I wonder what sort of odds you could have gotten before the season on the Orioles and Royals facing off in the ALCS. Better than 100 to 1, I imagine. "You can't predict baseball" is a common enough saying to turn up over 3.5 million search results, but even by the game's standards, this is a surprising matchup. The Orioles haven't played in an ALCS since 1997. The Royals haven't played in one since 1985. Since the ALCS was first played in 1969, only twice before have both teams been away from the series for even five consecutive seasons: 1995, when the Indians and Mariners faced off, neither having ever been to the ALCS before; and 2006, when the Tigers and A's played, neither having been there since 1987 and 1992 respectively.
So, this isn't something anyone seems to have seen coming. On the other hand though, they did have the two best records in the American League after the All-Star break, with Baltimore posting the best run differential in baseball during that time. These aren't teams that stumbled into the playoffs.
ALCS schedule (all games are on TBS):
- Game 1 (Friday, 10/10, 8:00 ET): Royals @ Orioles
- Game 2 (Saturday, 10/11, 4:00 ET): Royals @ Orioles
- Game 3 (Monday, 10/13, 8:00 ET): Orioles @ Royals
- Game 4 (Tuesday, 10/14, 8:00 ET): Orioles @ Royals
- Game 5* (Wednesday, 10/15, 4:00 ET): Orioles @ Royals
- Game 6* (Friday, 10/17, 8:00 ET): Royals @ Orioles
- Game 7* (Saturday, 10/18, 8:00 ET): Royals @ Orioles
Alright, so they've made their way here. What happens next? Well, let's take a look at how they stack up:
The Orioles are expected to have a rotation of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez, while the Royals have James Shields, Jason Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie. Shields and Ventura are the best pitchers from among those eight, while Baltimore has probably the weakest starting rotation of any of the ten teams that made the playoffs. Anything can happen in a single game, but if you were betting on someone to throw a gem, you'd be wise to pick one of KC's guys.
The Orioles have a good bullpen, led by Zach Britton (1.65 ERA, 37 saves) and Darren O'Day (1.70 ERA, 9.57 K/9). As a group Baltimore's relief corps had the 3rd-lowest ERA (3.10) in the American League. The Royals had a slightly higher ERA (3.30), but their FIP (3.29) ranked 2nd in the AL. They're lead by Greg Holland (1.44 ERA, 12.99 K/9, 46 saves) and Wade Davis (1.00 ERA, 13.63 K/9, 0 home runs allowed in 72 innings). Both teams are strong here, but not quite equally so.
Both teams play tremendous defense, and serve as models for the difference a great defense can make, since here they are in the ALCS, despite each team having a pretty glaring weakness elsewhere on the roster. FanGraphs has Kansas City as the very best defense, with Baltimore at #2. The gap between them is pretty wide though, wide enough to call this an edge for KC.
Getting on Base
The Royals had a team OBP of .314, while the Orioles were at .311. KC has a somewhat better home ballpark for offense though, which probably turns their slight lead into a slight deficit. Notably, these teams had the lowest walk rates in the American League, with Baltimore (6.5%) holding a very small edge over Kansas City (6.3%). Both teams prefer to swing away and see what happens, though they have very different methods for success once they've swung.
The Royals led MLB with 153 stolen bases, while the Orioles were dead last, with only 44 steals. There's more to speed and base running than just stolen base totals, but that's a massive margin. Kansas City has also chosen a postseason roster built for speed, and Terrence Gore and Jarrod Dyson have both been well used late in games so far this postseason, helping KC to some close wins.
Boy are the tables ever turned here. The Orioles led MLB with 211 home runs, 25 more than any other team. The Royals hit only 95 of them all season, the fewest by any American League team since 1992. Baltimore was led by Nelson Cruz, whose 40 home runs topped all MLB hitters; four Orioles hit 20+ home runs and seven hit 10+. Kansas City was led by Alex Gordon's 19 home runs, and only three players reached double figures. Baltimore's team slugging percentage was .422, Kansas City's was .376.
I think Baltimore's Buck Showalter is one of the best in the league, and Kansas City's Ned Yost is one of the worst (I mean that in terms of the things fans can have any way of knowing; there are certainly components of management that no one outside the clubhouse and dugout can understand, and Yost may be aces at those things). While Yost's proclivity to give away outs in recent weeks has drawn a lot of attention, what stands out for me is their bullpen management. Showalter has no qualms about pulling a starter early and using relievers in different roles on different nights, Yost has repeatedly allowed Kansas City to give up runs without his best arms having entered the game, going so far as to explain that one of his best pitchers hadn't been put into the game because "his inning is the 7th," as though rules forbid him from putting a pitcher into the game based on personal judgement of the situation.
I won't tell you who to root for, because who am I do determine your somewhat arbitrary and (presumably) temporary adoption of a team that isn't the Indians?
The Royals play a fairly exciting style of baseball, with great defense and a heavy emphasis on speed. Yost drives me bonkers as a manager though, and I find it frustrating to see his team doing so well in spite of many of his decisions, much like a cartoon baby wandering through a construction site, saved only by the perfect timing of a girder being moved into place just before they plummet to the ground. I'd much rather see Showalter rewarded for his intense preparation and willingness to make moves seen as unorthodox.
I've also found myself surprised by how much I apparently dislike a couple of Kansas City's key players. Perhaps their status as a division rival to the Indians means more to me than I thought. In any case, I'm pulling for Baltimore, hoping they give McNulty and the Bunk something to be happy about.
I think the superior starting rotation and speed on the bases will make the difference in a series I expect to be marked by tight games.
Prediction: Royals in 6