ALDS Preview: Can Kansas City Royals Magic Upset the Los Angeles Angels?
The Kansas City Royals could be forgiven if they were still on a high as they enter their American League Division Series against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
After all, when you win your do-or-die wild card game against the Oakland A's by storming back from a 7-3, eighth-inning deficit, as well as an 8-7 deficit in the 12th, that kind of excitement can tend to linger for a little while.
Hey, if you don't believe me, just ask George Brett.
They're still peeling George off the club box ceiling at Kauffman Stadium, by the way.
Now, the Royals can breathe a little bit. The specter of the win-or-go-home scenario is over and they can prepare for an admittedly short, five-game series. But now, it will at least really feel like a true playoff experience for a franchise that is playing its first postseason baseball since 1985.
Up next is the Angels, who went 98-64 this season to finish with the best record in baseball. They finished with a 10-game advantage over the A's in the AL West and posted a win differential of +143, second-best in MLB (behind only Oakland). And since the start of July, they went 53-29, storming ahead from six games back to overtake the Athletics with relative ease.
They will have home field advantage in this series, but as we all know, these five-game series are many times a total crapshoot. So, let's break it down.
How the Angels Got Here
The Angels arrived at the ALDS thanks to having the best offense in the American League. They scored the most runs (773), slugged the fourth-most homers (155) and finished with the fourth-best weighted on base average (wOBA of .321) in the AL. Their team OPS of .728 was also fourth-best in the American League and as a team, had a slash line of .259/.322/.406.
Incredibly, every regular member of the Angels' lineup was an above average run-creator, as told by the weighted runs created (wRC+) metric. It definitely helps to have the best player in all of baseball playing for your team, with Mike Trout's 36 homers, 111 RBI, 115 runs scored, 16 stolen bases, and .939 OPS leading the way. His nERD of 4.05 was second-best in all of baseball, meaning a lineup full of Trouts would score 4.05 runs a game more than a league average player.
Albert Pujols had a nice bounceback season for L.A., putting up a 3.3 fWAR after last year's 0.7, with a nERD of 1.10. His 28 bombs were 11 more than the 17 he hit last year, and his 105 RBI far surpassed the 64 he tallied last year. He also stayed healthy for an entire season, playing 159 games after managing just 99 last season.
The health of Josh Hamilton will be key. He missed 21 of the Angels' last 22 games because of shoulder and rib-cage injuries, but he says he'll be ready for Game 1. He hit .263 with 10 homers and 44 RBIs in just 89 games this season. Kole Calhoun was a pleasant surprise at the top of the lineup, who along with Trout, set up the middle of the order, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, with RBI opportunities all season long.
The starters combined for a 3.62 ERA this season, and were even better in the second half, with a 3.32 ERA, fourth-best in the AL since the All-Star break. However, they are without their ace Garrett Richards, as well as Tyler Skaggs, who both suffered season-ending injuries.
Their Game 1 starter, Jered Weaver, had his highest ERA (3.59) since 2009, however he pitched 213.1 innings and went 18-9 for the Angels. His nERD of 1.88 was 24th among all MLB pitchers - meaning he would give up 1.88 runs a game less than a league average pitcher. Rookie Matt Shoemaker has given the Angels a huge lift in the second half in place of Richards, but he is a rookie playing in his first ever postseason. He also hasn't pitched since September 15 because of an oblique strain, but he says he'll be ready to go in the ALDS as well. His 16 victories this year set an Angels rookie record.
The bullpen pitched to a 3.52 ERA that was seventh-best in the AL. However, they were improved during their second-half run, with a 3.12 ERA that was fifth-best. Closer Huston Street, acquired in a mid-season trade with the San Diego Padres, tallied 17 saves and posted a 1.71 ERA with the Angels, finishing with 41 saves overall and a 1.37 ERA. Joe Smith, Kevin Jepsen, Mike Morin, and Fernando Salas have all been solid as well.
No bullpen has pitched more innings in the American League this year. L.A. relievers have logged 540 innings this season (the Twins are the next-closest at 521.2), picking up the slack from a rotation that doesn't typically go deep into ballgames.
How the Royals Got Here
Kansas City is here because they managed to outlast the A's in the wild card game, and overcame some questionable decisions by their manager Ned Yost.
Offensively, the Royals have had their issues scoring runs all year, specifically via the home run. Their 95 homers were the fewest in the American League by far (the next closest was the Rangers with 111). And their .306 weighted on-base average (wOBA) was 10th in the American League this season.
