Author's note: This is one of a series of ten posts from Beyond the Box Score this week arguing why each of the ten playoff teams will win the World Series.
Following their surprising run to the World Series last season, the Royals were an unpopular pick to win the American League Central, let alone return to the World Series. They have proved the doubters wrong by finishing the regular season with the most wins in the American League. Still, critics have been hesitant to back Kansas City in the postseason, and a weak finish to the season has resulted in questions of whether the Royals have what it takes to succeed in October.
Are the doubts justified? Should a 14-16 record in their last 30 games make us forget that the Royals are an immensely talented team that dominated the American League this season? Do not let the recent poor performance or the consistently wrong doubters fool you. The 2015 Royals are better than last year and are primed to accomplish something they came so close to doing last year: winning the World Series.
The Royals bullpen rightfully earned plenty of press last postseason as the three-headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland shut down opposing offenses and turned nine inning games into six inning contests. This season’s three-headed monster of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Ryan Madson has a chance to be just as good. The 2015 edition of the Royals’ pen has not only been better during the regular season; they are much deeper as well.
|Season||IP||ERA||WHIP||K%||BB%||Hard Hit %||WPA|
Note: WPA is Win Probability Added. All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.
The Royals have six high quality relief arms, giving Ned Yost the option of not forcing any of his starters to turn a lineup over more than twice. Newcomer Ryan Madson, who had not pitched in the major leagues since 2011, has re-established himself as a reliable setup man. Lefty Franklin Morales was cast aside by the Rockies after failing to perform as a starter but has thrived as the latest failed starter turned good reliever in Kansas City. Luke Hochevar has come back strong from injury to provide a quality option in the middle innings. Starter Danny Duffy will move to the pen and give Ned Yost a strong swingman or high-leverage lefthander. This is a truly elite bullpen capable of shortening games and holding any and every lead.
Perhaps the only team strength that rivals the strength of the Royals’ bullpen is the Royals’ defense. Kansas City has successfully built their team to defend the spacious Kauffman Field outfield, and with the potential outfield combination of Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Jarrod Dyson, few fly balls will fall in for hits. The rest of the defense is just as strong, featuring two 2014 gold glove winners and not a single below average defender. As a team, the stats are downright silly.
|Second Place||27 (Hou)||0.838 (Cle)||23.3 (TB)||6.0 (TB)||22.3 (TB)|
Note: DRS is Defensive Runs Saved, RZR is Revised Zone Rating, UZR is Ultimate Zone Rating, UZR/150 is Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games, Def is Fangraphs' comprehensive defensive metric comprised of fielding run and positional adjustment.
It is difficult to find a precedent for such defensive dominance. The margins between Kansas City and the rest of the league are downright laughable, but the Royals have earned every accolade. There are no weak links but plenty of gold glove candidates.
Amidst the many positives, three concerns arise entering October, but none should fool you into thinking that this team is incapable of going one step further than last season. Concern one is ace Johnny Cueto, who has been in poor form since arriving in Kansas City. Should we bet on the talent and track record or the recent performance? History overwhelmingly instructs us to bet on the talent, and Cueto undoubtedly has it.
Concern two is the rest of the rotation behind Cueto. Yodano Ventura is a wild card and Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen are well, Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen. They may fly under the radar, but Ventura has some of the best stuff of any pitcher in October, Volquez has used a great changeup to post a 3.58 ERA, and Medlen has steadily posted a 4.01 ERA this season. The rotation may not be the team's biggest strength, but when backed up by the postseason's best bullpen, pitching is far from a glaring weakness.
Concern three is home run power, but the Royals are intentionally constructed to not live and die by the long ball. Dayton Moore has built this team on contact and speed, and they do both extremely well. His club leads the league in both contact rate and stolen bases, and that barely includes postseason pinch runner extraordinaire Terrance Gore. Runs come in difference ways, and the Royals proven that their small ball approach works by becoming one of just seven teams to score more than 700 runs this season.
If any team has a designed "way," it is the Royals combination of relief pitching, defense, contact, and speed. The Royals will shorten games with the latest edition of the postseason’s best bullpen, continue to lap the field in any comprehensive defensive categories, put pressure on the weaker defenses of their opposition and use their extraordinary speed to manufacture runs.
This is not the common modern formula for winning, but the Royals proved last postseason and this regular season that their combination of strengths is a winning combination. This postseason, the Royals will win that elusive final game, because when it comes to a shutdown bullpen, a great defense, a high-contact offense and elite speed, like The D.O.C., No One Can Do It Better.
. . .
Dan Weigel is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and a pitching contributor at Sporting News. He is also an Orioles fan, so looking back on the Royals ALCS sweep of the Orioles last October was unpleasant. He hopes you enjoy reading this article more than he enjoyed the 2014 ALCS memories. Follow him on twitter at @DanWeigel38.