ALCS Preview: Will Baltimore or Kansas City Break Their World Series Droughts?
Neither of these teams were supposed to be here.
During the regular season, the Oakland A's, Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels were seen as the most likely AL representatives for the World Series. Detroit had a big-name starting rotation and two of the best hitters in the game in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. The A's raced out to the best record in baseball and traded for three starting pitchers, including Jon Lester, but stumbled badly late in the season. And the Angels finished with more wins than any team in baseball, led by perhaps the deepest lineup in the game.
The Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles were not supposed to be fighting for a spot in the World Series. But starting tonight, that is exactly what is going to happen. One of these two franchises is going to be playing for the chance to win their first world championship since before the Iran Contra scandal was even a thing.
It's a fascinating matchup between two very different teams. Baltimore has a lineup that relies on the home run, leading the Majors with 211 this year. The Royals were dead last in homers with 95. The Royals' offense is built on athleticism and speed, leading the Majors in steals with 153, while the Orioles had only 44, dead last in all of baseball.
Both teams pitched well this year, with rotation and bullpen ERAs quite similar, and both played excellent defense as well.
Baltimore plays for the three-run homer. Kansas City plays small ball, hoping the opposing team will make a mistake. And so far, both styles have served each team well here in the postseason. But in this battle of underdogs, who will move onto the Fall Classic? Let's break it down.
How the Orioles Got Here
Baltimore arrives at its first American League Championship Series since 1997 after finishing the regular season with 96 wins, second-most in the AL. Even though they finished with six more wins than the AL Central champion Detroit Tigers and had home field advantage in the ALDS, the O's were underdogs to a Detroit team laden with postseason experience. Yet Baltimore outscored Detroit 21-10 in their three-game sweep, thanks mainly to a huge bullpen advantage in which Baltimore relievers gave up just three earned runs for a 2.25 ERA. Detroit's 'pen, meanwhile, had a 19.29 ERA, giving up 10 earned runs in 4.2 innings, including 10 runs in Games 1 and 2 that came solely in the eighth inning.
In the series, Baltimore batters hit .263, with an on-base percentage (OBP) of .330, a slugging percentage (SLG) of .424 and four homers, good for an OPS of .755. Nelson Cruz was a monster against Detroit, going 6-for-12 with two home runs and five RBI, including the game-winning two-run blast that helped Baltimore beat the Tigers 2-1 in Game 3. J.J. Hardy, Steve Pearce and Jonathan Schoop all went 3-for-10 with Hardy adding a home run to his tally as well.
Meanwhile, Orioles pitchers put up a 3.33 ERA in the three games against a good-hitting Tigers team. They got a good, if not spectacular start from Chris Tillman, who pitched five innings in Game 1 and gave up two runs on four hits with six strikeouts in the opener. Game 2 starter Wei-Yin Chen struggled in his 3.2 innings, giving up five runs on seven hits, but Game 3 starter Bud Norris responded by outpitching the more heralded David Price, going 6.1 scoreless innings in the deciding Game 3.
How the Royals Got Here
After knocking off the A's in the wild card game, Kansas City kept the good times rolling against the heavily-favored Angels, winning the first two games in Anaheim before taking the final game in K.C. They did it thanks to a surprising power surge, getting four homers in their three-game ALDS. As a team, they hit .240/.304/.367 for an OPS of .670 that was actually the worst among the four American League Division Series teams. However, the Royals went absolutely crazy on the base paths, stealing 12 bags against the Angels in 13 attempts. The next closest teams in terms of steals were the O's and Tigers, each with two.
Eric Hosmer had a big series for Kansas City, going 7-for-14 with two homers and five RBI, after a regular season in which he totaled just nine home runs. Mike Moustakas hit two homers as well and went 4-for-14 (.286 batting average) against L.A., while Alcides Escobar went 5-for-18 (.278) with two runs scored.
Pitching-wise, Kansas City's starters gave up nine earned runs in 24 innings against a powerful Los Angeles offense, good enough for a 3.38 ERA. The bullpen was even better, giving up just five runs in 19 innings for a 2.37 ERA.
