Due to the American League's stirring 5-3 victory in the All-Star Game, the one where...well, I can't really recall, the World Series will begin in Kansas City on Tuesday, October 21st and Kauffman Stadium will be draped in bunting for the first time in 29 years. It will be an interesting series, featuring top-notch starting pitching and shutdown relief, making it a reasonable question to wonder from where the offense will come. I have no idea who will win the Series -- of my nine postseason picks, selecting the Giants to win the Wild Card game was the only one I got right, so I won't waste my time. Instead I'll discuss what I'll be watching for as the Series unfolds.
The first item is defense, beginning with one very important statement -- in many ways, defense is as much reactive as proactive. Outside of radical positioning, there's no real defense against balls hit down the foul lines or line drives to the gap. Infield shifts have become more prevalent as teams acknowledge hitting tendencies, but in the end the defense is very much at the mercy of where the ball is hit.
Having written that, strides are being made in measuring defensive effectiveness. Stats such as UZR/150 and Defensive Runs Saved have been developed, and Inside Edge Fielding is another attempt to better quantify how well teams play defense. Inside Edge takes every play and assigns a percentage chance it will be an out -- for example, a lazy fly ball to right field has a far higher likelihood of being an out than a sharply hit ground ball to a shortstop's right that requires a perfect throw to nail the runner. Inside Edge breaks down these plays into percentages, and this is how it looks for the Giants and Royals:
|1-10% (very hard)
|60-90% (kinda easy)
|90-100% (very easy)
I'll use the first line to explain what this table shows. 1-10% refers to Inside Edge deeming a given play to having between a one and ten percent chance of being an out. The range is how Major League teams performed this year, followed by median and average. The Royals got an out on 5.5 percent of these difficult plays, 11th in the majors, whereas the Giants were successful in 3.5 percent, 24th in the majors.
A reasonable expectation would be for teams to make the very easy plays, not make the very hard plays and differentiate themselves on the vast majority that lie in the 10-90% range. The Royals have an edge on the hard plays, but what I didn't show was how many plays there are in each category:
|Team||Inn||# 0%||# 1-10%||# 10-40%||# 40-60%||# 60-90%||# 90-100%|
The easy plays outnumber the other plays combined by a margin of around three-to-one. What this means is that a team will be hard-pressed to defend their way to a championship -- they simply won't have enough opportunities to actually do so. However, individual plays that can change the course of a game do occur, such as the consecutive spectacular plays Lorenzo Cain made in Game 3 of the ALDS (see them here and here). Defense can matter, it's just that it's impossible to predict exactly when (or if) it will come up.
The other thing I'll be watching is team speed, and this table has a whole smorgasbord of values:
In about the same number of opportunities to steal a base (SBO) the Royals attempted to do so around 2.5 times as often as the Giants. However, their speed spills over into quasi-recklessness on the base paths, as they were picked off more often and thrown out on the bases (OOB) many more times than the Giants. They were able to take extra bases (XBT) on things like fly outs, wild pitches and the like fewer times than the Giants, and their ability to reach base on an error (ROE) was around the same as the Giants.
Base running is as much skill as raw talent, and while stolen base attempts might portray most of the Giants as slow, lumbering hit men, they appear to be very capable running the bases. Passed balls and wild pitches can only occur with runners on base (other than on strike three, of course) and are only accrued when a runner advanced, so this serves as another marker of base running acumen, and the Giants did better than the Royals in this measure.
This chart shows the success of each team's catchers in preventing stolen bases:
Teams ran far more frequently on Buster Posey than on Salvador Perez, suggesting a potential mismatch and perhaps tempting the Royals into running like they did in the Wild Card game against Oakland.
The Royals have already been anointed the team to beat in the Series. This article was out before the champagne had dried from the Kansas City ALCS championship celebration purporting them to be the "future of baseball." I'd be very curious what the author would have written had his deadline been at the top of the eighth inning of the AL Wild Card game, but that's the point -- anything can happen.
I'll finish with two brief pieces of trivia. First, in their history the Royals have had 7,130 chances to go on an 8-game winning streak (explanation at the end), and have actually done so 43 times, or .6 percent of the time. Their current 8-game postseason winning streak is already a record, so when a team accomplishes something that happens less than one percent of the time, it's time to understand there's more than skill involved.
The second part is more light-hearted -- I was very worried after the Royals clinched that I was going to hear about the "well-rested" Royals ad nauseum until the Series started. Luckily, since the Giants will be just about as well-rested, we should be spared from that, but here's how teams that swept the League Championship Series have fared in the World Series:
|Tigers||2012||Lost WS 0-4|
|Rockies||2007||Lost WS 0-4|
|Tigers||2006||Lost WS 1-4|
|Braves||1995||Won WS 4-2|
|Athletics||1990||Lost WS 0-4|
|Athletics||1988||Lost WS 1-4|
I heard all I needed to hear about days of rest when Michael Wacha was pitching -- the 20-day layoff was good . . . until it was bad.
I wrote in the lede I already know the key to the Series, and it is this: The team that best executes its strategy will be the victor. Tendencies are tendencies, percentages are percentages, and Inside Edge probably would have said Willie Mays had a one percent chance of catching the fly ball Vic Wertz hit in the 1954 World Series. Don't tell him the odds, he defied them -- as did the Giants, who swept an Indians team that had finished fourteen games better than them in the regular season. The team that plays better in a short series usually wins, but that makes for a pretty short pre-game program.
It should be a good Series, and of course there are other things to watch than what I noted -- I just shared what will get my attention. Enjoy it while it lasts, since we'll have no real baseball for six months after it's over.
All data from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. Any errors in gathering and amalgamating the data are the author's.
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.
***NOTE -- determining streaks***
There is a tool in the Baseball-Reference Play Index called Streaks, which allows for searches of how well teams perform over a given span. In order to measure 8-game streaks like I did, consider that every team can have 155 8-game streaks in a year -- games 1-8, 2-9, 3-10 . . . 155-162. The Royals have been in existence since 1969, or 46 seasons, yielding a total of 7,130 opportunities for them to go on an 8-game winning streak. This is a very useful tool for doing arcane searches like this and showing just how rare things that are taken for granted truly are.