Thursday, October 9, 2014

ALCS: Royals over Orioles

On Sunday night, October 27th, 1985, Hall of Famer George Brett and the Kansas City Royals put an 11-0 beat down on the Saint Louis Cardinals to win Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.

The victory clinched the first and only World Series championship in the history of the Royals organization. It would also prove to be the last time the team would reach the MLB postseason until now.

The current incarnation of the team ended that postseason drought by clinching an American League Wildcard playoff berth on the final weekend of the regular season. Then they put on one of the wildest comebacks in history to win that Wildcard Game over the Oakland Athletics.

This past weekend, KC put the capper on an ALDS sweep of the West-champion Los Angeles Angels with an 8-3 thrashing. That victory advanced them to the ALCS beginning on Friday night, where their opponents will be the equally impressive Baltimore Orioles.


The O's had to overcome the losses of multiple major pieces to their puzzle this season. Catcher and team leader Matt Wieters early on, and mega-talented kid 3rd baseman Manny Machado at midseason, both for the rest of the year. And then slugging 1st baseman Chris Davis for the final month and into the playoffs thanks to a violation of MLB's substance abuse policy.

Despite those losses, Baltimore won the AL East by a dozen games. In their ALDS against the playoff-tested Detroit Tigers, winners of the AL Central, the O's slugged their way to 12-3 and 7-6 wins before clinching the sweep with a tight 2-1 victory that showed they can win the low-scoring duels as well.

The ALCS will be an extreme contrast in managerial styles, and possibly competency. Buck Showalter has been widely lauded for his guidance of the Orioles to the AL East crown, overcoming those previously mentioned position player losses and a pitching staff loaded with no-names.

Buck Showalter: O's skipper has been AL's best in 2014

Royals manager Ned Yost, on the other hand, has been widely criticized for many of his moves. There is a perception among a large and growing segment of baseball evaluators that Kansas City is winning despite, not due to, the ability of it's skipper.

Whatever your feeling about Yost and the tactical job that he does in-game, there is a fact that you cannot dispute: he is winning. He has his team in this postseason for the first time in almost three decades. He has led them past the team that was atop baseball for much of the summer (Oakland) and the team that finished on top of baseball (Angels) in the playoffs.

The Royals generally do not bash the ball around the yard. They beat you with defense, speed, pitching, and timely hitting. They were the top defensive club in the sport for the entire season, and finished there by a wide margin. Their bullpen may be the best and deepest in the game. They can run like the wind. Those are three tough-to-beat weapons this time of year.

In comparing the two clubs, the O's are clearly the more powerful offensive team. They finished as the #3 offensive club in the game, while the Royals finished in the #10 ranked position. Baltimore crushed 211 homeruns, tops in MLB, while KC's total of 95 round-trippers was last in baseball. The O's outscored the Royals by 705-651.

But the Royals have an element of their offensive game that completely off-sets the Orioles power advantage: their speed advantage. Kansas City stole 153 bases in the regular season, more than 30 better than the next best AL club. The Orioles swiped just 44 bags total. Offensively, on paper, this looks like a classic power (Baltimore) versus speed (Kansas City) matchup on the offensive side of the game.

Jarrod Dyson (36), Alcides Escobar (31), and Lorenzo Cain (28) all play regularly and run regularly. Both Nori Aoki (17) and Alex Gordon (12) are also willing to run. And Yost carries Terrance Gore (5 steals in 11 regular season games) as a pinch-running weapon this postseason. He is one of the fastest men in the game.

Lorenzo Cain is a Royals star emerging from obscurity

On defense, the Orioles were the 2nd best team in the entire sport. The Cincinnati Reds in the NL, and the Boston Red Sox in the AL (when Jackie Bradley Jr was playing centerfield) were the only teams in MLB who were in their neighborhood as far as overall quality defense.

Problem there is, while the other 26 MLB teams were behind those three, there was one team that was not in their neighborhood, only because they were way ahead of them. That team was the Royals. So in the end, you have a really good defensive team in Baltimore, but a truly great defensive team in KC.

On the mound is where the disparity between these two clubs shows up. The Royals finished as the #5 pitching team in MLB, while the Orioles were middle-of-the-pack at just the #15 spot. The Royals pitchers are better across the board than the O's.

KC's rotation is led by the best starting pitcher in this series, "Big Game" James Shields. Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas are solid #2-3 options, while either Danny Duffy or Jeremy Guthrie can keep them in games as well. The rotation guys really just have to be able to last 5-6 innings, because the bullpen is so dominating.

When the games start to get late, or the middle innings start to get dicey, Yost can turn to a group of dominating relief pitchers. Righty Wade Davis pitched 72 of the most valuable innings in baseball this season. Greg Holland is a shutdown closer. And the Royals will mix in Kelvin Herrera and rookie lefty Brandon Finnegan as well.

The Orioles have a solid lefty-righty combo at the front of the rotation in Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman, and a solid back-end pair of Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris. They have an effective closer in Zach Britton, and in between you'll see Buck bring in a parade of relievers including Kevin Gausman, Andrew Miller, Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, and T.J. McFarland.

On offense, it will be about the power of Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Steve Pearce for Baltimore. These guys will need to produce a few long balls if the O's are to have any shot, and that will be difficult against this Royals pitching staff.

The series begins at the beautiful, iconic Orioles Park at Camden Yards

One great thing about the return of these two teams to postseason prominence this year is that it gives baseball fans a chance to revisit two of the truly beautiful ballparks in the game. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which will host the first two, and Royals Stadium are each unique, and will provide an aesthetically pleasing setting for the entire affair.

Expect plenty of references to the two franchise' great living iconic players: Cal Ripken Jr for Baltimore, who is scheduled to broadcast the games nationally, and George Brett for Kansas City, who will be rooting the club on from it's Executive boxes as the Royals VP for Baseball Operations.

In my final Power Ranking a week ago, based solely on regular season performance, Kansas City finished on top, with Baltimore finishing 3rd overall. They were the top two teams in the American League in those final rankings. So it is fitting that they have reached this point. Whichever team wins will be my pick to win the World Series, barring key major injuries.

I think that we will see a tremendous pitching and defense series here, with both clubs fairing well in those areas. I think we'll see the offense play out generally as it appears: power vs. speed.

A popular song getting a lot of new attention around their postseason run has been "Royals" by Lorde. At the end she sings: "And baby I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule. Let me live that fantasy."

Lorde: you can call her Queen Bee

I think these Royals from Kansas City will indeed rule, will indeed live a fantasy, and will get a trip to the 2014 World Series as their reality. The games will be mostly close battles, but I think the KC pitching and defense combo will overcome the Orioles offense. Call it Kansas City in five games.


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