yes the same one who had an ERA over 7.00 with the Rockies this season, twirled a gem for 7 innings and was backed up by Salvador Perez, who had 3 RBI to push Kansas City to a 5-2 win. There have been some encouraging signs in the Royals recent level of play that suggest better, more competitive times are just around the bend, and maybe with a few sly off-season moves, Kansas City could field a .500 team or better in 2013.
I always love going to Kauffman Stadium every year. Its one of the nicest ballparks in the entire league, and the fans in Kansas City are always friendly. I went to Saturday night’s 5-1 Royal win and Sunday’s 10-4 Yankee win. Both games highlighted the strengths of each team. In Saturday’s game Alex Gordon and Billy Butler carried the Royal offense, with a combined 6-9 effort with 4 RBI and 2 doubles combined. Jeff Francoeur made a laser throw from the outfield to nab a tagging Curtis Granderson at 3rd base and Felipe Paulino gave the Royals 6 good innings in his season debut to pick up the win. In Sunday’s game, much to my expectation, the Yankees pounded Luke Hochevar en route to a 3 homer, 10 run performance. Phil Hughes gave the Yankees everything they would need on the mound, allowing only 3 runs in 6.2 innings, picking up his 2nd win of the season.
Kansas City is a great place to catch a couple of ball games, and I highly recommend Kauffman Stadium as one of the best ballparks in baseball. The All-Star game this summer will be a much needed treat for a starved fan base, and the city should do a great job as the host.
- Rangers on a Roll. The Texas Rangers are absolutely on fire right now, beginning the season with the best mark in baseball at 13-3. They lead all of baseball in both runs scored and runs allowed, making the Rangers a truly great team in the early going. Its been bombs away so far for Josh Hamilton, who after yesterday’s 3-3 game with a homer, is now hitting a massive .418/.438/.776 slash with 7 dingers and 17 RBI. Michael Young has been hitting behind Hamilton for most of the season, and he’s punishing opposing pitchers as well, to the tune of a .403/.431/.532 line. In addition to the fantastic offense the pitching staff has been sublime, with every starter posting an ERA under 4.00 so far. As a whole, the Rangers’ staff has the best ERA in the AL, the lowest walk rate, the fewest homers allowed, and ranks 5th in k’s. Colby Lewis has been downright phenomenal in his 4 starts, posting a 2.03 ERA with 24 strikeouts to only 1 walk. The worst starter on the staff so far has been Japanese import Yu Darvish, who has had some control issues, walking 6.6 per 9, but even he has a shiny 2-0 record and a 3.57 ERA. Texas has already won 2 straight American League pennants and this may be their best team yet. They begin a 3-game series with the Yankees in Arlington this evening and it will be another good test against one of the American League’s elite.
- Beast Mode. Matt Kemp said he was going to let Beast Mode out of the cage more often this season, and he wasn’t lying. He has hit a bananas .450/.500/.967 in his first 16 games with 9 homers and 22 RBIs. Every single one of those numbers is the best in baseball, and Kemp is the biggest reason why the Dodgers are off to an excellent 12-4 start, which is tied for the best record in the National League. Kemp said before the season that he thought he could be the 1st ever 50-50 player, and while he has only swiped 1 base, the power numbers are off the charts. His isolated power, which measures a batter’s ability to hit for extra-bases is an unheard of .517!! Kemp’s was .262 a year ago, a number that led the entire National League. Kemp will obviously cool down at some point in the season, but he is off to a historically good start.