Unlike the Orioles, the Royals do a have a legitimate ace, although he hasn't really pitched like one in his two playoff starts this year. James Shields has given up six earned runs in 11 innings against the A's and Angels in this year's playoffs, resulting in a 4.91 ERA, with 12 strikeouts and four walks. With a career 4.96 ERA in 8 career postseason starts, perhaps the "Big Game James" moniker should be shelved for a little while.
Rookie fireballer Yordano Ventura was terrific in his first outing, giving up just three earned runs in 7.1 innings in Game 2, while Jason Vargas managed to hold up quite well in Game 3, giving up two earned runs on three hits in six innings.
Keys to Victory for the Orioles
The Orioles have to score early against Kansas City's starters. Given their potent lineup, Baltimore needs to bash their way through Shields, Ventura and Vargas before they get into the teeth of a brutally difficult K.C. bullpen. The O's especially want to avoid Wade Davis in the late innings against their right-handed mashers Adam Jones and Cruz.
Baltimore also has to have a good defensive series throwing the ball by their catchers, Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley. Joseph is the better defender, throwing out a higher percentage of baserunners than Hundley during the season (38% to 14%), which means Joseph will probably see the majority of playing time behind the dish. Also, Baltimore pitchers are going to have to try and keep Kansas City runners as close as possible, assisting their catchers in any way they can.
Nelson Cruz has to continue to be the best player in the series. He was dominant in the ALDS, and must continue to rake if the Orioles are going to put the pesky Royals away. Baltimore's balance throughout the lineup gives Cruz some cover if he struggles, but these are the types of series in which your dominant slugger has to shine.
Keys to Victory for the Royals
The Royals need to make it to the seventh inning either tied or with the lead. Even though Baltimore's bullpen has been almost as good as Kansas City's, the Royals relievers have been just a little bit better, and have the lefty-righty matchups to shut down a potent Baltimore lineup.
"Big Game James" needs to live up to his nickname. Unlike the Orioles, the Royals actually do have a real #1 starter, and he needs to pitch like it. The Royals will have the starting advantage in Game 1, and if they can steal the first one in Camden Yards, where the O's went 50-31 this year, it could make things very uncomfortable for the Orioles right out of the gate.
And Kansas City has to continue to get offensive production from players like Hosmer and Moustakas, as well as their MVP candidate Alex Gordon, who had a very quiet 3-for-15 series (.200). K.C. got by the Angels thanks to a surprising power surge and, while they are no match for Baltimore's capacity to hit dingers, a few key homers here and there could help keep manager Ned Yost from having to bunt at the drop of a hat.
The Royals are perhaps the most athletic team to reach a League Championship Series since the Vince Coleman/Willie McGee/Jack Clark 1985 Cardinals team that lost to Kansas City 29 years ago. However, Baltimore has a deep lineup, and is the only team in the Majors who can match Kansas City's bullpen, which could turn the latter innings of this series into nothing more than a collection of zeros.
One factor that should not be overlooked is the ridiculously good defense played by both teams. The Orioles led the AL in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with 49, but the Royals were right behind them with 40. Kansas City's Gordon and Lorenzo Cain led all AL outfielders in DRS, while back-up center fielder Jarrod Dyson was sixth. However, Baltimore's infield was brilliant, with all four infield positions finishing in positive territory in DRS. They also have the best double play combo in the Majors in Schoop and Hardy.
The Royals have the "ace," but outside of that, the rotations are pretty even. The bullpens are virtually even. The Orioles have the big advantage on offense, where they outscored the Royals 705-651 during the regular season. However, if Kansas City hits the longball the way they did in the LDS, that advantage equalizes as well.
In a short playoff series, managerial moves can sometimes swing things in one direction or the other. The usage of bullpens, lineups, and in-game tactical decisions are big in the playoffs, and the Orioles have one of the very best in Buck Showalter. The Royals' manager, Ned Yost, managed to get out of the LDS without a huge mark against him, but this is one area where Baltimore would seemingly have an advantage.
Our season-ending, team-wide rankings had the Orioles as the sixth-best team in baseball, thanks to their nERD of 0.49. Kansas City, however, was 16th, with a team nERD of -0.09.
The algorithms say that Baltimore wins in six.