On Tuesday night, the Royals scored nine runs. Over the course of the season, the Royals scored nine or more runs eight times, and only twice over the last two months.
They do have a legitimate MVP candidate in Alex Gordon, who hit .266/.351/.432 with a wOBA of .346, 19 homers, 74 RBI, nERD of 1.44 and an fWAR of 6.1. However, Gordon was one of just four Royals to post a wRC+ of 100 or better (Lorenzo Cain 111, Nori Aoki 104, and Eric Hosmer 100). Everyone else in the lineup is a below-average run creator. Against left-handers, Josh Willingham will likely play, with his .233/349/.384 slash line and 2 home runs this season. And Jarrod Dyson, their back-up center fielder, provides good speed and defense off the bench.
However, the Royals' success came mainly because of their pitching staff.
James Shields was terrific all season for Kansas City, and after lasting just five-plus innings in the wild card game against Oakland, will get another shot to earn his nickname, "Big Game James." Yordano Ventura, the 100-mph throwing rookie, will also have an opportunity to redeem himself, after giving up a go-ahead three-run homer to Brandon Moss in relief on Monday night. Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Danny Duffy all had productive seasons in the rotation as well.
The bullpen is what really helped the Royals make it this far. Their bullpen ERA of 3.30 was fifth-best in the American League, and really came on in the second half, with a 2.95 ERA, fourth-best in the AL. Closer Greg Holland, set-up man Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera all throw in the mid-to-upper 90s, and finished the season with ERAs below 1.50. Jason Frasor has also been terrific in the middle innings, posting a 1.53 ERA in 17.2 innings.
Keys to Victory for the Angels
Having your relievers throw so many innings is a dangerous way to fly, and the L.A. rotation has to step up and eat some more innings to keep the their bullpen fresh. Weaver has to get things off on the right foot and go at least seven innings in Game 1, which would help set up the bullpen for the rest of the series. C.J. Wilson has to throw strikes, and Shoemaker has to come back healthy and battle the nerves that the rookie will most certainly have pitching in his first MLB playoff game.
The Angels' offense averaged 4.77 runs a game this season, and they're going to have to continue at that pace if they want to advance. Los Angeles' big advantage over the Kansas City is their offense. They have to overwhelm the Royals' starters early and must have a lead by the time the seventh inning rolls around before the fireballers in the K.C. bullpen enter the game.
And this will be Mike Trout's first foray into the postseason, his first real, sustained chance to perform in front of the entire country. He needs to learn from postseason veterans Pujols and Hamilton and not try to do too much in his first playoff experience. He's got a deep and balanced lineup behind him. If Trout simply plays his game, the Angels will score runs.
Keys to Victory for the Royals
The Royals' starters need to hold the Angels to under four runs a game, and the Royals need to score four or more. MLB.com's Richard Justice noted Kansas City is 70-14 this season when scoring four or more runs, so that four-run number is going to be key.
Manager Ned Yost has to be better. Shields had thrown just 88 pitches when he was removed from the wild card game with no outs in the sixth inning on Tuesday. The team traded away super prospect Wil Myers specifically so they could get Shields to pitch in games like this, so removing him when he ran into a little trouble after just five innings didn't make sense. It made even less sense when he brought in a rookie starter who had not thrown a single inning of relief all season to take over, especially with the stable of dominant relievers he had to go to. Yost has to manage smarter than that for the Royals to advance.
And Kansas City needs to run, run, run. The Royals are built around speed and grinding out runs, which is what they did on Tuesday night, stealing seven bases. They're also going to sacrifice bunt us all into oblivion, and there's nothing we can do about it. So when they do move runners into scoring position via the sacrifice bunt, they need to convert almost every single time. Otherwise, they're not going to score.
I'd feel a lot better about picking the Angels if they had a true number-one starter to lead them. However, they have home field advantage and finished with an AL-best 52-29 record at home this year. Their +143 run differential was significantly better than Kansas City's +27. And if their lineup can avoid a team-wide slump, they should be able to score enough runs to beat a very game Kansas City Royals team, who do not have the same playoff experience that the Angels do.
Of course, that didn't seem to matter on Tuesday night.
Our projections say there's a 62.5% chance the Angels will beat the Royals in this series, with the most likely outcome having them taking the series in four games. Works for me!