American League Championship Series Preview: Small Ball Versus Long Ball
You're not going to find two teams constructed more differently than these.
The Kansas City Royals make their living off of playing great defense, utilizing a shutdown bullpen, and putting the ball in play. The Toronto Blue Jays pummel you into submission and hope their pitching staff beyond their two aces can hang on. This should be a fun series.
One thing that the teams have in common entering the American League Championship Series is how they got here. Both teams fell down in their respective division series. The Royals used a mind-boggling comeback in Game 4 to force a Game 5, where Johnny Cueto took over. The Blue Jays used one of the most strange and most beautiful seventh innings in the history of baseball to claim their decisive contest.
Now, the two teams meet for a shot to play in the World Series. Let's go through why both teams will win (well, not actually win, but why they could hypothetically do so) before breaking down what numberFire's algorithms say.
Why the Kansas City Royals Will Win
If you had told me that Edinson Volquez and Marco Estrada would be the two starting pitchers of any playoff series at the beginning of the year, you'd probably bust out laughing mid-sentence. These guys aren't exactly what you'd describe as aces of the staff. Yet, here we are.
With the starting rotations filling out like this, that means we'll only see Marcus Stroman and David Price a combined four times in the series, and we'll only see Cueto and Yordano Ventura the same amount. Both pitching staffs fall off the table after those two respective hurlers. The Royals seem more equipped to handle life beyond the aces.
The Royals finished the regular season with the second worst xFIP out of any rotation in the league at 4.48, yet they were still able to pull together 95 wins and pull away with the division. How?
The first answer is their defense. The Royals finished the season with a Fangraphs Defensive Rating of 56.9; no other team topped 30.2. That's called dominance, Batman.
Additionally, even without Greg Holland, they've got themselves a spicy little bullpen. Wade Davis, Ryan Madson, and Kelvin Herrera combined to throw 200 1/3 innings this season. In those innings, they allowed 43 total runs, equating to a 1.93 ERA. That's basically the workload of one starting pitcher, and that's the production they're getting. Not shabby.
The Blue Jays don't quite have these same luxuries, even if they're not terrible in either category. They finished the year 14th in Defensive Rating at 9.0. Their bullpen wasn't bad in the regular season, but now they'll be without Brett Cecil unless they make it to the World Series. With Cecil out, the Royals' left-handed bats catch a major break as Cecil is straight filth versus lefties. Advantage Kansas City.
These two factors combine to allow the Royals to better recover from potentially poor starting pitching. Beyond their top two starters, that's exactly what both teams may face. And that gives the Royals a leg up here.
Why the Toronto Blue Jays Will Win
The roadmap for the Blue Jays is a little bit different and a little less difficult to dissect. If they win, it'll be because of their stupid good bats.
Part of the reason the Royals' pitching staff didn't have a great xFIP was their low ground-ball rate. They had the third lowest ground-ball rate of any team in baseball at 42.8 percent. This means fly balls aplenty, and the Jays thrive against fly-ball pitchers. They finished the year with a .271/.345/.487 slash and 121 homers off of fly-ball pitchers; that's 21 more home runs than the Atlanta Braves hit all year.
The Royals also weren't able to pick up a bunch of strikeouts. They had the sixth lowest number of strikeouts per nine innings, a nugget that should get Jays fans all hot and bothered. Toronto slashed .284/.356/.483 with 116 home runs off of finesse pitchers. That's a bit frightening.
Kansas City was able to dodge a bit of a bullet in that they won't be throwing any left-handed starters out. The Blue Jays had one of the best seasons against left-handed pitching in recent history, so you're just asking for trouble by trotting out a southpaw. But at the same time, they also led the league in wRC+ against righties at 115. They really don't have an offensive weakness right now.
The other factor possibly working in the Jays' favor is that their top-end pitching is better than the Royals'. If we rank the top four starters in the series based on xFIP, it goes Price, Stroman, Ventura and Cueto. Cueto bucked his second-half struggles on Wednesday, but it's yet to be seen if he can carry that success beyond one start. The defense helps make up for the shortcomings of Ventura and Cueto, but I'd feel more comfortable with the Jays' top hurlers than those of the Royals.
What numberFire's Algorithms Say
You can build a case around either team winning the series, so it appears we've got ourselves a dandy in the making. But the computers here at numberFire may feel a bit different.
Our projections suggest the Blue Jays have a 67.16% chance to win the series, meaning just a 32.84% chance for Kansas City. The most probable outcome is that the Blue Jays end the series in just five games. That would be a fairly convincing defeat.
It should be noted, however, that the Royals make a habit of taking a leak on projections. They finished the regular season 13th in numberFire's power rankings, trailing four teams that missed the playoffs and making them the lowest-ranked team still alive. They did the exact same thing last year on their way to the World Series. They -- somehow -- seem to always exceed expectations. I'm not saying they will here, but it's something to keep in mind.
Even if the projections are for an easy Blue Jays victory, this should be an exciting series. It's small ball versus long ball with two very different thoughts on how to formulate an efficient offense. Let's just cross our fingers and hope that this series comes anywhere near being as exciting as the last round.