- The red-hot Atlanta Braves offense. The Braves are leading the NL in scoring so far on the young season, showing an excellent blend of team power and speed. They have 18 home runs and 14 steals already, and are getting production throughout the lineup. The star of the offense has been Jason Heyward, who is back to hitting a .900+ OPS, and showing good instincts on the base paths, with 5 steals without being caught. The Juan Francisco-Chipper Jones platoon at 3rd base is working wonders, combining for 3 homers, 12 RBI, and 16 hits while keeping the future Hall-of-Famer fresh for the stretch run. Michael Bourne has been the catalyst at the top of the lineup batting .338 and stealing 7 bases with 5 extra-base hits. The only issue for the lineup so far has been a propensity to strikeout, as Atlanta ranks 10th in the National League in the category. The Braves big question this season was whether or not they would hit enough to support a deep pitching staff, and the early returns have been excellent. The boys from Atlanta will be in competition all season long with this kind of offensive production.
- The stumbling, bumbling Royals. The Royals are currently riding a 10-game losing streak, and they possess the 3rd worst run differential in baseball. The Royals’ offense, which was 10th best in baseball last year, has declined to 25th in baseball so far. No Royal currently has more than 9 RBI total, and they rank 2nd to last in the American League in strikeouts. Eric Hosmer has had a rough beginning to his season, hitting a measly .183/.269/.367 in 15 games after showing some promise a season ago. Another hitter struggling early is Alex Gordon, who is also hitting under the Mendoza line and has struck out 19 times already. Gordon had a breakthrough year in 2011, hitting for a 139 OPS+ while winning a Gold Glove, so it’s too early to give up on him, but the Royals will continue to lose until his play improves. The pitching staff hasn’t been much better outside of Bruce Chen, who continues to show that last season’s improvement was no fluke. Chen has thrown 18 innings, posting a 2.00 ERA while only allowing 15 total base runners, and he has a 0-1 record to show for it. Danny Duffy has also been solid, showcasing a blazing fastball to rack up an elite 10.4 K’s/9. The rest of the rotation has been abysmal, with no player posting an ERA under 5.50. The bullpen has also been sporadic, finding ways to lose games that the Royals have the lead in, contributing to the 10 game slide. Kansas City needs to turn things around quickly if they want a shot at finishing higher than 4th place.
- Pittsburgh’s offense. Pittsburgh is currently hitting .202/.249/.281 as a team, while scoring only 30 runs in 15 games! The complete absence of production in any form around Andrew McCutchen is almost unbelievable. McCutchen has hit an excellent .351/.403/.404, stolen 4 bases and scored 9 of Pittsburgh’s 30 runs. Four of Pittsburgh’s regulars currently have batting averages under the Mendoza line, with Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas being particularly awful, hitting .089 and .091 respectively. The Pirates rank dead last in baseball in every offensive category outside of triples, homers, and stolen bases. Pittsburgh is hitting for a collective 52 OPS+ with 2 players doing the impossible and ranking negatively on the scale. The worst team OPS+ in the last 45 years was the Mariners historically putrid offense in 2010, which hit 27 points higher than the Pirates are currently hitting. Luckily for Pittsburgh the rotation ranks 2nd in baseball in runs allowed, so the Pirates have been able to post a 6-9 record. The pitching won’t be able to keep this up forever and if the offense doesn’t improve soon, the Pirates will start losing every night on the way to another 100-loss season.
- Pitchers on the DL. Cliff Lee threw 10 innings on Wednesday against the Giants, and now he finds himself on the disabled list for the next 15 days, due to an abdominal strain. “We’re being very cautious with this,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. `’There’s no reason for him to kind of completely blow it out because it’s an injury that if he hurts himself and really pulls it, we could lose him for a long time. We’ll shut him down, get him right and hopefully he’ll miss only a couple of starts and go from there.” The Yankees also had to shut newly acquired Michael Pineda down after only 15 pitches in his 1st rehab start. There is no timetable for his return and the Yankees, historically cautious with their pitchers, will probably give him a couple months to recover. Diamondbacks #2 pitcher Daniel Hudson will also hit the DL, a precaution due to shoulder soreness. Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos is also hitting the DL, becoming the 6th closer on the early season to have to miss time. He is complaining of shoulder tightness, which is never a good sign for a pitcher.